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Balblair 15 year old

Philip Day looks closely at Balblair 15 year old whisky. In addition, Philip covers the history of Balblair and provides his tasting notes. 

Being located near the banks of the beautiful Dornoch Firth, while sitting in the shadow of craggy Struie Hill, in the Northern Highlands of Scotland, means that rarely will you encounter a distillery set in more scenic and unspoilt surroundings than Balblair.

The village of Edderton where the Balblair distillery is situated takes its name from the ancient settlement of ‘Eadar Dun’, meaning ‘between the forts’, while the distillery itself takes its name from the Scots Gaelic words  ‘Baile’ (farm) and ‘a’ Bhlàir’ (flat land, or moorland), hence the closest translation is ‘The Farm on the Moor’. Founded in 1790, Balblair is considered the oldest working distillery in the true heart of the Northern Scottish Highlands

Not far from the distillery stands an ancient standing stone Clach Chairidh (Scots Gaelic: ‘sharp stone’). A landmark for over 4,000 years, it is also known as ‘Clach Biorach’ or ‘The Sharp Stone’, which was used as a meeting place by the ancient race known as the Picts. On the standing stone, they engraved an intriguing Z-rod symbol which is considered to denote the passage of time.

Distillery Manager, John MacDonald cites the influence of the stone for all who work at Balblair:

“Today, this stone reflects our dedication to craftsmanship. We honour century-old traditions by distilling at our own naturally considered pace, creating a whisky that is warm, elegant, and understated. The taste is enduring and full of character, just like those who make it and those discerning enough to drink it.”

“This unique symbol inspires our packaging and reflects our dedication to craftsmanship. Here at Balblair, we believe in quality above all else.”

History:

Founded in 1790 by John Ross, he ran Balblair as a thriving business and in 1824 he was joined by his son, Andrew. The distillery became a true family affair, with the Ross clan running the distillery for some 100 years, before finally selling to Alexander Cowan, a successful wine merchant from Inverness, in 1894.

The following year, the distillery was rebuilt at a new location just half a mile down the road – a strategic move to be closer to the Edderton Railway Station on the Inverness and Ross-shire Railway line. However, although the new location was also close to a ‘burn’, the quality of the water was found not to be nearly as good as that of the distillery’s original source, the Allt Dearg, so the decision was made to continue using the water from the original burn. To this day, the Balblair Distillery continues to use this original water source.

Balblair is famous for being home to one of the oldest archives in distilling. The first ledger entry dated 25 January 1800, was written by John Ross himself, which read: ‘Sale to David Kirkcaldy at Ardmore, one gallon of whisky at £1.8s.0d.’

The early part of the 20th Century was a tough time for all Scottish distilleries, and in 1911 Balblair was forced to close its doors. It did not open again until World War II when it was used for a while as an army base.

In 1948, Robert ‘Bertie’ Cumming, the owner of Old Pulteney, bought the site for some £48,000. 1949 saw the first new make barrelled in decades, and Cumming set to work expanding the plant and increasing production, with the distillery’s first steam boiler and extra warehousing added in 1964.

The hard work paid off and by 1970 Bertie was ready to retire, and Balblair was snapped up by Canada’s Hiram Walker (which later became Allied Distillers). In 1996 the distillery was purchased by Inver House Distillers, who still own it to this day.

Balblair 15 year old

In early 2019, Balblair’s core range received a relaunch, moving away from releasing special limited vintage bottlings, which had been their focus since 2007, launching instead a core range of age statemented whiskies with an emphasis on super premium quality. At the time, Inver House Distillers described the move as ‘a new era for Balblair.’

The core range, all bottled at 46% ABV includes 12, 15, 18 and 25 Year Old expressions.

Distillery manager John MacDonald related:

“As one of the oldest working distilleries in the Scottish Highlands, Balblair has a long and rich history of crafting premium single malt Scotch whisky. Our new collection is intrinsically linked to our heritage and is testament to the place and the people behind our whisky, while   being emblematic of our ‘True Highland Spirit’.”

It’s this rich history and heritage that truly makes Balblair one of the jewels in the crown of Scottish whisky distilleries.

The Distillery Manager: John MacDonald

The Balblair website states:

“Our Distillery Manager, John MacDonald, is an exceptionally talented, driven and, above all, patient man. Truth be told, he’d have to be, as our fine single malts won’t be rushed. By anyone.”

A native Highlander, John has always had an in-built appreciation and respect for whisky-making, and has dedicated his entire working life to the craft.

Since leaving college some 17 years ago, John has learned about every aspect of whisky-making. He went from warehouse boy to mill-man to mash-man, and then still-man, before finishing up as the Assistant Distillery Manager.

“When in 2006, the post of Distillery Manager became available at Balblair, John jumped at the chance. After all, this was his dream job, having always been a huge admirer of Balblair whisky, the distillery and its location.”

Production:

Balblair makes use of several varieties of barley with minimal peat levels of 1-2 PPM, The company’s silos have a 30 tonne collective capacity, which means that the distillery can continue to operate self-sufficiently for up to 3 weeks even under the worst winter conditions. At Balblair, one tonne of barley is turned into just over 400 litres of spirit and about 1.3 million litres of new make spirit is produced annually.

Mashing (in stainless steel semi-lauter Mash tun) is undertaken over a six hour time frame in three stages: firstly at 65°C, secondly at 82°C and finally at 92°C. This slower natural drainage system helps imbue the Balblair spirit with its fruit driven characteristics by unlocking the fatty compounds in the sugary mash wort.

Fermentation takes place in six traditional Pine Oregon wash-backs, each containing 21,500 litres of fermenting liquid at different times in the process. The fermentation period is one of the longest in the industry, which allows the micro-flora bacteria contained in the wood of the wash-backs to impart a secondary minor fermentation, which results in additional notes to the new make. A slightly sulphurous note helps to bring those delicate, delicious fruitiness to the fore, while a certain meaty aspect brings about sweet toffee notes, together with a prominent spiciness after extended ageing.

Distillation is performed in two large stills, one wash and one spirit, which have very large, bulbous bases with thick necks to achieve the heavier, robust and oily spirit preferred by Balblair. Lyne arms run through the still-room wall to copper condensers that then cool the distillate vapour back into liquid new make spirit ready for Cask maturation.

“It is our hands-on approach that gives our whisky its distinctive taste and character. By storing our casks in traditional, earthen-floored dunnage warehouses, we ensure a perfect environment for a slow and gentle maturation. The result is a whisky that is elegantly understated, yet quietly self-assured.” 

The Balblair Core Age Statement Range:

The new Age Statement range from Balblair features 12, 15, 18 and 25 year old expressions.

House Style:

“Every Scotch whisky distillery is different. From its location and water source, to its still shape and wood policy. These are all determining factors in how a whisky tastes.

The Balblair collection is intriguingly complex and satisfying. We capture the intense esters at the start of the spirit cut to give our Whisky the core characteristics of apricots, oranges, spices, floral notes and green apples. The heavier oils and lipids at the end of the cut are also captured,     giving leathery, nutty and full-bodied characteristics.”

 

Balblair 15 year old

The elegant and approachable Balblair 12 Year Old is the first whisky in the Balblair Collection which has been matured in a combination of double-fired American oak casks and ex-bourbon casks. The result is a whisky with a warm, complex character and a sweet, citrusy aroma. The palate offers notes of oranges, honey and cinnamon before a long, creamy finish with hints of vanilla and leather.

Balblair 15 year old

The second whisky in the Balblair Collection, Balblair 15 Year Old is a full-bodied, velvety single malt that has been matured in ex-bourbon casks and finished in first-fill Spanish oak butts. This creates a rich, sweet whisky with spicy aromas of honey, gingerbread and prunes. The palate is velvety-smooth and full of dark chocolate, tropical fruit and warm spice notes.

Balblair 18 Year Old is the third whisky in the Balblair Collection, which has been matured in ex-bourbon casks before being finished in first-fill Spanish oak butts. The result is an alluring, rich and autumnal, single malt with a rich toffee and pear aroma, hinting at warm spices and leather. The palate offers notes of ripe apricots and raisins balanced by toasted oak and vanilla custard, before a long, warming finish filled with hints of fresh spices.

Balblair 15 year old

For over a quarter of a century, the final expression in the range Balblair 25 Year Old, has developed and mellowed, concentrating all those delicious characteristic Balblair notes of orange and apricot, becoming full-bodied and indulgent and brimming with the dark intensity of chocolate praline and spices.

Matured initially in American oak ex-bourbon casks, the whisky is then transferred for a second ageing period in Spanish oak butts for exceptional complexity.

A Balblair 17 Year Old expression is also available to travellers at Duty Free outlets. (For further information see website.)

Let’s look at the second expression in detail:

 Balblair 15 Year Old

(2020 Balblair Collection)

Matured initially in American oak ex-bourbon casks, followed by the rich influence of first fill Spanish oak butts.

Tasting Notes (Supplied by Balblair):

Colour:      Bright amber (natural colour)

 Aroma:      Leather, wood honey and spicy gingerbread followed by juicy prunes and fresh lemon peel

Taste:        Velvety in texture, bursting with dark chocolate, tropical fruit and spices. A flavour which is subtly complex.

Finish:       Long and mellow, with notes of creamy vanilla and citrus

Personal tasting notes (Official sample kindly provided by Balblair through Burt Greener Communications)

Aroma:      Engagingly sweet notes of caramel and vanilla with fruity aromas, notably dried raisins and citrus with a pleasantly appealing spicy punch in the background. Hints of wood shavings, old leather and a slight maltiness

Taste:        A stylish, well-rounded, mouth feel. After an initial wave of creamy vanilla custard, sweet apple purée, dried fruit with a hint of bitter orange marmalade develop. This is followed up by a spicy ginger and cinnamon burr with a subtle light oak undertone. A good balance of fruit sweetness and spice.

Finish:       A medium-long, mellow finish, with enduring notes of creamy vanilla and citrus led fruitiness, with warmth and a little dryness from enticing wood and spice.

The very fact that allowing the whisky to fully mature in the first fill Spanish oak butts has given the spirit time to interact with the wood, instilling it with a unique character.

In short, the maturation period has created a well-rounded layered classic dram. The creaminess and the spiced fruity notes make it very accessible, at a reasonable price point.

ABV: 46%  non-chill-filtered/ 70 cl

RRP: £ 72

To sum up: the individual maturation periods of the four iterations of Balblair have created four distinctly different but excellent classic drams, suitable for fans of previous Balblair ranges or someone who wants to try something more distinctive than supermarket blended whiskies on their journey of whisky discovery but is afraid of paying over the odds.

All these whisky expressions are well priced and easily compare to other high-end expressions for which you would pay considerably more.

The latest ‘Balblair Collection’ releases are available to purchase from specialist whisky retailers.

(Please note that the price in international markets may vary as a result of additional local taxes and import duties.)

 

Awards:

12 Years Old

  • San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2020 – Gold
  • International Wine & Spirits Competition 2019 – Silver
  • International Spirits Challenge 2019 – Silver

15 Years Old

  • San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2020 – Gold
  • International Wine & Spirits Competition 2019 – Silver
  • International Spirits Challenge 2019 – Silver

 

18 Years Old

  • International Wine & Spirits Competition 2019 – Gold
  • International Spirits Challenge 2019 – Gold

 

25 Years Old

  • International Wine & Spirits Competition 2019 – Gold
  • International Spirits Challenge 2019 – Silver

 

The distillery has a visitor centre. Open all year to visitors. For further information see website.

Owing to the current ongoing pandemic crisis distillery tours are not currently available.

 

Address:            Balblair Distillery, Edderton, Tain, Ross-Shire, Scotland, IV19 1LB

Telephone:        +44 (0)1862 821273

Email:                 n/a

Facebook:          @balblair

Twitter:              @balblairwhisky

Instagram:        balblairwhisky

Website:            https://www.balblair.com

 

References:

https://www.balblair.com

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balblair_distillery

http://www.worldwhiskiesawards.com

https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=7189

https://canmore.org.uk/site/14653/clach-chairidh-edderton

Press release care of Burt Greener Communications

 

Images:    Kindly provided with thanks by Burt Greener Communications

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