Balblair distillery (pronounced: bal-BLAIR) is one of a small clutch of coastal distilleries in the eastern highlands, and 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...
Balblair distillery (pronounced: bal-BLAIR) is one of a small clutch of coastal distilleries in the eastern highlands, and 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-flavoured and refreshingly coastal style of spirit it produces.
Founded: 1790 Stills: 1 Wash 1 Spirit Water Source: Ben Dearg Capacity: 1.8 Million Litres Owners: Inver House (Thai Beverages plc)
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.
After buying the distillery in 1996, Inver House instigated a more rigorous and simple wood policy that involved better cask selection for filling and bottling. The (very positive) results of this policy were seen in the younger iterations of a long-running series of vintage whiskies that were eventually replaced with a more conventional age-statement range in 2019.
Some of the earliest bottlings of Balblair were done under license by Gordon & MacPhail in the 1970s, mostly 8-year-olds and 10-year-olds 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 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 were also some stunning official aged expressions bottled at exceptionally 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, and are well worth trying if you can find them.
The other previous official expressions were a range of one NAS and several aged bottlings that were discontinued around 2007. These were all fine whiskies and the ‘vintage’ series that replaced them was more of a step sideways than forward, although dropping chill filtration and caramel combined with higher bottling strengths was a revelation for Balblair. As a naturally oily distillate, Balblair suffers more than most from 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 - in fact, in many ways it is surprisingly close in spirit 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.