“You’ve got to be very careful with the people you drink with, you know. We met some people last night, strangers, and it’s very bad sometimes because you never know how they’re going to be able to handle their booze. They kept stepping on my fingers all night long!
– Frank Sinatra, Seattle, 1957
Okay, so the quote has nothing to do with whisky in general, or Balblair specifically, I just found it funny! I still chuckle reading about the “strangers” who can’t handle their drink stepping on Frank’s fingers!
Anyway, for the real reason we’re here, we’re going to review a Balblair single malt whisky from the very picturesque northern Highlands distillery seen in the image below.
Balblair is somewhat unique in their marketing approach. Starting in 2007, Balblair eliminated age statements on their bottles and began releasing their whiskies as “Vintages” based on the year the whisky was laid down. While most of the recent vintages have been circa 10 year-old, this approach allows Balblair some flexibility with the timing and components that go into the Vintage releases. Balblair is also releasing all of their whiskies without chill-filtration or the addition of any e150a coloring, so kudos to them!
The Balblair distillery was formally established in 1790 by John Ross, although there are notations going back to 1749 about whisky from the area. Balblair remained in the Ross family until 1894 when the tenancy was taken over by Alexander Cowan. Shortly after taking over the distillery Cowan relocated the distillery about a half-mile from its original site to take advantage of the newly completed railway serving the Highlands and offering improved delivery to the key markets in the south and in England.
Unfortunately, financial difficulties for Cowan caused the closure of the distillery in 1911, and it remained closed through the Second World War. After remaining mothballed for decades, the distillery was ultimately put up for sale in 1941 and was finally purchased by Robert Cumming in 1948. Production restarted in 1949 and Balblair has been producing whisky continuously since that time.
According to the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014, Balblair operates with a single stainless steel mash tun, six Oregon pine washbacks and one pair of stills, although there is an unused third still that reportedly has been in need of repairs for many years…! Balblair maintains eight on-site dunnage warehouses with a total capacity of 26,000 casks. The distillery has a production capacity of 1.8 million litres per year and is currently running 21 mashes per week, effectively putting them at full production capacity.
Review: Balblair Vintage 2002, 1st Release
The whisky we are sampling today, Balblair 2002, was released in 2012. This whisky was distilled in 2002 and bottled in 2012 so it is effectively a 10 year-old whisky, although Balblair identifies the whisky by its vintage, not its age. This whisky was matured almost exclusively in American Oak ex-Bourbon casks and bottled at 46%, non chill-filtered and without the addition of e150a coloring….but given the color of this whisky in the glass, that is not a real surprise!
Color: Very pale, bright golden yellow
Nose: Floral and fruity – cut flowers, very grassy, some red apple skins and orange rind, malty and maybe even a yeasty note, a good deal of fresh oak, a touch of honey, a note of fresh ginger. The nose is “fresh” in many ways, but also has a subtle earthiness and a soft “coastalness”. Water increases the grassy notes – fresh hay, adds a hint of green bell peppers, but there is still that oaky, malty, yeasty aspect that seems to hold center stage.
Taste: Soft buttery start, lemon honey, vanilla, ginger, hints of the fruits. It grows slightly hot and a bit acidic toward the mid-palate. Lemon juice, orange zest, just a dash of saltiness. With a few drops of water, this one becomes even softer and much sweeter. The heat has all but disappeared and this one becomes very gentle, maybe a tad too gentle – full of sweet vanilla and honey, lemon zest, a soft maltiness, confectioners sugar, a dash of lemon juice, green apples, and banana. There is a saltiness that shows up late. Softly oily body.
Finish: Lemon-citrus, vanilla, a dusting of cocoa powder. Water brings out more vanilla that leads to a citric, salty-sweet ending.
Overall: This is a difficult one to really gauge, for me. The flavors are nicely developed; there is a nice richness to the body; the finish is nice and reasonably long, but I guess it comes down to a slight lack of complexity or any sharp edges or expansive, individual personality that might make this whisky just a bit more interesting. At our club tasting, many of the folks adored this one, but again, they also commented on how “nice” this tasted – there was no clarity about exactly what made this whisky “nice”.
For me, personally, I have to say that I liked the Vintage 2000 1st Release slightly better than this one; the Vintage 2000 seemed livelier and more expressive than this release. This 2002 version comes across as slightly confused or muddled; the strong grassiness, and particularly the salty taste and finish was just a tad out-of-balance relative to the earlier Vintages I’ve tried.
Region: Northern Highlands
Type: Single Malt
Age: Vintage 2002, 1st Release, Bottled 2012 (L12-347-18-212/512-08:17) so +/- 10 years old
ABV: 46% (non-chill filtered)
Maturation: Predominantly American Oak ex-bourbon casks
Price: Approximately $55 (Total Wine)
Availability: Readily Available
Sample Source: My own bottle
Malt Whisky Yearbook 2014, Ingvar Ronde, MagDig Media, Ltd.