It takes a lot of guts to change direction, even if your instincts tell you it is the right decision.For years whisky connoisseurs had been bowled over by Balblair’s venerable offerings, such as the 38 Years Old. But overnight all has changed and now the emperor has new clothes and new liquid to boot.The new Balblair vintages have been launched by owners, Inver House Distillers.As the company’s biggest-ever launch for a single malt whisky, Balblair has been rebranded, repackaged and released.Its striking new identity has been carefully crafted and should mean the vintages offer a superior choice for informed whisky drinkers across Europe, North America and the fast growing Asian region.“Balblair has a strong reputation amongst connoisseurs and we believe that the time is now right to invest in, and realise, its full potential,” says Karen Walker, marketing manager of Inver House Distillers.“There is huge opportunity in the whisky market at the moment, especially in the premium end of the category and in emerging markets, such as Asia and Russia. Balblair’s re-launch, vintage repositioning and an increased international focus marks an incredibly exciting time and is without doubt our most important product development to date.” As well as giving Balblair a fresh new look inspired by its Pictish links, its makers have moved away from the traditional age description of whisky (i.e. ‘10 Years Old’) in favour of vintage expressions; hand-picked, specially selected ‘years’ that represent the very best whisky the distillery has to offer.Three vintage expressions were finally chosen from 1997, 1989 and 1979. Intriguingly complex and satisfying whiskies, each is strongly individual, full bodied and feature notes that include apricot, orange, green apple, cloves, vanilla and honey. Other Balblair years will continue to mature under the watchful eye of the distillery manager, John Macdonald until they reach their point of perfection.Inver House’s master distiller, Stuart Harvey says: “The Balblair Vintages have changed the way we approach cask selection at Inver House. Previously we were looking for consistency from one batch of 10 to 16 Years Old to the next.“This meant that parcels of casks which were slightly different had to be hidden in a vatting. Now these parcels can be selected and enjoyed by everyone.” In a bid to find the best whiskies which had reached their absolute peak, 1062 casks were personally sampled by Stuart.He adds: “John selects the individual casks, I then look at the individual samples and select the casks for each vatting.“The casks which were not selected will remain maturing in the warehouses at Balblair. They will become part of future vintages, when they have reached their peak.“The first three vintages are all from American oak ex-bourbon barrels.“I think it is very interesting to look at how the age and number of fills influence the final product.“Future vintages will feature Spanish oak sherry casks, as well as American oak ex-bourbon.” Design cues on the new boxes and pebble shaped bottle are heavily influenced by Balblair’s heritage.The distillery, located in Edderton overlooking the Dornoch Firth, is built on a former Pictish settlement, which still features a 4,000 year old Pict symbol stone, Clach Biorach – originally used by the Picts as a calendar and gathering place.Each Balblair box features one of three atmospheric images of the view of the Dornoch Firth towards the distillery, taken by local photographer Finn McRae at different times of the day to reflect the changing light from dawn until dusk.Karen Walker continues: “We have spent a great deal of time researching Balblair’s heritage and reflecting its true identity in the whisky, drawing from the distillery’s history but at the same time appealing to modern drinkers who covet excellence and originality.“The vintage approach is definitely different but we’re delighted with the change as it highlights the selection process of whisky, illustrating the alchemy behind a great malt.These particular vintage choices represent the very finest Balblair and we’re sure that they will appeal to whisky drinkers around the world.” We gave the three vintages to our whisky guru and chief taster Dave Broom to put them through their paces, and to let you know what to expect when you get your hands on one of the vintages 1997
Nose: Fragrant and scented. Quite toasty and lifted with hints of marzipan and wheat chaff. Hints of oolong tea leaf and lightly caramelised fruit syrup, think of baked peaches. In time a fresh oaky note. Hay loft. With water there’s just-baked white bread spread with Nutella but a great balance between dusty malt and sweetness.Palate: Smooth and medium-bodied. Those cooked peaches again then a slow silky progression which coats the tongue: passion fruit. With water becomes more zesty and thenopnes up a previously hidden sweet spicy edge.Finish: Dry yet still fruity.Comment: Really forward for such a young dram. Delicious!1989
Nose: Mature, with greater elegance and some funky woody depth. Showing touches of nut and wet autumn leaves. The peachiness is now dried peach and those oolong tea leaves are now in the teapot after being soaked with hot water. There’s some tangerine and macadamia.Palate: More lifted than the 1997 with dried flower though the same smooth silky centre and greater length. Showing a chocolate note mixed with a fungal deep note.Finish: Subtle and deep falling away to custard and citrus peel.Comment: For me this is best neat, but another silky soft balanced beauty.1979
Nose: Gentle and subtle with lots of oak lactone. The scented note has now shifted to vetiver. There’s also a dusty lemon note vanilla, iced gems, biscuity, green fig. Complex and layered.Palate: Almond to start. There’s honey and a rose petal scented floral/ spice note. The feel is there but now it is coating the whole mouth. Apricot. A drop of water shows the layers of flavour at work here. Stewed rhubarb, chocolate and sprig of mint.Finish: Silky and long.Comment: The word is complex. A new aroma with every nosing combined with a serious drinkability. Up there with the legendary 38 year old.