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Aberlour Whisky - The Tour

12/08/2014 13:48 BST | Updated 11/10/2014 10:59 BST

"You can put on weight just by breathing here" says my host for a three-day trip to the wonderful Speyside region of Scotland, and he should know because Ian Logan is the Global Brand Ambassador for Aberlour Whisky. He spends a lot of time visiting this small village in Banffshire - at one end, the Walkers Shortbread factory where the scent of just-baked biscuits is stomach-rumblingly good and at the other, the sweet smell of Brewers Malt being carried on the breeze. It's at this end of Aberlour where I'll be spending the majority of my time and where you'll find the Distillery.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

Some of the best distilleries are strategically placed by an excellent water source and Aberlour is no different.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

Nestling at the base of the mountain range Ben Rinnes, it lies on the Lour burn where it meets the River Spey and it's this soft spring water that runs through Aberlour.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

After rainwater has settled on one of the area's tallest hills, it trickles over pink granite before converging into both sources. No two distilleries draw water from the same source.

I'm here to learn more about the distilled spirit made from cereals, water and yeast, that generates £4.3 billion each year for the Scottish economy. There are two kinds of Scotch Whisky - Malt and Grain (made with any grain other than malted barley and distilled in a column still). The Single Malts can be divided into groups according to the geographical location of the distilleries - Lowland, Highland, Speyside and the Islands (excluding Islay). Aberlour is a Malt Whisky and for the purposes of this post and my visit here, I'll be writing specifically about this.

According to figures collated by the Scotch Whisky Association this represents around 85% of Scottish food and drink exports and nearly a quarter of the British total. The industry's exports are worth £135 a second to the UK trade balance.

America tops the list of the 5 Whisky export markets by value (millions) for 2013, while France remains the largest volume market - up 16% as it returned to normal following a 14% tax hike on average on spirits above 40% ABV, at the start of 2012.

1. USA £818.7

2. France £434

3. Singapore £329.7

4. Spain £180

5. Germany £172

We're given the master tour by Graeme Cruickshank who's the Distillery Director here at Aberlour, he's been here since the early nineties, but has been working with whisky much longer, and knows this plant and others in the company portfolio back-to-front.

We have the Victorian entrepreneur James Fleming to thank for Aberlour. The son of a local farmer he became a grain merchant selling barley locally. After purchasing land, which included a spring known as St Drostan's Well, he set up a distillery. This oil painting sits proudly in the Distillery Tasting Room and he looks rather chuffed with what he's achieved and rightly so.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

For those who know their whisky you'll have a basic understanding of how it's made but for novices like me, once you understand the time and effort taken to make it, you can appreciate it a lot more.

Aberlour uses the best Scottish barley it can source, chosen by professional Maltsters who screen and clean it before soaking in pure spring water.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

It's dried over a stone floor to germinate and is regularly turned to promote growth. Once the sugar levels are at their best, the barley is kiln dried. 'Peat' is a banned word here at Aberlour because the kilns which are heated by peat infuse the grain and mask the natural flavour, so no peat is used in the process of Aberlour whisky-making. The time this takes could be anything up to two weeks. As we walk around the site a truck arrives and drops 30,000 tons of malted barley into the underground storage bins and it's from here it passes through the malt mill where it's ground into a coarse mix called grist. The husks in the grist create a natural filter that traps solid particles helping with the wort development when it comes to the mashing process.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

Mash Tuns are filled with hot spring water and the grist is added - it's stirred and mixed with the aim of converting the starches to sugar. The cycle is repeated twice until all the good stuff has been leached from the mash. What's left is a sweet, clear, sugary liquid known as wort. The first two waters are pumped to a large vessel called the washback for fermentation, while the third water is returned to the heating tank for the next mash. The spent grains, known as the draff are processed into cattle feed. This is what they look like.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

It's in the metal washbacks where liquid yeast is added to a the wort which is cooled to 20 degrees using water from the lour Burn. The yeast 'eats' the sugars, producing alcohol and other compounds known as congeners, giving the whisky it's unique tastes and aromas.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

Closely monitored, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the process is computerised.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

After about two days, things calm down a little and the wash contains around 8.5% alcohol by volume. It travels to the architectural heart of any distillery and the four stills here at Aberlour are pretty impressive, reminding me of huge copper gourds.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

These stills are heated to just below the boiling point of water, the alcohol vaporises and passes over the neck of the still into a condenser, a large copper coil immersed in cold running water, where the vapour is condensed into liquid. Since the days of James Fleming, Aberlour stills have always been unusually broad at the base and rise high like a swan's neck, where the vapours enter copper shell and tube condensers. The taller the neck of the still, the more impurities are forced out during distillation resulting in a soft, light flavour, typical of a Speyside whisky.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

It's here in the wash distillation they condense into a liquid known as 'low wines' with an alcohol content of around 20 to 22 per cent, is collected into receivers ready for the second distillation.

The colourless centre cut is 63% by volume, Aberlour's is a beautiful berry-flavoured liquid, and is passed through to the warehouses where the whisky is casked. It's here the maturation process begins.

The new spirit is casked in carefully hand-chosen casks and matured under control for at least 10 years. Most of the single malts produced at Aberlour are double cask matured in first fill Bourbon casks and Oloroso Sherry butts. These are selected by the Blender from America and Jerez in Spain, individually 'nosing' each and every cask to make sure the wood is right. During the time the spirit is in the cask it takes on the Bourbon and Sherry flavours it once contained, each cask is different, each adding complex flavours as the spirit ages.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

When the whisky has matured in years, the Blender mixes the spirit from both types of casks in scientific proportions to create the expressions that make up an Aberlour Whisky. The Bourbon adds sweetness - think vanilla and coconut and add smoothness and roundness to the mouth. The Sherry on the other hand adds fruiter, spicier, Christmas cake notes and the distinctive amber colour. This is the secret of the Aberlour dram.

Generations of expertise go into a bottle of Aberlour and each master blender contributes to the complex flavours. Each tastes different, with and without water, each a joy to nose and enjoy. Here's Ian taking us through the 'nosing'.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams

I was a total novice when it came to whisky drinking. It was never something I'd feel comfortable about ordering in a bar because I just didn't know what to choose, how to drink it and what to expect if I did. I hope I've whet your appetite and if you do fancy trying whisky or even taking a break where whisky is made, please promise me you'll visit Aberlour and let me know of your experience.

Aberlour is open to visitors, not only to buy whisky but to see the process for themselves and all tours are by appointment.

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Photograph by Rebecca Williams