Balmenach is one of Speyside’s most overlooked distilleries despite being founded way back in 1824, as a farm distillery by James McGregor. Again, tales of illicit distilling on the site, which is set near the banks of the River Spey are recorded. It took the introduction of the 1823 Excise Act to prompt many illicit distillers and businessmen to move into legal distilling. The fee was £10 for a license and a tax applied was against each gallon of spirit produced at the distillery.
This prompted many locals in the area to take up the challenge and several famous Speyside distilleries such as Mortlach to come into existence, or out of the shadows and into legal acceptance. Initially the distillery was known as Balminoch and also Cromdale after its location within the Haughs of Cromdale. Whatever the name, it was a reasonable success and stayed in family ownership until 1922 when it was acquired by a group of blenders seeking a producer of sufficient quality. The distillery goes through a series of owners before ending up in the stable of United Distillers, where in 1993 it closes before being sold to Inver House in 1997. This period of closure is only shortly after releasing a bottling as part of the Fauna and Flora range in 1991 and this constitutes the first official Balmenach release. Widely supported by the independent bottlers, and often seen as part of the Deerstalker range, Balmenach remains an overlooked distillery despite some excellent whiskies.
Today, Balmenach has 6 stills that were originally expanded from the 1960’s and these also harness the increasingly rare usage of worm tubs that add further character. The distillery was one of the last exponents of the Saladin Box, which was a mechanical device to handle malted barley as opposed to the old traditional method. This grew out of favour when malting become more commercial and centralised on an industrial scale. Basically the device was a room sized container, with a depth of approximately 4 feet, where the malt was turned with automated precision by a series of screws. Nowadays it’s cheaper and more efficient for maltsters to process and dispatch the barley by lorry, made to the distillery’s own specification.
The current owners are Inver House Distillers, who in turn belong to International Beverage Holdings, which has its roots in Thailand. In recent years the company has brought more single malts into its range of products, moving aware from a purely blended portfolio of whiskies. It has achieved great success with Balblair and Old Pulteney distilleries, both of which have achieved a single malt profile with numerous awards. The question being now whether Balmenach will follow suit in the coming years? When Inver House purchased Balmenach the deal did not include existing stock and with the distillery resuming production only in 1998, aged stock remains at a premium.
Today, Balmenach is unique in Scottish terms as it produced gin on its site which is bottled as Caorunn and has been popular enough to prompt tours of the distillery, which was previously closed to the public. Unfortunately, these tours are purely gin focused and this seems something of a missed opportunity. Given the popularity of whisky tours in their own right and the dedication from enthusiasts who wish to visit every distillery, Balmenach would be an attraction. Gin has become increasingly popular in the public domain but it’s also a reflection of Balmenach’s lack of a single malt identity nearly 200 years after it was established.