I’ve only ever used the sleeper train back to Scotland once before. It’s the constant shunting, stopping and general cramped conditions that conspire to ensure my 6′ 2″ frame arrives far from “fresh” and ready to embrace the day ahead. So when the invitation to visit the Balblair distillery landed in my inbox I winced a little to see sleeper train up, flight back the next day on the itinerary. However, i should have not bothered packing the overnight bag with an eye-mask, earplugs and a feather pillow (I’m picky about where I rest my head) as the company joining me on board would ensure we saw little of sleep and plenty of whisky.
The finer details I will leave out for now, but I’m sure it’s not the first time that 10 adults, four and a half bottles of whisky and a carpet picnic from M&S has managed to squeeze into two adjacent 4×7 cabins. We did discover the lounge carriage a little later in the evening, only to be told in no uncertain terms that “this was NOT a party train!” This direction, delivered by the guard, was shortly after all ten of us rolled into the carriage and purchased all of the whisky miniatures from the bar. I think he saw how the night could play out, or maybe it was the sight of Miss Whisky in her PJ’s that had him reconsidering the opening hours.
Balblair distillery is just under and hour from Inverness airport and on route, you pass Dalmore and Glenmorangie as you head across the Black Isle. If you keep going, you will reach Old Pulteney which, as you will know, is one of my favourite of all whiskies and is also owned by InterBev, who have Balblair, AnCnoc and Speyburn making up their single malts portfolio. As we stepped from the coach, my slightly delicate state made me announce that the only thing that could start this day on the right footing was a bacon roll and a dram…well, as we entered the small dining room and there laid out in front of us was exactly that – bacon rolls and Balblair. Now thats how to host!
Balblair has seen quite a bit of press over the last few years. Firstly, in 2007 they decided to have a wee make-over. Radically (for the scotch industry) dispensing with age statements and the traditional bottle and label, they set about releasing only vintages. As distillery manage John MacDonald said “The whisky tells us when its ready”. I loved the new packaging when I first saw it, and now with a few delicate tweaks here and there it still stands out as one of the best designed bottles and packaging of any whisky. There seems to be a deep-set, almost tangible provenance to the bottle when you hold it, something inherently historic yet edgy and modern…how exactly do you create that?
Another reason Balblair has hit the headlines was more recently when Ken Loach requested use of the distillery as the location for his whisky film “Angles Share”, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes film festival this year. Brand manager Andy Hannah said it was a great opportunity and seeing the distillery on-screen was not only wonderful exposure for the brand, but for the whisky industry in general. Lets face it, there aren’t many whisky movies out there and my copy of Whisky Galore has seen better days. There was another little surprise for the gathered group of journalists, bloggers and professional drinkers as the industries most respected writer and whisky historian, Charlie MaClean joined us. Charlie actually makes a cameo appearance in the film and until filming began, he hadn’t ever visited Balblair so it was a fresh experience for us all. Sit with a dram and ask Charlie a question, and he can entertain you for hours with great stories and whisky anecdotes, thankfully not in a geeky way!
Next, we were shown the new shop and visitors exhibition and given the opportunity to bottle our own single cask ’92 Balblair! Drawing your very own whisky from the cask, bottling it, labelling it and sealing it really is great fun and after, when I stood back to admire my new proudest possession, I couldn’t help but imagine the day I pop the cork and share it around, a day not too far off I suspect.
So, tour over, bottling done, new friends made and it was time to get down to the serious business of the new release tasting. Three in total, Vintage ’02, ’75 and ’69 (the latter of that trio is not actually released yet so it was a sneak preview) were laid out along with the current releases of ’01, ’89 and ’78.
The 1975 vintage replaces the 1978 as the oldest and most prestigious (for now) vintage in the core range. It is the first time a vintage has enjoyed a second release but with a distinctly different liquid style from the original; whereas the first release was laid down in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks, the second release is aged in American oak ex-sherry casks.
Balblair Single Malt 1975 Vintage
Non-chill filtered 46% abv
Appearance: Warm gold with bright straw
Nose: Deep earthy and rich tropical notes bust out which calm to reveal worn leather, brittle toffee and flamed orange peel. As the nose airs drifts of bow resin, old oak sap roasted nut and raisins dusted with cocoa play around.
Palate: As expected the richness draws you in with heady ingredients of buttery nut oil, earthy spices and ripe tropical fruits before a delicate rise of citrus cleans through. Wonderfully complex and appealing.
Finish: It’s all about the fruits here, lingering and shifting from rich to citrus and back again. Joyous.
As for the other two samples tasted, I took initial tasting notes and have popped them down below, but hope to upload a fuller description soon.
The 02 vintage:
Appearance: Bright with straw
Nose: Light straw and runny honey with vibrant green leaf, unripe peach and apricot. Huge lift of green apple and light floral notes.
Palate: Light spice of cinnamon and fresh oak with peppery grip before lighter honey and stone fruit flows through.
69 vintage: 42 yr old. RRP £1500
Appearance: Warm gold with bright flecks.
Nose: Multiple layers of rich fruit both common and tropical. The complex nose shifts and changes constantly. Marmalade and Dundee cake, linseed oil and putty with Rancio notes mixed with warm antique yacht varnish. When the initial rich and heady nose calms, floral honeysuckle and jasmine emerge.
Palate: Complex from the outset. Rich, warm and very inviting fruity notes, with a coffee/date dryness. Throughout, always a fresh element of citrus lifting the richness away from becoming clawing on the palate. Lingering light spice, candied fruit peel and a curious dry smoke element, almost peat like which makes you wonder if this particular bottling had seen some peat from those days when they malted on sight.
If you are not familiar with the Balblair range, then I suggest you try some straight away. Recent vintages are lively and fruity with a typically “coastal” edge to the character whilst the older examples thicken and become enriched, yet still manage a degree of freshness. There are plenty of releases to buy here.