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Balblair 12 & 15 year old

Things change and sadly not always for the better. That’s the stark reality of the world we live in today, where profit does dictate the final outcome. I don’t doubt that distillery workers and many on the team, want to show their distillery, their efforts and their whisky in the best light possible.

In whisky today, we have consistency. Many out there value the uniformity of it all and knowing exactly what they are getting. I don’t expect greatness with every bottle or dram I purchase nowadays, but what I do hope for is stimulation and interest. Balblair is a particular favourite of mine on many levels.

I’m sitting in the living room of a hired cottage right know, just a few miles north of Balblair. It’s 6am and I’m reflecting upon last night’s whiskies from this local distillery that we’ve seen prosper in recent times. Being able to compare and contrast is a wonderful thing. Purchasing double measures of both, I retreated back to my temporary residence where I spent a couple of hours debating change and the future. I’m not debating price as we’ve already discussed these new price points previously.

Balblair has always produced a characterful and entertaining whisky. The Speyside of the north in some respects and its output is valued by many blenders who appreciate its qualities such as Ballantine’s. Even so, it has made great strides across the single malt market. A combination of those stylish characteristics alongside a sense of value have endured its whiskies to a new market.

In essence, Balblair has become a victim of its own success.

The focus for many years on vintages and their justification for this approach have been jettisoned. I’m not especially swayed either way on vintages, but I do find it somewhat aloof that a core fundamental has been eroded quicker than a store shelf with the latest Macallan Edition release. We’re mean to literally swallow the new approach and exhale the old values. Ok, whatever I suppose and as always, we’re focused on the price and contents. However, I do feel some sense of loss that Balblair is losing its identity and adopting the corporate approach of ‘we’re doing it because everyone else does it that way’, which is something I hear from my employer on a regular basis. Why not do things your way? Do what you believe in? Harness and showcase your product or service in the best possible light? Don’t bundle something into an identikit mould and ship it out to the market thereafter.

InterBev has revamped the Pulteney range so it was only a matter of time until changes arrived at the door of Balblair. We’ve seen many changes, whether it is around tours, or the pricing of the popular bottle your own at these distilleries. Being in the north, I considered driving up to Wick to pick up an interesting Pulteney to open and enjoy. Sadly, there was only 1 option (as the manager is America currently and he has to pick the new casks), which was a sherry cask for 11 or 12 years of age and a mighty £130. That’s the wrong side of £100 to me and not worth the drive – it is symbolic of the higher pricing we’re seeing now across the industry. I suppose it is too sensible to have a running order of casks, so any shortfall, or absenteeism is covered?

The new Pulteney range is disappointing and there has been a great deal of interest around the new Balblair offerings. We’ve been asked to cover these on several occasions and while we don’t have a relationship with InterBev, we have purchased these whiskies thanks to our Patreon supporters. Both of these releases are bottled at 46% and feature different cask implementations having started life in ex-bourbon vessels. The Balblair 12 features an element of double-fired American oak casks. The 15 relies upon a 1st fill Spanish sherry oak butts as a finish of unknown duration.

The 15 year old will set you back £73.10 from Master of Malt, with the same retailer offering the 12 year old for £43.84.

Balblair 12 year old – review

Colour: a light honey.

On the nose: more lightness with almonds, cookie dough and freshly sliced apples. Pear drops continue the sweetness and a crisp vanilla. Wafer, nougat and green olives. Time reveals caramel, freshly plucked mint leaf, lime juice and white pepper. Water reveals talcum powder and coconut.

In the mouth: a little spirit driven and not hugely complex. There are elements of fruit but beyond their best before sale date. More vanilla and lime follow alongside typical Balblair flavours of barley sweets, wine gums, soft pears and white chocolate. Water is not beneficial.

Score: 5/10

Balblair 15 year old – review

Colour: a touch of copper.

On the nose: a tinge of red influence with rhubard, red apples and more raw dough. Juicy fruit chewing gum (unused), fresh pineapple and pink peppercorn. Brass rubbing and I wish I had more to tempt you, but that’s your lot!

In the mouth: neither here nor there in reality. Delicate flavours that lack definition and voice. An inoffensive marketing construct. Some withered orange peel, mustard seed and time reveals worn leather, walnuts, chocolate and a drying finish.

Score: 3/10

Conclusions

The 12 feels a little more sharper and vibrant on the nose. Whereas the 15 feels more muted and sedimentary with a little spicing. On the palate, this difference continues, as the 15 is very delicate and watery – noting the finish it feels very safe and insignificant. Neither justify the price, or showcase this distillery in the best light.

I’m somewhat disheartened by these whiskies as we know Balblair can be do much better. These are inoffensive and somewhat pitched towards a more neutral palate and rookie whisky enthusiast. Perhaps foreign markets are driving these changes? Personally, there is a sense of loss. Another official range has sold itself down the river and we’re forced to rely once again on the independent sector for value and flavour. At least we have an option to change our behaviour and I suggest that you do.

Samples purchased at the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar with thanks to our Patreon supporters. There are commission links above that never influence our opinion.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Max Hill says:

    Fortunatelly not always is such a change for the worse. I hear new Bunnahabhain 12 (black bottle) is way better than the old one (green bottle). I never tasted the old one but last week I tasted the new one and I can confirm it is pretty good. One can wonder – how can producer dare to change the distillate (i.e. contents of bottle) in this age.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Max

      Well, that’s encouraging to hear. I know the old bottle was starting to gather some criticism. Generally I think Distell do a good job so here’s hoping.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Avatar
    Andrew says:

    Seguing back to the brief comment about about brand on the Arran Jason, this redesign is one that I feel is a step backwards – I loved the old design of the Blablair for daring to be different and thought that using a vintage system was again interesting and different.

    I wonder if it just wasn’t working, confuding the average buyer perhaps?

    It’s terrible to hear that the liquid has become generic with the changes to, I enjoyed every one of the Balblairs I tried and thought them great value too which is the final huge nail in the coffin.

    What a shame.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Andrew

      Yes, you’re quite right about the design on this one. I never did cover it, but maybe if I can get my hands on the 18yo that’ll be a fun topic. It just looks too cluttered and generic now. A real shame and the liquid itself was really disappointing.

      Cheers, Jason.

    2. Avatar
      Jag says:

      Hi

      This article sums up my worries and annoyance with the whisky scene at the moment. I was gutted that the Arran 14 has been discontinued and that now I am unlikely to be able to get hold of the 00 (bottled 17) vintage of Balblair. Both faves of mine and at a price within my budget. No idea what Arran are going to do with their age statement range but I expect a notable price hike. This has really put me off both distilleries.

      Jag (TheFlavourChase)

      1. Jason
        Jason says:

        Hi Jag

        Thanks for commenting. That’s the risk many distilleries and indies are running, chasing new money and markets whilst shunning their previous core customer. When, and it is only a matter of time, the current boom busts, it’s the regular loyal customer that they would have relied on during the harder times. A fact that many seem oblivious to.

        We’ll source some Arran and hope that its a rebrand that is worthwhile.

        Cheers, Jason.

  3. Avatar
    Rolf Isaksen says:

    Sad to hear that the new range bottlings 12y and 15y are that uninteresting. And with the price increase on the 18 and 25, I will seek elsewhere as you also wrote. Luckily I have more left of several good vintages such as 83, 90, 91 and 97. Just love the distillery after a visit up there, where I also picked up a bottle your own. I have heard good things about the G&M 21 which is still much cheaper to buy compared to OB.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Rolf

      I don’t think you’re alone in laying down stock for your own personal consumption going forward. A good idea, especially if you enjoy the style of Balblair. I’ll probably look to the independents as well for hints of what Balblair used to be like. Sadly, no official old-style bottles reside in my stash except for a couple of hand-fills.

      Cheers, Jason.

  4. Avatar
    Greg B. says:

    Balblair was always a rare whisky for me. Their various vintage offerings were presented in packaging that in many instances was unique and different (the side-opening box being the prime example), and usually also expensive which meant around here they were only rarely found and at a higher-than-expected price point. But they were handsome on the shelf with a good-looking bottle and label once taken out. I found the whisky always pleasant, some obviously more than others of course, but generally seeming well-made. I somehow thought of it as a “ladies whisky” if I can use that obsolete term – light, clean, delicate, but well worth exploring further for the subtle complexities, reminding me in some ways of Cragganmore. It was always a favorite, and a treat, not an everyday dram.

    One of the things that always troubled me about vintage dating as opposed to age statements is that when you encountered a bottle in a shop you had to do some further exploration to determine what exactly was on offer, since the aging stops when bottled. So if you were purchasing it in 2016, was that 1999 Balblair a 10 year-old whisky that had been gathering dust on the back of a shelf, or a recently arrived 15? I suspect this may have been deemed to be a drawback by the management and so we are now back to age statements. Unfortunately from the review notes it seems that something is missing, at least in the older expression. The bottle presentation also seems to hve taken a step backwards. Change is not always good, as we have seen frequently in the whisky world of late.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Greg

      A great comment and sentiment. That was a drawback of the vintage option as you suggest and we’re back with the generic ages and inflated prices. Time will tell with this new range. I don’t think it does anything new for Balblair, other than highlight what a good core range it used to offer. The presentation isn’t great either and I’m still disappointed by this duo, such as waste.

      That old chestnut regarding change again.

      Cheers, Jason.

  5. John
    John says:

    Old Pulteney seems to have been on a downward spiral ever since winning that whisky of the year by Jim Murray.

    and bloody hell. The price for that Balblair 15 is disgusting.

  6. Graham
    Graham says:

    I understand new range is selling particularly well from the distillery shop to all the visitors but the staff are not buying it due to the price hikes.

    It probably shows that the Marketers were right but at the expense of a small core of real fans.

  7. Avatar
    Matt Bishop says:

    There is a special place in my the ‘whisky appreciation’ nucleus of my brain for Balblair. When a whisky triggers those special neurones you hold on to that experience and enjoy it every time that dram is poured. I have a number of the vintages including 90,91,99, 05, and a hand poured 06. All have the unique Balblair spirit but each different too. This summer when on our annual holiday on the North coast of Scotland the local hotelier opened a new 18 yo to pour for us. Those special neurones did not fire sadly – they were confused. It was Balblair but something was missing. Like recognising an old friend but not remembering their name. Or perhaps looking at a painting you love only to realise it was a print and so lacking the real hand of the artist.
    I have enough vintage bottles to last a while so stick with the friends I know when and my brain will not be confused any more.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Matt

      Good that you have those memories and a wee stash to enjoy. I’m sure I read somewhere and interview with the distillery manager who picked out the 12yo as his favourite. Saying it was more inline with what he enjoys in a Balblair – that spoke volumes.

      Cheers, Jason.

  8. Avatar
    Dan W says:

    Hi Jason

    I’m very disappointed with the direction Balblair have decided to take. I think it’s a mistake. They’re obviously chasing the dollar and yen and will now try to sell Balblair to a customer base that has never heard of Balblair and just want Macallan and JW Blue. And their strategy to do this is by making themselves exactly the same as everyone else? Bizarre.

    In doing so they’ve alienated their core customer base in malt aficionados. They’ve lost my custom for a start. I think they’ve have been much smarter continuing to build a reputation for quality with serious malt drinkers in the UK and played on their difference and idiosyncrasies by keeping the vintage system in place.

    But what do I know?

    Their are quite a few young ish Balblairs sold by the SMWS. I keep considering them. Have you had any? Do you know if they are decent?

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Dan

      Thanks for dropping by. I’m glad others feel the same way about this situation. The move as you suggest, does seem to be to chase new money. Perhaps just a new range would have sufficed rather than changing the whole core range thereby alienating many?

      I haven’t had too many of the SMWS Balblairs lately. Those I have were solid, if unspectacular. Not as good as the hand fill option at the distillery. However, you might have given me an idea for a future article?

      Cheers, Jason.

  9. Avatar
    kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    too many if not all the recent re-launches meant a dip in quality, did they not?

    Glenrothes Pulteney Balblair Isle of Jura where not much could have been spoiled but much could have been gained… Highland Park in some bottlings. Macallan of course not to forget.

    We hope that Isle of Arran can withstand the pressure (wherever it might come from) to dip quality with the coming re-launch.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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