We'll mak our maut, and we'll brew our drink,
We'll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man
The De'il's awa' wi' the Exciseman
The recipe of 17 Years Old remains a closely-guarded secret, handed down from Master Blender George Robertson to Jack Goudy to Robert Hicks and known only to half a dozen people within the company. A copy is locked in the vault at Allied Domecq's London office.
However, we know that up to 40 different malts are blended into Ballantine's 17 Years Old. They come from distilleries representing every region of the Scotch whisky map. No company is big enough to own all the malt distilleries used in its blends. Within the trade there has always been an interchange of malts for blending. They are matured at their distillery of origin for optimum quality before being shipped for inspection by Robert Hicks.
The malt distilleries owned by Ballantine's form the handful of keynote malts which shape the essential character of 17 Years Old. Their history, natural ingredients and idiosyncrasies of production create a series of highly distinctive whiskies which provide the core of the instrument ensemble for Robert Hicks' celebrated orchestra.
Some are solo performers in their own right, favourites of malt connoisseurs around the world. Others, such as the reclusive Balblair and Ardbeg, are bottled only on special occasions and manufactured almost exclusively for use in Ballantine's. The fingerprint malts are:
Whisky writer Michael Jackson once described Islay malts as being to whisky what Lapsang Souchong is to tea. It was an apt description of the products of the Hebridean island's seven distilleries with their rich, characterful nature. Some, like Ardbeg, are as peat-laden as Islay itself, others softer with a hint of smokiness.
Ardbeg, and all Islay's distilleries, are situated on the shore, with their own piers, where coal was once unloaded from Clyde steamships, fondly known as 'puffers', which returned to Glasgow laden with casks. Ardbeg is a traditional island distillery with its own malting floor, which is no longer used. The first licensed distillery was built by the MacDougall family in 1815. Although situated close to Laphroaig, on the south coast of the island, it produces a different, more earthy whisky with a rich, sherry-like sweetness to the nose as it ages.
Ardbeg is the prime Islay note in 17 Years Old, contributing a peatiness and a dry, smoky flavour. Both Ardbeg and Laphroaig have water sources in the same corner of the island, but a different degree of peating and stills of different size and shape. Ardbeg's stills are short and squat with an enormous capacity. Unlike a tall, thin still, which Iain Henderson (manager of both distilleries) believes produces a lighter spirit, Ardbeg is a heavier, more intense malt providing the perfect counterpoint to the Highland floral bouquets in 17 Years Old.
'Everyone's perception of flavours is different,' says Iain. 'I would say Ardbeg has a hint of sweetness and lingering peaty after-taste, compared to the pungent kick of Laphroaig. Ardbeg has body in the sense that wine has body, something that is perhaps not present in other Islay malts. Ardbeg's malted barley, which comes from nearby Port Ellen, is unique in being the most heavily-peated barley in the industry.
'The water supply is quite amazing, too. Despite 14 weeks of summer in 1995, the lochs supplying Ardbeg did not dry up. We have 55 million gallons on tap at any given time.
'One of the important things about maturation here is that Islay has no extremes of climate. Frost and snow are virtually unknown. It gets wild - 70 mph gales are not uncommon - but the climate is generally temperate, which is very important in helping whisky to mature.'
For such a tiny island, Islay has a huge reputation as home to some of the world's finest single malt whiskies. Among them is Laphroaig, of which a hint may be found in 17 Years Old.
First distilled in 1815, Laphroaig was the creation of two brothers, Donald and Alex Johnston. Choosing Laphroaig as their home base (in Gaelic it means 'the beautiful hollow by the broad bay'), they built a cluster of white cottages sheltered from the salty north winds by huge granite escarpments.
Laphroaig, perched between pinewoods and the shore, is one of only a handful of distilleries to malt its own barley, drying the grain over the swirling smoke of a peat fire to impart a 'reek' of unique character. The whisky is acclaimed worldwide for its smoky, peaty palate with a hint of sweetness mixed with salt.
HRH Prince Charles visited the distillery in the summer of 1994. During his two-and-a-half-hour visit he sampled whisky and tried his hand at turning the grain in the maltings. The Prince was later presented with a cask of Laphroaig, which was bottled and auctioned for charity.
It is an open secret that Laphroaig is Prince Charles' favourite malt. Six months before the visit, he granted the distillery a Royal Warrant - the first ever awarded to a single malt whisky. All bottles of Laphroaig have since been entitled to display the Prince of Wales' feathers and the legend: 'By appointment to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales . . .'
Northern Highlands Balblair, situated high on the Dornoch Firth in Easter Ross, is one of the most delightfully old-fashioned distilleries in this part of the Highlands. The sweet, nutty character of the whisky has made it something of a legend on the Tain, a fact testified by the discovery of numerous specially commissioned bottles of Balblair discovered in the cellars of neighbouring Skibo Castle after the death of its famous owner, Andrew Carnegie.
Balblair distillery has always displayed characteristic Scottish ingenuity. Brewing and distilling have been carried out on the site since the early 1700s. In 1872, when the present distillery was built, owner Andrew Ross (the Ross clan still dominates the area) had a stroke of inspiration. He turned the older buildings into bonded warehouses and built newer premises for distilling further up the hill. They were constructed in such a way that each stage of the process could supply the next by gravity.
A few years after the system was installed, whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited Balblair by train and was impressed by the use of the hill-slope for energy-saving: 'The barley is shovelled from the Maltings into the Kiln, and when dried is delivered to the Mill below,' he wrote. 'After it is ground, the grist descends direct into the Mash-Tun, from whence the worts run into the Wash Backs, all by gravitation; the natural fall of the ground having been utilised so that no pumps are necessary.
'The Wash runs into the Wash Charger which commands the Stills and the Spirit descends in a like manner to the Vat in the Spirit Store.'
'Founder John Ross started making whisky here at the bottom of the hill where the water ran down,' says Balblair's manager Jim Yates. 'His grandson enlarged it so that everything dropped down by gravity.'
The county of Easter Ross, on the North Sea facing Scandinavia, suffered many Viking invasions and battles. An ancient monolithic stone, carved with the image of a fish with rings in its mouth, stands in a field close to the distillery. Local lore has it that Viking Prince Carius is buried beneath it, near graves of other adventurous sea rovers. Balblair itself is Gaelic for 'battlefield' while nearby areas are translated as 'physician's town', where the wounded were treated, 'lamentation' and 'the place of the crying of infants'.
The distillery lies in an idyllic setting, surrounded by fields of grazing sheep in the 'Parish of Peats', where water flows from the Struie Hills. Its old brick chimney, ancient riveted spirit still and wooden washbacks give it a timeless charm. 'We have had academics and whisky historians in raptures when they visit,' Jim Yates says.
'Balblair matures quite fast because of our traditional warehousing. There is not a lot of peatiness in the nose, while the flavour is medium-sweet with a slight creaminess. A beautiful balance.'
When Alfred Barnard visited Glenburgie, he found its 24,000 gallons a year output sold only to carefully selected wine merchants. Glenburgie, he concluded, 'is a pure Highland Malt of fine quality.' It still enjoys this reputation. However, today, it is bottled only on special occasions, being reserved in the main for 17 Years Old and other Ballantine's brands.
The distillery was founded in 1829 by William Paul, the grandfather of the distinguished 19th-century London surgeon, Dr Listen Paul. Distinguished perhaps as the only Glenburgie connoisseur to drink it for purely medicinal purposes.
Glenburgie's water rises in springs on nearby Burghie Hill which flow directly into a large collecting basin in the distillery grounds. 'We have four pot stills producing lightly peated malt,' says brewer Jockie Parson. 'In the past there were two Lomond stills which produced a more heavily-peated malt bottled separately as Glencraig.'
The distinctive malt, named in honour of Bill Craig, former General Manager of ADL malt distilleries, has ceased production though a few rare casks are still in existence.
But it is Glenburgie, with its fragrant herbal aroma and distinct orangey, spicy flavour that forms the foundation of 17 Years Old. This light, dry malt from the Findhorn Valley in Speyside's famous distilling region is universally hailed as a delightful whisky that contributes important floral notes to 17 Years Old.
Its layers are so complex that it is certainly a whisky to contemplate. One man who meditated over it long and hard for inspiration was Glenburgie's exciseman, the Irish writer and novelist Maurice Walsh. Walsh, who carved his name on the storage cupboard door at the distillery, wrote The Quiet Man, the story of a boxer returning to his native village to find a wife. Hollywood film director John Ford turned it into the eponymous Irish comedy starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara.
Walsh, who married a local girl, picked up a slight Scottish burr working in Glenburgie. He later transferred to the Irish Excise Service and retired in 1933. He died in Dublin in 1964. 'The Maurice Walsh Appreciation Society made a pilgrimage from Ireland to look around and photograph the cupboard door,' Jockie Parson recalls. 'It was the practice of each excise officer to carve his name on the wooden door and Walsh's is up there with them.'
The other main Speyside foundation stone in 17 Years Old comes from Miltonduff-Glenlivet, a blender's delight with its clean, firm, elegantly defined style. The distillery was built in 1824 in the grounds of adjoining Pluscarden Priory and its water supply comes from a mixture of pure spring water, soft and crystal clear, and local borehole water which is harder and largely used for cooling. The priory, still the home of working monks who grow their own produce, no longer brews ale, but their heavenly water supply still flows. It is so suited for making whisky that 50 illicit stills once operated in the area.
Miltonduff's legal distillery was built on the site of one of them, and for the following 60 years used the tools abandoned by the old whisky smugglers. 'The distillery was originally water-powered with several waterwheels driving machinery,' says manager Stuart Pirie. 'One of the original wheels still turns, driven by water from the burn.
'Miltonduff is a light, sweet, fragrant malt with very little peat. It owes its flavour partly to the water and steel fermentation vessels which give a clean taste. Our stills are fairly tall and some time in the past the lyne arm [at the top of the neck, carrying vapours to the condenser] was turned downwards to make the whisky slightly heavier.'
Despite this, Miltonduff still has a characteristic Speyside lightness, which is part of its charm, and a floral quality which lends an intriguing note to 17 Years Old.
Two other Speyside malts in Ballantine's portfolio are The Glendronach, on the edge of the region, and The Tormore, from the Cromdale Hills in the romantic Spey Valley.
Michael Jackson describes Tormore as 'architec-turally the most elegant of all malt distilleries . . . With its ornamental curling lake and fountains, its pristine, white buildings, decorative dormer windows, belfry and musical clock, the topiary, and the huge hill of dense firs forming a backdrop, Tormore might be a spa, offering a mountain water cure. Instead, it brings forth the water of life, uisge beatha.'
The showpiece buildings were designed by the famous British architect and president of the Royal Academy, the late Sir Albert Richardson. Tormore was built in 1958 - the first new malt distillery in the Highlands in the 20th century - and draws its water from the Achvochkie Burn as it winds its way through peaty moors and granite hills to join the River Spey.
It is acclaimed as a nutty malt with a hint of sweetness and exceptional smoothness, matured in oak casks for ten years to give a distinctive Speyside subtlety and character.
The Glendronach, founded in 1826, is overlooked by a colony of rooks in the surrounding trees. Legend says that as long as they remain, the distillery will enjoy good fortune. Like Laphroaig, it boasts one of the few active malting floors in Scotland. From September to June its tall pagoda roof is wreathed in plumes of peaty smoke, and the air still rings with the sound of coopers' hammers on iron hoops.
Little has changed since the distillery's first licensee, James Allardes - 'Cobbie' as he was called - introduced the 5th Duke of Gordon to The Glendronach. It found such favour that the whisky and its owner were soon accepted into fashionable London society.
With its old malting floor, traditional wooden washbacks and coal-fired stills, The Glendronach is a living museum of whisky-making. The malt is matured in oak casks, including a generous proportion of those that have held sherry. The richly flavoured and fragrant sherry tones dovetail perfectly with the elegant drier zest of seasoned oak casks.
The resulting balance is lightly peated on the palate with a lingering sherry sweetness tinged with oak and smoke. The finish is prolonged, elegant and surprisingly dry.
Southern Highlands Glencadam, from the small red-sandstone town of Brechin, is used almost exclusively for malting. A 25 Years Old, from a limited-edition bottling in a presentation decanter, is now such a scarce collector's item that it is valued at &163;2,000.
There are many stories about the lengths to which distilleries go to obtain the perfect water supply, but none as determined as Glencadam. The tiny stone distillery ignores local supplies and insists on having its water piped exclusively from Loch Lee 30 miles away, a service provided by the local council which maintains the supply line.
'It is pure, soft hill water from the loch which lies right at the top of Glen Esk,' manager Calcott Harper says. 'It's so beautiful, I wish we had permission to bottle it.'
Glencadam, a mellow, fruity malt, almost liqueur-like in quality, claims to be one of only two whiskies in Scotland that flow uphill. On most stills, the lyne pipe at the top of the neck is either horizontal, or angled downwards to carry the vapour quickly to the condenser.
'Glencadam's are angled upwards at 15 degrees on both the spirit and wash still,' Calcott says. 'Our stills have very thin swan-necks - a long time ago, someone must have realised that "heavies", such as fusel oils, were being carried over and affecting the character of the whisky. They solved the problem by adjusting the lyne pipe upwards, making it one of the few whiskies to run uphill.'
The distillery lies in the heart of ancient Brechin, a city dating to pre-Roman times. In 1838, 13 years after Glencadam was built, the city boasted two breweries and two distilleries which produced such exceptional ales and spirits that 38 licensed premises sprang up around them. A wonderful testimony to a malt with a proud pedigree.
The cold waters of Scapa are associated with the great sea battles of World War One. Remains of ships still litter the seabed, attracting divers from around the world.
Scapa, the most northerly whisky in Ballantine's 17 Years Old, was built in 1885 on the cliffs overlooking the sea near Kirkwall, on a windswept, heather-covered corner of Orkney.
'Scapa is a very distinguished, individual malt,' says distillery manager Ronald McDonald. 'The body is silky and rounded and the palate has an initial spiciness, followed by herbal notes mingled with wood sweetness.'
One reason for the unusual flavour may be the hardness of Orkney water which flows to the distillery from natural springs a kilometre away. 'Our water is very pure and soft-tasting, but in fact there is quite an element of calcium in the trace, which is most unusual for malt whisky,' Ronald explains.
'It is so nice that, from time to time, I walk up to the spring with a container and take some home to make tea. It is very important to the whisky and lovely to drink compared with the chlorinated supplies most of us have to drink these days.'
Another influence is Scapa's Lomond still, which has a cylindrical top stem. 'The original object of a Lomond still was to insert plates or cooling pipes - to create various characteristics inside the vessel that you couldn't do in a pot still. Our Lomond has none of these complications. It is rather like a cross between a pot still and a Coffey, but not as complex or elaborate.'
Its unusual shape may have an effect on the finished malt. 'Scapa is a smooth, firm malt, surprisingly sweet,' Ronald adds, 'and certainly very unusual.'Besides these premium malts, most of which are owned by Ballantine's, there are currently more than 100 single malt distilleries in Scotland, each producing whiskies of different character with their own traditions and distinctive tastes. Robert Hicks makes his selection from all of these, identifying the keynote characteristics of the best malts to harmonise in the highly-sophisticated art of creating 17 Years Old.