Ken Loach, the storied British film director, selected the Balblair distillery as one of the locations of his 2012 movie, The Angel’s Share. Stuart Baxter, the Spirits Ambassador for Inver House Distillers, informs me that it was because “to his mind, it was what a perfect distillery should look like”.
The Angel’s Share went on to scoop the jury prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and as one of the reviews I read describes it, “it’s about being given a chance in life”.
That seems strangely uncanny to me, as I’d got a second chance to taste a selection of Balblair’s whiskies with Stuart, albeit virtually of course, having missed out on the first group tasting due to a work trip.
I gallantly offered to return the tasting kit which lay unopened with me, to the good folks at Food Talk India, who were co-ordinating the tasting. They told me not to be silly and enjoy the whisky later. Luckily enough, I got a mail a few days later, inviting me to do a private tasting with Stuart!
Balblair is a single malt distillery, owned by Inver House Distillers (itself owned by Thailand-based InterBev) located in the Highlands of Scotland. One of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, it dates back to 1790. A Gaelic word, it means “battlefield” or “town of the plain”.
The distillery itself sits on the site of an ancient Pictish gathering site. The Picts were people who inhabited Eastern and Northern Scotland from late antiquity to the Middle Ages. There’s a standing stone known as the Clach Biorach that is next to the distillery that dates back to the time of the Picts.
It has probably been erected to mark the death place of a Norse Viking and, strangely enough, the Norwegian army was billeted at the distillery during World War II.
As I open the outer packaging prior to the tasting, I’m intrigued with the striking symbol on the sleek black case, a Z-Rod, taken from the engraving on the stone.
I thank my stars I hadn’t returned the case, for there are four miniatures of the Balblair in it: the 12YO, and then going on to the 15, 18 and the 25YOs! There’s also a glass within, but I’ve assembled my own set of glasses, one for each variant, with a champagne flute for the 25YO.
As I prepare to start my tasting, Stuart informs me that all the whiskies I’m about to taste are at 46% ABV, are non-chill filtered, with no added caramel or colouring. To focus on quality, they do not run the distillery to its full installed capacity.
They also run a longer-than-usual fermentation cycle of 62 hours, along with an extremely slow distillation of 4.5 hours. All of which help bring out the fruity and tropical notes of the whisky, via the esters and aldehydes. All the whisky is also matured on site itself.
We start with a tasting of the 12YO, a whisky that is available in India too. It is matured in American oak ex-Bourbon casks and double-fired American oak casks. True to Stuart’s words, the whisky has a vanilla and tropical taste.
For the 15YO, Balblair turns to sherry casks, using a combination of ex-Bourbon casks and first fill sherry butts, giving it a Christmas cask-like taste. Stuart, in fact, likens the new make spirit of Balblair to a tea biscuit, calling it delicate and really crisp.
I ask Stuart something that’s always intrigued me: can whisky be influenced by terroir, that unique set of physical circumstances that the French attribute the taste of individual wines to? “Whisky is a more robust spirit,” he says, and not affected by place or position.
What does make an impact, however, is the location where the whisky is matured. Stuart gives the example of another of Inver House’s distilleries, the Old Pulteney, whose warehouses are by the sea, with the casks soaking in the salty air as they lie maturing.
We’re now logically on the 18YO, that I’m told have spent three years in refilled Oloroso sherry casks. Thankfully I have just been tasting a little of each whisky, carefully saving up the rest for a later occasion.
I’m now at the end, and the jewel in Balblair’s crown, the 25YO, a whisky that has spent a quarter century in quite repose, at least 5 years of which are in sherry casks as it develops its brilliant full-bodied taste.
It is, reminiscent in part of chocolate and oranges, a combination you can’t ever go wrong with!