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Balblair distillery (pronounced: bal-BLAIR) is one of a small clutch of coastal distilleries in the eastern highlands, along with the likes of Old Pulteney and Clynelish it produces a muscular, drier, coastal style of whisky that is quite specific and old style in today’s whisky world of wood technology, finishes and mass production. It is a style of whisky that once discovered and appreciated is not soon forgotten or ignored. Balblair has won itself many fans over the years for the full flavored and refreshingly coastal style of spirit it produces.
Stills: 1 Wash 1 Spirit
Water Source: Ben Dearg
Capacity: 1.33 Million Litres
Owners: Inver House (Pacific Spirits)
1960-Present: Slow Evolution.
Although there was some expansion of capacity at Balblair in the late sixties and some of the intensity of its character was diminished slightly in the ensuing decades, in many ways Balblair has remained fairly unchanged by comparison to many other distilleries. It still has relatively long ferments in wooden washbacks which helps to retain quite a bit of fruity character in the otherwise quite oily spirit. Since buying the distillery in 1996 Inver House have also instigated a more rigorous and simple wood policy that involved better cask selection for filling and bottling. The results of this can be seen in recent younger bottlings and in the theme of ‘vintage’ whisky that they have adopted as a marketing scheme.
Some of the earliest bottlings of Balblair were ones done under license by Gordon & MacPhail in the 1970s. There were versions at 8 and 10 years and also at different strengths. These showed Balblair at its oiliest with big notes of honey, green fruits and salt. They are robust whiskies with quite ballsy profiles, although they remain oddly sexy which is unusual for such otherwise old school distillates. There are some versions with a greater proportion of sherry in the mix, these display more flinty, mineral notes and come across as being a little more lush and composed.
There are also some stunning official aged expressions that were bottled at exceedingly fair prices in the early 2000s. These are wonderfully fresh and lively aged whiskies with bags of coastal and fruit character that make them endlessly evolving spirits when in the glass. These were the bottlings that opened many peoples eyes to how good Balblair could be, they are well worth trying if at all possible. The other official expressions were the range of one NAS and several aged bottlings that were discontinued around 2007. These were all fine whiskies and the new ‘vintage’ series in revamped dumpy packaging with higher prices was more of a step sideways than forward. Although the new adherence to non-chill filtration and no caramel combined with higher bottling strengths was a revelation for Balblair. Being quite a naturally oily distillate it suffers more than most from the practices of excessive chill filtering.
The character of Balblair these days is dominated largely by soft fruit complexities, strong honey aspects and background notes of salt, coastal freshness and a little drying oak, it is surprisingly close in spirit in many ways to some of those stunning old G&M bottlings. What is obvious is that the people at Inver House do actually care about their whiskies as they are making big efforts with both Old Pulteney and An Cnoc as well as Balblair and these efforts are paying off with many great, natural and expressive bottlings. Long may they continue in this vein.