Mark Twain said that the only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.
Perhaps James Macgregor, a farmer and illicit distiller who lived in the early nineteenth century, held the same sentiment, and therefore, did his utmost to wine and dine the local excise officer in search of a few unlawful stills.
It could have been the first overly generous dram Macgregor offered the visiting officer that raised a small red flag in the tax man’s mind before receiving a tour of the farm. Or that Macgregor was too eager to avert attention with the answer, “That’ll just be the peat shed,” when asked about the purpose of the little shack beside the stream. Maybe it was the second charitable offering of whisky after the walkabout.
Whatever tipped off the exciseman, it was surely unexpected to hear him offer up, “If I were you, Mr. Macgregor, I’d just take out a license for yon peat-shed.”
Thankfully for whisky lovers everywhere, Mr. Macgregor did just that. And thus one saw … the birth of Balmenach Distillery.
Personally, I think what saved old Macgregor was not his generosity, but his skill. Was it no wonder some were pleased to turn a blind eye now and again if it meant they’d be assured the continued existence of a good thing?
And there is no doubt this historic distillery, huddled close to the deeply heathered hills of Cromdale, is deserved of honor and credit. They’ve had ample time to perfect the production of a fine spirit.
In fact, having discovered what works, they’ve remained true to the formula: a cast iron mash tun, douglas fir washbacks and worm tubs (the bygone practice of submerging a coiled, copper pipe—containing the distilled vapors—into a tank or tub of cold water to condense the vapors and return them to liquid form).
The ‘conversation’ between copper and vapor is an interesting one, where (in a nutshell) if the vapors pass slowly over the copper, its flossy, scouring pad threads hold on to the heavier elements and results in a lighter spirit. Less of a chat creates heavier, richer flavors. Since Balmenach’s worm tubs work “true to spirit,” the end product is generally dense and deep, meaty and a measurable mouthful.
Alas, this distillery is one of only thirteen or fourteen that continue the tradition of worm tub technique, and much of Balmenach’s boodle is branded for blends. But if a taste of history is what you seek, Balmenach’s hidden gems are truly worth the search. Just ask the taxman.