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E-pistle #18/16 – An Interview with Billy Walker

E-pistle #18/16 – An Interview with Billy Walker

By Bert Bruyneel, Belgium

This interview with Billy Walker was conducted by Bert Bruyneel shortly before he ‘officially’ became a certified malt maniac.

Question 1 – What did you do before being in the whisky industry?
How did you ‘fall into it’?

I graduated from Glasgow University with a B.Sc (Hons) in Chemistry. For almost 4 years I worked as a Research Chemist with Organon Laboratories. However, I spent my formative years in the town of Dumbarton, which is the home of Ballantines Scotch Whisky. So I had a strong association with Scotch whisky, and it was a natural step for me to join Ballantines.

Question 2 – What are the steps you have taken in the whisky industry
to arrive being co-owner of BenRiach?

I spent 4 years working with Ballantines, (1971 – 1975) and got a fantastic training in all aspects of Scotch Whisky Production (both grain and malt whisky) and blending. I moved briefly to Beecham Pharmaceuticals as Technical Manager for their Penicillin Fermentation Unit. I then joined Inver House as their Master Blender – Technical Manager, and enjoyed a wonderful seven years with I.H.D.

My next move was to Burn Stewart (Master Blender / Operations Director / Sales Director). During this period, we built the business significantly, and in 1987, together with 2 Partners, we bought the company for the Hillman family. From 1987 to 2002, we grew the business and in the process acquired both Deanston Distillery and Tobermory Distillery:  this was an exciting and challenging period, but very enjoyable. Burn Stewart was then acquired by a Trinidadian Company (C.L. Finance) in December 2002 who decided that I was surplus to their plans. Together with my South African partners, Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter, we put a strategy in place to acquire a Malt Whisky Distillery, with history, quality and available unbroken stock. 

This was a real challenge and led us to the door of Chivas Bros. who after much discussion agreed to sell The BenRiach Distillery.  Chivas were great people to deal with and continue to be both helpful and supportive.

Question 3 – What is the source of the barley used at BenRiach?
The barley is grown locally in Morayshire and is Malted at Port Gordon Maltings which is about 18 kilometres from the Distillery.

Question 4 – If you start up the own floor maltings again, what type of barley would you use and why?
To re-commission The BenRiach Floor Maltings is part of our plan:  we will continue to source the barley locally, varietal Optic or Cellar. Locally produced barley is robust, importantly Speyside and is good yielding and provides the basis for the flavour characteristics we are seeking in The BenRiach distillate.

Question 5 – What is according to you the impact of the source/origin of the barley in making BenRiach?
Sourcing barley locally is true to the history of The BenRiach Distillery:  this is how it was in the 19th Century and it is our commitment to continue this traditional approach.

Question 6 – What would be the eventual difference between own maltings and malts you buy elsewhere?
Malted Barley from commercial Maltsters is both high quality and consistent.  However, it does not carry the unique fingerprint of Malted Barley produced from on-site Distillery Floor Maltings.  However, Malting on-site is not without problems and is let’s say “unpredictable”, especially at the Kiln process where drying temp., times, peat quality etc. are all important and notoriously difficult to control. However, this is a part of the “romance” and the Malted Barley produced from the Floor Maltings is totally unique in character and exclusive to the Distillery.

Question 7 – How goes the mashing process at BenRiach, how many waters, heat, time, method of draining?
Mashing Cycle: The Mash Tun is traditional in style with a conventional drainage system (it is not a Lauter Tun).  The Mash Tun has a diameter of 5.8 m, with a depth of 1.6m. The actual malted barley grist in the Mash is 5.52 m.T.:  The Mash involves 4 x waters and takes approximately 6 hours. Total time taken to set the wash-back 240 minutes.

Question 8 – What yeast is used during fermentation?
The yeast which we use is Distillers Yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae): which is semi-bubbed prior to transfer to the Wash Back.

Question 9 – Is there a difference of fermentation time for peated and unpeated BenRiach?
The fermentation pattern for peated and unpeated BenRiach is the same.  The capacity of each wash-back is 30,000 litres. The wort is cooled to approximately 18° C prior transfer to the Wash-Back:  the Original Gravity is around 1058 and the fermentation attenuates to a Final Gravity of 998.5, with a final temperature of around 34° Celsius. The fermentation process is controlled by natural means:  “foaming” is controlled by “switchers” and there is no cooling devices.  The fermentation process takes 48 – 50 hours.

Question 10 – How many stills are at BenRiach, and how are they formed?
The BenRiach Distillery has four stills; 2 Wash Stills and 2 Spirit Stills. The Stills are conventional / traditional shape: the Spirit Stills have no reflux bulbs, and the lyne arm has a very slight downward slope. The condensers are located external to the Still House.

Question 11 – Why does BenRiach go on cask at 63,5%?
BenRiach fills to cask at 63.5% vol.:  this choice of strength is based on long experience of wood management.
The strength of the New Fill is crucial to the extraction profile during the maturation process: if filled at a high strength or lower strength a different extraction profile is achieved.

Question 12 – Do you select the casks yourself, or are you dependent of what can be delivered to you?
All of our casks are sourced through Speyside Cooperage, which is located approximately 8 miles from the Distillery.
We select all of our casks and organoleptically evaluate them at the Cooperage before approving the purchase.

Question 13 – What is your opinion on the current evolution of Scottish whisky to move away from sherried expressions? We have seen Macallan shift to fine oak. A lot of distillers claim sherry casks are not the best to use, are bourbon casks better?
Wood Management is one of the most important factors in ensuring excellence of quality during maturation.   The most important factor is to use top quality casks, Bourbon, Hogsheads, Butts or “Wine Seasoned” Casks (Sherry, Port etc). There is a role in the maturation process for all of these casks. In the case of BenRiach, our plan is to start New Fill in fresh first fill bourbon casks, and re-rack some of these into “Wine Seasoned” casks or traditional hogsheads after approximately 8 years.

Question 14 – Is there, according to you, such a thing as whisky that matures better on bourbon casks, and whisky that matures better on sherry casks? Would there be definite reasons for this?
I personally do not subscribe to the theory that certain Malt Whiskies mature better in bourbon casks, and others better in Sherry Casks. If the Distillery has a Wood Management Plan in place which involves re-racking from bourbon into sherry casks (double wood maturation) at the appropriate time, then it is possible to capture the characteristics of both wood styles to the enhancement of the whisky.  This type of planning is “bespoke” and requires a real hands-on approach to the management of the whisky in wood, which bigger companies can find difficult to manage.

Question 15 – Could you tell us something more on the wood-policy you want to apply in the future?
The BenRiach is fortunate in that it carries age very well:  in addition to the Wood Management strategy outlined above, we are very excited about some of the Fine Wood Finishes which we are trialling

  • Oloroso Sherry Butts
  • Pedro Ximinez Sherry Butts
  • Aged Tawny Port Hogsheads
  • Aged Tawny Port Puncheons
  • Madeira Barrels
  • Jamaican Rum Barrels
  • Moscatel Wine Barrels
  • Sauterne Wine Barrels
  • Claret Wine Barrels
  • Burgundy Wine Barrels
  • Tokay Wine Barrels
  • Barolo (Gaja) Wine Barrels

Question 16 – How many casks are maturing at BenRiach?
The number of casks maturing at the Distillery is around 20,000: these vary in age from 2006 back to 1966.

Question 17 – In what type of warehouses do you mature the casks?
All of our casks are matured in traditional low-roofed dunnage warehouses with earthen floors, and a rich mix of whisky warehouse micro-organisms resident on the walls. The casks are stacked 3-High (Barrels and Hogshead) or 2-high (Butts) with the bung hole located at 12.00 o’clock.

Question 18 – Could you tell us something more on the general company policy you want to apply for BenRiach in general, I mean how you want to place BenRiach on the whiskymarket?
Our strategy for BenRiach is to be viewed as the most creative, imaginative “be-spoke” Single Malt Whisky producer: The BenRiach strategy is to develop relationships with the private, independent retailers and on-trade.  Our rich and varied inventory (both Classical Speyside and also Richly Peated) will allow us to bring new, innovative Expressions to the market on a regular basis.

Question 19 – Are there differences in the production process of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ BenRiach?
In what way do these changes make the spirit better or worse?

Yes there are subtle differences in the production process of the “old” and “new” BenRiach. During the Distilling Process we have reduced the “foreshots” time to 12 minutes:  this introduces a higher level of fruit notes (esters) and spicy notes. The Spirit Run”  is also longer which gives the spirit additional “depth”.

Question 20 – What is the reason there is ‘peated’ and ‘unpeated’ BenRiach?
The logic behind the presence of Classical Speyside BenRiach and Richly Peated BenRiach is quite interesting.
The previous owners carried out a one month Peated Campaign during each year, with 11 months being dedicated to the production of Classical Speyside Style BenRiach.  This was probably a clever commercial decision to give them access to a “peated” malt for blending purposes, when production on Islay was at a very low level and therefore very high cost.

However, the production of a ” Peated Style” BenRiach is a “Back to the Future” journey.  During the 18th and early 19th Centuries all Speyside Malts would have a significant level of peating, with “Peat” being the most accessible (only?) fuel available to fire the kilns in the on-site floor maltings. At BenRiach, the phenols level in the Malted Barley is around 55 p.p.m. with phenols retention in the spirit of 30 – 35 p.p.m..

Question 21 – How important are the ‘limited editions’ for a brand?
We believe that the Limited Edition / Single Cask Distillery Bottlings are really important for the development of the brand.  These bottlings allow us to showcase the brand in a “bespoke” way and make available opportunities for the informed consumer to bench-mark the unique qualities of our inventory. It also allows us to make a significant impact on this sector of the market, rather than leave this sector of the market, exclusively to the Independent Bottlers.

Question 22 – What are for the moment your main markets?
As you know we are in the early stages of developing The BenRiach name: however, we are already pleased with our progress in the UK, Germany, USA, Belgium and Denmark. Other markets which will become increasingly important include Russia, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, France, Canada, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore / Hong Kong / China.

Question 23 – The Curiositas is a peat bomb we all know, but are the vattings for the 12, 16, and 20yo all the same or do you use all different vattings, and what would these differences  be?
We have deliberately formulated the various Expressions (12YO, 16YO and 20YO) to be stand alone and different in style. This is achieved by prudent cask selection, and age profiling.

Question 24 – Are all batches the same, or would there be batch differences for Curiositas, 12, 16, and 20yo?
Each vatting which we prepare will inevitably demonstrate differences from the previous batches:  every cask is a “micro-vatting” in its own right and will during maturation develop its own personality:  to achieve, best possible continuity of each Expression it is an absolute to check, evaluate and approve each cask before committing it to the vatting.

Question 25 – How is the Authenticus put together? Single cask/vatting?
I agree with you that the Authenticus is a quite remarkable Expression with rich enduring peat notes in perfect harmony with honey, chocolate, raisins and oakwood, and an explosion of spices. The peat-retention is amazing and, in my opinion, is due to the cask use (only Hogsheads) and the maturation in Traditional Dunnage Warehouses, so no single cask.

Thank you very much for this interview, and for the deep and complete answers. I hope it will give the readers of maltmaniacs.com a better view on BenRiach, and we for sure hope that you keep up the good work at back there !!!