Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…
Balblair was originally established by the Ross family in 1790 which makes it one of the oldest operational distilleries in the northeast of Scotland. The Rosses relied heavily on local trade, with hotels and public houses taking up almost everything the distillery could produce. This was fairly typical for the time, since long distance trade simply wasn’t an option prior to the arrival of the railway.
Even when the transportation of casks by rail became possible, Balblair had its problems. Expansion was required to keep up with demand but the distillery had been established within buildings that stood on leased land and erecting new structures on land that belonged to someone else didn’t make much business sense. The distillery survived, however, until the lease came to an end in 1894. At that time, Balblair was operated by a James Ross. An agreement between Ross and the landowner for a renewal, or sale of the land itself, failed to be reached but the distiller wasn’t to be undone. Ross stripped his equipment from the leased buildings and left for pastures new, leaving behind a derelict site of very little value. A new plot of land was found nearby and this time, purchased outright, giving him full ownership of the land. Soon a bigger and better version of Balblair was up and running.
Fearing that a nearby stream was of poorer quality than the original water source, Ross decided to continue to pull his requirements from the Ault Dearg burn. The distillery continues to use the same water today, meaning the burn has served Balblair continually, despite the distillery having had two different locations.
Perhaps seeking to recoup what must have been a sizeable outlay in securing the future of Balblair, Ross decided to sell the business, ending more than a century of family involvement. It was taken over first by Alexander Cowan before passing to Robert Cumming in 1948 and later being acquired, in the 1970s, by Hiram Walker. Current owner, Inver House Distillers took over in 1996.
Balblair 12-year-old Single Malt
Until fairly recently, Balblair’s single malt was famous for its vintage bottlings, which favoured a year of distillation, rather than an age statement. That practice ended in 2019, however, when it was announced that the brand was relaunching with a new core range that opted for a more traditional, age-stated, presentation. At the forefront of the range was a 12-year-old, bottled at 46% abv. I was a fan of the old vintage bottlings, but confess I haven’t really had the chance to become acquainted with the new stuff yet. Time to do something about that, thanks to a sample purchased via Drinks by the Dram on Master of Malt.
The whisky was matured in ex-bourbon and double-fired American oak casks.
Smell: Malt. Honey. Biscuit. Apple and pear. Some white grapes. Lemon. Pineapple. Melon. Vanilla. Caramel. Chocolate digestives. Oak.
Taste: The fruits land first, on the very tip of the tongue. Apples, pears, some citrus notes. Pineapple and melon add some tropical character. That’s all followed by thick, sweet honey. Towards the back, some drying oak emerges. Lots of malty biscuits and oatcakes along the way.
Thoughts: It’s quite a simple, traditional flavour profile that’s being offered up – but that’s not a bad thing. The dram comes across as a typical, unpeated Highland malt. Maybe it lacks a little something that would have it really stand out from the crowd but it still works as a pleasant every day sipper. The decision to bottle at 46% abv is always a good one but in this case it’s vital, as a whisky with this kind of profile can often become a little too timid when diluted to 40% and chill filtering would remove too much of the oiliness that helps to deliver the fullness of its flavour.
It could actually make for a good introduction to the basics of single malt Scotch – there’s no divisive peat smoke or overly sweet sherry casks to navigate, just a straight-forward yet pleasing example of barley spirit matured in American oak. Simple but extremely effective.
Price: £45 approx. The asking price is probably about right, given the higher bottling strength and 12-year age statement. Regarding age statements, Inver House perhaps deserve some credit for that. When they abandoned the vintage bottlings a few years ago, it would have been very easy to introduce no-age-statement expressions as standard. I feel like many others would have but they went for a core range of age-stated whiskies. Well done to them for that.
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For more on Balblair Distillery visit https://www.balblair.com/