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January 1, 2011

Balblair 1989: a Double Take

The first release is on the left and the second on the right. These are twoo very engaging and distinct drams.

The first release is on the left and the second on the right. These are two very engaging and distinct drams.

No sooner had we bloggers disembarked from the tiny plane and clambered onto the minibus in November than Lucas was pressing goodie bags into our hands full of coveted items from Inver House. In addition to the Old Pulteney polo shirt which I wear on a very regular basis, I have recently had the opportunity to acquaint myself with the Balblair 1989 Second Release which was stashed away, too. As luck would have it, I had half of the contents of a miniature of the first release sitting on my desk. A comparison was called for, and the intriguing results are below.

The people with the keys to the warehouses must have been sure in their convictions that, for the mid-range Balblair expression, they had a truly vintage year on their hands in the shape of 1989. Whereas the entry-level 1997 was replaced by the delightful and fey 2000, we now have another batch of ’89 malt to savour on this occasion.

NB: The bold text is intended to highlight those flavours which I feel are both intrinsically part of the distillery’s character, and also those which I interpret as evidence of ‘a sense of place’.  The technique is partially inspired by Keith’s presentation of his tasting notes, and I think it also makes them more easily-read.

Balblair 1989 (Bottled 2008) 43% abv.

Colour - Lemony gold.

Nose - Very delicate at first with immediate sweetness and some spicy dryness. Honey, vanilla and milk chocolate come next with syrupy sweet citrus flavours in the mix. Toffee, dried cherries and golden raisins present a gorgeous variety of aromas. Clean, sweet and fresh with raw barley.

      Water realises the full potential of the malt, with rich fruit slices and beautiful vanilla, caramel and malty sweetness. Rich oak is extracted which lends a slight grip, with some blackcurrant leaf. Toffee and date pudding, in addition to more citrus, maintains the complexity. Overall, though, this is a lively and delicate malt, and the best way to describe it would be ‘fun’. Its sweet American oak DNA reminds me a lot of the post-tour drams on offer throughout Scotland, an encounter made all the more hedonsitic if your visit has been of sufficient quality to provoke excitement about the whole process and environment.

Palate - Very smooth, rounded and sweet with a delicious malty richness culminating in earthy hay.

      Water does this malt few favours in this department. Fruity, oaky and spicy with some vanilla, light creamy cereals and green fruits. It loses a lot of its assertiveness and becomes just too ethereal for me.

Finish -  There is a great burst of orchard fruit juices at first, and then things settle down with sweet green apple. Malt and oak create a hot chocolate flavour and the dried fruits from the nose return. Heathery earthiness and orange round off a very pleasant experience.

      Water, as occurred with the palate, weakens things. Vanilla and puff pastry appear, some tart green fruits sprinkled with sugar, some milk chocolate, hazelnut and banana are there, too.

Balblair 1989 (2nd Release, bottled 2010) 43%

Colour – Essentially the same, although maybe a fraction older golden tones, with a pale grassy tinge.

Nose – There is a very firm presence of oak in this one, with a richer spiciness than the first release but overall much darker, tighter and closed. There is citrus here, too, although it takes the form of bonbon-like sweetness. Heavy Bourbon wood and a dusty earthiness  are other flavours, in addition to orange peel, rich vanilla and tablet. Dried fruits appear, as with the first release, and there is a rock candy flavour which leads into creamy coconut – gorse bushes.

      Water improves procedings, as it did for the first release, becoming creamier and spicier. I am privileged to as accurate a presentation of a blackened hogshead with its rusted hoops sitting in a cool dunnage warehouse as I have enjoyed with any malt. Toffee cake, dry rich maltiness. Heather honey. Zesty sweet fruits, burnt fruitcake. Cardamom and star anise: very spicy and earthy.

Palate – Rich and mouthcoating, chocolatey with some synthetic fruitiness (jelly sweets).

      Water lightens everything, but not to the extent of the first release. It becomes incredibly smooth but focused with green fruits, spice, richness, more malt and chocolatey toffeed oak. Earthy.

Finish – Rich, with plenty of vanilla. Barley sugar with blackcurrant and apple juice. Toffeed. Fresh fruitiness and ever-evolving dark oakiness. Over-ripe banana. Nutty, chocolatey and spicy.

      Water renders this still more satisfying with vanilla again and caramel. There is fantastic texture to the American oak influence: the cask is very much a three-dimensional suggestion. The sweet spice of a gingerbread latte abides for quite a while.

So…?:      Direct comparison always throws up surprises and these are, despite the identical nature of the included tasting notes on the packaging, two very different malts. The first release is 18/19 years old, the second 20/21 and those two years have done much to influence the development of that stock from 1989. I would rate the second release as a more rewarding and fulfilling malt for the age range it has placed itself in, but I am utterly seduced by the nose of the first: so exuberant and charming with endless sweetness.

The character of Balblair is said to lend itself to more mature, spicy and fruity whiskies, courtesy of the clear wort and the plain stills and that is certainly what is on show here. I can’t quite stretch to a bottle of the ’89 (and I would if I could) but the 2000 is a gem of a dram, and on the list.

Many thanks to Lucas, Cathy and Inver House for the sample. Also, a very happy new year, one and all.

On the nose, after dilution, this was where the second release transported me back to.

On the nose, after dilution, this was where the second release transported me back to.

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