Thursday 3 November 2011 was "a significant date in the history of the Balblair distillery" to quote John MacDonald, the Distillery Manager. That is saying something when you consider that Balblair is one of the oldest distilleries still in operation in Scotland, having been founded by John Ross in 1790. The date saw not only the launch of a new whisky in to the Balblair core range - the 2001 Vintage - but the 'significant' opening of the new Brand Home was the main event. The guest list included some very senior people from Inver House Distillers and Thai Beverage (the distillery's owners), and a selection of influential alcohol/whisky journalists and bloggers. Somehow I got on the trip.
The trip began the day before with an evening meeting at Euston station in London, where the assembled guests joined the overnight sleeper train to Inverness. Twelve hours and a few bottles of complimentary Balblair single malt later, we awoke in the capital of the Highlands. There was no hangover, just a nagging dull pain behind the eyes from disturbed sleep in a confined, moving space. This wasn't helped by the minibus driver who collected us and drove us to the distillery, while trying to break the land speed record and choosing an unorthodox 'cross country' route. However, it was helped by a welcoming black coffee and bacon sandwich combo upon arrival at Balblair, plus a good lungful of fresh Highland air.
|The burn at Balblair|
The day began with a tour of the distillery, which was taken by John MacDonald. He has been the Distillery Manager at Balblair since 2006 and this follows 17 years service down the road at Glenmorangie, where he worked his way up through the ranks to the position of Assistant Manager. He puts his current success at Balblair down to the fact that he has done every job within a distillery – warehouseman, mill-man, mash-man, still-man and then senior management. John's passion for the place is immediately evident and he leads us around the distillery and explains what makes it tick. Check out the video below for more information and also the notes from our Distillery Visit last year.
|The Brand Home shop|
|Balblair workers on film|
What is refreshing is Balblair's stance towards the new facility. By naming it as Balblair's Brand Home, rather than as a visitor's centre, they are making a statement. When talking to John MacDonald and other members of the Inver House team at the opening event, they made it clear that they wanted to attract discerning single malt fans and whisky connoisseurs, rather than the bus loads of tourists which the larger distilleries cater for. This philosophy seems to fit in well with Balblair's image, ethos, location and size and should be applauded. It is hoped to be used more as an educational tool about the brand and its vintages, rather than selling high margin goods such as whisky fudge, shortbread and tartan in the gift shop.
1989 and 1978 releases, followed by the stunning 1965 Vintage. This is the oldest Balblair released to date and costs around £1,500 a bottle - it was a phenomenally good dram!
This led on to a wonderful lunch which was cooked and served for us by the Good Highland Food company. A starter of smoked trout terrine was followed by a lovely fillet of Caithness beef and finished off with an extremely chocolatey torte which was infused with Balblair whisky. The lunch was accompanied by a cask strength version of the newly launched Balblair 2001 Vintage, which John described as "my favourite of the younger Vintages released to date".
Then we were ushered back in to the minibus, after vigorous handshaking all round, and whisked back to Inverness by the same driver and at the same speed that we had arrived. I saw some seals basking (if you can do such a thing in Scotland in November) on the shores of the Cromarty Firth and before we knew it, we were at Inverness airport. Whilst checking in we saw movie actress Tilda Swinton, and then had a quick look in the airport's much improved Duty Free shop. A flight and a train later, I arrive back home in north London exactly 24 hours after I had left it. It had been a long but very enjoyable day and one that I was grateful to be part of.