Interview with Billy Walker, GlenAllachie Master DistillerBy Thijs Klaverstijn
Scotsman Billy Walker lives and breathes whisky. That might be a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The industry legend is quickly approaching his 50th year in the Scotch whisky industry and is clearly at the top of his game. Walker started out at Ballantine’s in his hometown of Dumbarton, before a short detour as a pharmaceutical research chemist. But Walker couldn’t be kept away from the whisky industry. His distinguished career famously led to the acquisition of BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh earlier this millennium. All have flourished since and were sold for a hefty sum to Brown Forman in 2016. Today Walker uses his talent and savvy as the GlenAllachie master distiller. This Speyside distillery was acquired by him and his business partners in 2017.
GlenAllachie Master Distiller: Building A Brand
It is safe to say that Walker has experience with building a brand almost from scratch. Experience like that comes in handy at GlenAllachie, which has gone from unknown to producing respected single malt pretty much overnight, largely thanks to Walker attaching his name and expertise. “One of the great attractions of GlenAllachie is that the brand was never seriously explored and exposed to the market,” says Walker. “From the point of view of developing a core range, it was a blank sheet of paper.”
GlenAllachie Master Distiller Billy Walker /Photo Credit: GlenAllachie
With tens of thousands of casks involved in the purchase of GlenAllachie, Walker embarked on a Herculean task and was able to launch a completely new range of single malts in the spring of 2018, ranging from 10 to 25-years-old. “We wanted to create a core range that would have its own house style. I particularly wanted it to be influenced by maturation in sherry wood. […] I suspect that we now got to the point that we wanted to achieve, in terms of characteristics. The next part might not be easier but may be less challenging.”
Creative Wood Management
This next chapter involves creative wood management. The great thing about the world of whisky, Walker claims, is that there are some very interesting consumers who become involved in the whole experience. Consumers that go the extra mile, so to speak, and want to know, understand and taste more of GlenAllachie. And so, Walker is always looking to extend their experience.
A variety of barrels at GlenAllachie /Photo Credit: GlenAllachie
Experimenting with different cask types, as Walker has done throughout his career, is as good a way as any. “We’ve been trying interesting experiments with various virgin oaks, like French and Spanish virgin oak, or Chinquapin and Appalachian virgin oak,” he says. “We played around with char levels and also a whole variety of different wine styles.”
The distillery just released the second batch of its Wood Finish Series, a practice Walker actually likes to call additional wood management. It includes whiskies that have interacted with rye, moscatel and port wood. “The key is to capture the sweet point; the length it should be in a certain style of cask to deliver the quality we’re looking for. You need to understand how the whisky interacts and behaves with certain kinds of wood. Getting to learn the personality of the distillery and whisky has been fantastically interesting.”
Blending: Chemistry or Art?
GlenAllachie is “not a shy Speyside whisky,” as Walker puts it. He finds it to be a rather full-bodied spirit, meaning it can handle some highly-flavored wood very well. The challenge for blenders like Walker is to monitor the developments of all casks and experiments. He must make sure to never “overcook” a whisky and instead must capture it at the right moment in time.
Walker analyzes casks at GlenAllachie /Photo Credit: GlenAllachie
“The only way is to religiously sample and follow the development of the spirit in these casks,” Walker explains. “It’s not something the warehouse people enjoy, because they have to do an awful lot of sampling. We’ll focus on casks that are within 18 months or two years of being put into bottles. We also have very helpful staff and they may have a first look and say: maybe you should be having a look at this. I’ll go to the distillery one or two days a week and we’ll try to do between 150 and 200 samples during that period.”
His training as a chemist gives Walker an insight into the production and aging of whisky that only a few have. He is quick to acknowledge the importance of understanding the chemistry of making whisky and wood maturation. “It’s not just maturation, but about extraction and a whole variety of chemical interactions that are happening within the cask. But on balance, do I think that blending is more chemistry or more feel and art? I would have to go for feel, emotion and art. The chemistry gives you a very complete understanding of what the building blocks are. The art gives you that touch and feel to capture the sweet point.”
While in steadier and calmer waters now than in the first year after its change in ownership, GlenAllachie is still very much in flux. It’s absolutely certain that ten years from now, GlenAllachie will taste very different than it does today. The improvements in wood management instated by Billy Walker are part of it, but maybe even more interesting are the changes to GlenAllachie’s production regime. Fermentation, an often-overlooked part of flavor creation, has been increased to an average of 160 hours, close to three times the duration under the previous owners.
“We’re taking the fermented wash to the wash stills in a very, very benign state. It gives you a much gentler distillation opportunity,” says Walker. “We will start looking in some serious depth at what we’ve laid down since acquiring the distillery and form some opinions. But we’re confident that long fermentation will give us the kind of flavor extension we’re looking for. We fully expect to see a richer and more rounded spirit in ten years’ time.”
Maturation, fermentation and distillation. It’s all part of a large puzzle that’s never finished; the job for Walker as the GlenAllachie master distiller and blender never ends. On the one hand Walker’s looking to maintain a consistent quality in his core range, on the other he’s constantly trying new things. Like he says, “it’s all about getting the yin and yang right.”
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