This mountainous chunk of countryside plunges down from Ben Dearg
(1081m/3547 ft) by way of the Strathcarron river, to the Dornoch firth and the
sea. High on the Dornoch firth, amid fields of sheep,and skirted by a
single-track railway, is Balblair. Farther down the Firth, at nearby Tain, is
Glenmorangie. Of the two, Balblair is older.
Its roots go back to 1749, and
the first distillery was built in 1790. The present building dates from the
1870s, and is little changed.
© Michael Jackson 1994
The name is Gaelic and means "battlefield" or "town of the plain", both of which descriptions have some truth in them. The first Balblair distillery was a pot still built on Balblair farm on the estate of the Rosses of Balnagowan. The first owner, a man named Simpson passed the lease to one John Ross in 1798 who set about making it into a more commercial enterprise. Despite many financial troubles, bad debts, competition by smugglers and the ever-present exciseman, Ross kept going and by 1833 his son Andrew recorded production of 8573 gallons per annum. Ross, his sons and grandsons operated Balblair until the very end of the 19th century. In 1872 the distillery expanded and the old buildings became a warehouse. The two elder Rosses died with a year or two of each other in 1872/3 and the grandson James Ross carried on. By 1887 he was recording 50,000 gallons per annum but the family line had petered out and around 1894 the lease passed to one Alexander Cowan from Inverness.
Cowan set about modernising the distillery on a new site and laid out the distillery that can be seen today. Rail had come to Balblair and Cowan used it to bring in coal and barley [and presumably export spirit - jhb]. Duty increases spelled the end for Cowan and in 1911 he was sequestrated, losing much of what was saleable to meet his debts. The distillery was kept going with a skeleton staff until the army commandeered it for the duration of the Second World War.
The Balblair estate was liquidated in 1941 and in 1948 the distillery became the property of a Banff solicitor, Robert James "Bertie" Cumming. He resumed production in 1949 and ran the business till he retired in 1970. Again he expanded and modernised the distillery and by 1964 was running production at four times the levels managed by Alexander Cowan. He had enlarged the warehouses but most production went to Bell's, Whyte and Mackay and Hiram Walker blended whiskies. Cowan sold Balblair to Hiram Walker on his retirement following on from his sale of Pulteney to them some years earlier. Hiram Walker merged with Allied Vintners in 1988 to form Allied Distillers who run the distilelry to this day.
Edderton, Tain, Rossshire IV19 1LB
Hear "Balblair" pronounced in AU or WAV format
Read an article about Balblair distillery
Search Dr. Do'g's index for the history of Balblair
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