With the final throw of the Jacobite dice came the scattering of the Highland clans across the Haughs of Cromdale. On 1st May 1690, the first of many uprisings against the New Order simply fizzled out. After lying low until the troubles finally died down, three MacGregor brothers came out of the remote whisky smuggling enclave around Tomintoul and settled at Cromdale. One took to farming, another became a miller, the last brother also leased land to farm, at Balmenach, although distilling continued in his blood. By 1801 whisky from Balmenach had joined many others, secretly filled into casks, between the waters of the Spey and Avon. Following a visit from an excise officer, James McGregor took out a license for Balmenach.
Only a year after the 1823 government legislation, Balmenach joined a select band of distilleries to initially attain official status. This, though, is a distillery with more than its share of history. The Great Storm of 28th September, 1879, which blew down the Tay Bridge, toppled the chimney stack at Balmenach. The masonry crashed through the roof of the stillhouse, spilling hot spirit into the furnaces, so many distilleries have been incinerated by such a conflagration. On this occasion the Balmenach stillman remained cool enough to open the discharge cocks, running the highly inflammable liquor into the sewer system. Against all the odds, the distillery escaped with only minor damage.
Balmenach is Gaelic for the Middle Farm, one of many wrested from the wild landscape by hardy men, like these MacGregors. The water continues to be drawn from the Cromdale Burn, but the already malted barley is supplied by Inver House, owners of Balmenach since 1997. In 1962, the number of stills was increased from four to six, the distilled spirit condensed by traditional worm-tubs. The coiled Balmenach worms are over 300ft in length. Spirit produced by worm-tubs will always be heavier than if coming through more modern condensers. This is because the vapour has less contact with the copper, which also acts as a purifier. Winter-cold water in the cooling tub means less copper influence, resulting in significantly heavier spirit.
Favouring the use of sherry butts, Balmenach whiskies have historically been in great demand for blending. Although Inver House have not yet put their single malt from Balmenach on the market, there are older expressions and specialist bottlings readily available, all excellent. My choice is the beautifully balanced and seriously complex 12 year-old, 43%, Flora and Fauna. Balmenach also have a bone-dry gin, with a fantastic citrus nose and, if taken with tonic and a slice of lime, bursting with the botanicals of juniper, bog myrtle and rowan berries. But this is a secret. Clan Gregor still have links with Balmenach, Christine Malcolm, wife of the manager, is the fifth generation from the founder. Sir Compton Mackenzie, author of Whisky Galore, and Sir Bruce Lockhart, one-time British spy in Russia and author of Scotch, now in its 7th edition, were both Macgregors of Cromdale.