"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Balblair Distillery, Edderton

Barnard doesn’t name the place he stayed in Brora after visiting Clynelish Distillery but he begins his report on Balblair with the telling line “From Brora to Tain is a sabbath day’s journey”.  For someone who has not always been happy with rail travel he was actually quite content with this long crawl through “scenery in some parts most interesting and beautiful”, a marked change from his view further north.

Arriving at Tain he again, unusually, doesn’t name the comfortable hotel that they were based in for a couple of days.  The town was fairly large at that time but there is only one hotel marked as such on the old maps, then St Duthus Hotel, now The Royal.  St Duthus is the Patron Saint of the town and the hotel stands on the street named after him.  It is also beside the buildings that Barnard does name, the court-house which he describes as elegant and the contiguous tower with its conical spire, both of which still stand today, if perhaps a little less conspicuous in the landscape than when he found them.

Tain Court-house
The following morning his party first travelled to Balblair Distillery before returning to Tain via Glenmorangie.  He must have made the journey by horse and trap as he complains about the trains being “so infrequent it was impossible to make use of them”.  Just no pleasing some people, but he did enjoy the sea view all the way along the six mile journey.

The distillery buildings that Barnard visited are not the same as those that stand today which were built in 1894 just under a kilometre away.  The new buildings took advantage of a site by the railway and close to the station, with a siding then added right beside the north wall of the works.  The station closed in 1960 and the siding has now gone but this is still the main east coast line that Barnard enjoyed that earlier Sabbath journey on.

Balblair Farm on original distillery site
The original distillery site is now home to farm buildings but we can take a quick look at what Barnard saw before we consider how the distillery has developed since.  The first record of distilling here was in 1749 but the formally recognised distillery was built in 1790 by John Ross making it one of the oldest working distilleries in Scotland.  His son and grandson were the licence holders when Barnard visited and they had enlarged the original works by moving the malting and mashing works uphill to take advantage of gravitation, the previous buildings then being converted into warehouses for the increased production.

Barnard then seems to find some sudden brevity in his description noting “as the internal arrangements and vessels are like the other Distilleries in the district, it is not worth while to recapitulate them”.  This comment could apply to many of the distilleries he visited but that hasn’t stopped him going into detail before, as if the process was somehow new each time.  He does return to detail in the coming distillery visits so we do get to see some of the operations in this district at the time.

He does offer the gem of a moniker for Edderton which was known as the “Parish of Peats” due to the inexhaustible supply in the area.  Balblair translates to either battlefield or town of the plain and the name appears in a few places around here, the land around the Dornoch Firth being quite flat and often reclaimed from the sea with large sand banks lying along the shore, quite in contrast to the steep cliffs that we traversed further north on the way down to Brora.  There is also evidence that the Battle of Carriblair between Picts and Vikings may have taken place here many centuries ago, so either translation may be appropriate.

Balblair Residential Home beside old distillery site
Beside the original site there was a house connected to the distillery, perhaps the home of its founder, which has now been converted into a residential care home.  It appears to be unoccupied at the moment though; perhaps the whisky in the air here helps the local population maintain a long, active life with no need for retirement.

The current site was developed in 1894 by Alexander Cowan after he had taken on a 60 year lease, moving the distillery from its previous location for over a century and marking the end of the Ross dynasty owning Balblair.  The name Ross is synonymous with this area - Easter Ross is the name for the wider region and we will meet Clan Ross on our journey down to Dalmore later.  Four of the seven employees here today are named Ross so the association with the distillery has not been lost.

Barnard didn’t record the water supply simply noting that “all the streams in the district of Edderton are considered suitable for distilling purposes”, but the original source for Balblair, the Allt Dearg, is still used to this day.  Dearg is Gaelic for red, allt is a burn or stream and the burn here rises in the nearby Struie Hills before meandering through 4 1/2 miles of peaty ground direct to the distillery who have sole rights to this soft water.

The new distillery hadn't been going for too long when for some lost reason it closed in 1911.  By 1932 the last of the whisky had left the warehouses and apart from some buildings being commandeered by the army during the war the site remained silent until 1948.  Robert ‘Bertie’ Cumming then bought the distillery and reopened it the following year.  He also owned Pulteney Distillery from 1951 before selling it to Hiram Walker in 1955, Balblair also going to them in 1970 after he had expanded it further in 1964.

Old malt barn
The floor maltings were used until 1975 but malt is now supplied from Baird’s and peated to a max of 1.5 ppm.  Ten new malt bins were installed in 1981 and hold 30 tonnes each to help ensure continuous production, especially as the distillery is sometimes snowbound in winter.  A new stainless steel mash tun was installed in 1998 to replace the previous cast iron tun.  It has a deep bed for slow draining that produces a nice clear wort and they are currently running 17 mashes per week.

Deep bed mash tun
There were four washbacks until the 1964 expansion when two more were added in a newly built extension to the tun room.  All six were replaced in 2002, made from Oregon Pine and with a full capacity of 21,500 litres each but a fill level of two thirds meaning no switchers are required.  They don’t run a balanced distillation here and fermentation during the week of 48-60 hours is not married with a run over the weekend which is left for 73 hours.

The still house has an interesting history and also some wonderful aromas that stopped us by the spirit safe for a few moments.  Originally with just two stills in 1894, a third was added when the distillery reopened in 1949.  After the 1964 expansion the extra wash from the those new washbacks needed somewhere to go and, in an already tight space, two of the stills were significantly increased in size which actually made the third still redundant.  The heating was changed from coal fire to steam coil at the same time.

Balblair Stills - silent still at far end
The current stills have wide bases and short dumpy necks ensuring lots of copper contact, and they have external condensers installed in 1970 to replace the worm tubs used before then.  The wash still is 19,093 litres, the spirit 11,751 litres and they both have a copper ‘skirt’ around the base for heat retention.  The old 1948 still stands silently beside them, its lowly 8,182 litre capacity no longer required.  The connections between the copper plates on this still are riveted, the only one remaining like it, and tests for operational fitness indicate that it could still be re-commissioned if needed.

As I was discussing the stills with Distillery Manager John MacDonald who had been showing me round, the spirit began to flow through the safe beside us and we stopped for a moment while he indicated that I should take a deep breath or two.  Lovely sweet aromas of mellon, pear and pineapple appeared with a localised intensity that I had only really experienced before at Laphroaig, albeit with a very different aroma there.

Bringing the story up to date, the distillery was bought by Inver House in 1996 and they have overseen the recent developments here.  The original site visited by Barnard produced 226,000 litres p.a. at the time; now they produce 1.4m litres p.a. from a 6 day cycle that will increase to 7 days later this year.  Around 12% of their production now goes into single malt, the remainder contributing to blends like Hankey Bannister and others in the Inver House stable.

Once the longest bonded warehouse in Scotland
Balblair once had the longest bonded warehouse of any distillery in Scotland until fire regulations required that a dividing wall be built to split it, so my earlier observation about the warehouses at Brora has already been superseded, externally at least.  All of Balblair’s whisky is stored on site in their eight warehouses, all dunnage and stacked just three casks high, and all but one with a beaten earth floor.  The capacity here is 26,000 casks and 95% are ex-bourbon, shipped in whole from Jim Beam and Makers Mark.

In the last decade they have released a series of single malts from these casks, a number of them award winning.  John recommended the 38yo distilled in 1966 and released in 2004 which I may be lucky to try someday.  My current favourite is the 1989 which is one of their three Vintage format whiskies released in 2007, whiskies bottled and named from a single year distillate rather than carrying an age statement.  I first tried the 89 when it won the Spirit of Whisky Fringe in 2008 and it was my favourite whisky that weekend as well, however I am working my way through a dram or two of the delicious 1997 Vintage as I write this.  I think the 89 has a longer finish to savour but the 97 has also been a favourite shared from my hip flask when visiting Copenhagen.

New visitor centre and tasting room
The distillery is currently only open to privately arranged visits, but John doesn’t like turning people away and so a visitor centre with an exhibition and tasting room has been built inside an old malt barn and organised tours will be launched this summer for the first time.  This informal and atmospheric place will be a welcome addition to the whisky trail once open; for now, I am very grateful to John for his hospitality and for allowing me to keep him from his very important chores (cask sampling!) for a short while.

Clach Biorach
Having previously visited the standing stones on Orkney there seems to be a theme developing on this eastern edge of the journey, one that continues at Balblair and beyond.  Near to the distillery there is a single stone in a field, The Clach Biorach or ‘sharp stone’.  It is 3m tall by 1m wide and was possibly erected in the Bronze Age, around 3,000 years ago.  The Pictish symbols of a salmon and a double disc with a ‘Z-Rod’ were etched on the stone by later tribes marking their own association with this location.

These stones stand like sentinels watching over us; guardians of a landscape shaped by geology, nature and human interaction that have combined to produce the water and grain so essential to our whisky.  Balblair continue the tradition of association with the landscape by incorporating the stone and the scene across the hills into their packaging, and the scripted emblem ‘B’ that appears on their bottles has its roots in Pictish design.

The Clach Biorach may have been part of an ancient calendar built into the landscape but Balblair Distillery is one of those timeless places where the passing of time has little meaning save to allow their spirit to mature.  Symbol stones and circles were gathering places - places for celebration and ceremony; places to meet ancestors and future partners; places to share produce, stories and wisdom.  The new visitor centre at Balblair will allow these traditions to continue alongside their Vintage whisky - a product for which time is not of the essence but rather an essence itself.