Whisky Focus - Balvenie Coppersmith Dennis McBain Still Here Amongst The Stills

Dennis McBain Still Here Amongst The Stills

29th October 2009
Still Here Amongst The Stills

Iím Dennis McBain, coppersmith at The Balvenie Distillery. Iíve been told that Iím an endangered species. Iím now the only remaining resident coppersmith at a distillery in Scotland, which makes me both very honoured and proud. I began at The Balvenie Distillery in 1958 as a maltman, but was soon drawn to the copper ~ and in 1959 moved to the workshop.

Having a resident craftsman in the first place was an innovative step by the distillery managers. In those days most distilleries bought in the craft as and when required, even in those days of mainly coal-fired stills. Since the conversion to steam the stills need far less maintenance, and even less so since the steam has been fired by gas. Itís a cleaner heat, without the abrasive particles that used to give the copper its hard life. Apart from that, since 1959 my actual job has changed very little, as the time-honoured, handcrafted techniques that are the hallmark of The Balvenie have remained the same as when I first joined. Let me cast my mind back.

Getting The Job
I applied for the job in an unconventional way, waiting outside the local cinema to introduce myself to the formidable ďBrewerĒ and then following him home three times before I plucked up the courage to speak. I neednít have worried: he knew my father from the distillery, so he promised to bear me in mind should anything come up ~ which is how I found myself building up my strength at ĎThe Balvenie Gymí (the maltings) for a full 49-hour week before overtime. Becoming the coppersmithís apprentice meant a rise of a penny an hour and less physical labour. My apprenticeship was five years plus one Ďimproverí year, after which I was paid the full coppersmithís rate.

Keeping Things In Shape:
Originally we made the stills here but since 1972 weíve had them made outside and maintained them on-site. Of the still currently in use, the bottom of No.2 Wash still is a remnant of an entire still made by me, probably over 30 years ago. The reason it soldiers on is that it was made thicker and stronger to withstand direct coal fire, which we soon moved on from ~ so like me itís a living, working reminder of how things were done in a previous age. These days my role is more advisory than active, as the big stills demand hard physical work ~ but the ongoing replacement programme requires the experienced eye of a career coppersmith, to decide which part is replaced next and ensure

A Full Career:
My time here has been full of fascinating experiences. Beyond these walls itís been immensely satisfying to observe the keen interest in The Balvenie across the world, knowing that every drop for the past fifty years comes from a copper still tended here in Dufftown by me. In the course of my work Iíve also met the Duke of Edinburgh ~ a very pleasant man to talk with. There canít be many who are still in jobs that remain pretty much unchanged since 1959, but the Duke and Queen Elizabeth are two of them.

Whisky's Longest Serving Coppersmith

Read more about Dennis McBains 50 Years at The Balvenie:
Dennis McBain Whisky's Longest Serving Coppersmith

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