Before Balblair replaced vintages with age statements and bumped up the prices to unreasonable amounts, I would have had no hesitation in naming it as my favourite distillery. My first encounter was the Balblair 2002 about six years ago, and it immediately grabbed me with its fresh, citrus-forward, eau-de-vie-like profile. Perhaps ‘grabbed’ is not the right word entirely – Balblair is a subtle, quiet malt, without the kind of bold flavours that leap out of the glass that you find in heavily peated or sherried whisky.
This brings me to the issue of how we ascribe quality to the flavours of a whisky. There is a preconceived notion that intensity of flavour is automatically better than lightness. This is evident in the number of devoted fans and/or cult status enjoyed by distilleries like Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Talisker, Springbank, Macallan, Glenfarclas and so on – all distilleries that produce whisky with powerful, intense flavours. Less weighty malts like Balblair, Glencadam or Bladnoch (or even more famous examples such as Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie) are often relegated to the beginning of a session, to whet the palate for the more challenging whiskies to come.
This approach is flawed in my opinion. It is related, incidentally, to the notion of a ‘beginner’s whisky’ vs. the more advanced fare – normally, people who are just getting into single malt are recommended to try the lighter stuff before moving on to the bolder flavours of sherry or peat. There is, as a result, an ingrained tendency to dismiss lighter whiskies as inferior – or damn them with faint praise as ‘good beginner whiskies’. This opposition between lightness and boldness/intensity can be seen in other walks of life too – of all the lists of top films for example, how many of them are comedies? Weight and seriousness, whether in the form of tragedy or solemnity of approach, are normally valued more than lightness and levity in various forms of art. And so it is with whisky, where seriousness is represented by the Lagavulins and Springbanks of this world, and lightness by the likes of Balblair or Glencadam. This is not a criticism of the more intense whiskies of course – I love my Lagavulin as much as the next person – I am merely trying to elevate the more humble lighter malts to their rightful place, especially when I feel that the quality is uniformly high, as is the case with Balblair and Glencadam.
Why the long preamble? Because Balblair’s style isn’t one that jumps out from the glass to greet you – it requires a little bit of patience or experience to discern. Hopefully this doesn’t come across as arrogant – neither style is inherently superior, it’s just that the quality of the subtle malts manifests itself differently, so we have to search for it with a different method: they won’t impress us if we sample them in passing, but if we take the time to devote our attention, they will reward us.
This particular Balblair was bottled in 2018 but carries the same ‘first release’ moniker as the 2016 edition. This may appear confusing and may have been part of the reason behind the shift to age statements – the explanation is that, despite the extra two years of maturation, the style of whisky is the same, which is confirmed by the fact that I couldn’t really discern a meaningful difference between the two. It was matured in ex-bourbon casks and was the youngest, entry-level Balblair before it was replaced by the 12 year-old.
Nose: Quite aromatic and evocative. Lemon zest, grapefruit, and a general feeling of walking through a citrus orchard. Unripe peaches and floral eau-de-vie notes round off this very fresh nose.
Palate: The fruitiness is in the driving seat – both citrus and stone fruits – with some honey in the background. There’s a very appealing mild bitterness that reminds me of peach stones. Water brings out grapefruit and the distinctive (for me, anyway) note of peaches in late spring before they’re perfectly ripe – slightly bitter, but delicious. Overall, it’s bright and fresh and full of young eau-de-vie notes – I don’t know of any other distillery that produces an official bottling this raw and free of cask influence.
Finish: Quite long, mostly on that peach stone bitterness.
Comments: I love this style: it really is an impeccable whisky – the best in its class in my opinion when it was discontinued. There’s no easy vanilla sweetness from over-active casks – I suspect a relatively high proportion of refill bourbon given all the fresh eau-de-vie notes, but this works very well.
This humble Balblair is proof that a whisky doesn’t need lots of peat or sherry to have a unique character. Hopefully the new Balblair 12 year old that has replaced the young vintages in the range will be equally good – but I would advise anyone who is able to get their hands on this to do so without hesitation.
Score: 90/100 (perhaps a more objective score would be in the high 80s, but what’s an objective score?)