Fantastic Folks A few months ago, I was lucky to visit Balblair distillery, as part of a brilliant trip with Inverhouse distillers to Old Pulteney, Balblair, Ancnoc and Speyburn (sort of). I say a brilliant trip as not only were they great distilleries to visit, but I was with a genuinely lovely fantastic folks: Annabel Meikle (@thewhiskybelle) Dave Worthington (@whiskydiscovery) Dave Alcock (@whiskyrepublic) Mark Gillespie (@whiskycast), Jamie Milne, Andy Gemmel (@Andydrink) Lucas (@Alembictweets) and Samantha Peter (@samanthapeter). If we weren’t talking whisky, we were talking shipbuilding, psychology, travel, fame (Dave Alcock), dance moves (Samantha Peter) or work in the music business (Dave Alcock again).
Fantastic Future When visiting Balblair, you get the feeling things are slotting into place and credit really has to go to the team at Balblair and to Inverhouse. Their vintage concept has been a success, and seems to be an idea that the whisky drinking consumers have bought in to. Their vintages are in sharp contrast to the rise of NAS from other brands, so while other brands struggle to deal with the volumes required, Balblair look well placed to reap the rewards, as long as they can keep up. Reputation can be built during these years among the whisky enthusiast fraternity, while the bigger boys (Macallan, Glenlivet et al) get their stocks back in check.
When talking to John as we walked around Balblair, you discover that much of the drive and direction comes from him. He is the one that makes the vintages system work with the stock he has, and he is pretty keen to stick with the vintages system that has stood them so well so far. He was the one pushing for a visitor centre, and with such a beautiful distillery to show, you can understand why.
In terms of brand development, Inverhouse have a lot to be proud of. They seem to slowly develop brands, but their work is showing in each of the distilleries they have purchased. Old Pulteney certainly didn’t have the prominence it has now, Balblair was barely known as was AnCnoc. I’m not saying that their work is complete on these distilleries but you can see a gradual growth in the awareness of these distilleries. The only thing you worry about, is that with success you get pressure on stock, and I think they are starting to feel this.
Balblair was a whisky mainly used for blending, as was Pulteney and Ancnoc, so Inverhouse would have had to do quite a bit of work at the start to makesure they had the right liquid in place. I think now you are starting to taste the quality of their work.
I suppose if I had to have a criticism of Balblair (as a blogger I have to occasionally criticise) would just be from my wallets point of view. Currently, after a quick search, the entry level vintage is the 2003, at around 40 quid. Perhaps this is just a blip, and there will be cheaper stock coming out. They are very fair on their older stock pricing, and the quality is there to charge a higher price, but I am not a rich man, so I have to concentrate on the entry level.
They just launched a set of vintages in the United States, so they must be confident of their stocks, and again that for me shows the Inverhouse style. Look at markets each year, and slowly build in them. I was a little surprised that this is their first big step in the US (although the odd other vintage has made it over there).
We started off by tasting 3 cask samples from the 2000 vintage to see the breadth of flavour Balblair have across one year.
Each of the casks showed the spirit in a different light. Cask 1350 showed the classic Balblair in an ex Bourbon cask (tropical fruit, marsipan, lemon cheesecake and a mineral note) Cask 0191 showed more spice, ginger, orange and a bit of smoke, as the cask used to contain peaty whisky and Cask 1345 showed lovely sherry, Christmas cake notes and rum raisin notes. Each one showed fruity notes, a mineral note and a general freshness, but in different ways.
We also tried the Balblair current new make which was malty and very fruity. It reminded me of the tour earlier, particularly smelling the washbacks (such a fruity fermentation, it was almost like an American IPA), then we tried some 1960′s Balblair new make which had fennel notes, oily notes, tangerine, spice, vegetal notes and a brine. Quite a change in style from today’s new spirit.
I’ll leave it there. Next, I’ll talk a bit about the Old Pulteney part of the trip.