Vintages Timed to Perfection – Balblair Distillery

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The North-east of Scotland is beautiful. On top, we visited the Orkney islands with their stubborn climate and two beautiful distilleries of Scapa and Highland Park, we drove through the rugged landscapes between Wolfburn in Thurso, the Dunnet Bay distillery around the corner and the Pulteney distillery in Wick, and followed the hilly coastal route down the A9 to stretch our legs at the Laidhay tea room in Dunbeath on a stones throw from the Clynelish distillery. We knew they were closed for tours because of a large reconstruction and expansion at the moment of our visit, but we managed to get a quick look around at the closed Brora distillery next door. Amongst a modest selection of disused equipment, the stills are still there to be seen, and for whisky geeks as ourselves, this sure was a treat. Our next stop was to be the Dornoch Castle Hotel, where we were in for another treat; a delicious meal, two nights of good rest and a bar stocked with mouthwatering, often old and rare whiskies, of which some appeared to be not often seen Broras. Ah, well, when in Rome…

The next morning we could sleep in, because the distilleries we planned to visit were all a short drive away from the hotel. After only ten minutes southbound, we already exchange the A9 for the A836 on the roundabout immediately after we crossed the Dornoch Firth Bridge to swiftly find ourselves in Edderton, where the Balblair distillery is located near the Craigroy Burn and the railroad. Some may recognise the distillery from the Ken Loach movie the Angels’ Share where the exterior and some of the warehouses were used as a backdrop. Unannounced, we informed about the possibilities for a tour, and our tour guide and fellow distillery adventurer Gabrielle was happy to show us around. We had been to the distillery at the end of our first Scotland road trip in 2012, but must have had our heads spinning of information back then, that we were happy to re-tour the place on a more relaxed pace.

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the red-hued
production water

The Balblair distillery dates back to 1790 when it was established by local man John Ross. After several expansions and rebuilds, a new building is constructed a little up the road in 1864, to make better use of the Inverness-Ardgay railroad tracks that are built in 1862, bringing in the coals to heat the stills and the unmalted barley. After years of production, the firm mothballs the distillery in 1911 and is forgotten about until after the second world war, during which the buildings have been commandeered by the army. In 1948 the distillery is finally sold and they re-started production one year later. After the station closed in 1960 the distillery expanded their warehousing facilities and in the mid-seventies the maltings were closed and malted barley was purchased externally. Shortly after that some major refurbishments were done to the buildings and equipment was updated where necessary. In 2007 the current owner Inverhouse took over the company, and changed their core range to “Vintage only, timed to perfection”, under the watchful eye nose of distillery manager John MacDonald. In 2011 they transformed the downstairs old malting floor into a visitor’s centre, which is exactly where we start our tour.

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In a posh glass conference room in the middle of the floor, a short video presentation explains why the distillery chose to change to vintage instead of age, and when we were convinced of the marketing message, we get a quick behind the scenes look of the red painted de-stoners and screeners, and the other unused malting floors upstairs (not usually in the tour, but thanks to Gabrielle for attending to our inner nerd) – an excellent spot for a small cafe, with good coffee, homemade cakes and lunches. We walk into the next room where the 50 years old four roller Porteus mill stands which processes batches of 4.5 tonne each time, fed by the ten malt bins in the other room, filled three times per week with 30 tonnes of freshly malted barley.

In a rather odd place in the process, we see a set of modern, stainless steel tanks, cooling the liquid Mauri yeast. An odd place in the process maybe, but an otherwise unused space in a perfectly logical place, because when we look up we can see the underside of the pagoda chimney – we are now standing in the old kiln. Up ahead, the shiny bottom of the stainless steel semi lauter mashtun awaits us, tucked away between stairs and platforms. Inside, the grist from the mill is mixed with soft, red water from the Allt Dearg burn, about five miles into the heather covered peat bogs. After six hours in the mashtun without much aggravation, the resulting clear wort is slowly pumped into one of the six 21.000 litres douglas fir washbacks, which are recently accompanied by two stainless steel versions, so the fermentation time could be lengthened from 48 to 60 hours.

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the old still, spotted in 2014
at her temporary home

From our first visit in 2012, we remember the small patchworked still in the stillhouse. Not used and probably in the way in the already small and cramped still house, the still was re-located to her makers in Rothes, where she now shines in front of the Station Hotel, owned by the Forsyth family. Give it a good look when you are there, many different styles of craftsmanship in coppersmithing are to be found in the small still. But, without wandering off, we are still in the warm and humid stillhouse at Balblair, where we encounter a set of steam powered stills.

Both stills have a bulky, ball-shaped base, no boiling balls, a broad neck and a slightly downward lye arm leading into the short shell-and-tube condensers. The larger wash still is filled with 19.500 litres fruity wash from one washback. The resulting 11.825 (give or take) litres of low wines are distilled by the spirit still with cuts made at 73 and 60% abv. This delivers a spirit full of fruity esters and heavy oils, already giving an olfactory orgasm before even having seen an interaction with wood. Of the annually produced 1.8 million litres, 15% spirit is casked on-site for single malt at an average of 68% abv. The eight on-site dunnage warehouses are currently filled with about 18.500 casks of different sizes and types.

Time for us to cross the road and have a second look at the giraffes of the distillery in Tain, which we also visited in 2012, but deserves a fresh look. Also we get a sneak peak inside the doors of the Dornoch Distillery that was when we were visiting in the middle of construction. At the time of writing, most equipment is in place, and the boys almost ready to open soon. Hopefully. We took some time to put our feet up a bit and enjoy a good dram from the bar while chatting with the brothers. See you all next week back here where we will give you a look at another Highland distillery. If you want to have a sneak peak also and enjoy some photos, go to our Facebook page for those!

Slàinte Mhath

Thomas & Ansgar
Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller

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