It was my birthday recently.
After you’ve taken as many trips around the sun as I have, birthdays don’t have the same appeal, or resonance. Only the round numbers, and this one wasn’t that. Anything that ends in a 0, I understand is worthy of a celebration.
My theory is that birthdays start fading in appeal after 21. In your early 20s, the world is wide open with possibilities, and 30 is only an abstract concept. When 30 rounds into view you start viewing each forthcoming birth anniversary with a little more trepidation.
I remember being relieved after turning 30 as the worst part was now over and I had a good 8 or 9 years before the worry about hitting a big milestone age would start building again.
Birthdays are an event in my household, because I have kids for whom they are an almost religious experience. If you are unfamiliar with children under the age of 10, birthdays are kind of a big deal. To play along, my wife and I ramp up the celebration for our own birthdays far more than we would otherwise. We even sing happy birthday to the dog.
After the kids are safely stashed away in bed, the real birthday celebration begins. Push through the indie Ben Nevis and Signatory bottles in my whisky cabinet to those dusties in the back, and you’ll find a few drams that I keep stashed for special occasions. These are irreplaceable; once they are gone, they won’t be seen again (barring an auction miracle).
That’s what this review is then: a sampling of some of my birthday (and in fact, Christmas) drams. Bottles that all have some meaning to me and are being consumed over the course of many years. Bottles that, in fact, I was reluctant to open in the first place (I owned the Balblair 1990 for over 4 years before opening it), but console myself with the longevity I am able to enjoy from them. Strap yourself in for high scores.
First up are Balblair vintages 1990 and 1991. Around 2018 Balblair, replaced its vintage releases with traditional age statements. I had collected a big stash of the vintage releases and after I learned they were going away, guarded these two final bottles like Gollum protecting the One Ring. I recently saw the 1989 vintage (bottled in 2011) come up at auction but let it slip away. Maybe next time.
Balblair 1990 Vintage Second Release – Review
46% ABV. Bottled in 2014.
Colour: Copper, tinted deep gold.
On the nose: Dark fruits like blueberries, plums, rhubarb. Rye bread and mashed over-ripe bananas. Then also a lot of red wine, strawberries and red liquorice. It’s my birthday; I’m ready for a drink.
In the mouth: Very chewy in the mouth; hints of caramel and red apple skin. Also hoisin sauce, and charred barbeque meats with a plum marinade. The finish is shorter than I remember and, at the ABV, it slides down quite smoothly.
I purchased this back in 2014 from a store on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh for around £125. I had previously bought a 50cl sample just to ensure it suited my tastes. It did then and it does now, but perhaps with the intervening nine years my tastes have evolved, and I am less impressed now than I was then. Still very good whisky, and worth stretching out this bottle for a few more years to come.
Balblair 1991 Vintage Third Release – Review
46% ABV. Bottled in 2018.
Colour: Late sunset.
On the nose: Quite a bit deeper and more complex than the 1990. Pink lamingtons, toffee apples, boiled sweets. Red apples and red grapes, then cheap cognac. Jam sandwiches on white bread. A bouquet of roses that are a few days past their prime.
In the mouth: Utterly gorgeous; we are in elite territory here. Pecan pie and candied orange peel. Mixed berries, fudge, Earl Grey tea, and also cinnamon scrolls. Some honey and cream pastries. The finish is of medium length with raisin bread.
Memory serves that this cost $250 Aussie dollars when released down here; by the time it reached us, Balblair had already announced they were dropping the vintage releases and the age statements had started to be released. Thus, this felt like a farewell tour from a favourite band. In 2019 I stumbled around the whisky shops of Scotland trying to find any dusty vintage releases on shelves without success. I’ve moved on from my Balblair obsession, though I do keep an eye open for indie releases, which are also sadly thin on the ground nowadays.
This next review is whisky that came off the stills before I was born! If you are in your early 20s that might not seem a big deal, but trust me: chronology waits for no one. It’s coming for you, too.
The back of the bottle tells me this is a blend of Speyside and Islay liquid matured in Spanish and American oak.
North Star Vega 41 Year Old Blended Malt Scotch whisky
46.1% ABV (cask strength). Distilled November 1976. Bottled April 2018. 400 bottles.
Colour: Deep gold.
On the nose: Plenty of burned sugar, cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods, and praline. Custard cream and flaky pastry. Oak spice as 41 years in wood comes to the fore. Something cutting too, a tang of polished copper and stainless steel. Finally, raw mushrooms fresh from the earth.
In the mouth: Remarkably smooth and mature; a little like me? My wife is shaking her head with an eye roll. I guess not. I don’t think there is much evidence of classic Islay characteristics on display, but the age has sanded over all rough edges. Pleasantly buttery, and some apricots, lemon peel, blackcurrant juice. Also, some liquorice, marzipan, almonds, and vanilla ice cream.
The type of old blend that you think might’ve been better at 31 years than 41. Still fantastic, and too good to share with friends. I think this cost around $400 Aussie dollars, and you can’t argue with the price given the specs. I have half a mind that I will still own a fair amount of this when my kids turn 18; perhaps a dram to share with their old man on that auspicious occasion?
Cadenhead Small Batch Invergordon 43 Year Old Single Grain Scotch Whisky – Review
48.3% ABV. Distilled in 1972. Bottled in 2016. 468 bottles from two ex-bourbon barrels.
Colour: Full gold.
On the nose: It’s grain whisky, it is very old, and it’s been in bourbon barrels. Write your own notes! Obviously vanilla, iced donuts, custard cream biscuits. Strong on the gingerbread. Shaved coconut. Orange liqueur. Banana bread.
In the mouth: A soft grain whisky with butterscotch, ginger, marzipan. Irish cream spirits. A flat white coffee (this is an Australian café coffee variety). Very buttery and with shortbread.
When tasting whisky this old, you can’t help but feel a little humbled. This came off the still contemporaneous with Watergate and pre-Thatcher, pre-Reagan, when the Beatles were only freshly broken up.
I’ve never understood reluctance with grain whisky. If it’s not to your taste, no argument from me. But there is nothing fundamentally wrong with grain whisky. It is unmistakably different to malt whisky, and that is not ipso facto a bad thing. I was lucky enough to buy this bottle a few years ago for $299; malt whisky of the same age could be ten times the cost.
I was perhaps too generous pouring this for friends and family and have maybe only a quarter of the bottle left. Enough for about five more birthdays? Knock up the big FIVE ZERO with a dram of whisky dating from 1972? Sounds to me like a plan.
A memorable session to celebrate another year on earth. Four bottles with combined age statements of over 130 years. I’ll see one or two of these bottles again at Christmas; until then they’ll be pushed back to the deeper recesses of my whisky cabinet.