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Veteran Highland distiller on celebrating 40 years of making whisky and missing out on being a film star

When Martin ­Macdonald first started out in his career as a distillery operator, aged just 17, James Callaghan was Prime Minister and Blondie’s Heart of Glass was No 1 in the UK singles chart.

Published: February 20, 2019
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Now the longest-serving ­member of the team at Balblair’s Edderton distillery – one of Scotland’s ­oldest – he has seen ­production (and the whisky industry as a whole) go from strength to strength.

It’s a far cry from a time when even he struggled to get his hands on those now iconic squat bottles and the golden liquid within.

Martin at the distillery in 1979 sporting flares and long hair. Picture: Balblair

He said: “When I first started I couldn’t even buy the whisky we were making at the distillery, I had to go through Gordon & MacPhail. Thankfully, all that changed in the late 90s. Now I get a rush of pride when I go through duty-free and see bottles of Balblair sitting there.”

Over the last four decades, ­Martin has seen the implementation of ­automisation, the disappearance of the ever-present Customs and Excise operator and even a revamp of the distillery itself in 1981.

He said: “I really can’t believe where the time’s gone. There’s a photo of the team outside the ­distillery from the time I started. It’s strange to think that there’s just a few of us left from the group of lads in the 1970s with the long hair and flared jeans.

“So much has changed over the last 40 years. The fashions, the ­market and the whisky making process have changed for the ­better – I’m incredibly fortunate to have been a part of it.

"Even with all of the change that has taken place, the kiln, the grate floor and the barns are all still the same – the history of Balblair is still there.”

Other major milestones include the introduction of the much greener fuel source, gas, to replace heavy fuel oil – which Martin describes as “dirty, dirty stuff” – and perhaps more importantly, the opening of the visitor centre in 2012.

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He said: “It’s nice to see the ­tourists coming in, the North Coast 500 is bringing more and more ­people to the area, and they have a real ­passion for whisky. Some of the questions they are asking now are so in depth that I’m always impressed by their knowledge. I could happily sit and speak to our visitors all day.”

During his time with the distillery, Martin has also volunteered within the local community. He has given 16 years of service to his local fire service and was also involved in the offshore response after the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion in the early 1990s.

Martin and group of 30 others from the north of Scotland enrolled themselves in a variety of courses, so they could help make offshore working safer.

In 2012, Balblair distillery rose to fame when it played a ­central role in Ken Loach’s film Angel’s Share.

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Martin described it as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for the distillery team, but joked that he missed out on his moment of fame as, unfortunately, he was on night shift the month they were filming.

He said: "It really was such an enjoyable and exciting time for all of us, playing a part in a leading motion picture. "

Balblair Distillery

Picture: Malcolm McCurrach

Speaking of night shifts alone at the distillery, has he ever had any problems with spirits of a more supernatural nature?

“I’ve never had any hassle. Though there was one local guy who swears he saw The Grey Lady in the malt barns – he was shaking with fear and never came back. It was the 60s though, so most of the team just assumed he’d perhaps drank a little too much.”

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Celebrating his 40th anniversary this month, Martin is happy to point out that he’s not the only member of the team at Balblair with considerable experience.

He said: “It’s a privilege working with such a great group of people. Every one of us has got more than a decade of distillery life behind us. A few of the guys are still to complete what we call their apprenticeships, where they hit the 25-year mark – I wind them up saying they can’t call themselves fully-fledged!”

A particular highlight for ­Martin was giving his daughter a bottle of his favourite Balblair expression – the 1997, incidentally the year of her birth – last year to mark her 21st birthday.

A moment mirrored in his own life when he was recently given his own special bottle of Balblair, in recognition of his 40 years of hard work.

The experienced distiller says he has no plans to retire just yet and sees himself at Balbair for a few more years to come.

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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