Balblair, after Strathisla, is the oldest working whisky distillery in Scotland and is situated in one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the country. This is the part of Ross-shire where the burns flow down Struie Hill to water the farmlands of Edderton, the "parish of peals", and the shore of lhe Dornoch Firth. Balblair is Caelic for "battlefield" or "town of the plain", both descriptions which have held true since the Vikings came a thousand years ago.
Many inhabitants of the county bear the name of Ross, and in the history of the distillery a number have played their part. By the late 18th century the leading landowners were the Rosses of the Balnagowan Estate. In 1790, a mile north of Edderton, their lands included the Balblair Farm which stands there to this day. Here, at the foot of a hill by a burn, was the first Balblair distillery.
It was a simple pot still, typical of hundreds on farms up and down the country. Balblair Farm was tenanted at the time by a man named Simpson; in Whitsun 1798, the lease of the farm was taken over by one John Ross. John Ross had been distilling at Balblair since 1790, and it was he who now set about turning a small pot still into a bigger commercial enterprise.
These were different times from the whisky business of today. Peat and water were plentiful locally, but barley had to be milled and malted elsewhere and brought lo lhe distillery by horse and cart. Smugglers flooded the market with whisky of doubtful quality. The Exciseman took every opportunity to extract his cut. Storms lashed the coast and lhe crops. But there was no shortage of demand and John Ross was determined to ensure the supply.
The Balblair whisky distilled by John Ross was a clear, colourless spirit ranging in strength from 90 lo 125 proof, sold straight from the still. The local peat and water gave it the slightly sweet taste and strong aroma which characterise Balblair whisky to this day. In 1800 the accounts book records a cost of 5/- [25p] for a pint of "dramming" or middle strength whisky and œ1.8.0d [œ1.40] for a gallon, strength unstated. John Ross was plagued by bad debts; at one point the Reverend Munro of Edderton owed œ15.10.11d for whisky consumed, a considerable sum.
Money, or the lack of it, was Ross's commonest complaint. But he persevered and by the early 1800s Balblair whisky was being taken by horse and cart to Cromarty and shipped to Leith for sale in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He was still running the farm as well as the distillery. In 1817 he was sequestrated; he soon recovered but cash flow remained a problem. "You should never blamc a poor man" he wrote to one customer in Glasgow, "for not being rich."
In 1822, John Ross produced 2,285 gallons of whisky. His son Andrew joined him in 1824 and by 1833 Balblair was producing 8,573 gallons a year. John Ross had retired by this time, but when Andrew moved up the coast to Brora, his father resumed distilling with a partner from Tain and carried on until his death in 1836.
The sons and grandsons of John Ross operated the Balblair farm and distillery until the last years of the l9th cenlury. Until l864 Andrew was in partnership with his son John McGilchrist Koss, a noled figure in the history of Scotch whisky. John McGilchrist then went to run a distillery at Teaninich and Andrew was joined by Andrew Ross Junior. In 1872 the distillery was expanded uphill, with maltings at the top, then the mash house, the still house and the filling store. The old building became a bonded warehouse and the whole process worked on the flow of the burn.
But Andrew Junior died that same year, and no sooner had the next son James Ross gone into partnership with his father than the latter too died in 1873. This left the young James Ross on his own, but the farm and distillery seem to have nourished under his management. Barnard, the first great chronicler of Scotch whisky, visited Balblair in 1887 and reported an output of 50,000 gallons a year. But in 1894 James Ross gave up the tenancy and moved to another distillery at Pollo. None of his sons went into the whisky business; his father was dead; his brother John McGilchrist Ross had finished at Teaninich and set up his own distillery at Glenskiach, where he would remain for the rest of his working life. The stewardship of the Rosses over the Balblair distillery had come to an end. The new leaseholder was Alexander Cowan, an Inverness wine merchant. If John Ross and his descendants had turned a small pot still into a working business, Cowan was the man who brought Balblair into the 20th century. Like his predecessors he found it an exacting task. Cowan took a new 60-year lease from the Balnagowan Estate. The terms included an advance of œ5,000 and a 2 acre site half a mile away, on which he had within one year to construct a brand new Balblair distillery. The advance was to be paid back by the end of the lease. The annual rent was œ100 and there was a royalty of 10% on profits. The new distillery would include the Excise Officers' houses, and lavatories, and in every respect be up to date.
In return, Cowan received the right to use the name "The Balblair Distillery and Balblair Whisky." He continued to operate the old distillery while the new one was being built; thereafter it was allowed to fall into disuse. The remains of the malting floor were still visible on the old site when Jimmy Yeats, the present manager of Balblair, arrived in 1978.
These were the origins of the buildings and the site of the Balblair distillery today. The present offices, still house, mash house, kiln and barns were all built for Cowan under the terms of the lease. Thc railway had come to Balblair, and brought coal for the stills and boiler, and barley for malting, to the distillery's siding. The whisky was no longer sold straight from the still bul matured in dunnage in casks stored on the damp earth of the warehouse floors, before much of it went to blenders.
But the Budget of 1909 increased the licence fee and the duty on spirit and brought back hard times to distillers. In 1911 Alexander Cowan, like John Ross before him, was sequestrated. Much of what was saleable, both whisky and plant, was taken to meet his debts. The Balblair distillery, with its remaining whisky maturing in dunnage under the eye of the Excise, was run by a skeleton staff through the 1920s and 1930s. After 1932 there was no whisky left at all. This was probably just as well as the next occupants were the army, who commandeered the buildings at the outbreak of the Second World War and stayed for the duration, leaving the concrete floor of the canteen in warehouse Number 3 as sole trace of their tenancy. But the liquidation of the Balnagowan estate in 1941 mcant that the freehold of the Balblair distillery was also now up for sale.
Mr. Robert James "Bertie" Cumming was a Banff solicitor. In 1948, Mr Cumming and his family purchased Balblair from the Rosses of Balnagowan for œ48,000. Like Alexander Cowan, Cumming was determined that the distillery should enjoy a prosperous future.
Balblair resumed production in 1949, and a photograph still hangs there of the men responsible for the first Balblair whisky distilled since before thc First World War. Onc of them, Uisdean (Hugh) Ross, is head warehouseman at Balblair today.
Cumming was an enthusiastic businessman. On one occasion he went into a public house in Tain and after a few drams wrote out a cheque for the entire premises. The cheque was left and he departed into the night. The next day he returned, realising what he had done. The proprietors declined his offer, but were impressed by his willingness to keep his word.
At Balblair he expanded the distillery and built more warehouses. In 1964 he installed a new boiler house with an oil-fired steam boiler, changed the coal-fired stills over to steam-heating and added a wash still. He extended the tun room and installed two more washbacks. The barley now came in by road rather than rail, but floor malting still took place there in the traditional manner.
Balblair was now carrying out up to 16-17 mashes a week, four times the figure during the Cowan years. The warehouses held large stocks of maturing whisky. There was a Balblair Ten Years Old, but most of the whisky went to the blenders: Distillers Company Limited, Bell's, Whyte & Mackay and Hiram Walker.
Hiram Walker were the owners of Ballantine's, one of the biggest-selling blended whiskies in the world. Cumming had sold them his Pulteney distillery some years earlier. Both Pulteney and Balblair were important ingredients in the Ballantine's blend. In 1970 Cumming sold out to Hiram Walker and retired. Balblair, for the first time in its long history, was out of the hands of local entrepreneurs like Ross, Cowan and Cumming, and part of an international group.
Since 1970 there have been a few technical changes and a greater sense of security at Balblair. Floor malting has stopped and malt comes in by road. There are up to 20 mashes a week and the distillery can produce up to 1.5 million litres of alcohol a year. Balblair whisky is as popular as ever.
The merger of Hiram Walker with Allied Vintners saw the creation of a new company, Allied Distillers, in 1988. On their behalf Balblair has become a showcase for visitors from all over the world. But in 1990, its bicentenary year, Balblair first and foremost continues to be what, with interruptions, it was always meant to be: a working distillery, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, throughout the working year. This will surely continue to be the case, at least as long as the water flows down Struie Hill to Edderton, "the parish of peats", and the sea.
© (1990) George Ballantine & Son Ltd.