Most of the Scotch whisky industry is moving away from age statements. So it's unusual that Balblair has relaunched its lineup as four age-statement whiskies, with specific names like "Balblair 15-year" and "Balblair 25-year" instead of the meaningless, fanciful names you see in duty free shops.
However, for Balblair, it's actually a move to less specificity. Until last year, Balbair released vintage whiskies, based on the year they were laid down. The company would release different batches at different times, meaning the 2007 might come out before the 2002 if the master distiller thought it was ready first. Moreover, not all of the barrels were blended together, so there was often more than one release from the same vintage, and the two whiskies might be drastically different.
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Basically, Balblair was a whisky for wine lovers. Now, it's more of a whisky for throwback whisky lovers.
"Since 2007, there have been 32 different vintages released," Balblair communications manager Samantha Peter told Wine-Searcher. "It was very difficult for consumers to understand. Being able to distill it down into a core range that shows the optimum character, from my point of view, is a plus. What we found is that people loved a certain vintage but it was only available for a certain length of time. Then you couldn't get it anymore. From a consumer point of view, if you came across a vintage that you loved and you wanted to get another bottle, you couldn't get it. Now if you like a bottle, you'll be able to get it again."
If you read online reviews for old Balblair releases, you see that thread a lot: a certain vintage was excellent, but now it's gone. You also read people complaining that other vintages aren't up to snuff, but fans were usually fairly forgiving and ready to move on. Those same aficionados haven't been fans of the new releases. A common complaint is that they taste more generic. To be fair, that's part of the point of blending.
"The whisky has not changed one single bit," Balblair distillery manager John MacDonald told Wine-Searcher. "It's as good as it ever was. There's advantages in going to an age statement. Before, vintages could change in six months: it could have the same vintage on the label but be entirely different. It's consistency of product. That's the name of the game for us."
Balblair has an interesting history. It was founded in 1790 by a man named John Ross. Ross is a popular surname in this part of the Scottish Highlands: the county is called Ross-shire, and MacDonald said even today there are two employees of the distillery named John Ross, while others have the surname. The distillery moved its location in 1895 to be closer to the railroad, but continues to use its original water source. In 1970 it entered the corporate world, being bought by the Canadian company Hiram Walker.
In 1996, Balblair was sold to Inver House Distillers, which itself was purchased in 2001 by ThaiBev. ThaiBev made its fortune on Chang Beer, Thailand's top-selling beer, and SangSom rum, the country's most popular brown spirit. Ironically, SangSom was developed in part to fend off foreign spirits in the Thai market. Now ThaiBev owns five Scotch distilleries and they're all pretty good: Balblair, Balmenach, Knockdhu, Pulteney and Speyburn.
MacDonald said Balblair has eight separate warehouses.
"They're very old, traditional designs," MacDonald said. "Very thick walls, very low roofs. It's a very damp cool atmosphere. Because the casks are only sitting three high, it's a perfect microclimate for the maturation."
MacDonald joined Balblair in 2006 after spending 17 years at Glenmorangie.
"We can't compete with the big big guns. We only have two stills," MacDonald said. "Glenmorangie has 14 stills. Macallan has 20. The volumes that they're producing, we will never compete with that. But our whisky stands out."
Until recently his job was to taste through the barrels and decide which to release. It was a task nearly unique in the Scotch industry. Now his job is more like working at Glenmorangie or Macallan in, say, 2006. Back then, blending barrels into age-delineated bottlings was what distilleries did. In the last 15 years, the industry first went through a shortage of spirit that led distillers to release bottlings without age statements, and then discovered that they'll still sell. Instead of going Back to the Future, Balblair has gone Forward to the Past.
Asked if he missed making vintage whiskies, MacDonald said, "You get nostalgic about things in the past. But you have to move on. I think the portfolio that we have now, the 12, 15, 18 and 25, with things to come, they're fabulous whiskies. There's something for everyone to enjoy."
For me, I most enjoyed the 25-year-old, but at that price I damn well better. For price performance I'll take the 15-year-old, with its notes of seaweed, citrus and toast; it gets salty on the finish and I like that.
However, as this is a story for Wine-Searcher, I have to point this out: while searching for the prices of the new whiskies, I discovered that there are still a few bottles of vintage Balblair in stores. If you find that interesting, you better act now.