After the relatively closely packed groups of distilleries in the lower reaches of the Spey those upstream are further spread out. Ballindalloch Estate to Cromdale is nine miles up the A95, an enjoyable stretch of road to drive if you can keep your eyes ahead and not be too distracted by the glorious scenery which is certainly enjoyable for your passengers.
|Spey valley north towards Blacksboat|
Barnard didn’t have to consider such obstacles on his journey to Balmenach though. No Siree, he made that trip in relative style and comfort. He travelled to Cromdale by train from Carron Station and he offers us another little hint of his travel experiences here. He begins his report with the words “although the Carron Station had been open for more than 20 years we were the only persons who had ever booked to Cromdale first class, the number of our tickets, which were faded with age, commencing at ought.”
|Carron Station clock, faded with age|
Cromdale Station closed in 1965 and the Strathspey line was silent from the end of 1968. The station lay desolate for many years but has more recently been renovated back to its original glory and is now a private home. An old railway carriage has also been restored and sits on the platform beside the house, all surrounded with railway memorabilia in one of the most picturesque stations preserved on the
|Cromdale Station restored|
|Balmenach tramway where it joined the Strathspey Railway at Cromdale|
The Haughs of Cromdale just above Balmenach were the location of the Battle of Cromdale, notable as being the last engagement fought as part of the first Jacobite uprising which had begun the previous year. In the early hours of 1 May 1690 King William’s Red-coat forces from Inverness crossed the Spey at the Boat of Cromdale to Cromdale Kirk and then onward to
|The Boat of Cromdale crossing point on the Spey|
He then provided a more detailed description of the distillery workings than some of his other reports of late. I was met by Assistant Manager Simon Buley who very kindly gave me a tour round to see the new, the old and the very old parts of the distillery to see what was comparable to Barnard’s report. Balmenach isn’t normally open to the public and the layout perhaps isn’t the easiest for a tour to follow anyway, and Barnard’s tour also indicated a rather rambling set of buildings then.
Barnard noted that various additions had been made to the establishment in response to increasing demand but comparing maps surveyed in 1869 and 1904 with his report it would appear that there was a very large rebuild during the 1870s to early 80s. The arrangement of the buildings became slightly more ordered from the straggling farm distillery that had existed before and it had expanded into an unusual T shape with warehouses sitting separate beside the burn.
|Third Balmenach malting with outline of the once adjoining bothy|
|Hills of Cromdale, view towards Burnside Moss|
Barnard viewed the ‘brewing house’ as the most primitive of places and the mash tun there was certainly that. It was a small timber vessel at just 14 feet wide by 4 deep, one of the smallest in his book and another of the few still worked by paddles to stir the mash. The current tun is a semi-lauter made of cast iron and was installed in 1963. It takes an 8.25 tonne mash producing 38,000 litres of worts to fill one washback. The two tun rooms were considered by Barnard to be gloomy structures, one with 7 washbacks and one with 3, all at just 10,500 litres. The current tun room is a brighter affair and it houses 6 Douglas fir washbacks which run a 52 hour fermentation.
|Balmenach Wash Stills|
Barnard notes that one of the warehouses he saw was “said to be the largest in the north of Scotland” at 340 feet long by 60 feet wide, then containing 3,000 casks holding the equivalent of 1.1m litres but capable of storing double that. This is surprising given the relatively small output of the distillery but some of the stock dated back to 1876 so perhaps the proprietor was stockpiling and favouring older whisky. He also records it as “built of iron, on stone foundations” and I have only heard this once before, at Glen Ord distillery, and they gave me quizzical looks when I enquired about it there as well. I can understand there being iron supports inside but not with walls of iron surely? There’s more to this though, as Barnard continues:
“In the roof of this same building, by an ingenious contrivance, there is a smaller warehouse, 54 feet by 36 feet, standing on piers, reached from a doorway on the high ground outside. This building was the first iron warehouse licensed by the Excise Authorities, and the proprietor had to overcome great obstacles, and make many alterations before he succeeded in obtaining the license.”
This use of iron for warehouses is intriguing and doesn’t seem to have lasted the test of time. Perhaps the climate in the Highlands led to excessive rusting that would put the security of the structure at risk beyond that which the Excise were prepared to accept. Or maybe over time the breathability of the structure was considered insufficient to allow for proper aeration of the casks. I’m just randomly guessing here and there does seem to be an intriguing story to follow up.
|Balmenach Distillery - an 'iron' warehouse once stood in the foreground|
|1890s warehouse with tramway embankment circling round|
The McGregor family ran the distillery until it was sold to a consortium of blenders in 1922 and from there into DCL in 1925 and on into United Distillers. They operated and further expanded the distillery until it was closed in 1993 and it then lay silent until Inver House bought it in 1997 and recommenced production in March the following year.
In the 1880s that small paddle stirred mash tun, 10 small washbacks and just two small stills were producing 410,000 litres of spirit a year, aided by the ability to malt all year round in the cool and slightly elevated location. Balmenach now has capacity for 2.3m litres (MWYB 2011) and is the largest distillery in the Inver House group, producing whisky mainly for blends such as Hankey Bannister and MacArthur’s. The distillery has no pretensions or visitor centre and it keeps its character as a place of industry, its history traceable back to the 18th century illicit distilling in the hills of this district.
Barnard’s party were treated to a taste of some 1873 whisky, 12-13 years old by that time, and he considered it to be “prime, and far superior in our opinion to old Brandy”, the first time I can recall him comparing whisky to any other spirit and he quite rightly comes out on the side of the Scotch (good man, Alfred!).
He also noted that some of their whisky “was supplied, by desire, to the proprietor of the Gairloch Hotel, Lochmaree, in 1878, for the special use of Her Majesty the Queen, and her suite”. I can’t find any record of Queen Victoria having visited Gairloch in 1878, however for 6 days in September 1877 she did stay at the Loch Maree Hotel at Talladale on the southern shore of Loch Maree, around 10 miles from Gairloch. Her journal entry for that week records a brief trip into Gairloch where she mentions the hotel but they didn’t seem to loiter too long as it was a very small settlement at that time.
Balmenach to Gairloch would be a fair old trek right across to the west coast of
|North shore settlements of Gairloch village|
I say an old bottle of Balmenach as there was no stock included in the sale to Inver House in 1997 and they haven’t yet released their own official single malt, although their first year distillate is now hitting 14 years old. There are some independent bottles available and a 12yo was released in the Flora & Fauna range in 1992, the year before the distillery was mothballed by United Distillers. In 2002, in keeping with their Royal connection from 125 years earlier, Balmenach released a 25yo whisky, limited to 800 still-shaped decanters, to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee.
My thanks to Simon for an interesting tour and access to some more of our distilling history. Simon also goes by the title of Gin Master and Balmenach is home to Caorunn Gin which is distilled there, handcrafted in small batches and infused with six traditional and five Celtic botanicals (Caorunn is Gaelic for Rowan