Distillery Focus

Distiller making a spirit of the air (Balblair)

Ian Buxton visits Balblair
By Ian Buxton
As the internal arrangements and vessels are like the other distilleries in the district, it is not worthwhile to recapitulate them” commented an unusually blunt Alfred Barnard on his visit to Balblair.Though we might admire the brevity of this approach, Alf’s somewhat taciturn description belies the interest to be found for today’s visitor at this attractive little distillery.Not least are the wonderful archives, with the earliest history of the distillery preserved in the original sales ledgers.The original Balblair distillery was founded in 1790, and sales records survive from 1800. The first entry is prefaced: “John Ross Christopher, Tacksman of Balblair, January 25th 1800” and we can see that his first sale was “to David Kircaldy at Ardmore one gallon of whisky at £1.8.0d”. That’s around four litres of whisky at a cost of £1.40 in today’s measures.Later the distillery offered a range of qualities: double strong whisky is noted at 4/6 per pint; spirit is 3/6 per pint and dram whisky is 3/3 per pint – or about 16 pence for around a half litre. Say 22 pence for the equivalent of today’s 70cl bottle! Some quick arithmetic suggests that either Mr Kircaldy was getting a decent quantity discount or he wasn’t buying the good stuff.“Ardmore” being a neighbouring farm, perhaps it was just for his labourers. Mind you, the local minister ran up a bill for over £15 which he had to pay off in instalments. Presumably his sermons were not on the evils of strong drink. Or, then again, perhaps he preached with the benefit of experience.However, the ledgers are interesting in that, even 200 years ago, they reveal a range of whiskies being produced. Today Balblair also offers a considerable selection, though prices have jumped up somewhat.The entry malt is an unaged expression entitled ‘Elements’ and this is followed by a 10 year old, 16 year old and two recently launched limited editions of 33 and 38 years old respectively.But, before exploring these, I need to introduce this little distillery because Balblair is not at all well known, even though it presents a convincing case for greater fame and wider appreciation.Balblair itself is located in Edderton, overlooking the Dornoch Firth, about four miles from its near neighbour, the very much more famous Glenmorangie. The name Balblair means “battlefield” – a reference not to any local rivalry but to more ancient feuds dating back to the Viking raids.Today it could hardly be more peaceful or, indeed, clean. Balblair proudly boasts that it is “a spirit of the air”. This is not an obscure reference to the angel’s share, or even to some implied evanescent quality of the spirit, but to a report from Aberdeen University that rated the air in Edderton the purest in Scotland.The surroundings are indeed tranquil and the air invigorating. Whether or not it’s the purest in Scotland, I can’t say (I won’t argue with one of Scotland’s oldest universities) though there can hardly be a more agreeable setting and the effect on the light from the sea’s proximity is striking.The calming influence and gentle microclimate come from the Dornoch Firth, home to a colony of dolphins that attracts visitors to the nearby Black Isle. Most of the land surrounding the distillery is owned by the Balnagowan estate, the property of Harrods’ Mohamed al Fayed. He has been an active owner, investing heavily in a lavish refurbishment of the castle and estate. Balblair can be found on the shelves in Knightsbridge and,
apparently, has proved popular at Fulham, al Fayed’s football club!Whatever the attractions of this environment to wildlife tourists and global entrepreneurs, it has certainly proved a felicitous location for distillers, with Clynelish, Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Teaninich and Ord all clustered locally in the distinctive Northern Highlands grouping.Balblair is the senior of these, however, dating back to 1790. As such it is one of the oldest working distilleries in the world. The claim is a little stretched, however, by the fact that the original works, described by Barnard as “very small and old fashioned” were entirely replaced in 1872 and then a completely new distillery constructed about half a mile away in 1894 by Inverness businessman Alexander Cowan.Though expanded since, Cowan’s operations can be seen today in the offices, still house, kiln and barns and it’s only fair to note that Charles Craig, a commentator more knowledgeable than most, has praised Balblair for being “one of the most attractive small distilleries surviving”.It has remained so in the face of a number of changes of ownership, passing from Cowan to Banff solicitor Bertie Cumming, to Hiram Walker and thus to Allied Distillers. Today it is in the hands of Inver House of Airdrie, who have owned the distillery since June 1996. Co-incidentally, they are the proprietors of Old Pulteney at Wick, once also owned by Bertie Cumming.In all these manifestations, Balblair has drawn its water from the Allt Dearg burn, which runs from the hills above the distillery. As a laconic Barnard observed “all the streams in the district of Edderton are considered suitable for distilling purposes.”The distillery retains an attractively traditional air. Its tidy front yard is framed by low lying warehouses to one side and the railway line to the other, the office a compact stone structure. Behind it, the heart of the operation is dominated by a single pagoda.Unpeated malt is used, and some 14 washes a week run to the six wooden wash backs. Here fermentation can run for up to 96 hours before the wash stills take over.Today, around 1.2 million litres of alcohol can be produced at full output, from the rather dumpy squat stills. This, together with the use of sherry casks, explains the difference of spirit character from Glenmorangie, just along the road. There the famously tall stills and the unusually hard water contribute to a lighter and more delicate spirit providing a contrast to Balblair’s fuller, but not unattractive, flavour.At Balblair, all the casks reserved for single malt are stored on site in attractive traditional dunnage warehouses. Some 24,000 casks are currently held there, mainly in bourbon, with some sherry barrels.A small, relatively little known but fast growing operation owned by a Thai entrepreneur, Inver House is seeking a greater profile for its malts: Balblair, Old Pulteney, Knockdhu, Balmenach and, best known of all, Speyburn.Under-valued by Allied, Balblair certainly could justify a greater share of our attention as new versions are released. The 33 year old won Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best Gold for mainland malts in 2002 and a new release has just been launched, retailing at a relatively modest £140. It’s hand bottled at a cask strength of 45.4% abv and, naturally, is not chill filtered.A rich vanilla and fruit character dominates the nose, which is sensuous and beguiling. Toffee notes and fruit cake are the predominate taste sensations, with a long and quite dry finish.A 38 year old has also been launched alongside this. Darker than its companion, strongly influenced by sherry casks in the bottling, it is softer on the palate, with a complex spicy and rich fruit taste. Hints of Christmas cake and sherry linger well into the finish.Again, bottled without chill filtration at cask strength (44.7%) it’s dangerously easy to drink, especially at a recommended retail price of £149. With a more fashionable name on the bottle the price could well be higher. Quantities of both are naturally limited and are expected to prove particularly popular in Germany, where Balblair has a dedicated following.However, most of us will never approach these rarities and must remain content with the more widely available and affordable standard expressions: Elements, excellent value at around £16; 10 and 16 year old.All are worth exploring, but the 16 year old is a particular pleasure. Spicy, complex and layered it has plenty of vanilla sweetness on the nose, later offering up a nutty flavour, some toffee and a medium body, assertive without being either unpleasant or cloying. Grand stuff, and worthy of a bigger reputation.There is no visitor centre at Balblair, though you can arrange to look round with manager Derek Sinclair. It’s imperative that you telephone in advance however to be sure that someone is available to help you.Invariably, casual visitors have to be turned away as the team is not big enough to maintain full time guides. Enthusiasts will prefer to meet someone actually responsible for production, however, and a little courtesy is all that it takes to ensure a memorable experience.Look out for a series of pictures by artist Susan Macfarlane, who painted Balblair in 1996. Her canvases really do capture the atmosphere of a working, breathing distillery. They are neither sentimental nor do they present a ‘picture postcard’ marketing-approved view of distillery life. Instead, you get a very honest sense of the atmosphere, noise and even the smells of Balblair at work. I’d like to see them on a label.So ignore Barnard’s unusually terse report. I think he must have been rushing for a train, or else his editor was chasing him for copy (they do that, reader, you should know).Balblair is a malt you should try and a distillery you should visit. Its combination of setting, size, traditional approach and long history demand and deserve your attention and that’s before you try the products. An exploration of the range will be both enjoyable and educational – you
might just surprise yourself.What is certain is that you’ll be richly rewarded: after all, though it may style itself ‘a spirit of the air’, Balblair is no airy-fairy operation.