Monday, August 31, 2015

Day 12 - Balvenie Distillery Tour and Knockando Woolmill

We wake at 5 am. It sounds like it’s raining outside. I journal, procrastinating whether to traipse down to the Loch of Strathbeg. It’s not really the season for Loch of Strathbeg.
Our room with a view to the east pays off when I head across to the window and find that the cloud over on the horizon is blushed pink with the rising sun.
6 am we steel ourselves and drag ourselves out to the car for a look. I know I’ll regret it if we pass up the opportunity to get even a rough idea of what it’s like. It’s not far from the Tufted Duck Hotel to the Loch. We Go.
There’s not a lot of cars about but nearing the RSPB reserve there’s several people out walking. We misinterpret the welcome sign and miss the turn and go round again. Well, it wouldn’t be like us to find anything the first time, no matter how obvious. The morning is crisp and clear and the ground is moist. Hubby waits in the car while I go for a little exploratory walk. This takes me along a firm path made of a sort of crushed gravelly material that is fine and grey and I’m overlooking what looks like a marshy area of ground that would probably provide good shelter and feed for birds. When the path runs out it turns into two wheel lanes. I trudge on. The fields either side of this rough road have had the fodder harvested and the large round plastic wrapped bales sit here and there.  Beyond this there is a seat overlooking a wide expanse of ground before, over in the far distance, I can see water.
We have an extremely sharp deadline this morning. So now armed with a better idea of the area, though probably woefully incomplete, I turn and head back to the car. It’s been lovely to be out and about in the crisp early morning.
We pack up and head down to breakfast.  We seem to be the only ones up this early. The layout is explained to us for the help yourself breakfast items which includes cereals, prepared exotic fruits, yoghurt and juices but no pastries.  I like a bit of fruit and yoghurt and we both have a bowl of cereal. A decision I soon regret. Time comes when we are ordering from the hot menu. Hubby orders a full Scottish which included both black pudding and haggis and very nice, very small mushies sliced up. It only had one egg but that was plenty accompanied by the pork sausage, baked beans and, drum roll please, a slice of fried bread. That’s unexpected! I’m not letting it get away without begging some. I loved fried bread when I was little and Dad’s mum used to make it for us as a snack to take home in the car when we visited.  Delicious.
Although I had planned to skip it, I end up ordering a bowl of porridge, curious to see how they make it here. That might seem a bit odd I suppose, but both sets of my grandparents have a mix of English and Scottish in their background. Mum never salts her porridge. Dad insists that it’s not proper porridge if it’s not salted. I guess I’m looking for adjudication. I’m thinking Dad’s probably correct. His family has more Scottish in it than Mum’s and his maternal line is pure Scottish and proudly so and they’d be the ones making the porridge. They would know. I’m not out of the woods yet though. The menu says the porridge comes lightly salted and served with cream and honey and it can be made with either milk or water. I have a decision to make so I get talking with our pretty young waitress. I ask her to have them make the porridge how she would have it. So that’s with the milk and no salt, but she does concede it’s supposed to be salted, she just prefers it without.
My porridge arrives and it is big. I wish I hadn’t already had other things. The oats that have been used are chopped up and so the porridge seems a finer texture than we have readily available at home. Interesting. It is a thick creamy consistency and I enjoy it. However I must say, I think it would be good with a little salt.  I resolve to skip the breakfast bar and have porridge again.
We’re now really cutting it finer than I had planned and we are further delayed by friendly chatting with the two young people who are on the early shift today, which includes our waitress from breakfast. Both seem like lovely young people and it’s hard to drag ourselves away. Hubby is very vocal on his regret to be leaving the Tufted Duck, he's been really happy here overnight and says he'd like to come back and stay longer. There's certainly plenty around here to do that we didn't get to.
Right, we’re on the road and we’re not speeding but we’re not doing the tourist mosey either. Hubby means business and we’re making up time on the TomTom estimate. Just as well because we discover that the A920 is closed up around Glass and we’re obliged to take a poorly signposted detour. Oh lord help us. This chews up the time we had made up. We arrive into Dufftown just a few minutes before our scheduled tour time of 10 o’clock. Now all we have to do is find Balvenie Distillery. I know it is right next door to Glenfiddich but it’s not exactly where I had thought looking at a map.  We implement our specialty of round and round the garden and resort once more to Dr Google. Done, we rush along the path down through the demonstration patch of barley mixed with a smattering of red poppies and cornflowers and keep a look out for the white office described in our tour booking confirmation.  Done.
We arrive all apologies and not to worries and join the group who have been enjoying a coffee on comfortable leather sofas. The trouble is there’s no seats for us and we are obliged to stand. Our group is 9 people. Four North American’s in one group (from both Canada and the US), a group of three from Belgium and us two Aussies.  A bit of an explanation about the history of the distillery and William Grant and Sons Distillers Ltd, of which Balvenie is part and then we’re off to begin the tour from the beginning of the whisky making process – malting the barley.  Balvenie still grow their own barley but not in sufficient quantity to meet the demand. These days there are specialist malting businesses that can supply better quality at a cheaper price than distilleries could do themselves so fewer and fewer distilleries are maintaining this aspect of the process as an in-house activity. Balvenie blends their own malted barley with externally sourced barley. We see the grain being stored, then soaked, then germinated, then dried along with an explanation of the changes that take place within the grain. It is a process of converting the starch to sugars, making beer and then distilling the alcohol from that beer and developing the flavour through aging it. 
The drying of the germinated grain is done through a combination of peat smoke and dry heat. Only moist grain will absorb the smoke flavour, so once it gets to a certain point the smoke is stopped and clean smokeless heat created by burning Welsh anthracite is used to finish the drying. Earlier in the tour we tasted the barley at the start as it sits in storage waiting sufficient quantity for processing. We now taste the drying barley and experience the increased sweetness. With a grain or two of barley chewing and sweetening in our mouths we head back down the stairs where we have a look at the peat fuel and fire and the pretty blue flame on the burning anthracite. On our way we pass back by the floor where the barley was drying after its first soaking. A couple of the staff of Balvenie are using a special plough and wooden shovels to turn and move the barley to make way for the next batch to be dumped on the floor from the soaking vat we looked at earlier.
The seed needs to have germination halted at the right point and when dried it is mashed and mixed again with water and left to brew a beer aka a wort. Now we’re off again to see the huge wooden vats where the spring water and mash is sitting, brewing away.  We taste the water at the beginning of the process, and again towards the end. I’m not a beer drinker, actually I’m not really a drinker at all but I steel myself and participate. It’s not bad. Hubby actually thinks the beer at the end of the process is very nice and licks as much of his hand as possible before heading for the sink. There’s nothing dignified about using your hand for a cup!
When it is ready, the wort needs to be cooled and this is done by heat transfer using river water. We pass by the wort cooler and a “shaker” contraption that is used to make sure there’s nothing like little stones in the barley before it goes through the rollers, for obvious reasons: stones would damage the rollers and reduce efficiency. We’re getting to the pointy end of the process now as we enter the distillation area with the big copper vats and spirit safes and we learn about the distillation cycle.
The next step requires us to travel in the Landrover over to the cooperage where a team of coopers works repairing barrels for use in the aging of the whisky. Nice flowers over here as well.
Scotch whisky does not use new barrels it needs barrels that have already be used to age a different variety of alcohol. Luckily, American Bourbon whisky requires new barrels so their cast offs are bought up by the whisky distilleries. The other type of barrels used are cast offs from the Spanish sherry industry. These barrels are enormous. Each barrel is also used more than once. The age and type of barrel used to age the whisky has a significant impact on the colour and flavour of the whisky produced.  We watch as the coopers go about their work. They use reeds imported from the Netherlands to create a seal in the butt end of the barrel and they have a fabulous machine that pushes the metal bands down tight around the barrel. This saves a lot of hard graft for the coopers. We have a look at some staves that illustrate the sorts of damage that would require the cask to be repaired before use, and note the moisture penetration in to the wood and the sign that the barrel is not longer usable for the whisky maturation. Old barrels are used for firewood or sometimes as pot planters.
No photos are allowed in our final area which is a dark and gloomy, earthen floored maturation space. Clearly this is only a sample of what they have on site and there’s barrels here dating from as long ago as 1967.  David uses the whisky dog to take a sample from one that is aged 41 years and we head to a space where three casks of whisky are set up for us to try. The difference between the whisky in the various barrels is the number of times the barrel has been used and the age of maturation and also the type of barrel.  Now we can, if we want to, take one of the little bottles and use the whisky dog to fill the little bottle with whisky from one of these casks.  We each do one and others do too and we compare the colour of the whisky one to the other. Hubby likes the first one and I like the second. 
We head back to the office building and into a little room for the tasting part of the program.  Me and another fellow take most of our samples in a little bottle of our own special 12 yr blend because we’re both planning on driving immediately after the tour. Any blend is only as old as the youngest whisky included in it. Hubby’s enjoying this bit and signs up to qualify for a taste of the 41 year old single malt. We have water available and are provided with pipettes we can use to control the quantity of water in the liquor. It is emphasised all along the way that there are no right or wrong ways to enjoy whisky. Whatever flavours you think you identify is correct, it’s all subjective. You can like whatever you want and that’s the main thing. Some like older maturation, some like younger. Hubby prefers the younger vintage. Isn’t that convenient! As we’re tasting we also hear about the cold filtering process that is used. There’s nothing wrong with pure whisky going a bit cloudy but some people don’t like it so the whisky is chilled and filtered to remove the elements that go cloudy. They also standardise the alcohol content by adding spring water so that the product bottled is uniform.
In due course our tasting session comes to its conclusion. I preferred the Caribbean. We head across to the shop where we pay for our tour and get our little bottles we filled ourselves packed up ready for travel, perhaps buy some whisky or whatever and our time at Balvenie comes to an end. It’s been a really fascinating tour. It’s a brilliant way to publicise your brand. We will certainly have a soft spot for Balvenie and for Glenfiddich going forward.  We’re both happy to have spent the morning on this tour.
Back again past the barley and wildflowers, we’re strolling and chatting, in no particular rush. It’s no time before we’re wandering into Glenfiddich Distillery to find the Malt Barn Restaurant. Glenfiddich is schmick. Beautiful buildings and gardens, lots of people about. This is not unexpected of course, it’s like wine country isn’t it. Wine cellar doors are usually schmick in Australia so we’re not surprised, but still impressed.  We are shown to our table and order our meals. Then I duck out to the ladies (toilets) and this requires me to go through a lovely stained glass door. In the corridor that leads to the tour area of Glenfiddich there is the most delicious smell. In the bathrooms they have some really nice smelling handwash. I wish I’d written down what it was but it made the room smell brilliant. It wasn’t cloying and floral, more whisky-like I suppose I’d describe it. Anyhow it reminded me of the beautiful lemon verbena handwash they were using when we visited Burghley in 2012, very distinctive and memorable. But I digress.
Lunch. Hubby: Haggis Neeps and Tatties with a whisky sauce. Me: Smoked Salmon fishcakes with salad and home-made tartare sauce.  For dessert we can’t resist the whisky scented vanilla panna cotta with berries and shortbread. We each enjoy our own meals and the panna cotta – which is enormous! Lunching at the Malt Room restaurant has been a very nice way to finish our visit.
It’s now almost two hours since Hubby had is last drink and we spend a little time calculating the number of standard drinks we think he had at the tasting, considering the high alcohol content of the samples, and the quantity. My sample bottle was useful in guessing the total volume. We calculate he should be OK by now, so he’s behind the wheel. We figure he’s safer than me because he’s had considerably more sleep. And we’re off.
We’re heading for Knockando Wool Mill. We only do a little bit of mucking about before we decide we’ll just use Dr Google for directions. Our route takes us through some beautiful wooded country. Green and lush. We drop down into a little valley by a small heavily tannin stained watercourse which is known locally as a burn, as it is in New Zealand. Parking is no problem and we stroll in to see the buildings, but not before I take a short detour to look at the burn.
The restoration is all done well and our first highlight is the water wheel which is turning steadily, driven by a surprisingly small amount of water. It well and truly captured Hubby’s attention.
First stop is the shop. They have a little room where a documentary about the wool mill is playing. It’s interesting but we don’t want to spend the time on it today, so Hubby decides we’ll buy the copy of it on USB.  We very very much admire the picnic rugs with wax backs but they’re really heavy so we skip those because they are just too heavy to fit in our luggage. They have some lovely rugs and blankets and we choose one that goes with our décor at home. We were really impressed that when asked how much it weighs they just had to make a quick call and the answer was immediate – 1.265 kgs.
We head out to explore the buildings and the old machinery which is not in use today. We find a couple of people in one of the other buildings and are just peering in from a little roped area when they call over to us to come on in. We wander over and they explain that the man is just setting up the new (26 years old) machine for the next job. They see our blanket and tell us it was woven on this machine that can do 8 blankets an hour. The lady uses the traditional machinery and she can produce 2 blankets an hour on that. I ask if they’re getting good demand for their products, I assume they must do to be investing in the faster machinery and yes, they are getting the orders rolling in. I’m pleased that these include orders for the fabrics required for the ceremonial dress of a number of military units.
It's a great pleasure to see the regeneration of this site and this industry in the local area. It's brilliant. There's signs up again that it was opened by Prince Charles. Nothing that suggests the Regeneration Trust had anything to do with the work that was done, but there's no question, this would be right up his alley.
We leave the site at just about closing time and head for Carrbridge and our accommodation for the next couple of nights. Just after we cross the River Spey a pheasant risks its life stepping out on the road.  We pass by a sign saying we’re entering Cairngorms National Park. The scenery is fabulous. Man has tamed the valleys and slopes, but the heather owns the heights and is flowering beautifully.
We don’t have any problem finding where we need to be and a friendly English man attends to our check in and shows us to our room and gives us the run down on breakfast etc. He asks us about our dinner plans and gives us useful advice about times and places and the impact of Thunder in the Glens.  On his advice we make a booking for Anderson’s tomorrow night. They are already quite heavily booked so we have a choice of quite early or rather late. We make it 6pm despite that meaning we might need to curtail our tour tomorrow.  For tonight we’ll head over for an early dinner at the Cairn Hotel, which is well regarded and popular.We drive. It’s only across the road and up a bit and not a long way to walk, but Hubby is footsore and every little bit helps. No great rush on in here as yet, though there’s plenty of patrons in the bar where we take a table to enjoy the atmosphere.  Hubby orders a Tennent’s Lager which is on tap and comments that he’s not surprised it’s popular. It’s cold too, which is always a good start.
Our meals: Me, I’m out on my own ordering langoustines for a starter. I’m a bit surprised when they arrive in their shell for me to peel. Oh. OK. I’ve never shelled a langoustine before, they’re quite expensive in Aus and tend to be prepared for you in those places that have them. They’re like a spikey and dangerous prawn for not so much reward. By the way, most prawns in Australia are bigger than these langoustines and have a stronger flavour. Consequently these seem a little insipid.
My main is the macaroni cheese with smoked haddock in it. Yes. Symptoms of smoked haddock obsession there. I’ve had it at both lunch and dinner today.  My meal is better once we beg some salt from the table next door. I’m a bit over the macaroni cheese though I think. It’s a bit runny. I like it a bit stodgier really.
Hubby sticks with just a main of Steak and Ale Pie. Which I note takes an inexcusable short cut. It’s basically steak and ale stew with a separately cooked blob of flakey pastry plonked on top. Hmmfff says I. A pie should have the pastry cooked on the meat to get the contact and delicious soaking of flavour into the pastry.. I’m glad I didn’t order that but Hubby’s enjoying it.
Desserts we decide to share a Cranachan Sundae. OOOHHH it is GOOOOD!  Oh boy we’re glad we ordered that! A bit more oats would have made it even better.
We’re well and truly ready to chill out and relax now so we’re off to our room for the nightly ritual of charging phones and batteries, catching up on mail and working on the journal, then we collapse. 

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