Balblair Distillery is quite a small distillery in the Scottish Highlands, near the town of Edderton, around an hour's drive North of Inverness. Now owned by Inver House Distillers, who also own Old Pulteney and a few other lesser-known Scottish distilleries, Balblair claim to be the oldest distillery in the Highlands, having been officially founded in 1790, although the entire distillery was moved less than a kilometre in 1872 to be closer to the new railway, so I'm not exactly sure about the validity of that claim. If correct though, this would have made it one of the oldest Scotch whisky distilleries still in existence. Which I'd wager would've been of more benefit than being closer to the since-closed railway, but of course hindsight is 20/20. The distillery was also mothballed for a massive 48 years during the great depression and both world wars, before production re-started in 1949, and it's been going strong since.
Like most of the lesser known distilleries, until relatively recently the vast majority of Balblair's 1.3 million litre annual production capacity went into blended whiskies, most notably Hankey Bannister. Since 2007 though around 15% of production has been officially bottled as single malt, and in a move that seems to be becoming more popular the distillery only labels its bottlings with the vintage, where the label states the year of distillation and usually the year of bottling, rather than giving a clear age statement. Note that these are not single cask bottlings though, they're still vattings of different casks, but coming from the one distillery they are of course still single malts. For a little interesting factoid, Balblair was a filming location for the 2012 Scottish film 'The Angel's Share', serving as the distillery where the unfortunately fictitious cask of Malt Mill was discovered & subsequently auctioned. And another little factoid, the distillery's water source is located in the Wester Ross region of the Highlands, which might sound vaguely familiar to fans of Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire...
But let's get back on track. This particular bottling was distilled in 1990 and bottled in 2013, after spending 21 years maturing in ex-bourbon casks, and around two years further in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks. This is the second release of the 1990 vintage, the first was released in 2008 and was a 'travel-exclusive' bottling, while this second release was much easier to find, and actually won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014. It was bottled at 46%, and thankfully is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured, as all of Balblair's official single malt bottlings have been since they launched in 2007. Let's look a bit closer, shall we?
Balblair 1990 Vintage, 2nd release, NAS*, 46%. Edderton, Scotland.
*Distilled 1990, bottled 2013. Matured for 21 years in ex-bourbon casks, and finished for 2 years in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Nose: Quite dry, fruity and lightly spicy. Dusty barley, red apple, dry oak. Stewed stone fruit, some old soft leather and vanilla-scented wood polish. Some golden syrup, hint of dried apricot & fig, and a little warm ginger.
Texture: Medium-heavy weight, rich & warming. No heat at all.
Taste: Rich, savoury & spicy. Ground ginger, some cinnamon, a little dry oak again. More of that soft leather & wood polish, and savoury & fruity BBQ sauce. More dried stone fruit, and some black cherry. Delicious!
Finish: Long. Spicy & fruity, and becoming dry with time. Some orange peel, a little peppery oak and warm cinnamon, a little red grape and cherry, dark chocolate and light wine tannins, becoming quite wine-y actually. Very nice.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Impressive... Most impressive! Complex and well balanced, although quite savoury overall, not that that's a bad thing at all. There's plenty of sherry influence from that two year finishing, but it hasn't overwhelmed either, there's plenty going on alongside. I'm not usually a fan of tannins or red wine in general, even in whisky, but I actually really enjoyed the finish on this one, and I still am as I write this, it's quite a long one! I'd normally wish for cask strength in a whisky this old, but I actually think 46% was just about perfect for this one, there's no shortage of flavour or texture here. Can't believe I left this sample on the shelf for so long!
Adding to the allure of this bottling was that it's still around, and is quite reasonably priced, going for $240 AUD here, which isn't exactly cheap in general terms, but for a whisky of this age and quality I'd say that's actually pretty fair. Highly recommended if you like your whiskies on the older and more savoury side. I'm very impressed with this one!
It wouldn't really be fair to use a 23-year old vintage bottling as an example of Balblair's general aptitude as a distillery, but if this is the sort of thing they can do then I'm a believer. And I didn't really expect to say that coming into this review, to be honest, so this was a very pleasant surprise. Which just goes to show that we should never judge a book by its cover.