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A Mighty Bonny Balblair

If I can put a positive spin on the well-documented delay and the yearning of those connected with Balblair for a facility in which to welcome visitors, it is that a couple of decades were necessary to allow cask no. 2990 to realise its full potential before making it exclusively available to Balblair pilgrims.

In November, I was one such pilgrim to the dinky, delightful distillery on the Wick-Inverness railway line and I discovered said ex-Bourbon hogshead in the new brand home, pride of place. After the blockage in the valve had been cleared, the not so orderly queue of whisky bloggers and journalists could set about disgorging its contents with gay abandon. I defy anyone to hand-fill their own bottle of 19yo single cask Highland whisky with a scowl on their face.

Bottle number 10 bore my signature and joined the phalanx of other dumpy bottles on the bench beside the cask – like puppies plucked from their mother and placed close by. My pedigree pup arrived on my doorstep having received its kennel cough injections (a duty stamp) just before Christmas and I finally got around to opening it as a toast for completing semester 1 of year 2 at university. Here are my (extensive) tasting notes for this gorgeous specimen.

The Balblair distillery-exclusive.

Balblair 1992 DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE SINGLE CASK, 60.9% abv., #2990

Colour – Clean, fresh gold.

Nose – Firm, sharp and gristy with nose above the glass. Thin pale oak lends a daffodil-like floral edge. Cumin, turmeric and a touch of runny peach. Closer to, I get butteriness, seeds and perfume all at the same time. Lemon and lime marmalade. An intriguing note of creme anglaise. The power starts to build: pure pear drops and apple peel. Tropical fruit bon-bons: pineapple and papaya. The lemon and malt are rapier-like. There is quite a masculine scent, like aftershave. With a bit of air and time, there is a flash of coastal aromas then hay and ripe pear, with rich and swet biscuit.

      Water ratchets up the sweetness that little bit more: jellied apple and pear with lime drizzle cake. Biscuity again. The body of the whisky is so Balblair: firm and crisp simultaneously. Almond and yoghurt-coated pinenut. It becomes exceedingly creamy. A hint of banana also confirms its heritage. Intensely fresh with a repeat of that aftershave note. With more time it becomes a true delight: pineapple, toffee tablet and liquorice.

Palate – Full with more of the buttery, toffeed oak. Then there is an astonishing surge of citrussy sweet fruits: apple, passion fruit, pineapple and then more ex-Bourbon cask notes of biscuit and vanilla.

      Water places the sweet malt to the fore, with the fruits surging round and over. Impressions of the mash tun: chunky and aromatic. Vanilla and ‘golden’ cask flavours and these come to direct the occasion. Plenty of guts.

Finish – Fixing, with a building spongecake maltiness and spoonfuls of mascarpone and vanilla cream. Tropical fruits again. Sugar crystals melt on the tongue. Very late spice adds superb balance: the turmeric from the nose.

Water accents the spongecake quality further although there is added complex richness. Lemon mousse, shortbread biscuit maltiness. More of the cask, as on the reduced palate, with creamy sweetness and flecks of toasted spice.

So…?      I adore the breadth of this malt, which if anything has a larger scope than the impeccable 1990 I had at the distillery. This holds the fruit and firm spiciness in balance with the rich creaminess of the oak magnificently. That being said, I had the impression when nosing and tasting it that water might unleash the promising tension of the unreduced spirit. I anticipated still softer fruits and an added richness. It didn’t quite happen. The nose came on a fraction but the Balblair body would not yield and the oak, as good a job as it has done, nudged its way into the picture more than I would have wanted. On the other hand, it is in no way the oak massacre that ensues when water is added to my 1995 Aberlour single cask. When savouring this whisky, it succeeds in exciting me, making me revel in the power of a personable malt. I see again that strking distillery and I allow the spirit to lead me into its obscure, fragrant corners.

The extreme indigenousness of this whisky means that it works in reverse to most other malts. Rather than coming across it and being duly inspired to visit Edderton, Ross-shire, this 1992 expression constitutes your reward for having made the journey. The glorious quality of this whisky, however, means that you will be certain to return.

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An Exclusive Distillery

What do Edinburgh and St Andrews have in common? The answer is, I know where all their whisky shops are, and I have been harrassing staff in every single one of them in the last fortnight. A Fringe Festival visit with mates and a partial move-in were all the opportunities I needed to browse, faun and covet the latest whiskies available but, as my money is promised to others, I regrettably can only confess lustful glances at the Kilchoman 100% Islay (£80) and a Signatory cask-strength Dalmore 1990 (£60).

Dalmore Distillery-exclusiveIt is on the subject of The Dalmore, in fact, that I intend to expand. I don’t often receive phonecalls from people in distilleries but I certainly look forward to them because almost invariably it is good news. I lifted the phone on Thursday and found The Dalmore distillery on the line, the same distillery that has recently undergone a significant overhaul of their entire visitor-dedicated operations with the renovation project for the visitor centre beginning in March this year, and now with the official announcement of a distillery-exclusive bottling.

In truth, The Dalmore is somewhat late on the distillery-only scene. While it has been flogging achingly stylish and ancient bottles of whisky from auction houses, companies such as Diageo and Edrington Group have been rewarding dedicated individuals who have taken the time to venture to their distilleries with a unique bottling that encapuslates their visit. Such whiskies – whether already packaged or as part of a hand-bottling initiative – are not gimmicks. For those who are passionate about provenance and the total spectrum of a distillery’s nature, a pilgrimage to the distillery itself is essential to gain a more complete understanding of the place. It is not enough simply to drink the whisky: they believe that only by approaching the site, sensing its flavours, learning its history, observing and even participating in the production process as generations have done before them, the true extent of the whisky’s personality will be revealed and will enhance the tangible product. The distillery-exclusive, then, is not the sole reason for making the journey; rather, it is adopted as an embodiment of particular values and sympathies, purchased to express one’s conviction that whisky is so much more than what is in the bottle.

This is why visitor centres – and well-appointed, imaginative and sensitive visitor centres in particular – are so important. They induct the visitor into the workings and heritage of the distillery, and provide a rubric from which to commune with it. Visitor centres demonstrate with particular power that this whisky could not be made anywhere else. Single malt Scotch whisky is a located entity: place and people matter.

The Dalmore distillery, on the shores of the Cromarthy Firth.

The Dalmore distillery, on the shores of the Cromarthy Firth.

I applaud Whyte & Mackay, therefore, for twigging on this point. Yes, the sales figures across international markets are impressive – record-breaking, even – but none of it would have been possible without the buildings and passion spread over a few acres on the Cromarthy Firth. As my informant told me: ‘we had an Italian gentleman visit us the other week, and there he was sitting in the manager’s office enjoying a dram of the 1263 King Alexander III and I said to him: “there really is nowhere better to drink The Dalmore”.’ I was assured that there were aspects of the new visitor facilities found ‘nowhere else in Scotland’. The extent to which this is fundamentally true is neither here nor there; the critical sentiment is that the company have put sufficient investment into this far-flung, beautiful part of Scotland. The local community are encouraged to make a fuss about their distillery again and impress upon visitors how much the surrounding culture impacts upon the spirit which you will find throughout the world.

With this new single cask release, every fan of The Dalmore is implored to bring their passion home to Alness, Ross-shire, where it was made possible in the first place. To visit a distillery with the attitude of a devotee is to reveal an affinity for the locality and community, to manifest and recognise a relationship with the distillery which was inspired by the social and environmental traces the origins of a whisky invariably superimpose upon it. It is a reconnection. ‘Come to The Dalmore distillery,’ this latest launch declares, ‘and discover there this unique, limited whisky which epitomises all the qualities you hold to be unique about The Dalmore in general.’

It is time to re-establish the link between bottlings like these, a decoration for the few, and the distillery on which a whole community and legacy was built.

It is time to re-establish the link between bottlings like these, a decoration for the few, and the distillery on which a whole community and legacy was built.

It is my belief that Whyte & Mackay recognise that, in these euphoric times for whisky, authenticity is crucial. If you premiumise your product then your front-of-house facilities and experiences on offer must mirror this. I am hopeful that now The Dalmore, like its arch rival The Macallan, will endeavour to make tangible for the visitor the marketing and image-making associated with the brand. With the interest that the ultra-premium releases have generated, people arrive at The Dalmore expecting to be physically enfolded in this notion of the superlative: the best, most-exclusive whiskies demand a corresponding attention to detail in the demonstration of the plant that created them. The Dalmore has a lot to live up to as it strives to put the style back in to the substance.

There remain just under 250 bottles of this 20-year-old single cask ex-Sherry Butt, from an initial limited release of 450. The strength is 46% abv. and the price is £150. Reservations can be made with the distillery, but purchasers must collect their bottle from the distillery itself.

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