For many years Balblair was just one of Inver House’s blending malts. Pulteney was the starred single malt. Balblair disappeared into lesser-known blends as Inverhouse, Hankey Bannister, MacArthur’s and the whiskey liqueur Heather Cream. Only 5 percent was sold as single malt, from 1998 onwards called Elements with the exclamation: “A spirit of the air”.
In February 2007, Balblair was reborn as single malt. The Northern Highlands distiller got a vintage stamp (like Glenrothes) but retained its status as a 10-year-old. Pulteney remains flagship brand and Balblair is offered to connoisseurs. Both are popular in France and Germany. The new round bottle, in the premiere marked 1997, was sunk into a square box adorned with Struie Hills in morning light. The 18-year from 1989 had the same motive draped in late afternoon haze and the near 30-year got a beautiful purple twilight hue. An extensive screening work was carried out to find the right casks. Of the 1062 candidates screened distillery manager John Macdonald and blender Stuart Harvey chose 81 casks to the three releases. Only 7.5% made it into the bottles!
All tasting notes of Balblair is published in the May edition.
– Balblair is a super whisky, says Harvey. It has won many awards over the years. We wanted to do something extra for the malt, the old bottles felt dusty. The goal was to present the very best from a sovereign distillery, hence the idea of vintages that enables us to pick out the prime casks for each release.
The distillery keep four vintages rolling, from the standard and premium editions to more luxury ones. 2015 saw a 10-year-old from 2005 replacing the previous 2003, who in turn succeeded the 2001. Doing vintages has primarily affected the selection process – how to assemble different casks to a whisky, explains Harvey:
– In the past, we looked for uniformity. Each batch of the 10- or 16-year-old would taste like its predecessor. Casks that deviated in style were hidden in the masses. Now, these unique barrels can be put together and be enjoyed on their own.
John Macdonald clarifies:
– It’s all about vintage whisky. Each cask is assessed individually for its own merits, if it gets into the bottle that’s fine, otherwise it may get another chance a few years on. For the marketing people, it is a nightmare. The volume is determined only when the product is done. We can only sell what we have, no more.
It all starts at the distillery in Edderton when manager John Macdonald selects individual casks and send samples to the lab in Glasgow where Stuart Harvey put together the very best and creates the vintage release.
– The rejected casks are still there and will get another chance next time we look at a certain vintage.
The Balblair crew leave nothing to chance. John Macdonald sniffs through every single cask from the chosen year. He sits in the boardroom and selects the best candidates, only crème-de-la-crème. The job is tedious.
– I rate each sample 1-2-3. And take down descriptors. If the whisky has lots of toffee or vanilla. If it’s too woody. Or bland, lacks character. Especially older vintages can have problems, way back they didn’t have the same emphasis on wood quality we do today.
When John Macdonald is done, he sends the list of chosen casks to the blending complex in Airdrie.
– I pick the diamonds, Stuart makes the polish. 1989 has been a good year we returned to several times. First, a 18 year-old, then 21 and now a 23-year. Surplus casks are not bad in any way, they just haven’t reached optimum maturity, they will remain in the warehouses for us to investigate in years to come.
Balblair has a tremendous record of sampled casks. An ongoing sampling campaign. The driving force is the sales. As soon as a vintage runs low it all starts again. The cask inventory is examined again to find a replacement of the same age.
John McDonald’s personal favourite right now is the 22-year from 1990.
– The nose is so amazing. An exquisite example of the balance between bourbon and sherry oak. The finish is just glorious. A very satisfying dram. 1983 was also a wonderful vintage. The oak had not reduced or overpowered the distillate. The casks were incredibly vivid. Proving that Balblair can cope with lengthy maturing without becoming woody.