May 222019
 

Balblair revamped also the duty free range, offering the 12, 15 and the future 25 years old in travel retail, but has chosen to offer the Balblair 17 instead of the 18 year old. Why keep 75% of your core range on travel retail shelves just to replace a single expression? This is the third time I’m coming up dry in my quest to understand a move the distillery is making, but I guess the marketing guys do (or at least I hope for Inver House that that’s the case).

You have probably seen my take on the the new core range, and if not, you can see it here.

Either way, it is what it is, and now it’s time to stop ranting, and turn our attention to the liquid in the bottle:

 

Balblair 17

Photo Credit: Balblair Distillery

Balblair 17 (46%)

Appearance: Bronze, with a thin necklace and sluggish legs.

Nose: OK guys, what went wrong? I was expecting a step up from the 15. Totally subdued with varnish and some sour farmy notes. The sherry is shyly hiding behind some red fruit jam. A hint of dried apricot and some white pepper. A drop of water brings out a whiff of honeysuckle and a touch of chocolate.

Palate: After an initial spicy wash, fruit galore come through, with hints of red apple and pears, with some faint hint of waxy feijoa and some dried pineapple.

Linger: Pepper and some earthy dryness. There’s a small hint of sourness and a lot of sweetness, with lovely spice running down the gullet.

Conclusion

The nose is weird, but the palate and finish are great.

While the 15 would win on the nose, this expression is the better sipper, but both are flawed.

May 162019
 

So Balblair went ahead and did it. They have actually taken the one thing that made them totally special and chucked it out the window. No longer specific vintages with an ever changing core range, rather a regular and quite mundane aged range, with a Balblair 12, 15, 18 and 25, with a 17 year old for travel retail.

What a shame…..

Photo Credit: Balblair, Inver House PR

Now Balblair is just another distillery, offering the same old core range. It’s not so much the vintages, as having different aspects of the same aged whisky be brought forth either with later same vintage releases, or with having the option to compare different vintages at the same age. Either way, this is a thing of the past, and Balblair will now be competing in the red ocean of every other 12, 15 and 18 year old expression, including against Inver Houses’ own Old Pulteney (switching to a standard 12, 15 and 18 year old instead of the 12, 17 and 21 of old) and AnCnoc’s 12 and 18.

Will it make things simpler for marketing? Who knows. But I have written in the past high praise for the vintage approach (see here) and I stand by that opinion today. Will it increase sales? I don’t think so, as if I were likely to buy a couple of vintages, I’d now keep just one bottle of my favorite of the core (the identity of which will probably surprise you….).

While at it, the bottle and distillery logo have been redesigned in the shape of the Pictish Z shaped carvings on the Clach Biorach stone located near the distillery.

Clach Biorach

Photo Credit: Sylvia Duckworth (c)

I got to taste the 12, 15, 18 and the 17 year old travel retail exclusive, and here are my notes and thoughts on the three core range expressions hitting stores as we speak:

Balblair 12

Photo Credit: thewhiskyexchange.com

Balblair 12 (46 % ABV, NCF, NC)

This expression is matured in double-fired American oak casks and ex-bourbon casks. I’m not really sure what “double fired” means. Being somehow distinct from bourbon casks would suggest that those are virgin oak casks undergoing a double toasting and/or charring. But not being a regulated term, who knows.

On to the notes:

Appearance: Straw, sturdy necklace with very slow legs.

Nose: Lemon meringue pie with honey drizzled on top, black pepper and fresh hay. In the glass after time, you get the pie base pastry with a lot of vanilla and a hint of green almonds and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Palate: Bitter citrus rind, honey, fresh green grapes, green apples and some black pepper.

Linger: Bitterness and spiciness in a pretty long finish, some of the green apples linger. Finish is dry, with a lot of spiciness on the palate.

Conclusion

Not bad at all for a fully bourbon matured entry level whisky, and it’s actually my favorite of the trio.

 

Photo Credit: thewhiskyexchange.com

Balblair 15 (46 % ABV, NCF, NC)

The 15 was matured in ex bourbon casks, and then finished for an undisclosed time in first fill Oloroso sherry butts.

Appearance: Amber, thick necklace and thick legs.

Nose: Lovely wood spices greet you, creamy malt and sherry notes, candied ginger, dried papaya and some fresh mango. There’s a hint of honey cake.

Palate: Sweet, dry and spicy waves wash over your tongue, with cinnamon and dried apricot leather.

Linger: Cinnamon and a hint of clove, dry spices that leave a tingle all over the mouth, and it’s a pretty short finish.

Conclusion

This is a nice step up from the 12, at least on the nose. I will say that the 12’s finish is better, and overall, I think I like the 12 a bit better.

 

 

 

And now on to the 18 year old:

Photo Credit: thewhiskyexchange.com

Balblair 18 (46% ABV, NCF, NC)

The 18 has the same profile as the the 15, with the whisky matured in ex bourbon casks and then transferred to first fill sherry casks for a finish, once again for an undisclosed period.

Appearance: Copper, thin legs with a viscous necklace leaving a lot of residue on the glass.

Nose: Milk chocolate, creamy malt, cinnamon and some nutmeg, toffee and raspberry coulis.

Palate: Toffee and honey, with a hint of sherry and red apples. There’s also some leather and oak.

Linger: Dry and spicy, with some apple. Pepper on the tongue and down the gullet, with a note of bitterness.

Conclusion

This is the most well rounded of the lot, but I’ll be blasphemous enough to say that by this point I’ve concluded that the 12 is my favorite…

 

Final Thoughts

I’m neither happy with the move away from vintages nor am I particularly happy with these specific bottlings. I do like the new logo though….

 

Sep 132017
 

Balblair should be a heavily favored distillery among anoraks, as this Highlands distillery has forsworn the use of chill filtration and artificial coloration, as well as the production of NAS whisky. With that move, the distillery switched to using only vintages, and the age is to be deduced by the drinker from the bottling date, also provided on the label. Is this the clearest and most productive way to sell whisky? Probably not, but it’s fun!

Yet, despite this, I don’t think Balblair has taken its place among the first line of anorak whisky favorites, and I’m honestly not sure why. I know whisky people who are crazy about just about every non generic distillery, from Glen Garioch to Bruichladdich and from Bladnoch to Highland Park. But do you know anybody nuts about Balblair?

Balblair seems to be doing everything right: Younger and older releases abound, prices are kept reasonably reasonable, single casks (some of them absolutely stellar) are released, and yet, other than a few coveted single casks, nothing! Why is that?

I think this is a case of a strategy taken too far. Core ranges are called core ranges because they stand the test of time. And while anoraks aren’t necessarily looking for the consistency of a Glenfiddich 12, I think that the idea of vintages always in flux means that a fanbase isn’t being built. Take Knockando for example. This little known Diageo gem is their only vintaged whisky, stating the distillation year on each bottle. Yet, they’re kept at a core range of 12, 15, 18 and 21 in the same style. I’m wondering if this wouldn’t have been a better path for Balblair to take.

But let’s say you want to be special, and not take the age route at all. What happens then? Take, for example, the Vintage 1990: There was a first release in 2009 for Travel Retail (19 year old), then a more sherried (and successful) second release done in 2013 at 23 years of age (reviewed here). That very same second release was bottled again in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, giving the same release at five different ages. Heck, this is confusing even for me. And as a consumer, can I really compare the price of the 2013 version with the price of the 2017 version as the same product?

I think these are some of the factors that kept Balblair from becoming an anorak’s craze, and yet some of the single casks (especially the sherried ones) sell out in a flash, and rightfully so!

 

Photo Credit: thewhiskyexchange.com

Balblair 1991 Single Sherry Cask 1712 – The Whisky Exchange Exclusive (51.9% ABV, NCF, NC)

Appearance: Dark Mahogany, thin legs and a nice sturdy necklace.

Nose: Sherry sweetness and dryness with a hit of alcohol. Treacle and dried fruit, clove with a light fresh scent, like an open field. Notes of leather and some vanilla, quite possibly an American oak cask. Tobacco leaf and sultanas, with a whiff of a baking cake. time in glass brings out some vinegar.

Palate: Thick and viscous, spicy and sweet, with spice and some glue. Red fruit, brown sugar, freshly cracked peppercorns, hint of espresso and cloves.

Linger: Dry and very spicy, with pepper, clove and some green cardamon.  There’s some tannic bitterness on the tongue, with a sweet hit that comes through in waves. It will leave your mouth watering, with hints of bittersweet chocolate. The linger is long and keeps the dram with you.

Conclusion

In my mind, this gorgeous single cask isn’t quite as striking as the legendary cask 1343 (reviewed here).  I still have a sample of 1343 here, and I’ll save a sample of this cask (1712) until I open my own bottle of cask 1341, at which point I’ll revisit all three and see if we can come up with a definitive winner 🙂

In truth, though, if you come across a single sherry cask Balblair, do yourself a favor and just pick it up. You’ll thank me with every dram 🙂

 

 

Mar 022016
 

Balblair has been sticking to vintages, in lieu of age statements, and it seems to be working pretty well for the brand. You can always find, in the ever changing core offerings by the distillery a 10 year old (currently 2005) 12-13 year old (currently 2003) a 15-18 year old (currently 1999) and some chosen vintages like 1990 (reviewed here), 1983 and a glorious 1969 (which I tasted at the whisky show). Additionally, there are a few releases that are duty free exclusives, including a very interesting double 2004 offerings, from a bourbon cask and a sherry cask, which seem to be perfect to try side by side.

The 1999 is a vatting of both American oak, ex-bourbon barrels and Spanish oak, ex-sherry butts.

Photo Credit: worldofzing.com

Photo Credit: worldofzing.com

 

Balblair 1999, Second Release, Bottled 2014, (46% ABV, NCF, NC)

Appearance: Bronze, liquid leaves the side of the glass almost immediately. No real legs form.

Nose: Cerealy and sweet, with fresh pineapple and a hint of dried fruit (some sultanas and prunes). Overall the nose is gentle and sweet, sort of a dessert dram with a meal.

Palate: Bready with some sour sherry notes. Honey and some very light spice.

Linger: Hints of spice on the tongue, some dryness in the mouth and really light spices in the gullet.

Conclusion

This is a pleasant drinking dram, but nothing in it is really outstanding. This would be a great whisky to use to introduce new drinkers to whisky….

Jan 312016
 

Balblair’s rebranding and move from age stated whiskies to exclusively serving up vintage tagged whisky was a brilliant move. With it, though, comes the fact that when more than one expression of a vintage is released, you have to go to numbered releases. This is the case with the 1990, which sported a first release in 2009, which was a travel retail exclusive in a classic Balblair straight ex bourbon casks.

Photo Credit: Balblair.com

This expression was removed from the ex bourbon casks in 2011, and given two years in Oloroso sherry casks, so overall it’s 4 years older than the previous edition. It was released in November 2013 as part of a trio of new vintages (the firs fill bourbon cask 30 year old 1983 and refill bourbon cask 10 year old Vintage 2003).  I don’t have notes on the previous edition of the 1990, but I did taste it, and am not positively convinced that the finishing in sherry was necessary.

Photo Credit: whiskytrade.co.nz

Photo Credit: whiskytrade.co.nz

Balblair 1990 (2nd Release), 23 Year Old (46%, NCF, NC)

Appearance: Reddish copper, sturdy necklace releasing droplets slowly.

Nose: There is a sour sherry note, which is the first on the nose. This being a sherry finish is evident, as you can still get the malt, honey and vanilla from the bourbon casks, with the honey mixing with dried fruit and some berries aroma from the sherry casks. You still get the cereal notes despite this being almost a quarter of a century in cask (which would, of course, suggest refill bourbon casks for those first 21 years).

Palate: Viscous, spicy with pepper and hint of chili, not a sweet dram at all. A lot of grapefruit rind in there. Over this basically good dram (for lovers of bitter notes), you get some sour sherry (which I would attribute less to Oloroso and more to Amontillado).

Linger: Dry on the inside of the cheeks, cerealy and spicy on the tongue, with a hint of honey, and an overall really lovely bitter note. Not what I’d expect from a sherry finish, although on second thought, this is actually a good combination of the predominant effects of both.

Conclusion

This dram is nothing like what you’d think you’re getting when you hear it’s finished in Oloroso sherry casks. I’ts a good tipple, but I found it to be a bit all over the place. Good bottle to have and enjoy, but something about it is inconsistent. I do love Balblair’s bourbon cask matured whiskies, and I absolutely adore the full sherry cask matured (see my review of the single cask Vintage 2000 here). The finish, I’m not so sure about.

I tasted this expression from a sample, not from my own bottle. I do own a closed bottle of this expression, and when I open it, I might need to revisit this review after having a few drams of it.

Yet I still do wonder if it wouldn’t have been better off without the Oloroso finish?