The distillery


Enjoy some new malt whiskies coming to market

On Drink

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“You’re Charlie’s nephew?” Bill Lumsden asked and then called out to the room: “Hey, everyone, we’ve got Charlie’s nephew over here!” The occasion was a visit to Glenmorangie distillery as part of my new job working for a whisky retailer. I was seated next to Lumsden, the grandly-styled “head of distilling and whisky creation” and had mentioned that I had a relative in the business.

I knew him as Uncle Charles, a distant moustached figure who was rarely around because he was always working. He had been in the industry for a long time, but I didn’t expect Lumsden’s delighted and amused response. It turns out that my uncle was something of a legend in the industry.

Charles Smith is the husband of my mother’s sister. An engineer by training, he fell into Scotch whisky accidentally but ended up managing some well-known distilleries including Cardhu, Glenkinchie and Talisker.

He retired in 2007 but was lured out to do another job at Ballindalloch, a small operation set up by the Macpherson-Grant family where all the barley comes from the estate and which began distilling in 2015. Despite the whisky not being ready to try, the distillery has been geared up to receive visitors from the beginning. Tourism is a big part of the Scotch whisky industry today.

When Charlie started out in the seventies, the industry was very different. Distilleries were essentially factories, albeit often very picturesque ones, churning out whisky to go into blends. Most weren’t open to the public, and the people who ran them tended to be taciturn men called Ian or Jim. But the industry was opening up.

With the success of Glenfiddich the big companies were now putting marketing into single malts. As Charlie told me, “They needed to get feet on the ground and who better to do that than the person who made the whisky?”

In 1993 he moved over to manage Cardhu in Speyside, and the job included brand ambassador duties — in other words, talking to people about whisky. Distillery managers were becoming much in demand and were treated with a reverence by whisky enthusiasts, which must have been a surprise for people who were previously regarded as backroom technicians. Sometimes Charlie was even introduced as Mr Talisker as if he owned the distillery.

One of the mash tuns

In reality, however, a manager’s job at an established distillery involves ensuring a consistent product, there’s little room for creativity, so when the opportunity came to help design a distillery from scratch at Ballindalloch, Charlie jumped at the chance.

The size of the stills made by Forsyths of Rothes was governed by the tiny building where they would be housed. But the shape was inspired by two distilleries Charlie had worked at, with the wash still akin to Glenkinchie and the spirit still similar to Talisker.

Charlie wanted a “floral Speyside-style spirit with a heavier note to it,” as he puts it. Condensing takes place in an old-fashioned worm tub, whilst for ageing Charlie is keen on sherried whisky, so much of the new make went into oloroso sherry butts, 550 litre casks.

This is where Charlie and his boss disagreed. Guy Macpherson-Grant favours bourbon barrels. “Why take all this time and then smother it in sherry?” when nearby Glenfarclas already does the heavy sherry style very well.

Some young distilleries have released three-year-old whisky, the minimum age allowed by Scotch Whisky Association rules, but Macpherson-Grant has taken his time. At the end of last year some limited edition single malts were released.

I tasted a single bourbon cask filled in February 2016 and a single sherry butt filled in September 2015 by Charlie’s own hands. Both were bottled in June 2023. Trying the two singles side by side, I have to lean towards Charlie’s point of view.

It’s a beautifully fruity rich whisky, incredibly smooth considering it’s only seven years old, and the sherry doesn’t overpower the spirit at all. But that’s not to say that the bourbon cask isn’t also excellent. With the distillery up and running, in 2016 Charlie handed over the day-to-day management to a younger pair of hands.

That year he was inducted into the Whisky Hall of Fame at the World Whisky Awards joining such famous names as Jim Beveridge from Johnnie Walker and David Stewart at Balvenie, something he is extremely proud about. But he didn’t rest on his laurels, taking a consultancy job in India — great whisky but shocking health and safety, apparently.

Meanwhile Ballindalloch is accumulating stocks with a view to releasing a flagship single malt soon. Although the two single malts I tasted are now sold out, there are still various single cask bottlings you can buy.

Macpherson-Grant admitted that he had put all the thought into making the best possible whisky but hadn’t thought much about selling it. “We’ve done the square root of nothing on marketing, yet,” he said. There’s no PR department. I only found out that the whisky was available because Charlie got in touch to tell me.

Other small distilleries, such as Daftmill in Fife, are producing highly in-demand cult whiskies. Ballindalloch could go the same way. The quality is there, they just need someone to sell it. Maybe they should take on Uncle Charlie as brand ambassador.

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