I've only had the chance to try a few examples of Balblair so far, but all have been excellent. There's a fantastic weighty, fruity and spicy quality to their malts that I'm a huge fan of. This is my first sampling of an independent bottling of Balblair, and it promises to be a real winner!
Balblair Distillery is located in the Highlands, near the town of Edderton on the east coast of Scotland, around an hours' drive north of Inverness. The distillery was first established in 1790, making it one of the oldest still-operating (pun intended) whisky distilleries in Scotland, and over 50 years older than its nearest neighbour Glenmorangie. However, in 1872 the entire distillery was moved less than a kilometre to be closer to the newly established railway, for easier logistics. Balblair was mothballed (industry speak for closed) in 1911, sleeping through the great depression, prohibition in America and both world wars, and did not produce again until 1949. But it's been going strong since, and is now owned by Inver House Distillers, who are now themselves owned by Thailand-based company International Beverage Holdings.
The main contributor to that weighty texture that I mentioned above is Balblair's pair of small, squat stills with short, fat, plain necks, providing minimal reflux and relatively low copper contact, which results in a robust and characterful new make spirit that matures very well. That single pair of stills gives the distillery a relatively low annual production capacity of 1.6 million litres of spirit, the majority of which is matured on site in eight traditional dunnage warehouses. Balblair are doing things a little differently with their official bottlings, in that they don't use age statements, instead preferring to bottle by vintage, as in the year of distillation, much like Glenrothes. So technically there's no precise age statement, but there's still a rough idea of the age of each bottling printed on the packaging. This can make things a little confusing in some cases, because there are often multiple releases that were distilled in the same year, which is why there are often "Second release" bottlings from the same vintage.
The bottling I'm looking at today, by way of a private sample trade, is from Elgin-based independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail, hailing from their excellent Cask Strength series. In this case the year of distillation was 1993, and it was bottled in 2017, making this whisky 23-24 years old, and it spent that entire time in a single first-fill ex-Oloroso sherry puncheon (500-litre cask). Cask #1964 was bottled at a cask strength of 49.6% ABV, and is non-chill filtered and naturally (and beautifully) coloured. So having spent nearly a quarter of a century in a first-fill sherry cask, I think it's safe to say that we've got sherry bomb on our hands!
Distilled 1993, bottled 2017. Matured in a first-fill ex-Oloroso sherry puncheon. Cask number 1964, G&M Cask Strength series. Non-chill filtered, natural colour.
Colour: Polished mahogany. Gorgeous.
Nose: Also gorgeous! Very rich, sweet and alluring. Lots of rich sherry, sweet raisins, soft wood spices, and soft velvety oak. Lots of sweet ripe red apples too, with brown sugar and a little light, sweet soy sauce in the background.
Texture: Medium weight, rich & lightly spicy. And no spirit-y heat.
Taste: Definitely a sherry bomb! Rich Oloroso with sweet, fruity spirit alongside. Nicely balanced with a little spice (clove, ginger) and a good pinch of rich nutty oak. A little dark chocolate and dried blueberries, and more red apple.
Finish: Medium length, but getting quite soft quite quickly. Warm wood spices to start, then some lightly bitter oak and some dark cocoa powder. Then the red apples come out in force, with a couple of dried berries and a little tropical fruit behind.
Score: 4 out of 5.
Notes: Lovely stuff! This Balblair definitely reminds me of an Oloroso-matured Glendronach single cask in its early 20s, but with the red apples and dried berries adding a nice point of difference. The finish is a little light in comparison though, so it doesn't quite have the staying power of the Glendronachs, but then it's also notably lower in strength in comparison to most of those. There's a stronger cask influence than I've experienced in a Balblair before, but the spirit has held up very well too, so it's a nicely balanced overall package. Which of course is always Gordon & MacPhail's standard operating procedure, and they're damn good at it!
Definitely well worth hunting down if you can find a bottle, especially if you're a fan of sherry monsters that also have a little more to offer. It was a little pricey when it was (relatively) widely available, at around $320 AUD, but when compared to those Glendronach single casks at a similar age you're looking at a good 50% saving with this Balblair. A rose by any other name...