Every once in a while, I find myself utterly entranced by a whisky. For a magical moment, the room around me goes still, my chattering brain slows and I sit silently in wonderment. It’s rare but, when it happens, it can transport me far away – such is the power of a truly amazing dram.
And so, it was while I sat in the time capsule room at the Balblair distillery that I found myself floating off to a warm meadow in the middle of summer. In my hand sat the brand’s new release, the 1969 vintage.
But it was so much more than whisky in a glass. In it, I found myself listening to the tip-toeing of meadow deer, feeling the gentle depth of summer sunshine heating my cheeks, smelling the bristly, dusty notes of animals and drying wheat. Another sip reminded me of eating liquid honey sticks, the gentle waves of sweetness undulating over my tongue. Then bursts of butter melted on white bread, pain aux apricots and orange bitters created a summer brunch in my mouth before everything finished on a flourish of smoked salmon.
I sat, mesmerised, for a good 15 minutes. When finally I came to, I realised my distillery visiting compatriots had left the room and the table was being set, the staff moving delicately around my hypnotised frame.
It’s those moments that I note down, that I associate with the power of the delicate beauty of this subtle drink.
I had come up to Balblair that morning. An overnight train with 10 journalists ensured there was much whisky drunk before we’d even set foot at the distillery; a breakfast of bacon rolls, paracetamol and drams meant I was soon back in the swing of things.
Balblair is one of those places that make you smile for its loveliness. It’s in its own sphere, hidden on the shores of the Dornoch Firth. It’s so beautiful that director Ken Loach decided to set part of his latest film, The Angels’ Share, there. If you didn’t catch it in cinema, definitely watch the DVD. There’s a reason it won the Jury Award at Cannes this year.
Owned by InterBev subsidiary Inver House Distillers since 1996, Balblair turned the industry standard of age statements on its head in 2001 when it began to only sell vintages. These are named by the year they were made, not by the fact they are 12, 15 or 21 years old. The company tries to release at least one new vintage every year, but says it rules itself by the idea of ‘vintages timed to perfection’ meaning the whisky tells them when it’s ready, not the other way around and doesn’t come out of that cask until master distiller John MacDonald declares it to be done aging.
The day of our visit, John was on hand to take us around the distillery. We were also joined by acclaimed whisky writer and personality, Charlie Mclean, who also appears in the film as a whisky expert. Despite the rainy day, I was keen to wander around the site and learn just what the distillery – which has been on its current site since 1894 – had to offer.
The water for the whisky comes from 4.5 miles away, and is gravity fed to the site. The distillery did floor maltings up until 1975, but now has its malt delivered from Cawdor in Nairn.
Inside, amongst the heady smell of yeasty brew, one finds six wooden washbacks made from Oregon pine, all of which were replaced as new in 2001. To the mash, John said he adds 21 litres of liquid distiller’s yeast that bubbles and spits for a 50 hour fermentation period. Finally, in the still room one finds stocky, wide copper stills that do a three and a half hour distillation.
Balblair has eight warehouses on its site, in which sit a beautiful selection of 26,000 casks, 97% of which are first or second fill bourbon, the other 3% of which are sherry casks made from ex-European and American wood. It’s, most certainly, an alluring sight.
Since John was faced with lots of questions from us nosy journalists, it was refreshing to see him answer our ramblings in a relaxed and honest manner. He is obviously passionate about what he does (which most master distillers tend to be) but he comes with a genuine love of it that would be hard to fake.
When asked how he felt about the company’s reliance on vintages, he said: “It’s not marketing BS. There’s no way I’d put my nose or name out there for something that wasn’t a good whisky. I’m not a good liar.”
Fair play, I thought.
But visiting the site wasn’t the only part of the day. There was also the additional opportunity to do my own hand bottling (!) which visitors can also participate in. I am now the VERY proud owner of bottle number 3 of a 1992 vintage from cask number 74.
After all of the enjoyment of visiting the site, it was time to try some of the whiskies. The company’s current standards (2001, 1989 and 1978) are to be replaced by new vintages from 2002, 1978 and 1969, all of which I review here.
It was a wonderful distillery visit and one that will live in my memory for a long time. Perhaps appropriately, I later learned that from the distillery one can see the Clach Biorach, an ancient standing stone that was “used to mark arrival and passage of special moments in time”. Trying the 1969 vintage was, most definitely, a special moment in my whisky tasting repertoire and made all the more magical by the surrounding significance of history that is a part of this place.