It might have been a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… but Luke Skywalker’s home in the desert wastes of Tatooine has ties to a distillery sitting in the lush rolling hills of Speyside today.
In fact, a single malt from Balmenach, at Cromdale near Grantown-on-Spey, became the toast of the most famous Jedi in the universe – part of a unique collection of Star Wars whiskies – in a story which proves the ways of the Force are mysterious.
It began 10 years ago, courtesy of a Belgian Star Wars fan making a trip to the Tunisian desert.
Mark Dermul was leading other fans of George Lucas’s epic creation on a pilgrimage to the film set of the Lars homestead – the desert farm where we first meet Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope. They found the igloo-like structure all but destroyed by the harsh climate in the desert heat.
Star Wars fans rushed in
“It was in a rather poor state and we realised if we don’t take action now it will be completely gone in a couple of years,” said Mark, a former president of the Belgian Star Wars Fan Club, who had been leading location trips to Tunisia since 2000.
The Save the Lars Homestead Project was floated on Facebook where it was given an enthusiastic reception. A fundraising campaign was launched and Star Wars fans rushed in to help, faster than an X-Wing fighter making a run on the Death Star.
“We opened a crowdfunding platform and within a couple of months we had got together £10,000,” said Mark. “So six of us travelled to Tunisia in 2012 to restore the Lars homestead.”
The film set rescued by the six Tatooine Pioneers – as Mark dubbed the group – was actually the one used in the prequels, starting with The Phantom Menace, as the original 1976 structure had long vanished.
“There was nothing left of that at all but they went back and rebuilt it in 1992 for the prequels, to the exact specifications on exactly the same spot as the original,” said Mark. “But it was heartbreaking for us Star Wars fans to see the poor condition it was in.”
It was a goosebump moment
Toiling under the desert sun, the Pioneers gradually restored the crumbling set to its pristine, gleaming-white glory on the endless sands – a proud and special moment.
“I grew up with Star Wars and the people who went with me on this project all grew up with Star Wars,” said Mark.
“You have seen it for 20 years as a kid and all of a sudden you are actually part of fixing it up, of preserving your own childhood.
“We had an iPod with us, with some speakers, so when we were done, we all sat back and watched the sun go down and put on the music from John Williams’ score. People actually started crying. It was a goosebumps moment.”
Mark and one of his fellow Pioneers, Imanuel ‘Manny’ Dijk also celebrated the heartfelt occasion with a dram, as they were both huge whisky fans.
“When we got back from Tunisia we decided we should do something to combine our two passions, Star Wars and whisky,” said Mark.
Trilogy of whiskies released
The pair contacted a whisky broker to see if they could get a special bespoke single malt to create six bottles of Save Lars Homestead whisky, one for each of the crew. They were presented as a surprise to the others at a Star Wars celebration event in Germany in 2014, where they were taking part in a panel about saving the Lars homestead.
“We gave them to them on stage and they were surprised, happily so, but immediately the crowd swamped us with requests, saying: ‘We want that Save Lars whisky’ as well,” said Mark.
“We went back to the broker and asked if there was any more… and that’s how the Save Lars Homestead whiskies came about.”
It was decided to have a trilogy of whisky releases – with only 100 bottles of each – in keeping with the original Star Wars trilogy, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi.
Mark wanted each to have a different flavour.
The first came from the Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, and the second was from Mark’s favourite, Auchentoshan, in Clydebank. The third was a 14-year-old from Balmenach and was something of a rarity, as its whisky is mostly used for blending with few single malts released.
Mark said: “We had a peaty whisky in Bruichladdich, and a Lowland whisky in Auchentoshan, which were both bourbon cask-matured. We were looking for something sherry-cask matured. We were lucky, we found a refilled sherry cask of Balmenach and the broker was willing to sell us 100 bottles from that specific cask.”
Bottles flew off shelves
The commemorative whiskies flew off the shelves in a matter of days. There is now little chance of being able to get your hands on any, except when the occasional bottle shows up for auction.
“I have seen people putting them on the table at Star Wars events or other occasions, but there are none left that I am aware of,” said Mark, adding they were mostly snapped up by Star Wars fans and collectors rather than whisky lovers.
“There are probably something like 50 of each still on the shelves somewhere in these Star Wars’ fans cabinets, who don’t want to open it because they don’t drink whisky.”
The Lars homestead, it still stands on the desert sands in Tunisia and is now a tourist attraction, bringing in Star Wars fans from around the world.
Homestead still a tourist attraction
“Because of the Save The Lars Homestead, it is now a well-known location and even the organised tour operators in Tunisia include it on their trips as well.
“So many fans visit it and we get a lot of feedback and pictures on our Facebook page,” said Mark.
Sadly, though, the Tunisian location wasn’t used in the most recent Star Wars films, where the homestead features at the end of The Rise Of Skywalker.
“When I first saw it, I could have sworn it was shot on location in Tunisia, but when the DVD came out they clearly showed it was shot in Saudi Arabia.
“That was a bit disappointing,” said Mark.
Finally, Mark has some Jedi wisdom to pass on to anyone lucky enough to have a Save Lars whisky in their possession, especially one that came from Balmenach.
“Open it up and enjoy it… whisky is meant to be drunk”.
Back to the future for Balmenach
It is only fitting that one of the oldest distilleries on Speyside is part of an homage to a film as futuristic as Star Wars.
Balmenach was one of the earliest distilleries allowed after the Excise Act of 1823 – and was the site of an illicit still, set up by James McGregor, one of three brothers who started farming at the Haughs of Cromdale in the early 1800s.
McGregor obtained the licence to distil legally.
The story goes the local exciseman visited the farm and asked McGregor what was in a certain building. When he said it was a peat shed, the exciseman replied: “Well, I suggest you take out a licence for it.”
Balmenach was operated by the McGregor family until it was sold in 1922 to a consortium that became part of the Distillers Company Ltd. The distillery had its own railway branch off the Strathspey line until 1969.
When the demand for whisky slumped in the 1990s, the distillery was mothballed in 1993. It was taken over by Inver House Distillers in 1997, with production starting a year later. Its whisky, still produced using traditional methods, is highly-prized for blends.
In 2009 it started production of the gin, Caorunn, which has proved to be extremely popular.