Glenmorangie Distillery

Visit #8, September 23, 2015GlenmorangieI

A safari in Scotland is something most people would laugh at.  But in the Highlands of Scotland, about an hour north of Inverness, is a waterhole where a certain type of game can be viewed.  Giraffes.  A whole herd of them.  Tall and colored in copper.  Here at the Glenmorangie Distillery are the famous stills, the giraffe stills, which they say are the tallest in Scotland.  Set in a beautiful location outside of Tain, the Glenmorangie Distillery produces classic single malts using a number of types of casks.  These giraffes produce a lighter, cleaner taste, one that represents the beautiful location and air surrounding the Dornoch Firth and area around Tain.  There were no lions, just thirsty tourists!

The history of the Glenmorangie Distillery goes back to 1843 when the “Morangie” farm distillery was started by the Matheson brothers.  Malt wasn’t produced until 1849 and it wasn’t until 1887 that the Glenmorangie Distillery Company, Ltd. was founded.  The distillery was sold to two partners, Macdonald and Muir, in 1918.  The Macdonald family would run the company until 2004 when it was purchased by LVMH, a French multinational luxury goods conglomerate, headquartered in Paris, France.

Prior to our tour we had the opportunity to go walk to the shore banks at the base of the slope where the distillery overlooks the Dornoch Firth.  It is a beautiful spot and one where the warehouses filled with spirit get to rest and take in the fresh Scottish air and temperatures.  It is a great time to reflect and think about the long history that these distilleries have withstood.  It is also a great time to prepare you for the tour and the process from which their spirit is born.GlenmorangieIVGlenmorangieVGlenmorangieVII

Our tour was led by Michael Fraser who started with a description of their famous icon, the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, a Pictish stone discovered on the East coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Scotland.  This carving inspired the brand emblem and ties both the old skill and modern day skill of the Scottish people.  Michael led us through the distillery and here are the notes we took:

  • They don’t add their single malts to blends
  • In 1977 they started to use off-site malting, 6 million liters/year of malted barley
  • They only use 2 parts per million peat
  • 10 tons of grist per batch
  • They use hard water (lots of calcium and minerals) taken from the Tarlogie Springs – only Highland Park and The Glenlivet are the other two distilleries using hard water
  • Mash tun is stainless steel and holds a 9.8 tonne mash
  • Mash tun water temps – 63.5 degrees / 84 degrees / boiling point
  • 12 stainless steel washbacks each holding up to 50,000 liters – they changed to stainless steel in the 1960s and they were one of the first
  • Fermentation takes between 52-55 hours
  • 12 stills – the tallest in Scotland called “giraffe” stills, measure 8 meters, 5.14 meters is the neck of the still – still house is called Highland Cathedral
  • 6 wash stills holding 11,400 liters each
  • 6 spirit stills holding 8,200 liters each
  • Pressure relief valves seen on the stills are there for aesthetics, no purpose
  • Stills run 15 minutes of head, 3 hours of hearts and 2 hours of tails
  • 1st to use an ex-bourbon cask in 1949
  • 29 warehouses, Cellar 13 is famous because of its proximity to the water
  • They own some forests in the Ozarks, wood is dried for 2 years and then used in Kentucky for 4 years before being sent to Scotland
  • Barrels are only used twice
    Giraffe Stills
    Giraffe Stills

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    Warehouses
    Warehouses

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Overall, the tour was very informative.  Michael was able to answer our questions or guide us to someone who did.  At the end of the tour we had a tasting of the 10 year old.  It is the 4th most popular dram in the world and the 1st in Scotland.  We also paid to taste a couple of different other editions as well.

Charles’ Notes:  I wasn’t sure what to expect with Glenmorangie but I was very impressed.  The location is stunning and I think this is what stood out most about this visit.  Just to walk down to the shore and see the warehouses overlooking the water…  We were unable to take pictures inside which always is tough for me since I like to have these memories recorded.  But I understand that safety and liability is the number one priority at these highly-visited spots.  The giraffe stills were beautiful and definitely unique.  They had a nice little museum and gift shop.  I would like to come back to Glenmorangie one day and do the Heritage Tour and visit the springs and have lunch at the Glenmorangie House.GlenmorangieII

 

 

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The Albany Distilling Company

Visit #16, January 9, 2016

ALBANY IALBANY II

 

 

 

 

You can tell a lot about a distillery based on its cat.  In Albany, NY, at The Albany Distilling Company (ADCo), one of the co-distillers is Cooper, the distillery cat.  Cooper has many jobs: security, pest-removal, temperature control, and his main job is guest satisfaction.  One Saturday morning in mid-January we met this character along with one of his owners, John Curtin, for a tour and tasting of this almost five-year old distillery in our backyard.  John had just returned from meetings in NYC and it seems like ADCo is moving fast and into quite a few markets.  Cooper was happy to see him and the other guests that were there to tour this local distillery.

Opened in October of 2012, but incorporated in 2011, The Albany Distilling Company is the oldest distilling company in Albany.  It is a farm distillery.  ADCo’s license requires that at least 75% of the ingredients used in its spirits come from New York state.  Located close to the banks of the Hudson River, ADCo has been growing and expanding in the last couple of years with locations now in Troy and soon in Schenectady.  They also recently hired 4 new people in its full first year of distribution.  They seem to be running out of space!

Our tour was led by John, one of the co-owners of ADCo.  Here are some of the notes we took during the tour regarding the distilling process of their spirits:

  • 750 lbs of grains are milled per batch
  • Mash Tun is 480 gallons or 1800 liters – 2 stages
  • 2 mashes processed per week
  • 2 Fermentation Tanks – each 550 gallons, fermentation takes 2-3 days
  • Pot to Column Still
  • Distilling – 10 liters of heads, 30-40 liters of hearts, 30-40 liters of tails
  • White Oak barrels used, 30 gallon, 53 gallon and 59 gallon
  • Barrels come from Long Island, Kentucky, Missouri and Minnesota
  • In 2015, 91 barrels were produced
  • A little over 70 barrels are stored on site
The mill and Cooper
The mill and Cooper
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John, co-owner, at the Mash Tun
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Fermentation Tanks

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The tour was great.  John definitely has a passion for crafting spirits.  You could tell that they are growing quickly and running out of space.  The new additions will be needed.  After the tour we moved to the tasting bar which is nicely situated next to the production area.  The tasting consisted of the following:

  • New make from the bourbon mash (60% corn, 25% rye & 15% barley)
  • Bourbon – a mix of 8, 14 and 16-month-aged bourbon, 43% ABV
  • Malt – 2 year old (60% barley, 20% oat, 20% wheat), 43% ABV
  • Rye – about 1 year old (75% rye, 25% malted wheat), 43% ABV
  • 10th Pin – apple brandy

ALBANY XII

ALBANY XIII

It was a fun tasting.  The visitors were asking questions and were enthused.

Charles’ Notes: It’s great to see a local distillery doing so well in such a short period of time.  They obviously have large ambitions with the Troy and Schenectady plans, but they do have a leg up in the area since they started early.  My favorite spirit that was tried was the Malt.  It was unusual using the oat and I thought this added character and a taste that was unique.  The bourbon and rye need more time to mature but they are on the right path.  It will be fun to watch both the whiskey and the distillery evolve over the next few years.

Matt from Still Trippers with Cooper
Matt from Still Trippers with Cooper

The Dalmore Distillery

Visit #7, September 23, 2015Dalmore VIII

Certain single malt whiskies have a special place in our hearts.  Maybe it was the first one you tried.  Or possibly a special dram for a special occasion.  The Dalmore holds a place in my heart.  It was one of the first whiskies that I tried making me want to buy another bottle!  The trip to The Dalmore distillery just north of Inverness in the Northern Highlands of Scotland was a day I was looking forward to for a long time.  The distillery is set on the banks of the Cromarty Firth overlooking the Black Isle.  It is a beautiful spot and turned out to be worth the wait.

Overlooking Cromarty Firth
Overlooking Cromarty Firth

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Founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson, the distillery was leased and managed by the Sunderland family until 1867.  In 1886 the distillery was sold to new owners, brothers Andrew and Charles Mackenzie, members of the Clan Mackenzie.  Currently the distillery is owned and operated by Whyte and Mackay Ltd which is owned by Emperador, Inc., a Phillipine holding company involved in bottling and distributing distilled spirits.

Our late-morning tour started by learning some of the history of The Dalmore and the story of “The Death of the Stag,” which is also a painting by Benjamin West found in the National Galleries of Scotland.  The story goes that the first chieftain of the Clan Mackenzie saved the life of the Scottish King Alexander III during a hunting expedition in 1283.  In turn, the King gifted the chieftain with the Royal emblem of a 12-pointed stag that was used in the coat of arms.  The 12-pointed Royal Stag emblem is now found on every bottle of The Dalmore spirit, called the caberfeidh.  It is quite the story and a great symbol for The Dalmore.Dalmore IV

Here are some of the notes from our tour:

  • Malted barley goes into 14 twenty-five ton bins
  • Stainless steel Mash Tun holds 42,000 liters of grist
  • Three water infusions of 62 degrees, 75 degrees and 82 degrees in Mash Tun.  Process takes about 7 hours.
  • 8 washbacks hold approximately 49,500 liters of worts.  Washbacks are made of Oregon Pine and are between 50-80 years old.
  • 50 hours of fermentation in washbacks
  • 8 stills in total – 4 wash and 4 spirit
  • Flat-top stills because of the roof of the old barn
  • Wash stills – 13,000 liters and Spirit stills – 8,000 liters
  • Heads run for about 30 minutes, hearts for six hours and tails for about 30 minutes
  • 9 warehouses on site (4 racked) holding 4 million liters of spirit
  • 10% is kept at the distillery, about 60,000 casks on site
  • Down time is 2 weeks in summer and 2 weeks near ChristmasDalmore IIIDalmore IXDalmore X

Overall, it was a great tour of the facility.  Pictures were not allowed inside the facility, unfortunately.  But we were able to walk around the property and enjoy the views and take in that great distillery smell.

Our tour ended with a tasting in a very nice tasting room where we watched an initial video on the history of The Dalmore.  The tasting included:

  • 12 year-old, which is aged for 9 years in bourbon casks and 3 years in sherry casks
  • 15 year-old, which is aged for 12 years in bourbon casks and split into 3 sherry casks for 3 years
  • 18 year-old, which is aged for 14 years in bourbon casks and 4 years in  Matusalem sherry casks
  • Cigar Malt, no age-statement, approximately aged for 15 years and ends in Cabernet casks for 18 months
  • Distillers Edition 2015 finished in bourbon casks, higher ABV (my favorite)

Charles’ notes: The Dalmore distillery turned out to be a great experience.  I did have one regret, however.  I ended up not buying a bottle of the Distillers Edition and it haunted me for the rest of my whisky tour through Scotland…!!  There were only a limited number of bottles left too.  Well, we do learn.  The tour was very nice and informative even though our guide was battling through a cold, but she was great and a trooper.  There was a funny story about some Scandinavian visitors skinny dipping in one of the water troughs after hours, but that is for another time.  I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to The Dalmore.  It was set in a great spot and close to some good food options as well.  We made the day trip up from Aberlour in the Speyside region and this is very doable.  We combined this visit with a visit to Glenmorangie later in the day.  I look forward to the next visit at The Dalmore.Dalmore V

 

Springbrook Hollow Farm Distillery

Visit #15, December 19th, 2015Spring XVISpring XVSpring XIV

The Christmas holidays were close at hand when we visited this northern oasis in Upstate New York just outside of Queensbury and Lake George.  Springbrook Hollow Farm Distillery is set on a beautiful property tucked back in the foothills of the Adirondacks.  Co-owned by Mike Forcier, Dave Bannon, Tony DeSantis and Ken Rohne, the distillery has been opened to the public since December of 2014.  In this time they have done some remarkable work crafting their spirits and drafting plans that should make them known outside of New York state and possibly the USA.

Our tour was led by owners Dave and Ken and they provided us with a great overview of how their distilling operations work and the plans they have for the future.  It is very much a local operation with ingredients coming from many of the local farms and providers found in New York state.  They use all New York state grains and most of the grain comes from the Ellsworth Farm in Easton, NY.  The cider, cinnamon and maple all come from local farms in the area as well.

Here are some notes from our tour of their equipment and process:

  • 600-gallon mash tun / 1000 lb of grain
  • Bulk farm milk tank is used for both cold water and fermentation
  • Fermentation takes approximately 5 days
  • 2 days of distillation on Thursday and Friday
  • Kothe German Pot Still – 300 gallons – has a stainless steel jacket
  • The still is steam-fired with a 1 million BTU steamer
  • Hot water is solar-produced
  • Whiskey Helmet – shape configured for whiskey
  • Hybrid still produces 30 gallons of hearts
  • Barrels come from US Barrel in Wilmington, NY
  • They currently use 15 gallon and 53 gallon barrels
  • 4-bottle labeler machine – takes 30 seconds
  • Bottles dipped in wax similar to Maker’s Mark
    Mash Tun
    Mash Tun
    Mash Tun
    Mash Tun
    Farm milk tank
    Farm milk tank

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    Kothe Still
    Kothe Still

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    Grain storehouse
    Grain storehouse
    Mill
    Mill
    Work Station
    Work Station
    Wax melting and dipping
    Wax melting and dipping
    Upstairs in a barrelhouse
    Upstairs in a barrelhouse

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The tour itself was great.  You can see the passion that both Dave and Ken had for their products.  Dave took us upstairs to see the spirit aging in barrels in the hay loft.  He mentioned that they would like to remodel the space upstairs for special events and possibly dinners.  I think it would be a great idea.   Out back we saw their grinder/mill and storage area for grain.

Back inside we were able to taste some of their products, including their Double Gold National winner Two Sisters Vodka, the Gold International winner Sly Fox Gin, the varied flavored moonshines (both apple cider and maple), and their “cellos”, the Limoncello and the Orangecello.  After talking to them for a while about their whiskey aging upstairs, Dave thought that we needed to see how it was doing.  Before I knew it Ken went upstairs and pulled a small sample from one of the barrels that has been aging for almost 16 months.  Now this was a cask-strength taste and it was very good.  I really look forward to tasting the final product.  This could be special.  Thanks to Dave and Ken for a great tour and taste!Spring XXVSpring XIIISpring XII

Charles’ Notes: What’s nice about a small operation like this is that you can really see the amount of work it takes to run a distillery like this.  And the modifications that are made to make things work.  To see a farm milk tank being used as a fermentation tank was new to me.  But what a great dual use of this piece of equipment.  This distillery is a combination of science and function.  The location is really beautiful, set above the property with the woods as a backdrop.  I look forward to revisiting soon to see what projects are in the works.Spring XXVISpring I

 

Jersey Spirits Distilling Co.

Visit #14, November 21, 2015Jersey VI

As I drove into the commercial, industrial park in Fairfield, NJ, a certain HBO theme song kept popping up in my mind.  But I did not run into Tony Soprano as I turned the corner, fortunately.  Rather, it was a progressive business that is changing the landscape of the spirits industry in New Jersey.  Co-owned by John Granata, Sue Lord, and Betty MacDonald, Jersey Spirits Distilling Co. is a new operation created out of a true passion for craft distilling.

Jersey Spirits Distilling first opened its doors for tastings in mid-August, 2015.  It is the youngest distilling operation that I have visited, but there is a knowledge-base that runs deep.  John and Sue come from a food (restaurant) and science background.  They visited many distilleries prior to starting their own and mentioned the High West Distillery in Utah as one of their favorite inspirations.  After workshops and intense research, Jersey Spirits Distilling was started.

On the Saturday afternoon that I showed up for a tour they were having a group Infusion class.  This is just one of the different programs and classes that the distillery offers.  Also offered is a barrel share program which includes the ability for members to be involved in the process of distilling and aging a spirit.  There are monthly tastings where barrel-share members can come back and sample the changes that take place as the spirit is aged.  Not only that, you get to take home six bottles when it is aged to your liking.  Other classes include mixology and an apprentice class on being a distiller.

TJ, the assistant distiller
TJ, the assistant distiller
Top of the column still
Top of the column still
Fermentation tanks
Fermentation tanks
The gin still
The gin still

I was able to participate in the tour that was included with the Infusion class.  Here are some of my notes regarding their products and distilling process:

  • Boardwalk Rum uses Grade A molasses – sourced from LA or Caribbean
  • Water Filtration System, calcium is added
  • Fermentation for vodka takes between 3-8 days
  • Bourbon mash bill is 60% corn, 30% rye, and 10% malt
  • Rum fermentation takes between 2 to 3 weeks
  • There is a separate gin still
  • Ingredients such as honey (gin) and maple (bourbon) are sourced in New Jersey
  • Column still produces 150-200 bottles a week
Part of barrel operation
Part of barrel operation

After the tour I tasted three of their offerings: the Boardwalk Rum at 43% ABV, the Barnegat White Whiskey at 46% ABV and the Jersey Apple Hootch at 23% ABV.

Distillation Chart
Distillation Chart

Charles’ Notes: I wasn’t sure what to expect on my quick stop at Jersey Spirits Distilling Co.  I knew that an Infusion class was starting at about the same of my arrival, but this worked out well since I could join their tour which was given by TJ, the assistanct distiller.  Both John and Sue were gracious owners and spent time answering my questions.  I do look forward to coming back to New Jersey to try out their bourbon once it has aged longer, hopefully in 2016.  It had a great bar for tastings and a great vibe overall.  There is also a brewery, Magnify Brewing Company, in the same complex so this could make for a nice double visit.  I did not have time to visit them.  Overall, it was a very nice visit and tour and I look forward to meeting them all again.

Berkshire Mountain Distillers

Visit #13, November 14, 2015SIGN

Just south of Great Barrington, Massachussets, lies the oldest town in the Berkshire Mountains called Sheffield.  Settled in 1725, Sheffield is filled with working farms, antique shops, and a great craft distillery, Berkshire Mountain Distillers.  Established in 2007 by Chris Weld, the distillery’s initial idea grew out of an abundance of apples at the Soda Springs Farm (dating back to the 1860s) and the granite-fed spring located on the property.  In those eight years, the location of the distillery has moved to a new facility and has continued to evolve into new innovative spirits, including vodka, gin, rum, bourbon and corn whiskey.BUILDING

Our tour was led by Michael Sharry, the farm manager at the distillery.  Berkshire Mountain Distillers uses a ‘Grain to Glass’ mentality where most of their ingredients are sourced locally, with the exception of the blackstrap molasses used for their rum.  Many of the gin botanicals are grown right outside of the production building in the greenhouse on the property.  It is always great to see a craft distillery try and source everything right on site or nearby.

Greenhouse
Greenhouse

The main production room houses the mash tank, 5 fermentation tanks and the still.  Here are some of the notes from our tour about their mash bill, fermentation and distillation process:

  • The mash composition of the corn whiskey is 90% corn.
  • The bourbon uses 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% barley.
  • They make a high ester-count rum with a “banana peeley” and “tropical fruit” nose.
  • Fermentation takes about one week to produce a 10-15% ABV wash.
  • The original 500 gallon still is from Louisville, KY and it dates back to 1967.  Two pieces were added, a pot still used for the rum, whiskies and gin, and a column still producing a neutral spirit which is vodka-like.
  • The condensed vapor from the column still, at about 160 proof, is sent to the pot still with ingredients to steep for a day.
  • A shotgun condenser is used (cold pipes) for the distillation.
  • The rum and whiskey are triple-pot stilled.
  • 5 cuts of heads and 3 cuts of tails.
    Mash Tank
    Mash Tank
    Fermentation Tanks
    Fermentation Tanks

    Still
    Still

The adjacent room is the bottling and barrel room.  Here they use American Oak barrels for the aging of the bourbon.  They add oak and cherry wood to their corn whiskey, which is added like tea for about 12 months.  Bottling and labeling is done on site.  There is a warehouse in Sheffield where barrels are stored and whiskey is aged.

Bottling Station
Bottling Station

BARREL

The tour ended with a tasting of almost all of the different spirits produced by Berkshire Mountain Distillers, including the rum, gin, corn whiskey and bourbon.  Outside in the gift shop we also tasted some of the cask-finished bourbons.

Tasting
Tasting

TASTING

In 2013, Berkshire Mountain Distillers collaborated with 10 different craft brewers across the United States to use their barrels to add a different finish to their bourbon.  Their cask-finished bourbon includes casks from Sam Adams, Founders, Full Sail, Terrapin, Brewery Ommegang, Big Sky, Hale’s Ales, Smuttynose, Troegs and Cigar City Brewing.  At the distillery, many of these bourbons are available for tasting.  Even more recently, they have started a new venture called the Craft Brewers Whiskey Project.  This project is going to include using the actual beer from 15 different brewers, not just the barrels.  One of the first releases from this new style will be in February, 2016, with the release of a Cinder Bock whiskey (a collaboration with Cinder Bock beers), branded as Shay’s Rebellion, and the release of a Sam Adams whiskey called Two Lantern.  This will be incredible to try and we will definitely make a visit back to check these out.BARREL II

Charles’ Notes:  Berkshire Mountain Distillers has a great vibe.  The tour itself was casual and open for questions and pictures.  The use of both local and different ingredients with their variety of spirits is definitely noted.  I love the fact that they have a greenhouse on site.  They are taking chances with some of their whiskies, but isn’t this what the spirit of craft distilling is all about?  There is a trend in the whiskey industry towards using different flavors or finishes and they have taken this on with a passion.  Their rum has performed well and has been given a lot of respect in many different articles.  It will be great to revisit them next year as they continue to evolve and produce.  I purchased a cask-finished Brewery Ommegang bourbon and it is one of my favorites.  Also, on a side note, there is a great craft brewery just down the street called Big Elm Brewery.  Excellent beers and a great stop to include with a trip to Berkshire Mountain Distillers.

Cask-Finished Bourbon with Brewery Ommegang
Cask-Finished Bourbon with Brewery Ommegang

 

Hillrock Estate Distillery

Visit #12, October 17th, 2015Hillrock XII

 

Only three weeks after returning from our amazing 11-distillery adventure in Scotland, the itch for experiencing another distillery was high on our minds.  The Hillrock Estate Distillery was our first choice and what a gem we found in Ancram, NY.  Driving to Ancram is a treat, in and of itself, through the beautiful rolling hills between the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires.  It was a perfect fall day with the leaves changing colors and a crisp air signalling colder temps on the way.  The Hillrock House, overlooking the barley fields and the distillery, was restored in 2006 and stands as a sign of history as it was built by a Revolutionary War Captain back in 1806.

Hillrock X

 

Our guide for the afternoon was Tyler, one of the distillers we met during our visit.   Hillrock is very proud of its “field to glass” production and with good reason since there are very few found in the United States.  All of their corn, barley and rye is sourced within 15 miles of the distillery.  In fact, 36 acres of grain is grown on site.  The tour started in the Malt House, the first malt house built since prohibition.  It was here that we saw some of the ingredients that are used for making their whiskies.  The only non-local item was the peat that they import from the Speyside region of Scotland.

Upstairs in the Malt House is a room that contains the steeping tank and the floor where all of the barley is raked while germinating.  The grain is left in the steeping tank for approximately 3 days before it is taken out and spread across the floor and raked before going into the kiln which is located on the first floor.  They do about 1 ton of barley per week and typically use last year’s harvest.  The barley is raked every 6-8 hours or 3 times a day to prevent clumping.  Once ready, the barley is sent down a chute below to the kiln to stop germination where most of their regular single malt barley gets about 8 hours of peat smoke.  We were able to climb up and stick our heads in the kiln.  Matt, our Islay fan, was ready to jump in and get smoked.  It is a very impressive building and well laid out in its planning.

Steeping Tank
Steeping Tank
Malt Room
Malt Room
The peat smoker
The Kiln

Their still room is located in a separate building.  Here there is a mash tank (tun), 5 fermenting tanks and a pot still mixed with a kettle still.  The still and operation was set up by master distiller, Dave Pickerell, who previously spent 14 years at Maker’s Mark.  It takes about 1 day to make the mash using temperatures between 110 and 160 degrees.  The five fermentation tanks hold approximately 250 gallons and fermentation takes 4 to 5 days.  One run through the still is made with about 20 minutes of head, 8 hours of heart and another 20-30 minutes of tail.  30 gallons is made in one run.

Mash Tank (Tun)
Mash Tank (Tun)
Fermentation Tanks
Fermentation Tanks

Hillrock Fermentation Tank

Head, hearts, tail
Head, hearts, tail

Hillrock IXHillrock VIII

The barrels, made of Virgin American White Oak, are produced by the Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, KY.  They primarily use 25-gallon barrels and they store over 2,500 barrels of spirit.Hillrock IV

Our tour ended with a tasting.  We tasted their bourbon, rye and single malt.  The bourbon uses the Solera process (adding and removing whisky over time creating more complexity) and is finished in Oloroso sherry casks.  The double cask rye is double matured in traditional oak casks and then in charred American white oak barrels.  Lastly we tasted various single malts with different levels of peat.  Their standard single malt uses 8 hours of peat smoke, but they also had a 14-hour and 20-hour bottle available.  It was great that they were trying out different lengths and techniques with all of their whiskies.  This will help them find the right balance moving forward.Hillrock Smoky

Charles’ Notes:  Overall, our visit to Hillrock Estate Distillery was excellent.  The facility and location are outstanding.  We enjoyed our 1-hour tour and tasting and looked forward to revisiting for a special event or when they are introducing their next revision or spirit.  Everyone was very friendly and willing to share their stories and successes.  It brought back certain memories from Scotland that you just cannot find here in the United States when visiting distilleries.

Ben Nevis Distillery

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Visit #2, September 21, 2015

The amazing thing about travel is the unexpected.  Our Scotland whisky-tasting tour initially planned on visiting the Ben Nevis distillery in Fort William, Scotland, but a reservation was difficult to make so we planned on skipping it.  But while passing through Fort William, we stopped at a BP gas station to take a break.  Across the street from the BP station is the Ben Nevis distillery (picture above), staring at us and enticing us to visit.  What did we have to lose…  Upon entering the distillery, our expectation was to visit the gift shop, but we were pleased to find out that a tour that was starting in a few minutes.  How great!  I explained the difficulty we had with initially communicating with them and they apologized and mentioned that some employees were away and this caused some of the issues.  It turned out to be one of the best distillery visits we had out of the 11 that were visited during our Scotland adventure.  A truly special treat.

The Ben Nevis distillery sits at the base of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the British Isles.  It is an impressive and beautiful mountain and area where many outdoor enthusiasts search for their time in nature.  The water that is used for the distillery comes from the Allt a’Mhuilinn, which is a stream descending from the northern slopes of Ben Nevis.

It was founded in 1825 by Long John McDonald (from where the blended scotch, Long John, was named).  The distillery is now owned by a Japanese company Nikka which acquired the distillery in 1989.  10 people currently run the distillery.

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The are two malt bins at the distillery where Ben Nevis stores the malted barley it uses.  The process begins on Sunday at midnight.  The mash tun is 21,000 liters in size.  There are four stainless steel washbacks and two wooden washbacks on site.  Eight years ago, these two wooden washbacks, made of Dougles Spruce, were reintroduced to the distillery.  Each washback holds approximately 43,000 liters and fermentation takes about 15 hours.

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Ben Nevis Mash Tun

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Washbacks - Two wooden
Washbacks – Two wooden

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The two pot stills and two spirit stills are made of copper.  Our guide, John Carmichael, stated that this was due to the fact the stainless steel was not available 1400 years ago…  14,000 liters of spirit are made weekly at the distillery.  The spirit is taxed at 87.2%.

Pot Stills
Pot Stills

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Ben Nevis uses a mix of Spanish, French and American oak for their barrels and all barrels are made on site.  Some of their casks are from Jack Daniels.  They typically can do up to 5 different fillings per cask.  Sherry casks are also used since they are large and have less evaporation.P1020252

Once the tour ended, we were back in the gift shop and tasting counter where we all were able to taste the 10-year old.  Before we knew it, John, our guide, came back over to us and led us outside and upstairs for an unexpected treat.  He had set up the executive conference room for us to taste some of their aged bottles.  We tried the newmake straight out of the still, the 12-old and the 25-year old.  Wow, how great this was.  We went from almost passing by the distillery on our way up north, to getting a great tour, followed by a special tasting.  The 25-year old Ben Nevis was one of the best whiskies I have tasted.  At 56.4% alcohol, it had a kick but the age smoothed it out.  We tried bottle #151 out of 227.  It was a fantastic treat and one that I will never forget.  Cheers to John Carmichael for making this distillery stop one of our favorites.

25-year old
25-year old
12-year old
12-year old
Mr. Carmichael
Mr. Carmichael
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Matt with John Carmichael

Charles’ Notes:  The Ben Nevis distillery was a great stop.  Not only is it located at the base of  one of the most beautiful mountains in Scotland, it felt real and didn’t have that corporate feeling that you can find with some of the larger distilleries.  We had full access to take photos, to ask questions, and to explore each room on the site.  John, our guide, made this extra special as well with his humor and Scottish charm and, of course, the special private tasting that we had.  We are already looking forward to our next visit at Ben Nevis in the future.

 

Oban Distillery

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Visit #1, September 20, 2015

When entering the resort town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland, it is hard not to notice how perfectly situated this town surrounds the bay on the Firth of Lorn.  It is protected by islands to the west and to the north.  The modern town of Oban actually grew up around the distillery, which was founded in 1794 by the Stevenson brothers.  It is so centrally located that it is not necessary to drive there.  Just by walking around the corner from our hotel, we were at the doorstep of a beautiful stone building housing the distillery and its classic single malt.20150920_141127

 

Local seafood
Local seafood

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The three in our group signed up for the Sensory and Flavours Tour in the afternoon on a busy Sunday in Oban.  The tour began with an overview of its history and the many changeovers of ownership since 1794.  It is currently owned by Diageo who acquired it in 1989 through a merger.  The water source for their whisky comes from Loch Glenn a’Bhearraidh.  The four primary senses that the tour guide told us to look for were: 1. smoky, 2. sea salt, 3. orange peel, and 4. honey.

The malting of the barley does not happen on site as is the case with most distilleries in Scotland.  They do add a small amount of peat to their whisky which distinguishes it from many Highland malts.  When they grind the malted barley, they are looking for a composition of 20% husk, 70% grist and 10% flour.  They use a sieve to check the consistency of the grind.  That is one thing we heard from Oban that we didn’t hear from many other distilleries.

Once ready, the ground malted barley is placed in the mash tun, or a large vat of heated spring water and goes through three water stages, each at an increasing temperature.  At Oban the first stage was at 64°, the second at 78°, and the last at 83°.  They do 6 mash tuns per week at the Oban distillery.  Once the starch in the barley is converted into sugars, the wort (sugar liquid) is placed into one of four washbacks for fermentation.

The washbacks at Oban are made of European Larch and will last up to 40 years.  When they need to be replaced, the roof at Oban is detachable and they can be lifted in and out of the distillery.  Each washback can hold up to 36,000 liters of content but they are only filled up to 31,000 liters initially since the yeast will cause the froth to grow and you don’t want the washbacks to overflow.  It takes about 4 days for fermentation in their washbacks which produce a 9% wash.  The washbacks get steam-cleaned between each use.

At Oban there are two copper stills: a wash still that holds 18,880 liters and a spirit still that holds 8,296 liters.   The spirit receiver holds up to 5,270 liters.  25,000 liters of newmake are produced every week.  During the tour, we had the privilege of tasting a 58.2% 11-year-old cask strength sample, straight from the cask.  Pretty cool.

Our guide explaining the whisky chart
Our guide explaining the whisky chart
Matt holding the standard Oban 14yo
Matt holding the standard Oban 14yo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charles’ Thoughts:  Oban was one of the first single malt scotches that I tasted in my life so it is fitting that it is the first distillery in Scotland that I visited.  The town was quite impressive and so was the distillery.  Unfortunately they did not allow pictures inside of the working part of the distillery for “safety” reasons and this became common among some of the large corporate-owned distilleries that we visited.  But I do have to say that the tour was very informative, the guide great and the distillery quite stunning.  It was just amazing that it was in the middle of such a beautiful town.  And it doesn’t hurt that their 14 year-old malt is still one of my favorites.

Looking up the hill towards distillery
Looking up the hill towards distillery
A parting shot. Goodbye Oban, we enjoyed our time here.
A parting shot. Goodbye Oban, we enjoyed our time here.