I passed a most refreshing night, waking up no earlier than my alarm and in my own room. As I would learn at breakfast, this isn’t necessarily a formality for some, but it really isn’t my place to say anything further…
It was with some portion of guilt that I passed through the drinks lounge in order to get to the dining room; the reason why I sought the forgiveness of the two bottles of Balblair sat accusingly behind the bar (emptier as a result of our stay) was having preferred their local rival as my own digestif the previous night. Atonement was required and atone I certainly did.
It was only slightly unfortunate that the weather was not of equal majesty to the last time I beheld Balblair Distillery. It is a gift of the Scottish Highlands that even in dour and driech weather, it can still capture one’s soul: or maybe I’m conceited and it was simply because whisky was in the offing.
Disgorging from the minibus, the blogger photo frenzy occupied a number of minutes and John MacDonald appeared when he decided that any greater exposure to our flashbulbs might blind the angels lovingly in residence. The locality in which Balblair sits is reputed to have the cleanest air in Britain, and if a good proportion of that is evaporating Balblair spirit, then this stands to reason.
John has been rattling around the distillery since 2006, jumping at the chance to manage this little-known Highland gem when the position became available. After 17 years at Glenmorangie, he was as intimately attuned to the area as he was its whiskies and had been for some time mystified as to quite why Balblair’s profile had not risen to something like its neighbour’s dizzying heights.
Mr MacDonald, Cathy had assured us, was a dab hand at promotion. As he recounted some of his many varied experiences of the industry, together with the (impressive) facts and figures of the distillery, one couldn’t help but be struck by his immense passion and brand-flattering articulacy. To my mind, he is a hybrid between production manager and ambassador. I was educated and amused in equal measure.
Big plans and grand schemes are jostling in John’s brain: chief among them for the present is a visitor centre for the distillery. I think this is a terrific idea, and couldn’t be better situated. Less than an hour from Inverness, just off the A9 and with an access road no more hazardous than Ardbeg’s – and certainly not a patch on the hair-raising routes to Bunnahabhain and Kilchoman – you could certainly pull in the punters. If the tourists have already made it as far as Glenmorangie for a peep around, then Balblair is hardly going to put them out any further. Also, as far as Inver House are concerned, their sole official visitor centre is Pulteney’s – in Wick! In the shape of the old floor maltings, John has an extremely versatile space on which to capitalise (look at Glenkinchie and especially Aberfeldy for how these types of enclosures can be harnessed to best effect), plenty of parking, and a distinctive brand to peddle. With the right personnel – and John would fill the desired role in the ‘Manager’s Masterclass’ format perfectly – this would be by no means a redundant operation. John, you have the full support of Scotch Odyssey Blog!
Forty years ago, there was no space for a visitor centre, the floor maltings being fully operational. Now, we could walk upon the concrete floor covered only in fresh paint. Display cases filled with Balblair bottlings and ancient distilling knick-knacks gave some
idea of what John has in mind. The floor-to-ceiling banners for each of the vintages so far were handsome, also. In such environs we were informed as to how the VC would be a continuation of Balblair’s apotheosis into a new single malt power. The new packaging, which has received much attention – not least within this year’s Malt Whisky Yearbook and an article by Dominic Roskrow – takes its inspiration from the Edderton Stone, a Pictish monolith jutting proudly out of the turf and cow pats a stone’s throw from the distillery. A detail from the ancient carvings is duplicated in the embossed glass-work of every bottle.
I was particularly fascinated to learn about the composition of the three vintages released in 2007. John and his team personally shortlisted 81 casks from more than a thousand which they felt displayed Balblair spirit at its best at that moment. This was a bold move for a hitherto overlooked distillery in a world of age statements. It worked out for them, however. Thirty casks were vatted to create the 1997, 36 for the original 1989 (there is now a second release) and 15 for the 1979, these last being snapped up very quickly indeed. 15% of production will be bottled as Balblair Single Malt, and John hopes to produce more than 1.3 million litres this year.
The longer fermentation time from 48 – 73 hours over the weekend, is a significant factor in the distillery character. John believes that giving the deliberately clear wort (liquid drawn from the mash tun) that little bit time to evolve makes for more ‘pronounced’ aromas later on in the process.
The stillroom did a very wonderful and rare thing: it reminded me of Glen Garioch. Beside the two fat copper stills which churn out all those millions of litres was one quite redundant, but very handsome with its stylish copper rivets. This was an original still from 1949, cold and silent since 1969. As Jason remarked, in a world where everyone seems to be straining to squeeze every last millilitre (AKA, penny) out of their facilities, it was refreshing to see a space given over to a bit of attractive history. When John expressed the belief that it would fit in very nicely with the decor of his VC, I suggested that a hot tub, using water from the condensers, might go down well with the tourists if installed in its stead. I don’t think I was taken seriously.
In the warehouses, to dodge the persistent enquiries from Jason and Mark about ‘oldest’ and the next release, John fed us the same intriguing line that had been served seventy miles away in Wick: ‘watch this space’.
As was the case for Pulteney, I shall defer the authority on relating the tasting as a whole to the other bloggers in the group (I’d recommend Keith’s notes). I tasted the 1997 at the beginning of the year and loved it; I’d tried the 1989 a few weeks ago and loved it, and I’d had the 2000 at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh during the Festival and you know what, I loved it, too. The 2000 still held its own, even against the deep and mammothly complex 1978. With just a little water, it was all sweetness and light: almond pastry, butterscotch tablet, heather honey and perfumed. Simply gorgeous.
After making our way through as much of the lunch spread fit for an army of kings as we could, it was back on the bus, and on to Knockdhu.