The first Balblair distillery was built in 1790 by John Ross. For a time the facility
was managed by Andrew Ross & Son, but it was eventually replaced completely.
A new Balblair 2.0 distillery was built in 1894 on another location nearby.
This new Balblair distillery was founded Alex Cowan & Co around the start
of the whisky boom of the late 19th century. Balblair was closed ‘temporarily’
during World War I in 1915 - but it wasn't revived again until after WW II.
Tn 1949 Balblair was taken over by R. Cumming & Sons, a subsidiary of
Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Ltd from Canada. They expanded the
number of stills at Balblair from two to three. However, during the next
decades only two of those stills were used regularly.
Balblair was bought by Inver House in 1996.
Inver House Distillers Ltd. were themselves bought
in 2001 by the 'Pacific Spirits', who are in turn part
of the 'Great Oriole Group' conglomerate. And we
are not quite there yet - this group is controlled by
a Thai businessman; Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi.
This was another Asian ‘conquest’ in Scotland.
During the 1990's, most of the Asian investments came from Japan.
The three major Japanese investors in Scotland are Suntory (owning Auchentoshan,
Bowmore and Glen Garioch through their subsidiary Morrision Bowmore), Nikka (who
own Ben Nevis) and Takara Shuzo Okura (who own Tomatin).
So, by the turn of the millennium, over 5% of the Scotch whisky industry was in Japanse hands.
After all, Japanese companies owned five out of less than a hundred remaining active distilleries in Scotland.
By buying Inver House in 2001, Thailand matched the Japanese investments
in one fell swoop (doubling Asian involvement in the Scotch whisky industry).
Through Inver House, there were now five more distilleries being kept alive with
funding from Asia; Balblair, Balmenach, Knockdhu, Old Pulteney and Speyburn.
Comparing the two lists of acquisitions, I'd have to say that the Japanese seem
to have chosen more carefully. The 'Thailand' distilleries haven't produced a lot
of malt whiskies that made a lasting impression on me. Well, at least no so far...
The Japanese have a broader 'portfolio' as well, with Lowland and Islay malts.
Inver House’s distilleries are all located in Speyside (Balmenach, Knockdhu and
Speyburn) and in the Northern Highlands (Balblair and Old Pulteney).
Based on my own experiences so far, the ‘quality’ of the average Balblair has varied with the decades.
Some bottlings from the 1960s and 1970s were fantastic, but very few expressions from the 1980s or 1990s tickled
my fancy. There was a brief burst of brilliance around 2006/2007 when they released some really brilliant bottlings,
but things seem to have returned to ‘normal’ in recent years.
Balblair is located in the Northern Highlands - ‘off the beaten track’
with its closest neighbours being Glenmorangie, Dalmore & Teaninich.
The water sources for Balblair used to be in the nearby Beinn Dearg
mountain in Wester Ross, but I’m not sure if this is still the case.
Despite its relatively remote location, Balblair has a visitor centre and organised distillery tours are available.
The visitor centre shop is open on weekdays from 10:00 to 16:00 and the tours need to be booked in advance.
3) The first Balblair distillery was built and managed by
members of the Ross family. In fact, the Ross family was
so successful with local procreation that the entire area
is known as Ross-shire now; Gaelic for ‘place of rabbits’.
4) Balblair was closed in 1915. It only re-opened after the end of the second World War. By that point in time
the Balnagowan Estate had gone bankrupt (in 1941) and new owners had to finance some refurnishments.
2) Other distilleries in Scotland that claim to have been
founded in or before 1790 include Bowmore and Strathisla.
5) Although Balblair distillery 'officially' owns three stills, the oldest and smallest pot still isn't used anymore.
6) One of the reasons to replace the original Balblair distillery with a brand new one on a new location in 1894
was easy access to the railway system. If any of the people making that decision were still alive in 1960 they might
have felt a little silly - the Edderton railway station near Balblair distillery was closed in that year.
1) Balblair claims that it is one of the oldest Scotch whisky
distilleries still in operation. If that original Balblair distillery
from 1790 still existed it could be. However, the current
distillery has actually very little to do with that old 'Balblair'.
The current distillery was constructed in 1894 - and not
even on the same location within the Balnagowan estate.
7) Balblair distillery featured in the 2012 motion picture ‘The Angel’s Share’ alongside Charles MacLean.
My first impression was ‘Ken Loach’s most accessible film’ - but perhaps I should watch it again sober one day...
2001 - Inver House (the parent company that bought
Balblair in 1996) is bought by Pacific Spirits from Thailand.
2011 - A visitor centre and shop are added to the Balblair distillery.
2012 - Just like in 2011 some heavily peated spirit was distilled at Balblair with a PPM of more than 50.
To the best of my knowledge, this experiment hasn’t been repeated since (geddit? rePEATED!) - but the results
of those tests probably won’t be wasted and should make their way onto the shelves of liquorists eventually.
2006 - The entire range of Balblair OB’s is revamped, just
after the release of a few impressive vintage expressions
that were distilled in 1973 and 1975. Beforehand, the official
Balblair range consisted of the 'Elements' expression (NAS),
as well as a number of releases with an age statement.
Those are replaced by vintages - at higher prices of course.
Balblair 2000/2010 (43%, OB, 1st Release)
Nose: Flowery and chalky. Sweet with fruity accents. A little honeyed, but you have to dig quite deep.
Taste: Malty and slightly fruity. Smooth. Grows very bitter in the finish. Feels strangely cool in my mouth.
Score: 73 points - a nice alternative for blends, but not really op to single malt standards in my book.
Balblair 1989/2010 (43%, OB, 2nd Release)
Nose: Chalky and a little sour. Some farmy notes emerge after a minute with more sweetness later on.
Taste: Round, mellow and a little flowery. The finish starts off a little bitter before very heavy tannins set in.
Score: 75 points - oddly enough, this mature Balblair malt whisky shows many underage traits.
Balblair 1978/2008 (46%, OB)
Nose: Clean and light. Malty with some chalk that disappears over time. Fruits, slowly opening up.
Leather and spices, but you have to wait for it. This is one of those whiskies that really NEED a lot of time.
Taste: Sweet. Malt and mocha. Very light smokiness in the centre. Tannins in the fairly bitter finish.
Score: 83 points - although it gains one or two points if you wait long enough for it (at least half an hour).
Balblair 1997/2007 (43%, OB)
Nose: Lemony. Opens up very nicely after a few seconds, sweetening out. Some spices.
Not really my kind of profile - but this Balblair is still a good, well-rounded whisky.
Taste: Lemony. A tad perfumy in the centre, growing stronger towards the finish.
Feels a tad weak on the palate, making my score for this bottling of Balblair drop from 78 to 77 points.
Score: 78 points - a second tasting confirmed that this Balblair was definitely a few points above average.
Balblair 1975/2007 (46%, OB)
Nose: Big, spicy and complex. A lot of development over time. I had so much fun I forgot to make many notes.
Taste: Brilliant mouth feel; a perfect combination of wood and tannis with a finish that lasts forever.
Score: 90 points - very good whisky, but not all maniacs agreed with my gold medal nomination.
Balblair 40yo 1965 (47.7%, The Single Malts of Scotland, Cask Strength, Bottled June 2007).
Nose: Woehaah! VERY nice. passion fruit, a bit like Bowmores from the late 1960's. Sweet wood.
Over time some 'glue' components pop up. Coconut - or rather the coconut in liquorice all sorts.
Then organics emerge, lifting it back up to 90 points (I dropped it to 89 a few minutes earlier).
Taste: Passion fruits here as well, and a mouth feel that suggests a far bigger strength.
Over time the passion fruit evolves into 'old fruits' with a gentle tangerine bitterness.
Score: 90 points - after a few minutes it loses some steam, but just give it some more time.
Balblair 1973/2006 (45%, Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection, C#3184-3185, 385 Bts.)
Nose: Polished and woody. Classic. Evolving with more spices emerging. Wood dominates the other elements.
Taste: Extremely woody on the palate, just like the nose. Some fruits in this Balblair, but not a lot.
Very solid with emerging organics, but the wood dominates. After half an hour it finally jumped into the 90's.
Score: 90 points - I preferred this version quite a bit over the Balblair 1975 OB.
Balblair 16yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2005)
Nose: Mild sherry, sweet and fruity. Beeswax? Faint spices in the background. Very pleasant indeed!
Later on I got oatmeal and warm milk. I like the fact that it develops, but I'm not crazy about the direction.
Taste: Smooth and sweetish, growing grittier in the centre. Feels a bit rough and grainy. Fruits. Hint of liquorice?
It falls apart in the finish - a little bitter, like burnt coffee beans. Could this be a blend or an Irish whiskey?
Score: 78 points - an enjoyable nose (subtle but still lower 80's) but the palate keeps it below the 80's.
Balblair NAS 'Elements' (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2001, 70cl)
Nose: Light sweetness. Heather honey. Citrussy and malty. Raspberries! Toffee & Spices.
More 'coastal' and spicier after a few seconds, but the fruity/sweet undertone remains.
Hints of smoke, salt and peat. Chloride and dust. A little spirity with very soft sherry overtones.
Oily with a fair dash of peat. Some smoke, chloride and dust. 'Coastal'.Licorice root. Strawberries?
Taste: Ooh - that's a pity. Not as good as the nose. Clean with a hint of smoke. Sweetish, malty.
A tad too bitter in the finish; slightly metallic. Sweet and rough, with strong pear impressions.
A hint of peat; gritty with a tingle on the tongue. Smooth with apple overtones. Gingerbread?
Score: 74 points - I'm afraid the palate keeps it just below average.
Balblair 16yo (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2000, 70cl)
Nose: Amazing development - very distinctive. A little pepper. Clove. Nutmeg?
Furniture wax. Hint of soap. Spicy. Fresh and old fruit. Quite entertaining, actually.
Taste: Flat start - malty, then bitter. Sweeter and nuttier later on. Someting fishy.
Smoke. Pinch of salt. Tannine without the grapes. Ultra-dry wood.
Score: 76 points - but I guess I expect a little more from a Northern Highlander?
Balblair 21yo 1975/1997 (56,5%, Signatory Vintage, Cask #7275, 655 Bottles)
Nose: Another light and 'bourbony' malt - but it has much more 'volume' than the Glenury Royal.
Soon spices and organics emerge; nice. Strike that - very nice! Whiff of peat after adding water.
Taste: Quite drinkable at cask strength, although it grows very hot and dry towards the finish.
Fruity in the centre with a faint hint of smoke or peat in the background. Loses point in the finish.
It seems even more fruity after adding some water. And once again I seemed to detect a little peat.
Score: 82 points - very interesting but in the end it's a little too hot, dry and bitter in the finish.
The surprising pinch of peat keeps it the eighties, though - and interesting experience.
Balblair 10yo (40%, Gordon & MacPhail, Bottled +/- 1992, 70cl)
Nose: Furniture polish? Intruiging fruity notes. Lots of character, but it drops off quickly.
Taste: Soft, smooth and sweet. Toffeeish. Slightly bitter. Dark chocolate in the finish.
I didn't find a lot of individuality, but it's very nice for everyday dramming.
Score: 77 points - above average; a good sipping whisky.
Balblair 10yo (40%, Gordon & MacPhail, Bottled 1980's, 5cl)
Nose: Oily. Wet wood. Very faint hint of peat. Not very expressive but quite unique.
Taste: Sweet, malty and woody. I absolutely love the tannins in the (ultra dry) finish.
Score: 70 points - sorry, I couldn't get any more from my quarter of a 5cl miniature.
Balblair NAS (70 Proof, Gordon & MacPhail, Bottled 1970's)
Nose: Lots of sherry. Antiquity. Chocolate. Furniture polish. Lemon. Salt. Organics.
What a lovely rich profile! Based on the nose alone this would surely reach the upper 80's.
Taste: Old cold tea. Not much else I could pick up - or if I did I didn't make notes of it...
Nice enough, but just not very interesting. Still a very good dram, mind you!
Score: 81 points - the palate pulls the score down to the lower 80's.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Balblair malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Balblair I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Balblair.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.