Balblair Vertical Tasting

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Kicking off 2016 in style let’s do an 11 dram Balblair vertical tasting.

This is the in-laws local distillery so I’ve been fortunate to experience a few whiskies from Balblair and take the tour a couple of times. Last year as part of the inaugural Dornoch whisky festival I took the tour once again. A perfect refresher course and combined with the nearby Dornoch Castle whisky bar; a goldmine to harvest this vertical assortment.

So I’ve prepared several of the official releases and a couple from bygone eras. We’re also taking in some quality independent bottlings – I’ve got a lot of time for the current Balblair range but when you have to maintain consistency, the blips and weirdness of single cask releases are lost in the haze. This is where the independent come into a league of their own and hopefully an enjoyable experience.

Balblair 16 year old
Strength 40% vol

Colour: honeycomb
Nose: dark chocolate, raisins, honeycomb, digestive biscuits but something isn't right here...
Taste: and the watery palate confirms it. Sadly this miniature did have a low fill level and has lost its character.

Overall: we're unable to judge this one although I question why these zealous miniature collectors are happy to see their whisky evaporate.

Balblair Elements
Strength 40% vol

Colour: honey
Nose: initially coconut and a handful of coffee beans. The sticky marmalade, apples and digestive biscuits rounded off by tablet.
Taste: a spicy express with cloves, pepper and all spice. Orange peel and more coffee beans. 

Overall: passable but nothing more, its recognisable why Balblair revamped the range and ditched the Elements.

Balblair 1989
Strength 43% vol

Colour: melted butter
Nose: a real fruity freshness with strawberries, pears and kiwi fruit. Then we're into a tub of Stork margarine, icing sugar and floral notes. Quite an outdoor dram with worn twine and a broom forest.
Taste: now this is what you'd associate Balblair as being today. Apples, sugar work, white grapes and fresh warm meringues. 

Overall: a good solid Balblair offering, nothing special or provocative.


Balblair 1990
Strength 43% vol, bottled 2014

Colour: toffee
Nose: walnuts, orange peel, , warm toffee and a well worn leather chair. Fresh yeast, a touch of oak, black pepper oat cakes and chestnut puree.
Taste: a pleasing richness here with honey and caramel seeping through. Arrival of figs, dark chocolate, a little of ginger and raisins. For the finish I was picking up vanilla pod.

Overall: the use of Oloroso sherry butts for the couple of years have added another dynamic. Price around £100 it is expensive for some but well worth the extra cost due to the experience itself. 

Balblair 1997
Strength 43% vol

Colour: butterscotch
Nose: apples a real buttery sense going on here - I'm thinking tarte tatin! Marzipan, a floral heather note and sugary tablet. Honey check, a minty freshness and kiwi fruit.
Taste: unexpected this not as fresh as the nose suggested. A little ash, black pepper combined with an oily texture. Oatcakes and that dirty vanilla once again with blood orange dominating.

Overall: I really connected with the nose on this one but the actual palate wasn't characteristic of Balblair we know today. An interesting experience but not one I can recommend.

Balblair 2003
Strength 43% vol

Colour: spring water with a twist of lemon
Nose: rich tea biscuits combined with the sugary sweetness of barley drops. Orange zest and what I'd say is dirty vanilla a combination of crisp freshness and a real blackened quality. Perhaps this carries onto the fenugreek leaves I picked up before diving into posset.
Taste: More lemons with ripe pears. Jumbo oats and toast adding a cereal aspect with drop scones rounding off the experience.

Overall: one to enjoy for its simplicity and straight lines.

SMWS 70.11 Sweet, clean, juicy and moreish
9 years old, 59.2% vol, 244 bottles, refill bourbon cask

Colour: cloudy lemonade 
Nose: lemon drizzle cake, icing sugar, yeast, cotton sheets and dirty vanilla with basil leaves.
Taste: more icing sugar sweetness mixed with limoncello, vanilla and char from the cask. 

Overall: not hugely detailed by again enjoyable starter dram for its approachability and freshness.

Balblair 1997 distillery bottle your own
18 years old, cask 1715, abv 52.8%, ex-bourbon cask

Colour: cobalt yellow
Nose: lively Balblair this one with heather honey, vanilla, dark chocolate flakes (jeez I sound like the Balblair manager who does their tasting notes), caramel, almond nougat, orange peel, a touch of smoke and golden syrup.
Taste: more honey and vanilla but also ginger. Lemon, apple

Overall: this one will set you back £120 at the distillery and once the cask is empty its gone for good. Julie who does the tours at Balblair felt it was one of the best bottle-your-owns they've done and whilst I haven't tasted every such cask, it is a lovely drop.

Balblair 1985 Gordon & MacPhail
30 years old, 43% vol, 244 bottles, refill bourbon cask

Colour: hazelnut
Nose: honey and vanilla, oddly rose petals and talcum powder. A handful of used copper coins and wine gums.
Taste: bitter at first with the cask wood dominating then more vanilla, caramel with leathery and tobacco notes. 

Overall: a very well rounded and solid whisky but if you're looking for something a little more crazed try the next fella...

Balblair 1993 Gordon & MacPhail
21 years old, 53.4% vol, cask #1962, 1st fill sherry puncheon

Colour: glorious treacle
Nose: a rich texture of cherries, blackcurrants, raisins, more treacle and black pepper. I'm also picking up ground coffee beans, rubber bands and smashed red grapes.
Taste: rich dark chocolate, honeycomb and tar. Braised beef and caramel follow in this sticky glass of glory.

Overall: utterly bonkers but fantastic fun. A great cask and Balblair unite to pull off something extraordinary. 

Balblair 1983
30 years old, 46% vol, 1st release

Colour: dirty carat gold
Nose: huge sweetness with juicy pears, sherbet and syrup. Moving on butterscotch, honey and spiced marzipan. Given time there's a tropical Caribbean flavour coming through with coconut and what I'd say is rum fudge! 
Taste: in a word its juicy again. More vanilla, cinnamon and icing sugar then the wood rises up and gives this a real dirty (but enjoyable) undercurrent. A long finish persists with a hint of tobacco leaves.

Overall: not a huge malt in terms of rich flavours on the palate but it exudes a real confidence. What it provides it does extremely well and a lovely finish rounds off a memorable dram.

The summary
And that's another vertical done! Quite a few highlights here in retrospect. Very enjoyable bottle your own, the 1983 and not forgetting the 1990. I could have thrown in a review of the 2004 sherry travel exclusive which is also excellent and well priced from an earlier piece here. Yet the most memorable are the independent offerings from Gordon & MacPhail including that 1993, 21 year old. 

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