With the recent unveiling of their first-ever range of limited edition wood finishes and the opening of their new shop, we spoke to master distiller Billy Walker about his plans for popular Speyside distillery Glenallachie. 

Having sold the BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh distilleries – then under the umbrella of the BenRiach Distillery Company – in 2016, for close to £300 million, most people would have been forgiven for assuming that expert whisky maker Billy Walker might have taken some time out to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

Those who perhaps knew him a little better could have told you that, as one of the hardest working people in the industry, it’d be hard to keep him away from the front lines.

So perhaps, it wasn’t as much of a surprise to them when he – and a group of like-minded investors – purchased the GlenAllachie Distillery in Speyside from Pernod Ricard in 2017.

Nestled at the foot of Ben Rinnes, this exciting distillery was filled with potential, something Walker has a keen eye for and though it lies a little off the beaten track, it’s already been making waves.

None more so than the much anticipated first release of a limited-edition range of wood finishes and the first real opportunity to see the experienced master distiller really show what this small distillery is capable of.

“It’s become our signature that we bring out interesting twists in relation to the wood,” Billy explains, when asked about the new range which includes the 8-year-old Koval Rye Quarter Cask Wood Finish; the 10-year-old Port Wood Finish; and the 12-year-old Pedro Ximenez Sherry Wood Finish.

Billy Walker with the new limited edition casks at Glenallachie. Picture: Simon Price/Firstpix

“I was quite keen to bring out three whiskies that wouldn’t disappoint, so the quality had to be good.”

Designed to highlight Walker’s wood management expertise, the trio saw the distiller first hand-select barrels from among the 50,000 casks in the 16 warehouses on-site at the distillery near Aberlour, before turning to those trusted bodegas and distilleries that he had built keen relationships with throughout his long career in the whisky industry to source the casks he would need for finishing.

Walker stated that these particular casks were picked for their individual characteristics and to provide an array of exciting flavours profiles.

“We invest a substantial amount of time and money into sourcing exceptional casks from all around the world.

“I chose theses casks in particular because historically, I knew that you get quite a good return in terms of flavour from these styles of woods, and quite a bit more quickly than perhaps from some of the many other wood styles we have currently maturing in our warehouses.”

Knowing which styles were currently popular and which would deliver, Walker added that he was particularly delighted to get access to the Koval rye quarter casks, as he was impressed by their quality and intrigued by the spicier notes they provided.

“We are market aware and this is a market where the informed people are very interested in trying different things.”

Walker explained that age is not a driver for the new range, and even though the fashion these days is for ever younger whiskies, there are perhaps still some cynical whisky fans and bloggers who may raise an eyebrow at the release of an 8-year-old.

The master distiller, though, has seen it all before and knows a good whisky when he tries it.

“I’m an advocate of ‘age matters’ but it’s got to be good, everything has to be properly treated from day one.

“We looked at the history of the casks and we knew the Koval would give you a significant intensity of flavour, we thought the age was good, we thought the balance of what that particular age offered with the Koval organic quarter casks would be interesting.

“We knew that the Koval casks would interface better with our whisky at a younger age – I love them, given those delicious spice notes, I feel they’ve turned out fantastic.”

And is this new range a signifier of what’s to come? Walker certainly believes so, with discussions quickly turning to other woods, ranging from the conventional to the more idiosyncratic.

“A lot of the conventional styles of wood we have already got in place and we will be bringing them out in the near future. We are big fans of Madiera, which can be difficult to get, but we will look to bring a Madiera finish out perhaps next year.

“We have some wonderful Moscatel casks, some Sauternes and some wonderful wine casks including some Italian reds, some French Pinots, some Grand Cru and even some Napa reds.

“We are doing a lot of things with different styles of wood and different varieties of oak. We want to look at different woods, different provinces, you know different European oak – be that French, Hungarian or Spanish – and different styles of American oak including Appalachian and the one we are currently really excited about, Chinquapin, which we think is just staggeringly good.

“We want to get under the skin of this and ask ‘can we do things that are different?'”

Though experimentation can often lead to failure, the distillery founder said they have been lucky so far under the current regime, reiterating the need for the principals of good practice to always be observed.

He does admit to one major failure, at BenRiach, when they did make mistakes with a style of European wine cask – which shall remain unnamed – something that Walker and his team say they can now put down to bad management at the time and chalk up as a lesson learned.

He explained: “The reality is that if you are getting wine casks in, you should be getting them in as soon as they are disgorged, they should be bunged and shipped immediately, and they should be assessed, and filled, as soon as they arrive and that’s how it should work in theory – everything should be moving as fresh as soon as possible.

“At the time, we should have been a bit more professional. We got it wrong and it was never bottled, but we learned from it.”

It’s this attention to detail and care for the casks under his care that saw BenRiach and GlenDronach grow into the kind of success that Brown-Foreman so desperately wanted a piece of. However, that kind of success comes with its own pressures are people will always expect the levels of quality that Walker has come to be known for.

He states that this pressure can be good or bad depending on how you look at it; bad in the sense that people can often expect too much and can be much more easily disappointed; but more importantly that it’s a good thing because he believes, just as much as the drinkers they appeal to, that every whisky he creates must be of the very best quality.

“First of all it’s nice that people have an expectation and that it adds a little pressure to my job, but it’s the right kind of pressure – we shouldn’t be putting anything into the bottle that doesn’t meet our standards and doesn’t meet the standards of the kind of consumer that we are engaging with.

“We are lucky, in that a lot of the people who connect with us and drink our stuff happen to know what they are talking about and though that might be perceived as a challenge by others, it’s one we’ll always, as a team, strive to meet.”

Speaking of challenges, the industry veteran was recently forced to take on a new one, speaking to a live audience using Facebook, as part of the launch of the new range.

Describing himself as something of Luddite, he explained that though the whole experience was a bit strange, talking into a computer screen, he found it to be immensely rewarding.

“It was quite good fun, it was a first for us and in terms of being able to connect and have a real conversation with our customers I came away thinking that we could a lot of more of this.

“A couple of weeks later, I was up putting some pilot vattings together for the next 12, 18 and 25-year-old expressions and I was thinking that would have been a great time to do another one and show people behind the scenes.

“It really gives people a more three-dimensional connection with you. You are talking to people who will give you the truth and a lot of the questions are very informed so you need to be on your toes and it makes the experience more interesting for both the audience and myself.”

Speaking to customers is something he said he will have to get more use to anyway with the launch of the distillery’s new shop and tour experiences, which coincided with this year’s Spirit of Speyside in May.

“I’m delighted that we now have an extended experience for our customers. Not having a shop for the first 12-15 months was definitely a shortfall on our part as the distillery a destination for people.

“The new shop allows us to not only cater to our fans but also showcase a lot of the liquid that might not make it to all of the markets around the world. We will push to always have unique expressions that you just can’t get elsewhere.”

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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