Less Blah, More Balblair: Why keeping it vintage gives this little distillery its edge
Having inhaled the estery fumes of practically every still house for each category of spirit several times over, I was surprised to realise that I had never once passed the threshold of a Scottish distillery, despite their relative proximity to myself in person as well a having somewhat of a soft spot for the spirit in question. As a clueless spotty teen, I had once mistaken a bottle of Glenmorangie to be bourbon and, only when halfway through the bottle, my drinking companion and I had realised the mistake. We immediately decided to swap our ritual imbibing of American whisky for something a little less trendy; a little more in-the-know.
Little did we know, single malts were very much on the cusp of a revival and, much to our pleasure and bemusement, our beloved Glenmorangie began releasing a chain of innovative finishes; everything from port to Sauternes. As we were trying to keep up, a softly-spoken but determined man was working his way up through the ranks of their warehouse. Nearly two decades on and John MacDonald is welcoming me into the oldest distillery in the Highlands, his home since leaving Glenmorangie: the tiny but perfectly formed Balblair distillery, in Edderton, Ross-shire.
On my arrival, the distillery was shrouded in mist, as was the mysterious Bronze Age standing stone, Clach Biorach. Founded in 1790 by John Ross, kept within the family until the 1980s, the location has an undeniable romance and history. It’s been undergoing some innovations of its own. The year 2007 marked a complete change in Balblair’s strategy, namely becoming the only Scotch distillery to exclusively release vintages. A bold move somewhat going against the grain of rival Scotch brands losing their vintages and age statements to frivolous and fanciful names, Balblair is assuring its place as a serious Scotch drinker’s dram. It only allows its liquid come near a bottle when John has found something worthy of the name, and then only releases 15-30 casks at a time, making this classic and understated malt one to watch in tomorrow’s auction houses.
Despite this innovative and daring approach, tradition and history are still held in high regard: the eight-strong team nearly all share the MacDonald or Ross clan names. The Allt Dearg burn has relentlessly supplied the distillery water for more than 200 years and traditional wooden washbacks and a slow fermentation process provide the best smelling and complex wort I’ve ever dared or desired to stick my head in. None of the whisky sees added caramel or chill-filtration and importantly John has stuck to his guns and refused to follow trends of increasingly weird and wacky finishes. No Châteaux Margaux nor smoked Negroni barrel finishes for Balblair–this purist’s dram chooses to emphasise the purity and quality of its constituent parts by using almost exclusively air-dried American oak casks, with the very occasional sherry cask thrown in, just for giggles.
So what of the whisky? The 10-year-old 2003 was driven by crispy green fruit notes, custard and nutmeg, while the 16-year-old 1997 revealed an abundance of tropical fruit, from pineapple, green banana to orange sponge cake, with a hint of chocolate. The 1983 gave me citrus zest and marzipan, but the 1990 stole the show for me and a few other fellow tasters, with John himself quietly admitting he had a strong affection for this particular vintage. Seventeen months in Olorosso casks seemed to have given this dram a real complexity: sultanas, walnuts and almonds that I assume are from the sherry, which only helped to emphasise Poire Williams, milk chocolate and treacle: 21 years in American oak well spent.
Time will tell which year will be the next release and what delights it may impart. With a twinkle in his eye, John alluded to some very old reserve Scotch in their warehouse, but no amount of teasing, coaxing or bribery would make him break his silence. If you feel up to the task, he is hosting distillery manager tours throughout the year. JULIAN DE FERAL
Balblair is situated by the beautiful Dornoch Firth on the sweep of the Cambuscurrie Bay and close to the original source of its water, which is still used to this day. Visit the website www.balblair.com for more information.