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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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‘Balblair (vc)’ – Excellent

My malt whisky literature shelf normally expands by at least one volume at this time of year. One would have thought that, between Dave Broom’s peerless World Atlas of Whisky, two editions of the Malt Whisky Companion and a number of other hardbacks salvaged from second-hand bookshops, together with my subscription to Whisky Magazine and the raft of blogs I endeavour to keep up with, any more published works on the subject would be plain extravagance. When it comes to Invar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook, however, the title of Dedicated Whisky Geek starts to look a little fragile without the latest edition.

As a compendium of every significant development at each of Scotland’s – and indeed most of the world’s – malt whisky distilling sites, it is unparalleled. If there has been a new washback installed, a still neck replaced, or a new bottling released, it will tell you. I flicked to page 90 and Balblair’s entry, mindful of their single-man, automated production regime introduced this summer and the imminent release of a new core range vintage. What I saw in the green sidebar, however, cheered my distillery-touring heart. ‘Status: active (vc)’.

‘At last!’ laughed John MacDonald, Balblair Distillery manager, when I described this moment to him last week. ‘How long have I been going about a visitor centre?’

The unassuming entrance to the new Brand Home.

Earlier, when he had welcomed a cohort of bloggers and drinks journalists, by that point sated by bacon rolls, to the distillery, he had been more circumspect. ‘It’s quite a significant day [for Balblair] and one that I have been looking forward to for a number of years now.’ Balblair, at last, has a dedicated facility to welcome those eager to discover this distinctive Highland malt, and it is my belief, having spent some time at the Brand Home house-warming, that Serge Valentin’s fears were groundless. He praises Balblair as ‘a wonderful little distillery’ with the semi caveat ’where no ugly visitor centre was built (please don’t!)’ in a profile piece written in 2007. It is now 2011, it is still a wonderful little distillery, and you would have no idea that a visitor centre even existed!

The 'snug', single cask and shop.

As I talked about in a post earlier in the year, the investment and the time had been promised to convert the former floor maltings into a space to accommodate, educate and entertain visitors. The finished product is discreet, smart, and entirely in keeping with the functional, unusual nature of the distillery to which it is attached. Divided into two rooms, you will find the shop, toilets, the bottle-your-own single cask and some indecently comfortable chairs immediately through the little red door, and the larger area for tastings and displays in the floor maltings proper.

Andy Hannah, Balblair brand manager, talked about Balblair’s new front room as the ultimate destination for those with ‘a genuine interest’. He said: ‘we’re not about bussing in hundreds and hundreds of people – that will never happen’. An intimate mode of making whisky has been transferred to their approach for educating people about the brand. ‘The physical experience of Balblair is really really key.’ I crowed with joy – inwardly – to hear that. A visitor centre or brand home is not about trading in marked-up tartan, baseball caps or fudge. Rather, it represents both the genesis of a brand identity which must - like the whisky - result from the equipment, personnel and location, and its apotheosis when individuals insist on making the journey to discover where and how those flavours and philosophies originated.

The bottle-your-own from 1992.

Visitors will indeed be richly rewarded. Though not yet confirmed, the tour structure is expected to follow that of Old Pulteney with a standard tour, a further package with the option to taste additional expressions and a deluxe, in-depth manager’s tour when John MacDonald can be yours for the afternoon. John’s knowledge and passion are quite extraordinary, as his weeks of late-night painting sessions leading up to the Brand Home launch testify. Having taken you round the plant, the whiskies he will put in front of you are of the highest calibre, too, and it was on that subject that we were all principally invited.

In conjunction with the Brand Home, Inver House have released the successor to the 2000 vintage. However, there is a more significant departure in the 2001 vintage bottle than the additional year on the label would perhaps suggest. In a move Andy Hannah described as ‘bold’, and in keeping with their radical decision to launch a core range of vintage expressions in 2007, the entry level Balblair joins its older brothers in being natural colour, non-chillfiltered and 46% abv. ‘We think it’s the right time,’ said Mr Hannah, ‘really re-affirming our boutique brand credentials.’ Some small but telling packaging alterations have also been made.

The trendy, atmospheric 'tasting pod'.

We bloggers and journos, sat in the glass, wood and leather luxury of the ‘tasting pod’ as I call it, were fortunate enough to evaluate an undiluted sample, and experience what John described as ‘a taste odyssey’. On the nose my first response was ‘guinea pig hutch’, developing light creaminess, pale oak, buttery toffee and heather honey. The palate exploded with barley sugar, lime and mango. As an introduction to the new spirit, the multimedia system was powered up and we absorbed the ‘sights and sounds’ of 2001 projected onto the pod’s glass panels, making for a very striking and engaging effect. As we went from Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, starring a very junior-looking Daniel Radcliffe, to the election of George ‘Dubbya’ Bush, a little bit of Destiny’s Child teased our ears. This was indeed a ‘Bootylicious’ Balblair. I’m not sure about the extent to which it gave off the impression of the War on Terror, but that’s probably a good thing.

With the 2001 launch discussed and enjoyed, the Balblair representatives of John, Andy, Karen Walker, Derek Sinclair, Malcolm Leask and Lucas Dynowiak could decompress, a job well done, and savour the superb three course lunch. I must give a personal mention to Mike and the team from Good Highland Food who put a trio of delicious plates in front of us. A cold smoked trout and hot smoked salmon terrine preceeded an eye-poppingly superb fillet of Caithness beef, rounded off with a Balblair-infused chocolate torte which was very probably sinful.

It was nothing short of a joy to be back at Balblair in the first instance, but also to see the confident new direction the brand is taking both with their juice, and with their accessibility to the public. There is more than one distillery on the Dornoch Firth worth visiting, don’t you know. I urge you to make the trip – Balblair will make it worth your while.

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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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My Balblair Playground

BalblairI would be very surprised if there weren’t further instalments of my five days spent a-roaming about the congeries of Balblair distillery, and undoubtedly my time there will inform all subsequent musings and interpretations on the Scotch whisky industry. However, let this post suffice to lend a flavour of my experiences ‘working’ in a real live distillery while I attempt to compartmentalise the numerous profound insights I was generously granted by the remarkable group of people who make Balblair single malt. They certainly made the experience for me.

242. 242 days had passed since I had last shimmied into a distillery. 242 days since I had inhaled the aromas of wort and wash. 242 days since I had gazed with the tenderest love upon a copper pot still. Two thirds of a year since I had been granted the opportunity to indulge my passion for malt whisky. Funnily enough, 242 days prior to the 4th of July, Balblair had featured also. Following a seven-hour and magnificently stressful train ride up to Tain during which I had spotted Dalwhinnie, Teaninich, Dalmore and Invergordon distilleries I could embark upon my first day as more than just a tourist or even privileged blogger at Balblair.

The distillery is entirely hidden from view until you have emerged beyond the cluster of houses half-way along the village of Edderton. Then, beneath the Struie hills and their skins of heather over rock, the pagoda vent and scarlet smokestack are visible. They are, from this perspective, equal in height to the Clach Biorach Pictish stone. I freewheeled into the distillery grounds; men clambered on warehouse rooves while others loitered outside the manager’s office. In here I found Graeme, who helped me find John, who was staring gloomily into the mill.

What followed was five days of informal education. I could shadow who I wanted, go where I pleased and spent most of the time in the tea room eating ginger biscuits and chatting. During the first few days the aromas were overpowering and I guzzled them up with greed. From entering the distillery complex, you detect a spicy-sweet whiff of whisky-filled Bourbon wood. I would then park up beside the millroom in a compact courtyard around which the zesty, squeaky scents of fermentation wafted. Having changed into trousers and polo shirt beside the embryonic visitor centre, I would duck between the cool, dusty malt bins to the mash tun and its heavy, warm and sweet fragrance which mingled with the countless other flavours contributed by a Plumb Center worth of pipes and a water treatment tank which could conjure up a workable approximation of what a riding school arena smells like.

Sat on the well-wron stillman's chair, it felt as though I were communing with two golden Buddhas.

Sat on the well-wron stillman's chair, it felt as though I were communing with two golden Buddhas.

The still house was a miracle of flavour-weaving. Between the wash and spirit stills the aroma was strongest: banana cheesecake, flambeed banana and vanilla. By the spirit still, all was appley and intense, until the spirit run began and then a creamier cereal note entered the picture. I spent the bulk of my time checking hydrometers, yanking open valves and turning wheels under the watchful eye of either Martin or Mike. I sampled, I dipped, I pumped and I charged. The distillery’s rhythm was an enchanting and fairly rapid one: wash left the tun room after 48 or 60 hours, passed into the wash still, left it over the course of three hours as either low wines or pot ale (which had a gorgeously heavy bakewell cake fragrance) and moved to the spirit still where there would be a 10-minute foreshot run, a two-hour spirit run and three hours of feints.

It is one thing, as I found myself marvelling to Martin and Mike, as well as Alan, John, Graeme, John and Norman, to race through a distillery over the course of an hour during a tour and glimpse a mere snapshot of each process in the whisky-making recipe. It is another to bide and watch the work of man, copper and wood and the transformation of the malt. They aren’t lying to you on your distillery tours; there are no secret switches and vessels. I simply discovered that however much you read about it and understand it in theory, only in the act of supervising whisky-creation can its reality be apprehended.

Admittedly, my time at Balblair extracted a little of the romance of making whisky. Tricky malt, a minor leak on the spirit still and the imminent advent of automation revealed a process preoccupied with yield and output. However, the cavity created in my innocent idealism was filled by infinitely precious experience. The production team know their plant, what works, what doesn’t, how to adapt and manage a wilful amalgamation of equipment on a frying summer day or a paralyzing winter night. Distilleries work, like dogs at times, but that is what they are designed to do. Without question craft and affection come into it, too, but it is a constant negotiation with a location, history and personality perfectly inclined to go its own way. Mike grimaced at the prospect of returning to work at the end of next month with the distillery having lain silent for four weeks. To him, it only makes sense when the buildings are suffused with heat and aroma: with industry. Only then is it Balblair, doing as Balblair does. That’s a whole new kind of magic.

My sincerest thanks go to Lorna Craig for setting up my week’s work experience and John MacDonald for making room and time for me. As for Alan, John Ross, Martin, Mike, Norman and Graeme: I’m still pondering how exactly I can begin to repay you all for not just putting up with me but making me feel like part of the team. When I read newspapers in future I hope to make you all proud.

The Scotch Cyclist 'working'.

The Scotch Cyclist 'working'.

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