It’s not often you get an assignment from Popular Science to film a whisky distillery in Scotland, especially not one as steeped in tradition as Glenfiddich. The iconic science magazine is usually focused on innovation and more known for covering space, robots, green energy and futuristic gadgets you might mistake for props in a science fiction movie.
A quick glance at the map reveals that, rather than being a big, modern facility near Edinburgh or Glasgow, our location is well off the beaten track, deep in Scotland’s Speyside whisky country, and one of the last family-owned distilleries. Curiosity aroused, we set off on the long journey to Dufftown, Banffshire in the land of thistle and loch.
Bracing for the five hour drive from Edinburgh through steeply rising rocky hills, we rent the largest car our transatlantic cousins have on offer. Predictably, this turns out to be about the size of New York roller skate, which is pretty fortunate since the roads quickly narrow to the width of a sidewalk as soon as we leave the suburbs. Prickly hedges rise intermittently on either side of us, making driving feel like a game of chicken in Grand Theft Auto.
The further away we move from the city, and the deeper we drive into the heartland of the Scots, the more sense it all makes. Glancing out the windows at the ruggedly handsome countryside, with its moody, grey-clad skies, deep green rolling hills, gnarled and wiry ancient trees, it’s easy to understand the pride, history and pioneering spirit required to endure in this tough countryside.
The distillery, located just outside picturesque Dufftown, sits in the shadow of Balvenie Castle. But as we discover on our first scouting mission, there is far more to its unassuming buildings and warehouses than meets the eye.
Our first stop is the mash house, where malted barley begins its long journey to your whisky glass. Hidden within its innocent-looking stucco walls are gigantic copper domed cylindrical vats called “tuns” inside which barley is mixed with steamy hot water and slowly stirred. It doesn’t feel like a factory: the gleaming copper and polished glass are meticulously maintained. There is a tangible sense of craft and quality.
Next we visit is the “still” house, where beery wort is distilled into liquor. Sunlight streaking through high windows washes over a forest of gleaming copper pot stills over ten feet high. There are no simple, straight pipes here. It’s all sexy golden curves, beautifully engineered and tooled to perfection, a steampunk heaven that simultaneously calls to mind the future and the past. Although we get the sense there are computers hidden from view, monitoring and measuring, everything is operated and periodically checked by a few earnest craftsmen in whose skill and experience you just can’t help but trust.
Even in the depths of warehouse 8, lined with aging oak barrels stacked head high, there is innovation amid tradition. The Solera vat—a Glenfiddich first—is a huge pine cask that is filled from the top, drawn from the bottom and never emptied, a technique borrowed from Spanish sherry makers.
Very fitting then, that the reason we are here is to use a cutting edge interactive video technology to make an immersive tour experience for those people who are not lucky enough to visit the distillery themselves—a tour that reveals Glenfiddich’s art and science of whisky making.
The tour app will be available on iTunes November 2013.