Balmenach, Scotland.

Extract from Alfred Barnard’s historic tour of every whisky distillery in Great Britain, published in ‘1887’

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 hooked 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 war was along the Cromdale Bum, 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 arc 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 we re 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 same two feet high, with a wooden lid thereon. The little cap per Still stood on ah 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, same 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 al most 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.

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 step- ladder we made our war 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 wood en 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, bath 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 gold 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.