An exciting addition to the core range of arguably the most picturesque whisky distillery in the Northern Highlands of Scotland. Balblair very recently announced a new addition the Balblair 21 Years, which we’ll taste today. To celebrate, I unearthed a decent sparring partner, the Balblair 25 Years.
Balblair is part of Inver House, a company that owns five distilleries in total, including a few personal favourites. Most notably Pulteney, although I really enjoy Knockdhu’s output as well. Interestingly, Balblair is the only Inver House distillery not fitted with worm tubs, a type of condenser generally associated with a heavier, meaty spirit.
There are things you can do during production to counteract the effects of a worm tub. Just take a look at Royal Lochnagar. It has small stills and worm tubs, yet manages to produce a lighter make by slowing down distillation and running the worm tubs warm. They even leave the stills’ doors open after distillation to rejuvenate the copper. All this in an effort to maximise reflux.
This also works the other way around. Balblair has no worm tubs, but their (very fruity) new make has a meaty note regardless and is very oily. This is achieved by a combination of clear worts, long fermentation in wooden washbacks and distillation in small, stubby stills. It also makes the Balblair spirit suitable for longterm maturation.
Both Balblair whiskies I’m tasting today would be considered well-aged. The Balblair 25 Years initially matured in ex-bourbon casks before a 5-year finish in Spanish oak sherry casks. And that’s true Spanish oak we’re talking about. Whisky companies sometimes tend to use Spanish oak as a synonym for sherry casks (which we know can be made from American oak as well). That’s not the case here.
The Balblair 21 Years underwent a similar maturation regime. First in ex-bourbon casks, then a further 6 years in Spanish oak, making it the most sherry-influenced single malt in Balblair’s core range.
Balblair 21 Years (46%, OB, 2023)
Nose: Certainly Oloroso forward, but not extremely sherry dominant. There’s touches of leather and tobacco, with some damp oak, herbal teas, butter and jammy apricots, as well as a touch of raisins. Also whiffs of brass and cherry-flavoured candy canes. Finally a sliver of eucalyptus, caramel and butterscotch too. Very agreeable. Taste: The oily nature of Balblair’s new make has survived maturation and alcohol reduction. The tobacco makes an encore, along with some proper wood spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as cigar boxes and sandalwood. I get hints of sultanas, blood oranges and crushed mint leaves as well. Finish: Medium in length. Dry, slightly tannic and leafy, but also hints of honey and peach marmalade.
It’s certainly not a whisky that puts a premium on distillery character. The Balblair 21 Years depends on the lengthy finish ex-Oloroso Spanish oak casks. There’s sherry influence, plenty of it, but it’s the Spanish oak that stands out – sometimes a little too much.
Balblair 25 Years (46%, OB, 2023)
Nose: The herbal teas are present here too, but also stewed pears and apple skin, along with some melted butter and candied bananas. Even a touch of petrichor and copper polish. Finally, just a touch of mint accompanied by cherries and zesty orange peel. Stylish and mature. Taste: Fairly oily mouthfeel. A touch of resin, some golden syrup and a whisper of bitter oak, followed by some fennel. Hints of orange zest and even a whiff of grapefruit, along with dark chocolate and meringues. Finish: Medium to long. Somewhat tannic. Notes of eucalyptus and oak spices linger, before making way for jammy, sweet flavours.
The nose is slightly more fresh and vibrant than the 21-year-old, while it tastes surprisingly older than it is. That might be due to the Spanish oak. Who knows. But the oak is undeniably present. The Balblair 25 Years has to be taken seriously, but we're not reaching Mount Everest-levels either.