Balblair is a boutique distillery if ever there was: tiny and tucked away a few miles off the main A9 road to Thurso as it snakes across the Dornoch Firth: it is down a winding road with a railway track running alongside. If you have seen the film The Angel’s Share you will know about Balblair: if you haven’t then this micro-distillery employing just 9 people (with only one girl among them) may well escape your notice. That is until you scan the shelves in a specialist whisky shop and their packaging announces their expressions.
What makes Balblair so special? They profess no age statements, opting instead for vintages and releases. So the date is when the whisky was distilled and laid down - you have to do the math to see how old it is (if that matters to you). It is up to distillery manager John MacDonald to judge the time when each vintage is ready for bottling and to assess both the Now appeal and the future potential. He prepares just a part of each vintage for release at any one time.
The concept of first and second releases reminds me very much of first and second flushes in the tea world. Darjeeling have taken this phenomenon and created a marketing campaign based on the first and second growths of the flavour-packed top tender leaves. The flushes have very different flavour characteristics. First and second releases of a Balblair vintage will doubtless follow suit, as do tree matured and stored Cox apples: the same fruit from the same trees released at different times and oh! so very different in natural sugars and texture. One release of a Balblair vintage might be matured first in American and then in Spanish oak, whereas another release of that same vintage might be aged in American oak only. Infinitely exciting possibilities.
Of the four vintages that I tasted at the distillery I have chosen the Balblair 99 Second Release for my Wardrobe of Whiskies. It matures first in American oak ex-bourbon casks and is then transferred into Spanish Oloroso casks. It is, incidentally, almost coppery in colour, like a fine Darjeeling in a china cup. I found it complex but easy in the mouth, very warming with a palette-enrobing allspice pepperiness and hints of lemon, salt and honey. The flavour grew and went on to make my mouth water. What I was then tasting from it was beefiness - a savoury, deep, buttery roundness balanced with a slightly acidic, lemony freshness. In flavour-speak that all adds up to a finely honed and crafted spirit. Balblair describe the beefiness as leather: we are talking the same taste! They suggest fruit cake which does arrive as an aftertaste, but I kept my super savoury flavour to the fore.
Did I like it with just a drop of water? I thought it might bring out the fruit cake notes but for me it increased the vanilla and then yielded a more peppery aftertaste. I would drink this whisky neat, with roast beef and good gravy soaking into a Yorkshire pudding. It is a high powered but elegant whisky, a whisky that can wear heels and had tailored elegance oozing from i! For the boardroom, if that is your world, or for dressing for dinner, wherever and whoever you are.
More information than you need to know
Balblair is part of Inver House Distillers, a small independent group which also includes (Old) Pulteney and Knockdhu.
Balblair is either the oldest or second oldest distillery in Scotland still operational today: they say one of the oldest. I’ve written things like that before to hedge my bets! It is the oldest in the Highland region.
There are a surprising number of standing stones and ancient burial sites in this remote part of Scotland; smaller and less preserved than those on Orkney, but numerous and of significant importance. Balblair distillery is within site of the ancient Cloch Biarach standing stone and is in a place of ancient habitation.
Balblair was originally established on a near-by farm in 1790 (presumably illegally) by John Ross who later moved the operation to the small town of Edderton, where it remains today. In 1895, a year after family ownership was relinquished by James Ross, the new owner moved the site slightly to take advantage of the railway which had recently come to Edderton along the shore of the Dornoch Firth. This owner was an Inverness wine merchant by the name of Cowan,
Balblair was an economic casualty between the wars, possibly because local skilled workers were called up and lost? Production stopped in 1911 and the distillery shut in 1932, presumably once all the whisky had been sold. It was then used as an army hostel during WWII. It was bought in 1948 by Mr Cummings, a solicitor from Banff, and production resumed the following year. Cummings sold Balblair in 1970 and it became part of Inver House Distillers in 1996.
There are four Ross’s in the Balblair team today, including one husband and wife.
2007 saw the launch of Balblair’s unique marketing of vintage whiskies by release.
The great thing about marketing the whisky by vintage is that there is frequently something new from this exceptional distillery.
Try listening to the great American contralto Renée Fleming’s album Dark Hope while drinking the ’99 Second Release. Successful, mature sophistication putting a unique stamp on modern classic songs: meaty, multi-layered, sparkling performances from the voice and the bottle. Or Schumann’s beautiful A minor piano concerto.