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Balblair Rolls Out the Years

I like anniversaries. I like them still more when someone else arranges the party for you.

Just this very circumstance occurred last week as a result of browsing Twitter (follow me @WhiskyOdyssey for my summer whisky and distillery hunt). Balblair, it turned out, would be releasing two new vintages to supplement their excellent range on Tuesday July 10th and would anyone like to volunteer to taste them live on Twitter? Would anyone like a million pounds may as well have been the query.

My affair with Balblair began with their 1997 vintage way back in 2009 but has since blossomed into a long-term relationship via the Bloggers Press Trip of 2010, a week’s work experience there last summer, and a further visit to Edderton in November 2011 for the official Brand Home opening. The Twitter tasting would coincide exactly with my six days strolling about the distillery, smelling washbacks and lounging by the spirit safe a year ago. It turned out to be a glorious reacquaintance.

Balblair one year ago. One beautiful distillery on one beautiful day.

Lucas D sent a couple of sample bottles my way, one marked ‘A’ and the other ‘B’. The identities of the two liquids would be revealed during the tasting. Deeply excited, and keen to commence with the detective work (although slightly apprehensive that my knowledge of the Balblair spirit would prove less dependable than I had thought), I poured away.

Balblair 2002 (sample A) 46% £TBC

Colour – very pale gold. Lemon pith.

Nose – medium to full with an immediate confectioner’s aroma: vanilla rock candy. Next comes trademark green fruit with real waxy/leathery textures: all pulped green apple and hot lime. Very creamy with icing sugar and chewy banana sweets. Lively and engaging with a dash of mint, dusty malt bins and orange and coconut cake. Quintessential Balblair for me.

Adding water turned up the volume on the pear with extra sweet grassiness. Fresh and lively, with a spirit so boisterous it almost fizzes. Apple, orange and honeycomb. Hard toffee. Lovely balance and juicy weight. Sweet leather and buttery vanilla biscuit.

Palate – smooth but with a core of firmness. Lots of cerealy/biscuity malt on swallowing with sweet dryish oak and vanilla toffee.

With water the spicy character of Balblair really shines: coriander and cumin with lemon. Some rich ginger biscuit. Tongue-tingling and firm. A lovely performer.

Finish – the sweet citrus ramps up and fills the mouth. Excellent poise and development, although the light malt/American oak interchange is fairly conventional. Green apple slides in at the end, though.

With water it’s an explosion of lush juices: peach, pineapple. Lime zest, too, overcomes a threat from dryish cereal. Clean and sweet.

 

Balblair 1975 46% £TBC

Colour – full yellow gold with honey in the depths.

Nose – soft and deep at first with a richness that only just tiptoes over the line from rounded sweetness. Fat barley malt with a crystallised orange peel husk. The spirit and the oak are in a cool stand off, with papaya and physalis in the gap. Like walking into a room in which birthday candles have been snuffed out a few minutes before. Creamy with autumnal spice. Tight charring – ex-Bourbon for sure. Black liquorice and old magazines.

Adding water pulls out more of that ethereal mossy smoke which was birthday candles before. I have an Auchentoshan Three Wood pack which includes little pots of cask shavings and the aroma is of ex-Bourbon fragments at first, but with some of the raisiny sweetness of the PX shavings. Wax candles and vanilla. Essential oils of orange and lavendar. Becomes a little peppery but always dark and waxy.

Palate – rich, smoky oak, some jellied orange and pink grapefruit before earthy, dark barley and crushed dusky flowers appear.

With water oak is prominant with some of the dried fruit/incence character from the nose. However, the fruits interplay more freely with orange and baked apple. Soft smoke at the back this time, but extra waxiness.

Finish – clearly old, 25 years plus, this is all brooding darkness and mystery. Some moccha notes and sweet barbecue flavours. Very dense.

With water it remains extraordinarily deep, but tropical fruits come out together with vanilla pod and a cypress/cigar aromatic hint.

The Struie Hills: there were hints of these bleak, misty conditions with the 1975.

When tasting these, I was struck by the youthfulness but also coordination of ‘A’. While not as creamy as the 1997, its full juiciness with none of the sharpness of the 2000 made me think of something between 12 and 14 years of age. When Lucas revealed this was a 2002 whisky, I was stunned, but bowled over by such a fresh and fun whisky.

The ‘B’ sample growled with age and the unflinching darkness and softness of the oak put me in mind of something older than 30 years. Ultimately, I hedged my bets and thought it might be an early ’80s bottling to replace the 1978 with which it shared some of the brooding intensity and delicate, mysterious richness. To hear 1975 didn’t surprise me, nor did the news that the release was comprised of six ex-Bourbon hogsheads. The charred notes and gentle smoke, together with dustings of dried fruit, suggested prime old hoggies. In the end, though, the spirit was a touch too aloof and lacked the articulacy of the outstanding ’78. Whilst an exciting, thought-provoking malt, I couldn’t resist the exuberance of the 2002, and I doubt I will be able to when it finally arrives on the shelves of spirits stores throughout the land.

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King Kilchoman?

Though in the eyes of some it may have a few years of its single malt minority still to overcome, I would suggest that Kilchoman, Islay’s infant princeling, has already staked several bold claims to the crown. That crown is ‘My Favourite Distillery Out There’.

Kilchoman’s sudden surge to prominence and notoriety has, I’ve always felt, paralleled my own passion for whisky. Bubbling away significantly from the later part of the last decade, 2009 onwards witnessed a dedicated assault on the whisky establishment, its institutions and its received wisdom. That last bit is meant to describe the distillery, you understand, although if encountering whisky on two wheels counts as an innovation in discovery I suppose the Odyssey may fall under the same umbrella.

I missed out on the Inaugural Release, but I enjoyed the Autumn 2009, Spring 2010 and Summer 2011 expressions enormously. At times I have been nothing short of astounded by the breadth of flavours this young whisky boasts and I think I am gradually isolating a house style. Gorgeously peaty and seductively sweet, the spirit speaks of Islay and also centuries of whisky knowledge harnessed to best effect, with at times miraculous results from brief maturation regimes. That peat note is at times ‘brown’ and dirty, at other times dry and fragrant. I often detect cow byre. The malt is full, juicy and rounded. Between the two, meanwhile, I find a beguiling herbal quality close to oregano or sometimes green tea. The Autumn 2009 will reside long in my memory for its extraordinary length of finish.

In a move away from incremental, work-in-progress style releases, late last year the single malt community could celebrate Kilchoman’s fifth birthday with the launch of the 2006 vintage. The significance for the Kilchoman brand was clear: could those ‘clever casks’ which had helped the 3yos taste so magnificent continue to augment and embellish the spirit without showing their hand roo much?

Ahead of our Quaich Society Committee Tasting next week, I grabbed a couple of bottles from Luvians in St Andrews, pouring myself a dram by way of a finder’s fee. Here are my thoughts on the whisky, tasted in parallel with an expression from my existing ‘King’ distillery: a Scotch Malt Whisky Society Caol Ila.

The first 5yo Kilchoman.

Kilchoman 2006 46% £49

Colour – Pale gold.

Nose – Straight away tight, smudgey peated malt, painted in browns and greens. Damp peat. With nose in the glass, there is a remarkable thickness of peat residue: very kippery. Quickly rising above this is toffee malt and incredibly light, creamy green fruits. It is fuller and more engaging than the Caol Ila. Vanilla-coated apple peel. Some shellfish. The oak provides a liquorice-like lift. Garden bonfire – autumnal suddenly. Stunning.

Water adds a gloss to all that sweetness, although the ‘brown’ peat retains its crackle and roughness. So soft and creamy. Sweet apple peel appears beside a beach bonfire. Vanilla toffee. Oregano. Some oiliness, hinting at the phenolic, dark underbelly of this spirit but it disappears the next moment into soft, endless smoke and grassiness. More time reveals sweet butter and a bit of rosemary. Burning turf. There is the kind of toffee malt I would only expect from your more assured 12yo Speysides. Awesome.

Palate – Thick, fruity and lively with bags of thick peat, charred beach bonfire and slivers of sweet malt. There is a concluding interplay between malty sugars and dry, dark peat.

Water provides a sharper tableau: a summer day on a West Coast beach with a storm coming in. Barbecued vegetables and sea scrub. Malt and apple. Coriander and ginger paste. Dry peat and oak hit later on and the sustained intensity is utterly brilliant.

Finish – A little bit of toffee and gingerbread in the oven. Sweetness dominates but the dry peat continues to tickle. Like licking a pencil sharpener. A bit of vanilla. Becomes exceedingly dry.

Water gives the impression of the distillery: malt bins, mill room. Creamy with a balancing dryness.

 

Caol Ila 9yo 66.6% (Scotch Malt Whisky Society, 53.134)

Colour – Clean, full gold.

Nose – Soft and scented to start with, it picks up vanilla custard and a vein of smoke. Pear. With nostrils in the glass, soft butter tablet appears alongside creamy, ‘golden’ oak. Pear switches to green apple. Very oaky, however. Juniper and lime jump out with a bit more time. Dirty smoke and caramel biscuit emerge, too.

Water creates spicy and savoury aromas: cheese and onion crisps. Some oak influence but mostly wash scents at this early stage. Mint humbugs. Sour apples spell the beginning of the end as the shouty, sharp Bourbon cask cannot be held in check any longer. Bin bags. Some burnt toffee appears late on.

Palate – Lots of smoke and alcohol with wood sugars galore. Gently peated malt and apple cores emerge. Ferocious.

Water witnesses a disaster zone with bin liner-wrapped hay bales and shallots. A bit of peat and samphire before resolving into alcohol bite and lethargic, heavy oak.

Finish – Big, clean oak flavours, starting with vanilla and honey. A little green smoke appears.

Water, to persist with a theme, ruins the experience with oak sugars squeezing all but apple pip notes out.

The youngster beats the 9yo all ends up. I still haven’t decided whether the SMWS bottling is an almost excusable momentary aberration, or that the Kilchoman alongside it was simply peerless, but the wrong whisky had come out of the wrong cask and done itself no credit. I goggle at the quality the Kilchoman guys – with the help of Dr. Jim Swan – have achieved here, and seriously skilful stock management is on show. If I had the money, a bottle would be sitting on my shelf now as the spirit has so much going for it. Not only does it generate conversation based on its ‘craft’ and bespoke credentials, but the flavours are so crisp and precise, whilst remaining evocative and complex. I hope our guests at the Quaich Society will agree on Thursday.

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