Persuasion is not something that was needed when my colleague Yves suggested we should visit Speyside again. Our plan was to drive a McLaren 720s press car to Glenallachie,  of my favourite distilleries on the Eastern edge of Speyside, near Aberlour. It would mean a detour, on our way from The Torridon to Murrayshill Hotel,  but I knew the roads would be a perfect opportunity to further explore the amazing capabilities of this car. Aberlour is a small town, with most of the amenities you need and an excellent base for exploring the region. Although we didn’t stay on this occasion the Dowans Hotel offers luxury accommodation and the Mash Tun, less elaborate, but more homely accommodation. 

The town itself is home to circa 1000 residents and is situated on the River Spey. Famous for the distillery named after the town, it is also where Walkers Shortbread is made. From here, most of the region’s distilleries are well within a 30-minute drive and lots including GlenAllachie, are just a few minutes away. It is a charming place with lots of walks and activities to take part in. Time for us was short though, and after a lunchtime sandwich, we started the V8 up, attracting quite a few onlookers who appreciated the car’s stunning design and headed off to the distillery. 

It is hard not to get excited about visiting any distillery in Speyside. How could you not? However, when that distillery happens to have been taken over by a legend of the industry, the excitement levels are amplified. For those who are not familiar, GlenAllachie was formerly used as one of the components of Chivas Regal until Billy Walker (not to be confused with the British Heavyweight boxer from the 1960s, coincidentally known as The Golden Boy) along with Trisha Savage and Graham Stevenson purchased the distillery in October 2017. Billy is known for his ownership and work at GlenDronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh, where he transformed the distilleries into what they are today, before being sold to Brown Forman.

Billy’s career started in my birth year, 1972, when he was part of the team developing blends at the company which owned Ballantine’s at the time. If you have a bottle of vintage Ballantine’s in your collection, there is a possibility that Billy may well have been a part of that bottle’s creation. That is quite a thought.

As you approach the distillery for the first time, you are taken aback by the sheer size of the operation, passing warehouse after warehouse (sixteen in total). You see the main building, nestled behind a beautiful pond, complete with established trees framing this now iconic building, which until a couple of years ago was closed to the public. Beauty is this by definition.

Each new cask laying in the warehouses you have passed is now smelt before filling, trying to ascertain its potential. I was offered this opportunity on a previous visit and was amazed by their strength. As a former wine merchant, I have a particular penchant for sherry and even flew to Jerez for lunch at a Bodega long before budget airlines existed. It is quite astonishing how much residual smell remains. Some studies have suggested that the casks have absorbed 20-30 litres of sherry prior to being emptied, so it is no wonder those beautiful aromas abound. 

One of the major changes Billy Walker has made since taking over is allowing fermentation to last for 160 hours. This extra time gives time to understand the new make spirit which flows through two spirit safes allowing them to operate the sets of stills independently of each other.  

The new make spirit then has to be matured in casks until maturation. Whilst they are waiting for this to happen, Billy’s skills really come to the fore. With 50,000 inherited casks dating back to the 1970s, it is a monumental task to taste through and discover what to bottle and when, and what finishing they might need. As any fan of GlenAllachie knows, the results have been nothing short of magnificent. Over the coming years, we have so much to look forward to. How will the whisky change with revised techniques and more accomplished task management? It will be fascinating to taste a vertical line of their vintage statement expressions and the core range. I expect incredible things to come, but in the meantime, they are releasing some very interesting whisky, as you can read below. 

Despite managing thousands of casks, Glenallchie is running at just below 20% capacity, which allows them to relieve pressure financially, while still driving for quality and character. They are able to nose the casks as they come in as mentioned above, and at their current size, they can spend more time selecting casks specifically by choosing their casks suppliers carefully, whether bourbon, rye or sherry. Fairly traditional in some ways, they fully accept there is no substitute for time. Glenallachie is fortunate enough to have plenty of space onsite (they have the capacity for 100,000 casks) to keep a library of everchanging profiles and products as this whisky legacy develops over the years to come.

Whisky is about the journey, and Glenallachie prides itself on bringing the fabric of its distillery up to standard with big, bold stills, as well as developing their samples and expressions. Spending hours in the lab, referencing previous batches contributes to the quality of spirit inherited from Chivas Regal,, adding complexity and character to the original flavours. Nothing seems to be a chore here, and everything is done to an exemplary standard, whether it be the whisky or the engineering of the distillery itself. Glenallachie wants to show the best of what its got, imparting knowledge and feeling to whoever has the desire to learn.

In the future, Glenallachie is planning to slowly increase production, based on their huge success and what they want to provide consumers with going forward. Whisky fans are interested in older products, so they’re working on 25 to 30-year-old expressions with great balance and character. Due to the vast amount of knowledge and experience of people on the team, they are willing to try anything, including introducing peated whisky onsite. This willingness means nothing is too unusual or difficult for the team.

Water source is sourced from dam heads around two miles from the distillery. Henshead and Blackstank flow into Beatshach Burn, which supplies the water directly to the distillery. It sits on the North East of Ben Rinnes, a mountain with one single path to reach the summit, sitting at 841 metres from which you can view eight counties. I am told that one of the main attractions of the walk is the waterfalls, a sight I look forward to visiting in the future, carrying a bottle of GlenAllachie to enjoy at the top. 

One aspect of any distillery visit I look forward to is the shop. The wonder of what they may have available excites me – could there be anything unique to buy? I was overjoyed to find two handfill options, something that was very much lacking on Islay, much to my disappointment. I chose an 11-year-old Oloroso Puncheon distilled in 2011 and at a healthy 60.5%. Having made the effort to visit a distillery, I want to buy a unique bottle to remember it by, so a handfill is perfect. Of course, their core range is also available if you prefer something just to commemorate your visit. 

GlenAlachie has had a phenomenal response to their work thus far, building a huge following who are willing to share their appreciation of the product, and word of mouth drives the sales. All they really want is for someone to be with a mate and a bottle of Glenallachie on a Friday night and think, ‘I’m gonna open that, and I know I’m really gonna enjoy that.’ Richard, the distillery manager recalled a particularly interesting group tour which culminated in the guests purchasing a few bottles, trying a dram immediately, then another. Then, after asking some especially pertinent questions, the group went down to the local village and offered a dram to everyone who came by, as it was ‘really good stuff’. That’s what Glenallachie is all about – learning, knowledge, and the sharing of a really good dram. 

Virgin Oak Series – French Virgin Oak 10 Years Old

This was first matured in American oak from ex-Bourbon barrels, before spending 18 months in virgin oak casks. French oak was chosen from the Haute-Garonne region close to the Pyrenees. It was air-dried for 15 months before use and its fine grain has helped to shape the character of this whisky. 

Using virgin oak is bold and adventurous – it can easily overpower the spirit so careful management, and excellent judgement had to be made by Billy to get this just right. He succeeded. I found this to have a wonderful aroma, reminiscent of orange creme brulee, toffee and spice. There was a lovely spice on the palate, soft tannins (which surprised me), and a hint of citrus, like a burnt orange sauce, poured over a ginger cake. 

Virgin Oak Series – Chinquapin Virgin Oak 10 Years Old

The second expression in the virgin oak series, this time the whisky has been aged in Chinquapin Oak. This is sourced from the Northern Ozark region in Missouri. You may wonder, like me, if this is the same region that the hit Netflix show was filmed in. The short answer is yes in theory, but in reality, the show was filmed in Atlanta. 

The staves for these barrels had an increased air drying time of almost 4 years. The nose displays vanilla and caramel with underlying dried orchard fruits complemented by a hint of pecan pie. A more oily texture in the mouth with caramel and spice. Cinnamon in particular comes through, but also a wonderful spiciness. 

Virgin Oak Series – Scottish Oak 15 Years Old

I was really looking forward to tasting this expression. You rarely see whisky aged in Scottish oak – it is simply too hard to work with and expensive. This particular oak was sourced from the Atlantic coast and is of the Sessile variety. The difficulty of working with this variety is all round, from the growing to the milling and coopering. Additionally, it has a tendency to knot, meaning a lot of wood is unsuitable for barrels. It was air-dried for 36 months before being filled. 

The nose needed a while to open up in the glass. When it did, it was full of the honey, butterscotch and vanilla their tasting notes suggested. I also found an abundance of apples in the form of a crumble with stem ginger running through it and of course custard. The palate was sweeter than I imagined, but with an underlying and welcome acidity. The flavours followed through mainly from the nose which I really enjoyed. So much so that I have since purchased a full bottle of it. I do like whisky with alternative finishes. 

Billy Walker – 50th Anniversary 16-Year-Old

Departing from the virgin oak series, the Billy Walker 50th Anniversary 16-Year-Old celebrates Billy’s 50 years in the whisky industry – a remarkable achievement. This has 100% been aged in sherry butts filled in 2005 and is the first in the Anniversary Trilogy

It has a beautiful, deep and naturally rich colour – exactly as you would expect. An explosion of flavour hits you as you pour into the glass, promising great things. It certainly delivers all the flavours consistent with a sherry cask present and correct. Think dried fruits, vanilla and honey. The palate is rich, and complex and even had a hint of rum for me, maybe due to the rich brown sugar tones I found. It reminded me of the coffee you used to find before lattes and cappuccinos became a thing, that is a filter coffee served with brown sugar cubes. I really enjoyed this and a lot of others seem to have as well, given its current price at auction.