Ken Loach's whisky-themed film The Angels' Share, Balblair Distillery will be a familiar sight. The climax of the movie featuring the auction of a cask of Malt Mill single malt was filmed there, and it is not difficult to see why. Balblair is as traditional-looking a Scotch distillery as you could wish for, and set in stunning Highland scenery, some 40 miles north of Inverness and close to the southern shores of the Dornoch Firth, on the outskirts of the remote village of Edderton.
Balblair can lay claim to being one of Scotland's oldest distilleries, and whisky-making may have been practised there as far back as 1749, but its formal history dates from 1790, when John Ross established a distillery at Balblair Farm, about half a mile from the current site.
The distillery was rebuilt in 1872, but the present structure dates from 1894/95, and was the work of Inverness wine merchant Alexander Cowan. He took on the lease of Balblair Distillery from its owners the Balnagowan Estate, and chose a new location for the operation beside the Inverness to Wick railway line in order to facilitate deliveries to and from the site.
Balblair was silent from 1915 until 1947, when Keith solicitor Robert 'Bertie' Cumming purchased it for £48,000, recommencing distilling the following year. In 1970 Cumming sold Balblair to the Canadian distilling giant Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd, who already owned five Scottish distilleries.
Hiram Walker merged with Allied Vintners to become Allied Distillers in 1988, and Allied sold Balblair to Inver House Distillers in 1996, having considered closing it down. Inver House already owned Speyburn and Pulteney distilleries, and went on to add Balmenach and Knockdhu to its portfolio. Then, in 2001, Inver House was acquired by Pacific Spirits, itself purchased by International Beverage Holdings in 2006.
The following year saw a radical shake up of the Balblair range when the existing Balblair Elements (with no age statement), and 10 and 16 Years Old expressions were dropped, being replaced by a number of vintage releases, complete with dramatically re-designed packaging.
The man in charge at Balblair is John MacDonald, who was born in Inverness and started work at Glenmorangie Distillery, less than five miles from Balblair, in August 1989. His original intention was to spend a year there, taking times out from his studies, but he ended up remaining for 17 years! He started as a warehouseman before graduating to the roles of mill-man, mash-man, still-man and finally Assistant Manager, before being appointed Balblair Distillery Manager in August 2006.
When it comes to the sprit made at Balblair, John MacDonald says that, "The distillery house style is very Highland: unpeated, very fruity, with floral notes and an intriguing, leathery undertone. The spirit is extremely robust, allowing the production-driven flavours and aromas to survive tremendously well even after long maturation."
Although Balblair has long been unpeated, during 2011 and 2012 an amount of peated spirit (52ppm) was produced, though Inver House has no plans for future peated distillations. Back in 2005, however, the distillery launched a 12 Years Old 1992 vintage 'Single Peaty Cask' expression, finished in a cask that had previously held an Islay single malt, followed by a 1990 single cask bottling matured in an American barrel (1466) that had formerly contained an Islay malt.
When Alfred Barnard visited Balblair during research for his 1887 classic tome The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom a local source of peat was vital for use in distillery maltings. Barnard wrote that, 'All the streams in the Edderton area are considered suitable for distilling purposes. There is also an inexhaustible supply of peat close by, Edderton being known as the 'Parish of Peats.''
Today, new Balblair vintages are released as stocks of existing ones become depleted, and the current line-up includes 1983, 1990, 1999 and 2003 vintages, with 1999 and 2004 variants being exclusive to Travel Retail outlets.
MacDonald explains that, "When a vintage is chosen we will sample every single cask of that particular year. Each sample will then be individually assessed for its quality. Only the finest examples will be chosen to be included in the bottling. That is not to say that the casks not chosen were bad, only that they have not reached their optimum maturation point. We will then revisit these casks at a later date. Hence the reason you may see second releases of a particular year."
In terms of personal favourites, MacDonald declares that, "It's difficult to say, as it very much depends on mood, time of day, company and situation. At the moment it has to be the Balblair 1990. It's got a tremendous nose and is a terrific example of balance between Bourbon and sherry wood. The finish is glorious. A very satisfying dram."
One relatively recent development at Balblair was the creation of an atmospheric visitor centre in 2011, including a 'Time Capsule' room, where visitors can learn more about the distillery's history and experience the sights and sounds of particular years in the past when Balblair vintages were created.
According to John MacDonald, "The visitor centre continues to go from strength to strength. We are blessed with having tremendous staff here whose enthusiasm and friendliness is exceptional, as can be seen from the many comments in the visitors' book and comments on Trip Advisor."
The centre offers visitors the opportunity to hand-bottle their own Balblair from a single cask, currently a 1997 ex-Bourbon barrel, while the oldest expression available there dates from 1969. According to John, "There are 999 bottles and it is quite outstanding. Nosing these casks for the first time was definitely a 'moment'".
Around 15 per cent of all spirit produced at Balblair is bottled as single malt, and all spirit destined for single malt bottling is matured on site, with the current inventory comprising around 98 per cent in ex-Bourbon casks and two per cent in former sherry casks.
So just what makes the Balblair dram it produces special for John MacDonald. "Many things," he replies. "Dedicated, enthusiastic staff who take pride in what they do, a fabulous location, and of course the whisky is immense!"
Malt: unpeated - Concerto and Propeno barley varieties
Mashing: semi-lauter mash tun - 4.75 tonne mash - 21 mashes per week mashtun, as at Glenlivet - 12 tonnes mash
Fermentation: 6 Oregon pine washbacks - 21,500 litre capacity - average 56 hours fermentations
Distillation: 1 wash still (18,888 litres capacity), 1 spirit still (11,751 litres capacity), 4 spirit stills - 20,000 litres charge
Capacity - 1.8 million lpa
Balblair 2003, 46% ABV (First release, bottled 2015)
Nose: Light, clean and fresh, with pears, vanilla and a hint of malt.
Palate: Medium-bodied, sweet, honeyed and spicy.
Finish: Relatively long and spicy.
Balblair 1999, 46% ABV (First release, bottled 2014)
Nose: Floral, with ripe apples, light sherry and furniture polish.
Palate: Sweet and rounded. Fruit cake, honey and warm leather.
Finish: Lengthy, with soft and warming spices.
Balblair 1990, 46% ABV (First release, bottled 2014)
Nose: Rich, sherried and spicy, with leathery fruit.
Palate: Smooth and full, with honey and spicy sherry.
Finish: Drying oak, persistently spicy.