What do you get when you compare two whiskies from the same company, which are only separated by a year in vintage?

It would be difficult to do this with most companies, because you don’t know exactly which years are going into their bottlings, only that the minimum age might be 12, 18 or 25 years old.

However, with Balblair, whiskies are released as vintages, meaning if you get a 1997 you know all the whisky in that bottle was put in the cask in 1997.

Recently, I received two samples – one from 1997 and one from 1996. The former is on its second release and has helped increase the company’s core range up to four vintages (a 1975, 1989, 1997 and 2002). The latter has just this week been debuted at the TFWA Global Exhibition in Cannes. It will be available exclusively through travel retail (ie: duty free) and replaces the 1995.

But I was most curious to sit down and puzzle out the differences between these two whiskies, so close in age. Both are unchill-filtered, naturally coloured and bottled at 46%. The 1996 comes from ex-bourbon casks (no notion was given as to what refill they were on), while the 1997 comes from first-fill, ex-bourbon casks.

So what did I think of each?

Balblair 1996:

On the nose of this light, straw coloured whisky I picked up butter, honey and a woodshop. There were also notes of hay and (very randomly I know, but bear with me)  the smell of a cat’s fur, when you pick them up and they’ve been wandering outside in a barn or sat on a haystack. Terribly random, but this just goes to show I’m a farm girl at heart. It didn’t shout at all – instead, this whisky was like a close friend: there was no work there, you could just relax about being in the other’s company.

The palate did surprise however – there was more depth there than I was anticipating as the nose suggested it was going to be quite delicate in the mouth. There was a lot of creaminess, a hint of marzipan, shortbread, lemon, maple syrup and Cheerios. After a few seconds held it moved into an orange peel and quasi bitter Vermouth style note before finally finishing on a cantaloupe and cream note.

It was delightful – and while the nose felt a bit quiet, the palate really impressed for me.


Casks at Balblair distillery.

Balblair 1997:

This was a much more sprightly whisky on the nose than the 1996 – while it was slightly darker in colour, it had more springtime zing going on. I picked up fresh cut flowers, strawberries, grass, cedar wood and a bit of ripe banana. It was very appealing and really pulled me right into the tasting glass.

The palate was sweet, sweet and then a bit more sweet. Almonds, bananas, vanilla ice cream, cherry syrup and dessicated coconut made it a banana split in a glass for me. But, surprisingly given how rich the first flavours were, I didn’t get as much of a finish on this one as I did with the 1996. I really wanted it to have a bit more oomph straight through to the end but I didn’t find it exploded on the palate as much as the 1996.


And so, what can one say about two whiskies so close in age? It was fascinating to see them side by side and to know that just that year can make a difference. I loved the nose of the 1997 and the palate of the 1996 got me, but both were delicious. As they’re selling for a similar price (the 1996 at £49.99 for a litre bottle and the 1997 at £55 for a 70cl) the only thing you may have to consider is whether you’re going to an airport any time soon as that’s the only place you’ll pick up that 1996.