The Balblair Distillery
Balblair Distillery is located in a wild, lonely and romantic spot surrounded by the craggy mountain Ben Dearg, the Strathcarron River, the Dornoch firth and the sea. It is built high on the Dornoch firth, in the midst of sheep farms with a single-track railway nearby. Balblair is Gaelic for “battlefield” or “town of the plain”.
The second oldest distillery in the Highlands, Balblair was founded in 1790 in the Balblair Farm. The first owner of the distillery, Simpson passed the lease to John Ross in 1798 and the Ross family ran it till 1894. In 1872 the distillery expanded and the old buildings became a warehouse. The Allt Dearg Burn in the Struie Hills was the source of water which, with the local peat, gave the whisky the slightly sweet taste and strong aroma, characteristic of Balblair even today.
Alexander Cowan of Inverness bought the distillery in1894 and relocated it to a 2 acre site, half a mile away. The distillery was nearer the railway line between Inverness and Wick which was useful to bring in coal and barley and transport whisky. The distillery prospered initially but ran into problems. It was kept going with a skeleton staff in the 1920s and 1930s until the army commandeered during the Second World War.
The Balblair estate was liquidated in 1941 and in 1948 the distillery was sold to Robert James “Bertie” Cummings. He expanded it in 1964, increasing the warehouses, building a new boiler room, and converted the coal-fired stills to steam-heated. At one time Balblair had the longest bonded warehouse in Scotland. A dividing wall was built because of fire regulations. All of the warehouses use the traditional dunnage system and have earthen floors except one which was a canteen during the Army’s occupation.
Malted barley from Muir of Ord Maltings is stored in ten towering Malt Bins located in the malt barns. A Porteus Mill is used to grind the malted barley which is stored in two grist bins. A new wash storage tank and heat converter system preheats the wash before it enters the wash still. The distillery has two stills but behind the spirit still is a third still, a relic from the time when Cummings converted the stills from coal to steam. It was used as a model for the new enlarged stills but never dismantled!
In 1970 Cummings sold Balblair to Hiram Walker, the owner of Ballantine’s, one of the largest selling blended whiskies in the world. Balblair is an important component of the famous blend. Hiram Walker merged with Allied Vintners to become Allied Distillers in 1988. It sold Balblair to Inver House in 1996. Most of the Balblair whisky is used in Bell’s, Whyte and Mackay and Hiram Walker blended whiskies.