KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2017: Day 13

13 12 2017

By Tyler Derksen

Today we take a trip to the Scottish Highlands to visit Balblair Distillery, care of independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail’s “The MacPhail’s Collection”.  Located on the coast of the Dornoch Firth (which is almost due north of Inverness in the very northern part of mainland Scotland), Balblair was established by John Ross in 1790.  Interestingly, the original distillery was located half a mile from its current location and was moved in 1895 to take advantage of the Highland Railway.  As is the case with so many distilleries in Scotland, it was mothballed in 1911 and the last whisky being released in 1932.  The distillery continued to provide a valuable service when the army commandeered the buildings during World War II.

After the War, Robert James “Bertie” Cummings purchased the distillery in 1948 for £48,000 with production resuming the following year.  As a lawyer from Calgary, I’m tickled by the fact that Cummings was a solicitor from Banff – the original one in Scotland, not the one in the Rocky Mountains.  In 1970, Cummings sold Balblair to Hiram Walker, which later became Allied Distillers, which owns over 100 distilleries.  It is now owned by Inver House Distillers, which purchased it in 1996 (and which has a regional headquarters in Airdrie – the original one in Scotland, not the one north of Calgary).

IMG_4145For many years, Balblair has released its whisky as vintage offerings, with each one released based on the year it was distilled rather than with an age statement on the bottle.  As today’s bottle does not come direct from the distillery, we see a more conventional (for whisky) age statement of 10 years on the bottle.  The whisky was aged in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 43%.

Before today I had never tried Balblair and I genuinely enjoyed this whisky.  My first thought upon bringing the glass to my nose was that it smelled “dry”.  Not dry as one would describe the sweetness (or lack thereof) in wine, but rather dry as in the absence of moisture.  While I was able to pick out smells of unripe pear – you know the kind when you cut it and get mad at yourself because it’s not ready to eat yet – the predominant scent was that of cut grass.  Not green fresh-cut grass, but rather dried grass being raked after a couple of days after being mowed.  The palate delivered sweetness that was not evident (to me) on the nose.  I was able to taste candied orange, shortbread and something toasted.  It was reserved, but had a pleasant burn that I was not expecting based on its 43% bottling.  The Balblair 10 Year Old didn’t do anything crazy, but it didn’t have to.

KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 17

17 12 2016

Balblair!  Immediately recognizable thanks to its awesome squat flask-shaped bottle (complete with etching, even in the mini version) and standout modern labels, these guys have their branding right on point.  This is the third Balblair whisky to grace the pages of the Advent Calendar (and the third one I’ve had an obscenely hard time getting out of the calendar), after 2015’s lead-off Day 1 and denouement Day 22.  The distillery’s path to the present was a windy and interesting one, reflective of how difficult it must have been to be a whisky producing facility in the 20th Century:  founded 1790, sold 1894, moved 1895, mothballed 1911, run totally dry 1934, OCCUPIED BY THE ARMY 1939, sold 1948 (to a lawyer from Banff, no less, though presumably the one in Scotland), sold 1970, sold 1996.  Thankfully it’s stayed steady for the last 20 years, and in 2007 it made the decision that has become its rallying cry in the marketplace:  to produce and release only vintage-dated whiskies.  I don’t mean “10 Year”, “12 Year”, “18 Year”, etc.; I mean 1990, 2003, and tonight’s 2005.  The difference is that the former age designation only indicates the youngest whisky in what can be a blend of multiple different production years (what in wine would be called “non-vintage”), whereas Balblair’s choice commits them to only using whisky distilled in a single specific year in every bottling, which is proudly displayed on the front label.  Is that better?  Not necessarily, but it’s different, and the whisky world needs some different.


This bottle was distilled in 2005 and just bottled this year, making it an 11 year-old dram.  It was happily matured in ex-bourbon casks (w00t – sherry break), which explained its ludicrously friendly nose, overflowing with maple and brown sugar, crushed pecans, cinnamon sticks, nectarines and smoke.  I’ve noted that many whiskies in this year’s calendar start quieter aromatically but then are more exuberant to taste; well, this one is the opposite, not shutting down but taking on more sour lemon and bitters flavours, leathery tinges and chemical/petroleum notes (almost like Vaseline) on the tongue to go with the still-present vanilla and butterscotch sweetness.  Like a nice guy made more complex by a darker side – I like it.

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 22

22 12 2015

So remember way, way back in Day 1 of the calendar when I said that the calendar’s inaugural whisky, the vintage-dated 2003 Balblair Highland Single Malt, was released at the same time as the 1990 and the 1993 because Balblair’s distillery master holds all his whiskies until they’re exactly ready for release, even if out of chronological order?  (If you actually do remember this without clicking the link I will be shocked.)  Well, that may have been some inadvertent foreshadowing, because here on Day 22 I pulled that 2003’s older release twin out of the box.  Yes, Kensington Wine Market is bringing the thunder tonight with the 1990 Balblair, a 24 year-old malt (bottled in 2014) that is easily the oldest in the calendar to date.  It must be a winner, because it prominently graces the distillery’s cover page online.  Balblair is one of Highland’s oldest distilleries, established before Canada was in 1790, after which it followed the sort of sob story that seems to be par for the course for every Scottish distillery over the last 150 years:  it was sold in 1894, moved in 1895, mothballed in 1911, OCCUPIED BY THE ARMY in 1939, sold in 1948, sold in 1970 and sold in 1996 before being re-themed as a single-vintage-whisky-only producer in 2007.  The 1990 vintage malt was first released in 2008, with this 2014 bottling being the second iteration and release of that vintage.  I’m sure winemakers wish they had the luxury of making more of killer vintages after the fact to please consumer demand; I only know of one that ever did, and that didn’t end so well.


This 1990 Balblair, 2nd ed., was matured in a mix of American oak ex-Bourbon barrels and Spanish oak ex-sherry casks.  But let’s stop the technical tasting talk for a second and just look at this whisky.  Wow.  Particularly in comparison to the pale greenish colour of the Balblair 2003, this is off the charts incredible, an amazing dark rich brown sugar hue that tells a story by itself.  How can you love whisky and not love looking at that?  The astounding visuals set the stage for the smooth, sweet, treacly nose, a languid mix of Kraft caramels, demerara sugar and those weird hard orange-wrapped hard toffee Hallowe’en candies, lifted and given life and freshness by apricot and mandarin orange fruit.  There is a surprising and prominent spicy edge to the palate that adds a sense of toughness to the flavours of coffee grounds, Mars bars, sultana crackers, melon and citrus, all surrounded by luxurious mellow sugared notes brought on by the long aging process.  I believe that this is the priciest whisky to date at $175, but you can immediately see, smell, taste and feel what the extra investment brings you.  Brilliant stuff.

Whisky Advent Calendar 2015: Day 1

1 12 2015

Alright team, let’s do this.  December 1st has arrived, and that means a daily invasion of whisky on this blog until Christmas.  For those of you who frequent Pop & Pour for wine reviews and insights, (1) thank you!, and (2) I am so, so sorry…it’s about to get a little spirit-y up in here for most of the rest of 2015.  Yes, it’s KWM Whisky Advent Calendar time, my second year in a row partaking in the magnificent scotch-soaked creation of Kensington Wine Market and its resident whisky guru (and now owner!) Andrew Ferguson.  Every night you count one more day closer to Christmas, open a little cardboard door, pull out a new and exciting mini-bottle of distilled glory (all different from last year’s calendar, I might add), and turn to drink – the true essence of the holidays.

Bring on December.

Bring on December.

This year’s calendar starts on a note of intrigue:  a scotch I have never heard of before.  Balblair Distillery, based in the Highlands, was established in 1790 but has successfully escaped my notice for 225 years.  Their signature move appears to be releasing vintage-dated scotches, so instead of seeing a more general age designation on the bottle (10 Year, 12 Year, etc., which number indicates the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle’s multi-vintage blend) you get wine-style labels with single calendar years on them, presumably meaning that all of the whisky in the bottle was distilled in that same year.  Tonight’s lead-off bottle is the Balblair 2003 Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, a 12 year old malt that Balblair’s distiller released concurrently with the 1990 and 1993 – no whisky goes out to market until he says it’s ready.


I would call this highly pleasant (I just finished my glass and I immediately want more) without being highly memorable (I just finished my glass and if I hadn’t written tasting notes I wouldn’t be able to tell you what this tasted like).  It’s an interesting greenish lemon-straw colour, not overly deep, and initially smelled predominantly of spice — and not just cinnamon and baking spice, but cayenne and other savoury spices — before calming down and opening up to more approachable salted caramel, vanilla bean and candy corn peeking through the grainy, mealy, grassy surface.  This same contrast of restraint and generosity continued on the palate, which starts out green celery and spearmint before blooming to melon, orange peel and honey and finishing soft and sweet.  At $88, I could see this being somebody’s house scotch.  Not sure I’ll remember much about it come Day 7 or 8 though.  Onward!

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