Balmenach Distillery, Glenlivet District, Strathspey.
OUR next halting place was Cromdale, and although the Carron Station had been open for more than twenty 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.
Soon after leaving the Station we passed the magnificent policies of Ballindalloch, and then commenced on either side of the track, a great variety of scenery, mountain, hill and river alternating for many miles. The railway runs almost alongside the River Spey, and the hills, which rise from its banks, are for a considerable distance clothed with forests of pine, larch and oak. An hour’s travelling brought us to Cromdale Station, where we had no difficulty in finding the path to the Distillery, as it is the most conspicuous object in the “Haughs of Cromdale,” and can be seen many miles distant.
Our way was along the Cromdale Burn, and as we proceeded, the range of the Cromdale Hills, some seven or eight miles long, stretched out before us. In days gone by these acclivities were the favourite haunts of smugglers, who chose the locality on account of the numerous hill-streams, whose waters are of fine quality and highly suitable for distilling purposes. At our request, when we reached the Distillery, Mr. McGregor, Jun., took us to see the various haunts of the smugglers, who in days gone by were pretty numerous in the district, and whose romantic history has been the subject of many adventurous tales.
He first directed us to the double-arched cavern, dug deep into the hill, fifty yards from the Distillery, in which at one time a noted band of smugglers carried on their operations, but it has since been demolished. It possessed an underground spring, wherein the little coil of worm, which condensed the precious spirit, was laid, and at a lower level it dripped into a receiver, made out of an earthen jar some two feet high, with a wooden lid thereon. The little copper Still stood on a furnace made with the loose stones that had fallen from the rock behind, and the mash-tun had originally been a wash-tub. The place was totally dark, and no light was ever permitted except that which came from the furnace fire. One night the Revenue Officers made a raid on the place, and knowing the desperate men they had to deal with, were all well armed. On their arrival they crept stealthily through the narrow entrance to the cave, following the informer, who knew the place well. Meanwhile the smugglers, unconscious of the close proximity of their enemies, were scattered about the cavern, some sleeping, others smoking, and one or two looking after the distilling operations. One of their number opened the furnace door to replenish the fire, and the momentary flash of light revealed to his comrade the figures of the officers stealing upon them. With great presence of mind he instantly unhooked the pipe which connected the furnace with a concealed chimney in the roof, and then fired off his pistol at the nearest enemy. The noise alarmed the gang who escaped from the cave, under cover of the dense smoke emitted from the open furnace. The officers were dumbfounded, and almost choked, but the informer quickly replaced the chimney-pipe, and as soon as the smoke had dispersed, the officers lighted their lamps from the furnace fire, and proceeded to demolish the place. They broke up the Still, Worm, and vessels, kicked the debris and loose stone into the well, annexed a few kegs of Whisky, and departed with one of their comrades slightly wounded. This scare broke up and scattered the notorious gang, and since that time there has been very little smuggling in this district.
Within two hundred yards of Balmenach, Mr. McGregor showed us another place which, a century ago, was a smuggler’s bothy, and one of the largest of its kind in the famous Glenlivet district.
The Distillery was established in the year 1824, by James McGregor, father of the present proprietor. From time to time, as the demand for the Whisky increased, various additions have been made to the establishment, until it now covers three acres of ground. It is not enclosed, and consists of a range of buildings, grouped in the form of a letter T, with the exception of the Warehouses, which are built on the banks of the stream. A tramway is about to be laid from the Distillery to the Cromdale Station, a distance of one mile, which will bring up the barley to the doors of the Granaries, and also deliver the Whisky to the railway. Under the guidance of Mr. Dunbar, the Manager, we began our tour of inspection at the principal Maltings. They are built with stone, two stories high, and are the most uniform of the group, measuring 120 feet by 34 feet. We ascended by an outside stone stair to the top storey, which is used for storing Barley, and holds 1,000 quarters; and then retraced our steps to reach the ground floor, as there is no internal communication, the barley falling through sluice holes into the Steeps. This place is divided, each division possessing a stone Steep, capable of wetting eighteen quarters at one time. On leaving this building our path led for a few minutes along the carnage-way, and at length opened on to the banks of the Cromdale Burn, facing which is a second Malting, of somewhat less dimensions and capacity, which we entered by a low doorway. It is a sombre place, but nevertheless suitable for the purpose, and barley can be malted in it all through the summer. We next passed up a rugged and narrow alley, which led into an enclosed yard, on one side of which, attached to the old smuggler’s Distillery, there is a third Malting, a quaint little place, with an old-fashioned stone Steep. Returning to the main roadway we came to the Kiln, which is placed at the end of the first Malting visited, and which has recently been enlarged. It is 25 feet square, floored with iron plates and heated entirely by peat in open furnaces. When the malt has properly vegetated, it is raised by Elevators to the Kiln floor, and after it is dried falls through a shoot on the side of the wall, direct into the Malt Deposit, an adjoining apartment over the Mill. On leaving the Deposit Room we descended by a wooden enclosed staircase to the ground floor of the Mill building, which contains a pair of metal malt rollers, and the usual grinding machinery, driven by water power, and from thence ascended to the Grist Loft over the Mash Tun, to which the pulverised malt has been lifted by Elevators, and there stored ready for brewing operations. On our way downstairs our guide pointed out the Coolers, which run along the roofs of the Tun Room, and possess the old-fashioned revolving fans for cooling the surface of the worts. We soon reached the Brewing House, thirty feet square, and nothing could be more primitive than this place; the chief object is the Mash Tun, an old-fashioned timber vessel, 14 feet in diameter and 4 feet deep, in which oars are used to stir up the mash, which has previously passed through a Steel’s Mashing Machine, worked by a water-wheel. At the side of this place there is a large heating copper, and beneath the floor the Underback, also of timber, holding 500 gallons, from which the worts are pumped to the Coolers by an ordinary pump, the only one on the premises, all the work being done by gravitation. We next visited the No. 1 Tun Room, to reach which we descended some steps cut out of the solid rock. It is a gloomy structure, containing seven Washbacks, holding 2,300 gallons each. Passing through an archway we entered a second and similar building of smaller dimensions, which contains other three Backs of same capacity, and all of them are switched with wooden props to keep down the fermentation. From this last-mentioned apartment we went through a narrow opening on to a gallery, and found ourselves in the Still House, on a level with the heads of the Stills, and by our side a Wash Charger, a clean timber vessel, holding 2,300 gallons. Looking down from this gallery we note that, like all other parts of this establishment, the building and its contents are the most antiquated type. Never did we see such picturesque old Pot Stills an vessels as are to be seen in this ancient Distillery, and we were assured by Mr. McGregor that for no consideration would he change a single thing, as he attributes the quality of his Whisky to his vessels, almost as much as he does to the splendid mountain water, so much prized by his ancestors. The Stills which are placed on the rocky floor of the house, consist of a Wash Still, holding 3,000 gallons, and a Spirit Still 2,000 gallons; the rummagers of both being driven by a small water-wheel, supplied from the overflow of the Worm Tub outside, which latter vessel is of timber 22 feet long, and is placed partly over the Still House. Leaving the gallery we crossed a staging to the Ball Room, which contains the Low-wines and Feints Receiver, holding 1,400 gallons, a Spirit Receiver, 550 gallons, and the Spirit Safe.
Underneath this chamber is the Spirit Store, wherein is a Spirit Vat, holding 800 gallons, a Racking Store and the Brewer’s Office. Descending by a stepladder we made our way through the Still House to the Cooperage and Cask Shed, and afterwards crossed the road to inspect the two Bonded Warehouses. One of them is said to be the largest in the north of Scotland. It is built of iron, on stone foundations, 340 feet long by 60 feet wide, and contained at the time of our visit 3,000 casks, holding 241,326 gallons, dating from 1876, but when filled it is capable of containing double that quantity.
We tasted some 1873 Whisky and found it prime, and far superior in our opinion to old Brandy. Some of this 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.
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.
Attached to the Distillery there is a farm of twelve hundred acres, and Mr. McGregor owns a 1,000 sheep and 100 head of cattle. The Draff House is at the back of the works, in close proximity to the farmsteading, and the burnt ale is pumped up to a large wooden tank, and from thence runs some little distance into the cattle-yard.
The peat in the district is of fine quality, and this fuel only is used in drying the malt; it is dug in the Burnside Moss, at the foot of Cromdale Hill. Our guide next took us to see the water supply, brought from the Watersheds of Cromdale, two of the principal ones having been annexed for the Distillery reservoirs; besides these, there are the Cromdale and the Smugglers’ Burns, both of excellent quality.
On the property, just above the larger stream, there is a neat dwellinghouse, occupied by the Manager; and scattered about at the base of the Hills, and in the Glen, there are cottages with little gardens attached, for the employees.
The Whisky is sold principally in England, Scotland and the Colonies, where it is of some reputation; it is rich and highly flavoured, much used for blending, and largely appreciated as a self Whisky. The make is pure Highland Malt, and the annual output is 90,000 gallons.