The GlenAllachie has won more than 50 awards in the last three years – including the big one, The World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whisky Awards.
Master distiller Billy Walker is the man behind it – an industry legend who will celebrate 50 years in the whisky industry next year..
The GlenAllachie’s Master Distiller and co-founder, Walker is a genuine icon of the whisky world.
His journey began in 1972, when he joined the team developing blends at Hiram Walker & Sons in Dumbarton – the company behind Ballantine’s at the time.
During his stint with the company, he became involved in nearly all aspects of the production process; from malting to fermentation, distillation and maturation, blending to warehousing, and even bottling.
Walker’s career has been defined by spotting opportunities to resurrect distilleries which were not receiving the attention he felt they deserved.
We caught up with him over a dram or two for a story or three…
What was your first experience of whisky?
If I turn back the clock to the beginning of my career in whisky, which began with a stint at Hiram Walker & Sons, I would say my first experience was with the Ballantine’s range, of which they had ownership of at the time. They also had a number of other Scotch Whisky brands such as Ambassador, Grand MacNish, Lauder’s, Doctors’ Special and MacNair’s – so the tasting room was a bit of an Aladdin’s Cave!
It’s wonderful to now have ownership of MacNair’s at The GlenAllachie Distillers Co. – a brand which I really enjoyed working with at the outset of my whisky journey.
What was the first whisky which really caught your attention?
I would have to say it was Ballantine’s that really captured my interest during my first forays into the industry. I had a real love for its smooth yet complex taste experience. I joined Hiram Walker back in 1972, so I’ll let whisky fans try and work my age out!
When did you decide ‘I want to make this stuff for a living’?
Having lived in the whisky town of Dumbarton in my formative years, there was an inevitable attraction and desire to work in the Scotch Whisky Industry. At that time, Dumbarton was the home to Ballantine’s, Dumbarton Grain Distillery, Lomond & Inverleven Malt Distilleries, J&B, Newton Bond and McGavigan’s. I was lucky enough to get involved with Hiram Walker & Sons which was a truly fantastic company.
You’ve resurrected many whisky brands – which was the most challenging and why?
There is an incredible energy in the journey of creating or resurrecting brands. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t – that’s the nature of the beast!
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in either resurrecting or re-energising a number of distilleries including Deanston (mothballed), Tobermory (under utilised), BenRiach (mothballed), GlenDronach (a sleeping giant), Glenglassaugh (under exposed) and GlenAllachie (under the radar).
They all presented challenges and for different reasons. On reflection, Deanston was probably the most difficult challenge, having been mothballed for a number of years.
GlenDronach was also interesting in a different way, having been mothballed for a six-year period from 1996 to 2002, and this presented some hurdles in terms of brand development.
Our current adventure at GlenAllachie is probably the most fulfilling: the team have taken a virtually unheralded but excellent distillery, implemented our hands-on philosophy, and showcased to the world what a terrific whisky it produces.
What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
Unquestionably, I would have to say that the blending and cask management gives me great satisfaction. Interfacing with whisky daily, following the development across the maturation process, and capturing and bottling the casks when they get to their “sweet spot”.
How have you noticed whisky tastes change over the course of your career?
The knowledge of today’s whisky enthusiasts is just beyond belief, and their expectation of quality has set the bar higher than ever.
In parallel we have seen a quite spectacular growth in the Single Malt Whisky category, with all its different styles and flavour characteristics. This audience has driven the pursuit of quality and flavour differentials, and certainly challenges Distillers and Blenders alike to push the trade envelope.
How have your personal tastes changed?
To be completely transparent, I don’t really think my personal tastes have changed. I would say, however, that I am constantly aware that the industry is delivering some amazing products at the moment, driven mostly by the boutique operators, and we consider ourselves to be one of them.
What are you working on next?
We are constantly looking to the future and trying to remain as innovative as we can, with our plans revolving round a 5-year cycle. You can expect to see some really interesting releases in the coming months and years, including Wine Cask Finished whiskies, interesting and unique Virgin Oak Releases (origin, toasting and charring levels), and at some stage, our peated whisky adventure! We are also tiptoeing into the rum space – some of that will be unveiled soon.
Do you like whisky cocktails – and if so, what’s your favourite and what whisky would you recommend for it?
To be honest, I am a total traditionalist, so have not flirted with whisky cocktails. Having said that, I very much encourage whisky drinker to experiment and enjoy the spirit in whatever way they want. The most important thing is to enjoy a dram in good company.
I have to say, you would have a much more colourful discussion about cocktails with our Distillery Director, Richard Beattie (a lover of Blue Dog bar in Glasgow).