"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

Monday, 23 July 2012

Balmenach Distillery, Cromdale

Another slight geographical detour from the Barnard trail here - after Glenfarclas his next record was Benrinnes which I covered after Aberlour, and then he reported on Glenlivet before Balmenach.  I’m going to continue the journey upstream beside the Spey first before reversing back and following a route on the other side of the Hills of Cromdale and across the Glenlivet valley.

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
You may sometimes find yourself behind one of the ubiquitous blue coloured ‘MacPherson of Aberlour’ grain transporters or spirit tankers which lumber up and down this road, supplying distilleries with malt from the huge industrial maltings along the Moray coast and taking away their whisky to central bonds and bottling plants.  Not to be grumbled at if you are held up for a few miles as they provide a vital service to us drouthy drammers, and given the number of distilleries around here they will almost certainly be turning off the road before long.

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
Wonderful – a journey of one hour, about the same distance as his trip over from Keith to the Spey valley distilleries each day, and this Victorian gentleman from London is seemingly the inaugural first class passenger on this section; no mixing it with the country class for Mr Barnard here.  I will soon be reflecting on a steam train journey that I took in the Highlands as part of this project and I must confess to having taken a first class booth on that voyage too, purely in the interests of providing a comparative experience to Barnard’s, I trust you will believe!

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 Speyside Way.

Cromdale Station restored
Barnard didn’t provide much commentary on his journey to Cromdale and on arriving at the station he then walked the path up beside the Burn of Cromdale to the distillery a mile away.  He notes that the distillery was about to have a tramway laid to connect it to Cromdale Station and which would also follow the Burn of Cromdale for much of its way, but for some reason it wasn’t actually built until 1897, over a decade later.  It passed under the bridge on the main road through an archway that is now closed up, and the embankment it ran along can still be seen on approach to the distillery and beside the Strathspey Railway course.  The dedicated pug steam engine that once ran this line is now sitting mothballed in one of the Strathspey Railway maintenance sheds at Aviemore but there is a photo on the railbrit website that shows the pug on the old line.

Balmenach tramway where it joined the Strathspey Railway at Cromdale 
On his approach to the distillery Barnard points out the Hills of Cromdale ahead of him.  These hills form a range of mid-height peaks (mainly ‘Grahams’ [hills between 2,000 and 2,500 feet] and associated tops) between Craggan More and the road connecting Grantown-on-Spey and Tomintoul and they separate Strathspey from Strath Avon where the Tomintoul distillery is located beside the River Avon.

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 Lethendry Castle where the Jacobites were stationed.  The castle was attacked with grenades and the disorganised Jacobites, caught by surprise and raised from their beds, were cut down or driven into the hills leaving their belongings behind.  Lethendry lies as a ruin a few hundred metres east of where the distillery was later founded.

The Boat of Cromdale crossing point on the Spey
On his arrival at the distillery Barnard asked the son of the owner to take his party to see evidence of past smugglers activity which was apparently rife in this area at one time.  He includes another tale of smuggler derring-do and the attempts of the authorities to catch them, describing how Revenue Officers demolished a double arched cavern near to where the distillery was later built and wherein an illicit still had been worked many years before.  The success of the Officers on that occasion led to little smuggling in the district thereafter, and after being established as a small farm distillery around 1800, Balmenach became one of the first licensed distilleries in Scotland in 1824.  It was founded by James McGregor and his son John was the proprietor when Barnard visited.

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
There were three maltings, none connected directly to the other, with one central, one beside the burn and another smaller quaint old malting that apparently sat beside the old smugglers haunt.  That bothy was once also home to ‘Granny McGregor’ but it has now gone although the outline of it can still be seen on the maltings wall.  The single kiln was at the apex of the first and third maltings which together formed one side and the upright of the T shape layout, the rest of the distillery being compact and forming the other side.  The kiln was only heated with peat dug from the Burnside Moss a short distance away but today’s malt is unpeated.

Hills of Cromdale, view towards Burnside Moss
A second kiln was added beside the first one sometime after Barnard’s visit but the biggest change to the malting process came in 1964 when Saladin box maltings were built in the space of the original main malting.  These were used until the mid 1980s but the equipment has all now been removed and the building fell into disuse after heavy snow collapsed the roof in 1990.  The kiln buildings were variously demolished and had their interior fittings removed in the 1960s and the pagoda roofs have gone; you wouldn’t know there had been kilns here at all.  The second granary beside the burn has also gone and the third one is now used for storage with one end of it converted in the 1960s to hold the barley steeping tanks for the Saladin maltings.

Saladin malting
The water source was described by Barnard as “brought from the Watersheds of Cromdale, two of the principle ones having been annexed for the distillery reservoirs; besides these, there are the Cromdale and Smuggler’s Burns”.  He really did like his smuggler stories around these parts.  The Burn of Cromdale runs past the distillery and onward to the Spey, the Smuggler’s Burn seemingly just a local name for another now unrecorded burn.  The mashing water is today brought from further upstream where one source for the Burn of Cromdale is known as the Allt na Chuirn (Burn of Cairns) as there are a number of cairns in the hills here, both on the summit and as way markers.  Cooling water is drawn from the burn reservoir near to the distillery.

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 washbacks
From the elevated floor of the tun room Barnard proceeded to a gallery overlooking the stills in a still house of the most antiquated type.  Nevertheless the stills were described by him as the most picturesque old Pot Stills that are as prized by the owner for contributing to the quality of his whisky as the water from the hills was.  There was a wash still at 13,600 litres and a spirit still at 9,100 litres.  Barnard here states that “the rummagers of both being driven by a small water-wheel, supplied from the overflow of the Worm Tub outside”.  I had previously seen rummagers recorded in use only on wash stills to stop the solids that end up in the pot ale from burning on the base of direct fired stills, but here it seems to have been both stills.

Balmenach Wash Stills
The stills were increased to 4 at some lost time, possibly during an 1897 renovation, and then increased to 6 in 1962.  The stills stand in a single row along the wall of the still house, 3 wash stills with a capacity of 16,200 litres at one end and 3 spirit stills holding 9,100 litres at the other, all with reflux bowls and descending lyne arms.  The spirit here is still condensed in a long narrow outside worm tank which is a steel construction fitted in 1923 rather than timber as before.

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
That unique old warehouse is the main foreground object in an etching in Barnard which shows two irregular sized bays that stepped down in three sections beside the burn.  It has now gone, with the larger part of it demolished in the 1960s and the smaller bay demolished later (post 70s); a stone wall marking the western extent of it is all that remains today.  Further extensive dunnage warehouses were added in the late 1890s on both sides of the tramline as it approached the distillery.  The warehouses on the distillery side are still used today with one section converted to offices, the ones beyond the tramway had a further dunnage warehouse built beside them in the 1960s but then the original warehouse block was later demolished.

1890s warehouse with tramway embankment circling round
Balmenach translates to ‘middle farm’ and the farm that the McGregor’s ran beside the distillery would have been the middle one between the village of Cromdale and Burnside farm further uphill.  The farm closed in 1978 and a dark grains and bio fuel plant was built on the land but it too has now gone, closed as early as 1983 and demolished in 1999.  The original farmhouse that was home to the McGregor family still stands empty beside the distillery.  The draff and pot ale were both once supplied as feed to the farm with another ingenious contrivance to pump the pot ale up into a wooden tank from where it could run right into the cattle-yard.

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 Scotland but the whisky could have been transported most of the way by rail, although not any more.  Connections could be made from Cromdale station down to Grantown-on Spey then up to Forres on the line which had opened in 1863, from there through Inverness to Achnasheen Station (unofficially twinned with The Middle of Nowhere) where Queen Victoria had also disembarked to continue the last 20 miles by horse-drawn carriage.

North shore settlements of Gairloch village
I passed by both Loch Maree and the Gairloch Hotel on my way up the west coast from Skye to Orkney, not knowing then that they would feature in a story from far away Speyside.  Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to go back sometime and enjoy that spectacular scenery once more, and enquire if they have an old bottle of Balmenach in the bar today.  The trials I have to endure!

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 Berry which is a key botanical in the mix).  There has been a recent renaissance in gin production with a number of distilleries now producing small batches of gin with some cracking flavour profiles.  The long dry finish of Caorunn is something I like in my Scotch too, and if Barnard preferred Balmenach to Brandy then I wonder what he would have made of their gin - the ideal aperitif when travelling first class through the Highlands perhaps?  I must make that steam train journey again to find out...