We recently were lucky enough to visit the northern Highland distillery of Balblair, which is one of Scotland's oldest and most traditional. To read our visit notes - click here. We were even more lucky to be shown around by the Distillery Manager, John MacDonald, and the final part of our tour was a tasting of some Balblair whiskies. You will find our tasting notes below and a massive thanks goes to John for providing a wonderful experience. Only about 15% of the whisky made and maturing at the distillery is released as Balblair single malt. However, this amount is rising as Balblair becomes more widely recognised and the latest range continues to add to the numerous worldwide awards that it has recently won.
Interestingly, the core range is released as vintages, rather than the more common age statement in numbers of years - John tells us the reason for this is that "our whisky tells us when it's ready, not the other way round. Each vintage is hand picked from a selection of our finest casks, once its optimum maturation point is reached". The core range includes current vintages of 1965, 1978, 1989 and 2000. Not many distilleries or companies use this vintage system, so it was interesting to learn about the ethos behind it. Independent bottlings are occassionally available but stocks vary from year to year, with less now being released by the distillery to these bottlers.
Balblair new make spirit
Our tasting with John began with the rare opportunity to taste some new make spirit. This sample was distilled on the previous day and had an alcohol strength of 68% ABV. The colour is clear but has a hint of yellow to it and the nose is full of fresh green fruit - think of crisp apples especially. On the palate, the fruitiness is again prominent but the apple note is joined by a distinct lemony citrus tang. The spirit feels oily in the mouth and with time other notes battle through the high level of alcohol - vanilla, dried grass, honey and nuts. The finish is very fresh, tangy and hot with a chilli spiciness and the citrus from earlier particularly prominent.
This whisky is brand new, replacing the 1997 vintage in the core range and has been matured in second fill ex-bourbon casks. The colour is a pale gold and the nose is very fresh and very fruity. There are plenty of green pear and apple notes and these are backed up by vanilla, coconut and a whiff of mint (the coconut becomes more prominent with time). On the palate, this is again fresh with a lovely combination of flavours - peardrops, lemon zest, vanilla, honey, cereal grains and something reminiscent of icing sugar or sherbet. The finish is tangy but fairly short. This is an easy drinking dram that would be great in hot weather or as an aperitif.
As mentioned, this has now been replaced by the 2000 vintage above. However, we were still offered the chance to sample it for one last time! The whisky has a golden colour with a succulent nose that has aromas of dried fruits (sultanas and candied peel), vanilla, honey, spices (nutmeg and cinnamon) and hints of dried tropical fruit (pineapple and mango). On the palate, these elements combine with more citrus peel (think of orange marmalade), fresh stone fruits (peaches or apricots) and more sweet vanilla. The nutmeg spiciness from the nose comes through well. The finish is long with the sultana, vanilla and spice notes coming to the fore. Delicious stuff - goodbye old friend!
This whisky is from the second batch of the 1989 vintage that was bottled just a couple of months ago. The first batch was a multi award winning whisky, so we were very interested to try the new version. The colour is gold with a hint of amber and the nose is complex, soft and elegant. There are aromas of toffee, nuts, coconut, cereals plus an interesting ripe banana note. On the palate, this is creamy and mouth coating. It is soft and sumptuous with the notes from the nose present, in addition to some caramel, wood spice (cinnamon and nutmeg), pears and apples. The finish is long with the sweet elements (caramel and cereals especially) and the woody spices prominent.
Another recent addition to the range. This single malt was bottled as a 3,000 bottle limited edition in 2009 and replaced the 1975 vintage. The colour is dark gold with an amber tint. The nose is rich, deep and intense with plenty of dark dried fruits (raisins, sultanas and dates), toffee and spicy cinnamon bark. On the palate, this is rich and complex. There are many notes combining with those from the nose - vanilla, coconut, honey, stewed apples, hints of pepper and tropical fruits (especially mango and pineapple). The finish is long - it begins sweetly before becoming increasingly dry and spicy (especially the cinnamon), with some distinct cereal grains coming through.
> Please note that all of the single malts are bottled at 43% ABV, with the exception of the 1978 vintage which is 46% ABV.