A whisky with the spirit of a wine
Now I know this is a wine blog, but a man cannot survive on wine alone! So I will be doing the odd post on beers, spirits, food and other such enjoyable things. I do not claim to be an expert on any of these subjects (as with wine), but I will give you my honest opinion and share with you any insights that I may garner through experience.
I have long been a fan of whisky in most of its forms and specifically of single malt scotch following visits to a number of distilleries in the Highlands and Islay. Recently a very good friend of mine (there’s your disclosure!) who was a very talented sommelier at a Mayfair Michelin star restaurant, decided he had had enough of wine and wanted to get back to his true love, Whisky.
He now works for a very fine Whisky boutique (he’ll hate that I called it that!) opposite the Ritz hotel, I’m sure you can find it if you look hard enough, for arguments sake we will call him Mr. Gorn.
Now Mr. Gorn will now and again allow me the pleasure of his company at a tasting (read: drinking, no wasteful spitting here) and try and impress upon me the joys of this wonderful product, giving me the low down on what is good and what is not, he is not a man that is easily pleased so this is rather fun.
Tasting Wine Vs. Tasting Whisky
Although whisky and wine share many of the same aroma’s they are very different creatures and must be approached in different ways. If you were to slurp & aerate whisky in the mouth as you would a wine, you will have a bit of a shock. I can tell you this as old habits die hard and it was a mistake I made once, and will not be repeating.
Personally I find the enjoyment of whisky primarily on the nose rather than the palate as the high level of alcohol zaps the palate most times leaving only an echo of flavour which will, when good, stay for a long time in the mouth. Adding water is optional and a matter of taste, though stronger cask strength whisky will often require it and it is always interesting to see how a teaspoon of water changes the drink.
Some History & Background on Balblair
It may sound like something Brian Badonde would take great pleasure pronouncing (and quaffing) but Balblair’s Gaelic translation means either ‘Battlefield’ or ‘town of the plain’. I prefer battlefield, more rock n’roll and possibly indicative of Viking battles or skirmishes between revenue officers and smugglers back in the day.
It is one of the most northerly Highland distilleries, located 6 miles North of Tain in Edderton, Rossshire and is reputed to have the cleanest air in Scotland, which no doubt helps to clear the head the night after one too many drams. It is one of the Scotland’s oldest distilleries having been founded in 1790 by the Ross family and has been described as ‘one of the most attractive small distilleries still standing’.
Until relatively recently much of the production was sold off to larger companies to go into blended scotch such as Bell’s. But from the late 90’s limited edition vintage bottling’s where released including a 33yo that won a gold medal from Whisky Magazine in 2003, so rather than stating the age of the youngest spirit in the blend (10′ 12yrs old etc.) Balblair states a particular vintage similar to a wine.
Tasting with Distillery Manager John Macdonald
The tasting was conducted by distillery manager John Macdonald who prefers this title to master distiller (he’s a no bullshit, straight talker, which I like). John has been at Balblair for 7 years, and was originally tasked with going into the warehouse to check the current holdings.
Here are a few factoids for all you whisky geeks;
- 1911-1948 distillery was silent, closed as owner was bankrupt, managed to get the distillery back on its feet and producing within a year.
- They use un-peated malted barley, surprising as there is plenty of peat around.
- Water used is soft but has a peat component but this does not seem to affect the Whisky.
- All barley is sourced from Scotland.
- They process 100 tons of malted barley per week.
- They do not do their own malting.
- They have 21 tuns at the distillery.
- Classic shape still, fat and squat to catch fruity esters and oils.
- Traditional wooden wash backs, 50-52 hour fermentation giving an 8% vol beer.
- Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to production’ milling is checked, often three times a day by the master distiller.
- At the moment only 15% of production is laid down to make single malt, the rest will either go into their own or other producers blends, often swapped for other Whisky’s.
- The oak used is incredibly important to production, most of the barrels they use are ex bourbon with about 3% sherry cask (around 23 barrels) not keen on using 1st fill sherry barrels so they try to use sherry casks that have been used a few times.
- Barrels are stored in traditional buildings, 3 high with thick walls and a constant temperature and humidity.
- All Whisky is fully matured on site.
- Only distillery to offer 100% vintage Whisky
- They will take samples of every barrel from a particular vintage, they will spend days going through and cherry picking the best casks often they will start with 1000’s of casks and whittle then down to often less than a 100.
We kicked off the tasting with some fresh made spirit which is floral and hoppy much like the wort or beer before distillation. I got a mixture of cereal and floral notes but with some really lovely purity.
Balblair 2002 1st release (bottled last year) £44.99
Freshly juiced green apple with old leather and light toffee and honey, a medicinal touch.
Rather oily and viscous in the mouth with a first blast of woody spices and rather raw feel to it, not to my taste.
1997 2nd release (bottled last year) £53.99
The nose here has much more of a noticeable bourbon component giving toffee apple, this seems more well knit together and has some fantastic fruit aromas of ripe, fleshy peach and super ripe pineapple and banana backed up by some sweet vanilla.
In the mouth this is so much smoother on the front palate with a sharp alcoholic kick in the mid palate that turns thicker and more oily on the length. Some very attractive fruit all the way through that has great richness and carries the palate well into the length.
The nose here seems slightly more one dimensional, a bit less delicate with hints of the sea.
In the mouth as a whole it is maybe smoother than the 97′ but is also less interesting and has less fruit.
American oak that held sherry (2nd fill)
The nose on this reminds me of rock the rock pools that explored on English coasts as a child, barnacles and thick sea weed. The fruit is edging towards stewed crab apple and smoky honey.
This has some lovely depth on the mod palate with a weighted honey note that seems to get deeper as the palate progresses. Sweetly honey’d then leather and some bitter tannin followed through by some bitter citrus notes right on the end of the palate. Better for me on the nose than in the mouth.
1965 single cask, American oak, sherry cask that had previously held an Islay Whisky (probably Laphroig) £1,449.99
A strange, sweet but weighty and smoky nose with cut grass and red berry fruit, dried apricots, sweet but with a moss like note as well, intricately layered with a delicacy that was not apparent in the previous Whisky’s.
Lighter on the palate, with some powerful dried stone fruit notes and delicate honey, nuanced, not showy but with good intensity and a toffee’d length.
Below is how I would rate the vintages
So there you have it, a quick introduction to this very interesting distillery that should appeal to many a wine drinker and as with wine the most expensive bottle is not always the best!
Many thanks to John Macdonald for leading the tasting and giving us an insight into the world of Balblair, Toby for the invite and the guy’s at The Whisky Shop for hosting the tasting.
After the tasting we also had a wee dram of this fella.
The Balvenie Single Barrel First Fill 12 Yr Old
A rather sweet white flower, sticky toffee nose.
Very palatable in the mouth with some fantastic richness a rawness on the length but still very fresh, great stuff!