I’ve been a fan of Balblair since the first time I tasted the 2001 vintage a few years ago. It’s a very ur–Highland malt, embodying all the flavors and textures idealized in the style, and because the brand tends to fly under the radar, I thought there might be something to discover by visiting. I couldn’t have asked for a more atmospheric setting. Starting from before I hit Inverness, the drive north to Balblair took me through fairy-tale level mists: The sea haar had descended with a vengeance and didn’t lift till well past midday. Winding past Tain and along the road to wee Edderton, there were signs for Pictish stones left and right, and indeed I felt as though at any moment I’d drive right into the past, the hidden houses and roadways just disappearing completely.
It didn’t help that Balblair is just plain hard to find. Unlike with many other distilleries in Scotland, there weren’t any helpful brown signs indicating I was headed in the right direction, and the site wasn’t listed in my atlas either. As for the GPS: It’ll take you to the postcode, sure, but when the postcode covers the entire village—and the fog is obscuring everything more than six feet away—finding the long driveway to the distillery can be a challenge.
But at last I stumbled upon it. The distillery is very picturesque (you might remember it from The Angels’ Share) and supposedly offers stunning views directly overlooking the Dornoch Firth. But with the haar obscuring everything, the site had quite an otherworldly quality that morning. And as the only visitor on the tour, I did get a little frisson of anticipation as the guide and I walked through the mist to the different buildings.
The distillery’s history is long with the usual acquisitions and complications that occur over the span of 300+ years. It was founded about a half-mile from where it sits now in 1790 (though there are records of distilling dating to 1749) by John Ross. In 1894, his descendant, James Ross, turned over the tenancy to an Inverness merchant named Alexander Cowan, who moved to the present distillery site a year later. Production stopped in 1911, and during WWII the army took over the buildings. Finally, in 1949, production resumed under the ownership of Robert Cumming, who also owned Pulteney distillery. Hiram Walker (the company, of course, not the man) bought the distillery in 1970, and in 1996, Inver House acquired it. (Inver House was later bought by ThaiBev and is now part of InterBev.)
Although Balblair once upon a time bottled age-statement single malts, in 2007 it began releasing vintages instead. As the promotional video in the visitors’ center assures, “Our whisky tells us when it’s ready, not the other way around.” About 15% to 20% of the annual production of 1.8 million liters is bottled as single malt; the rest goes into blends. Balblair replaced their stills a few years ago, and you can see the welding marks. They had to take the roof off the stillhouse in order to bring the stills in by crane. (I think at the same time they removed a disused third still which had hung around collecting dust since it was retired in the 1960s, because I didn’t see it in the stillhouse though it’s referenced in various blogs and writings.)
Balblair mainly uses ex-bourbon casks and they’re all stored on site in eight warehouses. As at a few other distilleries on this trip, which took place in July 2014, the tour guide breathlessly informed me that America is about to change its laws on bourbon production and allow distillers to use their barrels more than once, which would spell utter disaster (or at least more expensive barrels) for the Scotch industry. After pondering this puzzling rumor for a few days, I realized that it must have originated with Diageo’s attempts to get Tennessee to change its laws about what constitutes Tennessee whiskey.
In short, Diageo owns the George Dickel Tennessee whiskey brand and would very much like to be able to reuse its barrels to age spirit. Rival brand Jack Daniel’s got a state law passed in 2013 that mandated, among other things, that those trying to sell their product as Tennessee whiskey could use new, charred-oak barrels only once. (Products labeled as bourbon have to follow the same kind of rule.) Diageo, with the support of some small craft producers in Tennessee, sought to change the law, ostensibly out of goodwill for those craft distillers and the noble aspiration to make whiskey without restrictions on creativity, and not at all because it would save them money.
This whole situation had been raising a stink in American whiskey country over the past year and, apparently, in Scotland too. Jack Daniel’s is the leading American whiskey brand in the world, and while it tries very hard to distinguish itself as not bourbon, few non-Americans (and not a few Americans, including the TTB, maybe) make the distinction. Hence the misunderstanding about a potential bourbon barrel shortage that I heard at several distilleries in the same week—a situation which, by the way, has since been put to rest. (By the way, I know that’s a lot of Chuck Cowdery links, but no one else can put into context so well the complicated intermingling of the Scotch and American whiskey industries.)
Back to Scotch whisky. Balblair bottles all its vintages at 46% abv, which really benefits the hefty complexity of the whisky. After the tour, you get a free pour of something tasty and then pay for each dram you’d like thereafter, receiving a generous serving. This is a sensible option since the brand’s vintage model means there are no standard expressions to taste through, and with the prices well below what you’d pay in a pub, visitors can stretch a little and try some of the older options. The guide was even kind enough to put my dram in a bottle so I could enjoy it later, when I didn’t have to drive.
Balblair 1999 2nd Release (bottled 2014)
With a nose of fresh apples and pears, honey and vanilla, the palate gives way to caramel apples, walnuts, vanilla, white sugar and a spicy finish. I bought a liter of this one at duty-free on my way home to New York, and it’s one of my favorite bottles right now.
Balblair 1990 2nd Release (bottled 2013)
The aromas this gives off are all dessert: honey, vanilla, cherries, caramel and sugar cookies. The taste is all chocolate and chocolate covered cherries, as well as a lovely baklava note of walnuts with honey.