Thursday, November 17, 2011

Balblair Brand Home Opening

Thursday 3 November 2011 was "a significant date in the history of the Balblair distillery" to quote John MacDonald, the Distillery Manager.  That is saying something when you consider that Balblair is one of the oldest distilleries still in operation in Scotland, having been founded by John Ross in 1790. The date saw not only the launch of a new whisky in to the Balblair core range - the 2001 Vintage - but the 'significant' opening of the new Brand Home was the main event.  The guest list included some very senior people from Inver House Distillers and Thai Beverage (the distillery's owners), and a selection of influential alcohol/whisky journalists and bloggers.  Somehow I got on the trip.

The trip began the day before with an evening meeting at Euston station in London, where the assembled guests joined the overnight sleeper train to Inverness.  Twelve hours and a few bottles of complimentary Balblair single malt later, we awoke in the capital of the Highlands.  There was no hangover, just a nagging dull pain behind the eyes from disturbed sleep in a confined, moving space.  This wasn't helped by the minibus driver who collected us and drove us to the distillery, while trying to break the land speed record and choosing an unorthodox 'cross country' route.  However, it was helped by a welcoming black coffee and bacon sandwich combo upon arrival at Balblair, plus a good lungful of fresh Highland air.

The burn at Balblair
The Balblair distillery is located in the picturesque village of Edderton, near to the town of Tain. It lies close to the shores of the Dornoch Firth, one of Scotland’s largest estuaries, with the Highlands rising up behind, the Inverness-Thurso railway track running next to it on one side, a burn (that's a stream to me and you) to the other and a 2,000 year old Pictish standing stone just a few hundred metres away. The current buildings were all constructed in 1893, when the distillery was moved a few hundred yards to utilise the new railway line. It is a glorious location and one I was pleased to re-visit.

The day began with a tour of the distillery, which was taken by John MacDonald.  He has been the Distillery Manager at Balblair since 2006 and this follows 17 years service down the road at Glenmorangie, where he worked his way up through the ranks to the position of Assistant Manager. He puts his current success at Balblair down to the fact that he has done every job within a distillery – warehouseman, mill-man, mash-man, still-man and then senior management. John's passion for the place is immediately evident and he leads us around the distillery and explains what makes it tick.  Check out the video below for more information and also the notes from our Distillery Visit last year.

The Brand Home shop
Next was a look at the new Balblair Brand Home.  When we visited in November last year, this project was being conceived as an idea.  The facility was much different now to the cold malting floor that we had previously stood in. Upon entering, there is a compact shop and relaxation area selling the range of Balblair whiskies and a few items of branded clothing. I learn later that most of this was decorated and built by John and the staff at Balblair.

Bottle #11
This area also houses a specially selected cask of whisky which visitors will be able to bottle themselves.  It is an ex-bourbon cask from 1992 and will cost £80 a bottle. Each guest was asked to fill their own commemorative bottling to mark the opening - John had the honour of filling Bottle #1, mine was Bottle #11.  These were the first bottles of whisky to ever be filled on the site of Balblair, as all other releases are bottled at other Inver House facilities. Tasting notes of this bottle/cask will follow once we open the bottle!  Watch the video below to see John filling his ceremonial bottle and firstly, explaining about the history of Balblair and facts about the distillery.

Balblair workers on film
Through a doorway is an area that is designed to host corporate events and formal tastings.  This is much larger and is housed what used to be the old malting floor.  Thankfully, this area has been sympathetically restored and many of the original features remain.  It consists of a small bar area on one side, a gallery space featuring photos of distillery workers on the other and a glass sided tasting/meeting room in the centre.  The subdued lighting adds to the ambiance and you can feel the history in the place.

What is refreshing is Balblair's stance towards the new facility.  By naming it as Balblair's Brand Home, rather than as a visitor's centre, they are making a statement.  When talking to John MacDonald and other members of the Inver House team at the opening event, they made it clear that they wanted to attract discerning single malt fans and whisky connoisseurs, rather than the bus loads of tourists which the larger distilleries cater for.  This philosophy seems to fit in well with Balblair's image, ethos, location and size and should be applauded.  It is hoped to be used more as an educational tool about the brand and its vintages, rather than selling high margin goods such as whisky fudge, shortbread and tartan in the gift shop.

The next stage in what was becoming an action packed day was a tasting of the range led by John MacDonald and Andy Hannah, the UK Brand Manager for Inver House.  Here, we were led through a series of the Balblair Vintages, after starting with a sample of the new make spirit which had been produced the previous day.  The samples were accompanied by some snazzy videos showing things that happened in each of the years of each Vintage.  We tried two cask strength samples from 1990 (one peaty cask and one non-peaty), the 1989 and 1978 releases, followed by the stunning 1965 Vintage.  This is the oldest Balblair released to date and costs around £1,500 a bottle - it was a phenomenally good dram!

This led on to a wonderful lunch which was cooked and served for us by the Good Highland Food company.  A starter of smoked trout terrine was followed by a lovely fillet of Caithness beef and finished off with an extremely chocolatey torte which was infused with Balblair whisky.  The lunch was accompanied by a cask strength version of the newly launched Balblair 2001 Vintage, which John described as "my favourite of the younger Vintages released to date".

The Balblair 2001 Vintage is a landmark whisky for the distillery and Inver House. It is the first of their single malts to be released with a combination of being non-chill filtered, at a higher strength of 46% ABV and with no artificial colouring. It also features more stream-lined packaging.  Going forwards, all Balblair releases are being planned to have all of these factors. This whisky has been matured in ex-bourbon casks and bottled at 10 years of age. It is available from specialist whisky retailers and on-line retailers and has a recommended price of £32.99. To read our full review and tasting notes - click here.

Then we were ushered back in to the minibus, after vigorous handshaking all round, and whisked back to Inverness by the same driver and at the same speed that we had arrived.  I saw some seals basking (if you can do such a thing in Scotland in November) on the shores of the Cromarty Firth and before we knew it, we were at Inverness airport.  Whilst checking in we saw movie actress Tilda Swinton, and then had a quick look in the airport's much improved Duty Free shop.  A flight and a train later, I arrive back home in north London exactly 24 hours after I had left it.  It had been a long but very enjoyable day and one that I was grateful to be part of.

- Matt

1 comment:

Scotch Cyclist said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Matt. How could I have neglected to mention the bacon rolls?! I was 'cc'd on the emails about your journey up and it sounded like an excellent idea - and I suspected sleep would prove difficult one way or the other. I await the arrival of my 1992 with real excitement for I suspect it would warm up my St Andrews garret very nicely indeed.