Whisky: Balmenach 8yr Old
- There used to be thousands of illicit stills. It’s part of whisky’s mythology and cherished because one of the ways whisky likes to sell itself is as a form of bottled romance. At the moment National Trust Scotland are running an archeological project to uncover illicit stills. This is sponsored by Glenlivet for whom this story is part of their brand.
- As we have noted up until the end got the eighteenth century attempts to tackle the problem of illicit stills and smuggling had been a failure. There was a need for a complete rethink and so there was a Royal Commission, which led to the Act of 1823.The headline measure was that any distillery could become official by paying a duty of 2/3d (12p) per gallon for stills with a capacity of more than 40 gallons with an annual licence fee of £10. No stills under a legal limit were allowed.
- The Act, though, was more profound than a tax measure. It laid out how distilleries had to be arranged to give the guager access to every aspect of the process to ensure no cheating. It specified the measuring of specific gravity, colour coding of pipes, the labelling of barrels, and the spirit safe. (All the things we expect to see on our distillery visits). If the distillery was remote it had to provide accommodation for the Excise man who had the power to inspect every aspect of production and could shut down production if he thought there was something shady.
- The level of oversight encouraged distillers to take a more rigorous approach and produce whisky of a more consistent quality. In this way it laid the basis of the modern industry. Many distilleries signed-up from 1824 onwards and eventually, over the course of the 19th century, illicit distilling withered away. Smugglers, though, did not go without a struggle and it was not an easy transition (As Glenlivet likes to remind you John Smith had to always carry pistols to ward off ruffians, who wanted to stop his new legal venture). New distilleries required capital and the smugglers did not want to lose their income, so there was conflict. But in the end the Act prevailed.
- Glenlivet is the first distillery to register but the second was Balmenach and this is what we are going to taste. Their story is just as interesting but less well known.
- It was typical of its time being initially a farm distillery and also the site of illicit distilling. The story of it going legitimate is told by Robert Bruce Lockhart, who wrote one of the earlier books about Scotch whisky. He was the great grandson of the founder, James McGregor, and so knew the family stories:
“Soon after the passing of the Act of 1823 he received a visit from the nearest excise officer. Their talk was friendly and began with a dram of pure malt whisky. When these preliminaries were settled to the satisfaction of both men the excise officer mentioned shyly that he had a duty to perform and had better have a look around. Out went the two men to inspect the farm. All went well till they came to a rough stone building with a mill-wheel and mill-lade to it.
“What will that be?” asks the excise officer
“Oh” says my great grandfather “that will just be the peat store.”
Nothing more was said and the two men went back to the house for another dram and a talk about the crops and a the prospects for the harvest. Then as he took his leave the guager said quietly
“If I were you Mr McGregor, I’d just take out a licence on yon peat shed”
- He took the hint and along with John Smith of Glenlivet, Mrs Gordon of Mortlach he became one of the earliest licensed distilleries in the Highlands
- Incidentally Robert Bruce Lockhart was one of those remarkable men with links to whisky. Part of the fun of being interested intros subject is coming across such characters. He was a diplomat in Russia at the time of the revolution, who although initially trusted by the Bolsheviks was later imprisoned as a spy. After his release he wrote a best selling book about his time as a British agent. When war came he gave up his freelance life to serve as head of political warfare – a significant role. After the war he returned to living as a writer but fell out of fashion and is now largely forgotten. Because of the obsessive nature of whisky enthusiasts the book he dashed off about Scotch is the reason he is most likely to be remembered today.
- But in line with my efforts to link the various sections of this tasting, it is interesting to note that Robert Bruce Lockhart was once offered and declined a directorship of Tormore distillery.
- What you are tasting comes from a distillery with a very low profile – purely for blends, with no official release and very few independent bottlings. This does not mean the spirit is not good – it just means you have to keep your eyes open to find it.
- Balmenach also offers a chance to talk something else – the role of women in whisky. It is a predominately male world, and always has been, but there have also been significant women. We have mentioned Mrs Grant at Mortlach, but Bessie Williamson was famous for running Laphroaig and Helen Cumming ran Cardhu. At Balmenach the next effective manager after James’ son Jim died was his widow who was described “as worth all the distillers put together both character and business acumen.”
- Nowadays many of the senior blenders are women as are brand ambassadors and writers. I can only hope this trend develops because if you look around a whisky show it is still very male. Not totally but predominantly. Yet the enjoyment and understanding of whisky is about sensitivity to sensation, an openness to taste, clarity of appreciation and sensibility. These are not noticeably male characteristics.