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Celebrating a Time Honoured Craft

Celebrating a Time Honoured Craft
November 17, 2016 Jackie Teo

Even if you are vaguely familiar with how whiskies are made, you’ll agree that its production is an intricate blend of art and science. The Balvenie distillery, where the majority of the processes are still done by hand, has been championing this fact via its marketing messages and campaigns. In the same vein, The Balvenie commissioned photographer James Stroud (pictured above) to create a series of visual artwork inspired by the spirit of craftsmanship at The Balvenie distillery in Dufftown. Recently, his works were displayed in the National Museum of Singapore.

Named Succession, the exhibition is a collection of 11 pieces of art with ‘Time’ as its theme.

“My aim was to capture the sense that everything improves with age, just like a barrel of whisky,” said James. “I was surrounded by flaking paint and weather-battered equipment in a place of tangible ageing, where everything and everyone was maturing and getting better with time.”

In particular, he highlighted the tools, environment and people at The Balvenie. He shot elements such as the malt barrow, the hammer used by on-site coppersmith Dennis McBain and the river where the distillery sources for its water. Nearly all of them are taken from a top-down perspective.

The images are arranged in to a grid system, a visual signature frequently used by James, before they were lifted using a special technique. You can see how the paper folds in the images below. These works are placed within frames made by James and his team, which are made using wood reclaimed from a 150-year-old American church, emphasizing the concept of ‘Time’ even further.

Here’s a short film on James and how he created Succession.

This exhibition is part of The Balvenie Commission, a bursary fund created to find and support craftsmen from all over the world who share its drive and commitment to craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the pieces have left Singapore. But you can do the next best thing, which is to view them here.

Do accept our apologies for the glare, as these are taken at the exhibition where there are plenty of spotlights. The notes are from The Balvenie.


Copper is the ideal catalyst for the flavours The Balvenie want in whisky production and all of their stills are made of the material. Here, coppersmith Dennis McBain’s apprentice George Singer shows us a condenser he is repairing.


Without water, there would be no whisky, and distillery sites were chosen for the proximity of sufficient supply of water for cooling and cleaning (like the river seen here) but also for clean and plentiful springs. The Balvenie uses 21 springs located in the Conval hills that surround the distillery



To watch them work is a beautiful thing; lifting the hammer seems effortless, knowing which stave goes where appears intuitive, and a cooper must practice his craft for at least four years before passing his apprenticeship. Here, Richard Anderson applies his knowledge, skill and experience; his craft, to ready a cask for filling.


Many of the tools still used today in The Balvenie’s traditional floor maltings are as old as the maltings itself, if not older like this ‘malt barrow’. The malt barrow was used to move dry barley around the loft awaiting steeping (soaking in water) and malting.


When our on-site coppersmith Dennis McBain started at The Balvenie in 1959, this very hammer was in his toolbox. Like many craftsmen, Dennis made this tool himself “as the ones you could buy did not suit me for the purpose.” Still used to this day, the ‘cross-pein’ hammer is used to work on the ‘swan neck’ (the angled top section) of the stills.


3544. IAN
As one of only a few full-time coopers left in the Scotch whisky industry, Ian McDonald is as rare as one of The Balvenie’s award-winning malt whiskies. With over 40 years of experience in his craft, our Head Cooper leads a team of seven full-time coopers in our on-site cooperage. They work to rejuvenate, repair, rebuild, fill and seal dozens of casks every day preparing them to be used in the crucial maturation process for whisky.


Every drop of Balvenie, and indeed of Scotch whisky, must mature for at least three years in oak casks, often much longer. It is estimated that there are over 20-million casks in Scotland related to whisky production! As much as 70% of the final flavour of a whisky comes from the cask, so it is a very important part of the process. The Balvenie is distinguished from the rest of the whisky industry in Scotland in choosing to have its own cooperage on site, which highlights the commitment to the vital role of wood management and the attention to detail that makes it one of the most acclaimed malt whiskies around.


16530. STEPHEN
Many of the craftsmen at The Balvenie start in the maltings, the first stage in the whisky-making process. Many move on, but some stay like our head Maltman Robbie Gromley. Stephen Thompson (pictured) started in the maltings in 2008 and having mastered the craft, has since moved on to mashing and fermentation. Stephen is also a black belt in kickboxing, while next year his wife Deanne pursues her black belt and his son Liam gets his junior black belt. Their youngest, Jayden, begins his learning in two years so it’s a family affair… and we have suspicions Liam or Jayden may end up turning Balvenie barley one day, too.


The Balvenie maltings exist over two floors: the loft upstairs where barley is stored until it is needed, and the malting floor itself on the ground floor. In this way gravity does its part in the process but here Stephen can be seen turning our 90-year-old ‘malt chariot’ which has been used by generations of Balvenie maltmen to move steeped (soaked, wet and heavy barley) around the floors.


The maltings we still use today are actually the second maltings at Balvenie. Malting originally took place in the Balvenie Mains house. The new maltings was built in the 1920s using stones from the house; stones that had originally been taken from the 13th-century Balvenie Castle, the remains of which still overlook our distillery site.


Traditionally, in the maturation of Scotch whisky, casks that have previously held bourbon or sherry are most commonly used: ‘barrels’ (200l) of American Oak or ‘butts’ (500l) of European Oak. Oak casks literally breathe, allowing an exchange between the air outside and the contents. Each cask will impart different flavours to the whisky yet, still today, in spite of decades of scientific research, there remain many mysteries of maturation only to be realised when the cask is finally sampled by the malt master. And thank goodness.

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