The wonderful Billy Walker of GlenAllachie Distillery fame has joined us to talk about making his mark, what the future holds and winning the Scottish Whisky Distillery Of The Year award.
It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for Billy Walker since he took over GlenAllachie Distillery in 2017. In a preview he gave us back in October of that year, he outlined his ambitions for his new purchase and many have been achieved. Expressions have been added to the core range, including the recently released GlenAllachie 15 Year Old and in July the first Wood Finish range launched, which comprises of three expressions, the 12 Year Old Pedro Ximénez Sherry Wood Finish, the 10 Year Old Port Wood Finish and the 8 Year Old Koval Rye Quarter Cask Wood Finish. A visitor centre and shop were also unveiled in May which will welcome people to the distillery for the first time since it was built in 1967. Such has been the progress, The GlenAllachie even managed to pick up the Scottish Whisky Distillery Of The Year award at the Scottish Whisky Awards.
We thought it was high time we sat down once again with the veteran of the industry to discuss all the above, talk about what the future holds and more.
Master of Malt: Hi Billy! Congratulations on the Scottish Whisky Distillery Of The Year award.
Billy Walker: Thank you! It’s fantastic of course. It’s a pretty amazing award, but it doesn’t surprise me. That’s not a conceit, because it’s got nothing to do with me frankly, it’s got to do with the team and the available inventory, the shape of the inventory, the range of the inventory and indeed the spirit the distillery makes. Was it a surprise? Yeah, a little bit. We were delighted to be in the final choice, but yeah, to win it is fantastic.
MoM: How have the last two years been for you at GlenAllachie Distillery?
BW: The last two years have been all about interfacing and understanding, being really intimate with the individual casks, understanding what we have in the casks and working out if there is going to be enough for the direction we want to go in. It’s the case with all distilleries. You have to understand what the style of whisky is, the wood it’s in and what direction you want to take it. So, these last two years has helped us get an in-depth understanding of where we’re going and what we can release and the quality that we expect it to deliver.
MoM: What did you learn from your time at BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh?
BW: The one thing that was certainly brought home to me is that there is no shortcut to quality. It is important to understand the kind of vibrancy and the dynamism that is in the single malt sector in the last ten to 12 years. In that period we have learned that we need to be loyal to the routes to market through the private, independent sector. It’s a way for us to get visibility and loyalty without tiptoeing into the territory of big companies like supermarkets. We really don’t want to be in supermarkets in the short to medium term, if ever at all. And that’s the one thing we’ve learnt: build the brand, be patient, build the brand through the private independent retailers. Engage with informed consumers. Because these are the guys that will act as loyal and refreshing and honest ambassadors for our brand and indeed for other people’s brands.
MoM: How would you describe the distillery to someone who didn’t know much about it?
BW: I always had an admiration for the spirit from Glenallachie because it was an extremely important contributor to some very, very famous blended whiskies. So we were familiar with the style, but we weren’t terribly familiar with the distillery infrastructure, but everything was perfect. The water supply is wonderful, it runs over granite and peat so it’s fantastic for both whisky and for fermentation generally. It’s a relatively big distillery. It can make 4.2 million litres of alcohol but we’ve tailored it down and we’re reaching about 800,000 litres at the moment. This has allowed us to do very important things like long fermentation (120 – 160 hours), which we’re big advocates of. We introduced it at the Ben Riach, we introduced it at Glendronach and we also introduced it at Glenglassaugh. With long fermentation, you get an extension of flavour development in the fermenter but more importantly, you bring a very benign, calm wash to the wash still so that the distillation process is much easier to control. The big bonus that we also have is warehousing capacity, we can store about 50,000 casks so we’re pretty well fully integrated. The only thing missing is a bottling plant but who knows… maybe that’s something we can do in the future. All-in-all, what we have inherited we are very, very happy with.
MoM: You’ve mentioned the possibility of creating a bottling plant. How likely is it that there will be any expansions or alterations of any of the distillery buildings or equipment in the near future?
BW: The bottling plant is certainly an idea at the moment. We would like to have the flexibility of having access to our own bottling unit, but it brings with it as many problems as solutions! But we’ll see. It’s too early, we’re too much in our infancy at the moment. We’re using a contract bottler with whom we are more than comfortable and it’s not on the horizon at the moment but it’s not off the radar. Well, one of the attractions of this distillery at Glenallachie is that it has terrific storage capacity, but I suspect that we will probably have a need to have some additional storage and that would certainly be something we would have to do sooner rather than later. It won’t be in the next 12 months, however, it wouldn’t surprise me if we did have to do it within the next 24 months.
MoM: Can you describe the profile of the GlenAllachie new-make and what the distillery character is?
BW: We’re actually in the process of changing the character. Essentially what we’re looking for in the new-make is clean, sparkling fruits, vanilla, butterscotch, biscuity notes, the latter of which the long fermentation will deliver for us. We don’t want a dull, flat spirit. We want a full-bodied spirit that allows us to interface with rich wood. And we’re achieving that. We’ve done a lot of cask experiments and looked into various types of wood such as PX and oloroso and that’s exciting, just to see how you can change the direction of the flavour profile of the whisky as you go along. I go up to the distillery once or twice a week essentially to follow the development and note how each of the individual casks is developing and how the DNA of both young and mature spirit is moving along.
MoM: The distillery has a relatively recent history, is that liberating for you creatively to not have too much tradition and history to keep in line with?
BW: Oh unquestionably. It’s important to understand that back when this distillery was built the purpose of almost every single malt was to feed into one of the many famous and very good blended Scotch whiskies that existed then and indeed continue to exist now. If you reflect that when this distillery was built in 1960, it was at a time when there was a lot of activity in modernising and in building new distilleries that could become an integral part of some very important blended whiskies. The Glenallachie was made to feature in some of these blends, which I’m not going to name. You can contrast that to what we’re doing now because we have adopted a policy that we are not releasing any of our production to any third parties. We are focused on owning everything that we produce.
MoM: What does the future hold for GlenAllachie Distillery and what do you hope to achieve with the distillery?
BW: The important thing with any distillery is that you define and create your range of products to be compatible with the consumer base that you’re targeting. We’ve already discussed the importance of being a brand who aim to reach the market in a manner where they can be built and developed slowly, but in a way that where you are targeting and engaging with informed consumers who, in many ways, then become your ambassadors. We have to be patient; we know this is not a sprint, there are no shortcuts to quality. It’s a long term goal to deliver Glenallachie and we have ambition frankly. Our ambition is to be the best Speyside single malt in the region, and there are some competitors in there! But if we don’t have ambition we shouldn’t be creating.
MoM: Back in 2017, you seemed open-minded when asked if you’d purchase another distillery, how do you feel now?
BW: We would not be against having another distillery in the stable. My only caveat in all of that is that it is becoming more and more difficult to actually acquire that kind of an asset. If something came up and it was the right fit and the price was right, then unquestionably we would be interested. But right now the prices are not really right! Of course, we would be comfortable having another distillery in-house and having the opportunity to work with another whisky would be fantastic. Playing with whisky is just such a wonderful obsession.