There are some offers you just can’t refuse. And like my trip to Normandy and Paris with Benedictine, the opportunity to visit the home of Caorunn gin, the Balmenach distillery, a place that doesn’t offer tours as standard, or opportunities for the public to wander around, was one of them.
Aside from this being my first visit to Scotland, we’d be in Aberlour, a beautiful part of Scotland, and more importantly, I’d be in real whisky country. This part of Scotland holds around 40 different distilleries, from Tomintoul to Macallan, and though we wouldn’t have any time to visit any of them bar Balmenach, I’d be in the vicinity of the homes of some of my favourites.
That the weather chose to be a little meanspirited and the temperatures hit -14°C was no matter. I bought jeans, packed layers and scarves and dug out my trail runners.
Our journey began at Piccadilly, where I met my two travelling companions, Ashton and Amir, and we headed up to Edinburgh, where Sarah our host for the trip and David Winnard, the same lovely and knowledgeable chap who worked with Caorunn on their series of foraging adventures across the world (not just the one in Manchester I attended) met us.
We’d had three hours on the train. Now for three hours in the car. Ouch.
But we had plenty to distract us. Scotland in the deep snow is utterly stunning. Stark against the snow, we saw deer and grouse, ponies and people. The light dimmed and the mountains darkened and loomed above us. I wish that I could have shown you those snow covered hillsides and the deer that walked them. The shots that I’ve managed barely hint at the beauty, at the starkness of it, white upon white upon white. Without hiking through those hills with a camera (and probably someone to keep me safe) I can’t. But I am in awe.
We arrived, cramped and dozy, to a warm and toasty welcome at the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour. Recently taken over, it’s a real family business, with dad in the desk, and his daughters in the kitchen and in the bar, mum is working on the constant renovation across the building. But more on that in a separate post. Back to gin.
After a well needed rest, following dinner and much sampling overnight at the bar, we awoke to another cold, but clear morning. The view from the front door of the hotel was stunning.
The distillery awaited, as did the master distiller, Simon Buley.
Though Caorunn is a gin, it’s housed in a distillery that primarily produces whisky for blending. Balmenach was first licensed in 1824 by James McGregor, making it one of the first distilleries in Scotland to be licensed to produce of Scotch whisky.
Simon took us on a tour of the distillery first, taking us from the mash, through to the fermentation process, all on a huge scale.
We moved through to the distillation process, and the beautiful copper stills producing the raw spirit – which we of course sampled. Known as ‘white dog’ in the USA and available to buy, the unaged spirit has a raw, but almost white chocolate flavour. Outside, the traditional condenser, using cold water to chill the pipes, remains from the 1930s.
By comparison, the Caorunn distillery is on a much smaller scale. If I show you Dave posing in front of the whisky distillery….
Then show you the doors to the Caorunn distillery….
I think you get the point. It doesn’t take a whole lot of space to make gin.
Inside, Simon can produce Caorunn to his own high standards. A gin fan like myself, he wanted to make a Scottish gin at the distillery, using both the water of the Haughs and the Celtic botanicals that surround the distillery.
Both the five locally foraged botanicals and the six traditional, are carefully measured and layered into the trays of the Copper Berry Chamber that’s used to make the gin. I have to admit, the still is fascinating. I’ve seen traditional styles from copper to stainless still, pot to column, but this is pretty.
The spirit pure clear is heated, and then the vapor passed over the botanicals in the chamber, collecting the flavours from the leaves berries and peel. The process takes around four hours in total and during this time, Simon will sit, in a wing-backed chair and watch a line.
For four hours.
Gin might not take a lot of space, but it does take a lot of concentration.
The spirit produced is 97% proof – and it’s at this point Simon will test it, to make sure the flavours are correct – and we too were invited to try some left over from the last batch. At 97% the alcohol evaporates in your mouth, leaving heat, dryness and flavour. It’s intense, and once your eyes stop watering (and if you haven’t managed to choke on the fumes), you’ll be left with a stronger version of the gin on your palate.
Obviously, for you and I to drink this at home, the spirit is diluted to the 41.8% that makes Caorunn so perfect with a tonic and slice of apple – and this is how we ended the visit.
Though I could have stayed and talked about gin (and whisky) to Simon all day, his work and our return journey called and it was via Aviemore and a gorgeous lunch that inspired a healthy recipe posted on the site, that we returned to Edinburgh, ready for our train home.
The distillery is beautiful, the surroundings even more so. Between the wilds of the National Park surrounding Balmenach, the architecture of Edinburgh and the booze, Scotland has won me over and I am making plans to visit again.
For the meantime, however, I had the ideal accompaniment to my journey home.
With thanks to Sarah, Dave, Amir and Ashton, as well as the Dowans Hotel and Caorunn for the fantastic visit.