It’s Balblair’s ill fortune to be located less than 5 miles from Glenmorangie, its rather better-known neighbour, and somewhat off the main road north; to be late into the single malt market and to be owned by one of the industry’s smaller companies, lacking the marketing and distribution muscle of its larger competitors.
But none of this means you should ignore it, because there is much of interest to be found there.
As to its history, records of distilling here go back to 1749, shortly after the suppression of the Jacobite Rising, though the distillery officially claims a date of 1790 for its foundation. For around 100 years it was operated as a typical small farm distillery by one James Ross and descendents. Ross is a common surname locally, and the distillery makes much of the fact that four out of the seven current employees share the surname. Charming, but entirely irrelevant of course!
In 1894, Alexander Cowan, an Inverness wine merchant, took on the farm tenancy and extensively modernised the distillery. The following year he was responsible for moving it half a mile north to its current location to take advantage of the new railway, which brought coal for the stills and boiler and barley for the malting right to the distillery siding. The present offices, still house, mash house, kiln and barns were Cowan’s work, but production ceased in 1911 and was not to resume until after WW2.
In 1948 Robert James “Bertie” Cumming, a solicitor from Banff, bought the distillery for £48,000, only for it to be sold again in 1970 to Hiram Walker, the company that became Allied Distillers. They at least undertook further expansion but in 1996 ownership passed to Inver House Distillers, who were themselves acquired by Pacific Spirits UK in 2001, which company was the subject of a further acquisition in 2006 by International Beverage Holdings (InterBev), a Thai drinks company.
Phew! It’s bewildering stuff, but this process of constantly changing ownership has affected a number of Scotland’s less-known distilleries – quite often, it’s why they’re lesser known. Generally speaking, their owners tend to have significant interests in blended brands and are happy for the distilleries to maintain a low profile and just keep on making single malt for blending.
All that changed for Balblair with InterBev’s arrival on the scene. They saw the rapid growth of the single malt market and, with at least some of their senior management having experience of this category, saw the potential in Balblair.
They also saw that Balblair would need a point of difference to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. So, in 2007, the decision was made to launch Balblair as a single malt using vintages, rather than age statements. Back then this might have seemed a little gimmicky but it’s looking like an increasingly smart marketing decision now as much of the rest of the industry starts to run out of stock at specific ages (generally the older aged whisky) and has begun telling drinkers that what really matters is not the age of the whisky but how it has been stored and blended.
At this point, I should break off to explain that even most ‘single malt’ is a blend of different aged casks, albeit exclusively from one distillery, and the age on the label is the age of the youngest whisky in there. Only a single cask single malt therefore can truly be said to be unblended. But you probably knew that, so back to the story.
Today the distillery offers a range of vintages, ranging from the rare (and rather expensive – it’s $3,500 – but there are fewer than 1,000 bottles) 1969 vintage to the youthful 2002 (expect to pay around $60-65). There are generally 5 different vintages available in what the distillery call their ‘core’ range, with further expressions exclusively reserved for tax free outlets. There are also occasional limited releases.
Since the range was launched the decision has been made to drop any addition of caramel; to bottle without chill filtration and to keep the strength at 46% abv unless, as in the case of the 1969 vintage, the cask strength has dropped below that mark.
The distillery is still quite traditional in operation and has held on to its wooden wash backs and dunnage warehouses. The stills (there are only two) are short and squat in shape, capturing not only the fruity intense esters at the start of the spirit cut (giving characteristics of apricots, oranges, spices, floral and green apples) but also the heavier oils at the end giving leather, nutty and full bodied characteristics.
Balblair uses an unpeated malt and the style is spicy and fruity, with a medium weight body and sustained finish with hints of smoke. Each vintage is, of course, different but you will likely find plenty of vanilla notes, citrus zests, fresh fruits and floral character, giving way to complex spice and nutty flavours. If you don’t yet know this whisky it’s definitely one to explore if you like a well-mannered, nicely balanced dram that makes for easy drinking yet can be savoured for its complex and layered taste.
Also to be explored is the new ‘brand home’ as Balblair style their visitor centre. This was opened late in 2011 and was a very welcome sign of Inver House’s further commitment to the brand. It’s not the biggest or most glamorous of Scotland’s centres but can be combined on a day’s visit with a stop at Glenmorangie and nearby Clynelish (about 25 miles further north). If you were feeling really ambitious, had a designated driver and could make an early start, it’s possible to conclude your road trip at another Inver House distillery, Old Pulteney, around 50 miles further on from Clynelish at Wick.
That would be four interesting and really quite different northern Highland distilleries in what would be a fascinating visit, contrasting the widely available Glenmorangie with three lesser known neighbours.
If you take nothing else away from Balblair, though, be sure not to leave without your own bottle from the cask in the brand home: your ‘private vintage’ and a memory of a little-known distillery that you won’t now overlook.
© Ian Buxton 2013