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Gordon & MacPhail Balblair 10 Years Old

“You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

Factually, I didn’t pay any money; Bryan did, and I thank him kindly for his generosity. You see, I have a game of “Sample Roulette” going on. Every time my wife opens the cupboard and notices the expanding pile of samples, she asks me “what’s going to happen to all these little bottles of whisky?” I then grab one at random and make it my business to review it forthwith.

That’s exactly how I found myself reviewing today’s whisky. On paper, it’s not one that would set most pulses racing, I expect: a 10 year old independently bottled Highland malt at 43% ABV. What makes this a bit more intriguing, at least for me, is that it comes from a distillery I have not yet tried, but about which I have long been curious: Balblair.

I recall reading about Balblair’s decision to switch its range away from the unconventional vintage systemtoward more widely-understood age statements in early 2019. At the time, my local liquor emporium had a few of the old-style bottlings on the shelf. Having seen – even back then, much earlier in my whisky journey – a few beloved expressions disappear, only to be replaced by inferior quality substitutes, I sensed an opportunity. I made a mental note to pick up a few of the vintage bottles and stash them away in the basement.

Alas, I quickly forgot, and those bottles were snatched up by more enterprising whisky consumers. Perhaps my lack of get-up-and-go related to the fact that I had not then (and still haven’t) tried any Balblair. It also hasn’t featured prominently on Malt; before Mark P’s 2023 review, you’d have to go all the way back to Mark’s 2012 piece on the 1978. Adding to our library, I’m also putting my own oversight right today, in a way that I hope will give me some sense of the distillery’s character.

The cause of my optimism is that this is an independently-bottled Balblair. From the color of it, I am guessing that it was from a bourbon barrel. Those well-versed in the independent bottling area might find this next part boring; I won’t feel offended if you skip straight to the review. However, for the rest, an introduction to/refresher on independent bottling might be handy.

I was strolling the aisles of Binny’s when I noticed a nice little display they had set up, featuring a few curated bottles of IB single malt Scotch. I snapped a photo, which you can see here:

More than the particular bottles they had picked, I was interested in a small placard titled “What are Independent Bottlers?” You see, there has not (until recently) been much of an IB culture here for American whiskey. The big (and, increasingly, little) distilleries make the stuff, and sell most of it themselves. Some goes to boutique blenders. Some goes to NDPs for bottling under their own labels; unless the state of Indiana is mentioned on the back label, it is often hard to ascertain the source of the whiskey. Only recently have we started to see the likes of Single Cask Nation and Rare Character embrace a model that looks more like the established Scotch IBs, with the associated transparency (when possible) about the source of the liquid in the bottle.

Thus, Binny’s felt like some education was in order. Of the selling points they mentioned, today’s whisky does not tick the “higher strength” box, unfortunately. Nor is this distillery’s output typically unavailable; the new 12, 15, and 18 year old expressions from Balblair are on the shelf at this same retailer. Again, based on color, I would not suspect that this has had any finishing or “secondary maturation,” as the card calls it. However, it does deliver on promise of a higher age statement for a lower price, at least.

I’ve seen this online with an average price of around $50. That seems exceptionally good value, considering IB Highland malts with comparable specs are retailing for $75+ near me. Balblair’s own 12 year old is currently on sale for $65. Nonetheless, I’ll be reviewing this using $50 as my bogey for the purposes of our price-sensitive Scoring Bands.

Gordon & MacPhail Balblair 10 Years Old – Review

43% ABV. $44 from Royal Batch. $55 from Drizly.

Color: Medium golden straw.

On the nose: A ripe fruitiness is evident straightaway, with abundant scents of green apples. There’s a waxy, soapy note in here as well, reminiscent of that other Highland distillery. I get a faint spiciness of cardamom; some time in the glass also reveals an airy sweetness of confectioners’ sugar. As I let it breathe and hold it a little farther away from my nose, I start to detect the aroma of ripe bananas.

In the mouth: Starts with a gentle whisper of peppercorn and cedar wood. As this moves toward the middle of the mouth, I get a gentle and lovely note of unsalted nuts. That soapy and waxy texture emerges again at midpalate, where this suddenly perks up with a zesty burst of limeade, accented by some tingly cinnamon. There’s a very refined warmth to the mouthfeel as this moves into the finish; there, a brief note of mocha transitions seamlessly to a medium fade, with a gradual resurgence of spicy, woody accents accompanied by a persistently warm tingle that feels higher than 43% ABV.

Conclusions:

This has a great evenness from front to back. I mean that in terms of the distribution of flavors and their intensity, but also with respect to the mouthfeel. It quickly ascends a slope and then glides gracefully along a plateau, in a way that makes this dangerously easy to sip. It’s got a lot in common with Clynelish, and what’s not to like about that?

This whisky is not going to rock anyone’s world, nor is it likely a contender for anyone’s end of year list. It’s just really, really nice Scotch, at a price to match. Taking all this into account, a score corresponding to “great” – plus a point for value – seems most warranted.

Score: 7/10

I’ll confess, I was ready to be underwhelmed – or, at the least, simply whelmed – by this whisky. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by how deft a balance was struck between each of the individual elements here. As a proof point for Binny’s thesis about the appeals of independently bottled Scotch whisky, this hits the mark perfectly.

If you’re newer to Scotch and have yet to try an independent bottling, let this serve as my strongest possible recommendation to do so. For my part, I’ll be looking to pick up another expression from Balblair very soon.

Lead image courtesy of Royal Batch.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Welsh Toro says:

    What timing; I’m about half way through an independent bottle of Balblair 9 year old myself. It’s bottled by A.D. Rattray at a hefty 58.8% abv and it’s a single ex-bourbon barrel. What made me buy it and why did I take the risk? Well, A.D. Rattray are a very good independent bottler and their bottlings are always interesting at the very least. They often bottle lesser known distillery stuff and their ex-bourbon casks are pretty good in my experience. Add a decent price and it’s worth a punt.

    The other reason I bought it is that I was, and still am, a great fan of the old Balblair bottlings before Inver House, in their wisdom, decided to screw it all up. Nearly every vintage they put out was excellent. Top quality sherry style with never a whiff of sulphur and really excellent ex-bourbons too. I still have a few in the bunker. I have tried the latest, far more expensive offerings but I’m so disappointed I just don’t buy them any more. Inver House ruined Old Pulteney for me as well. Two absolute legends which hardly get mentioned in the whisky chat any more.

    I’m really enjoying my turbo-charged Balblair for the above reasons. I have the same story to tell regarding Benriach. Just today I bought an independently bottled Bowmore 8 year. A classic distillery with a terrible reputation after being ruined by Beam Suntory. I haven’t bought a distillery offering from them in years.

    You take a chance when you buy independent bottles but experienced whisky hounds should be able to way up the pros and cons. I’ve had sensational bottles that have been far superior to the distillery offerings. Sadly, the days of fantastic and affordable older indis have gone. I once had a Cooper’s Choice Bunnahabhain ex-bourbon 24 for £69. G&M and Berry Bros, two of my favourites, have become very expensive today.

    Cheers Taylor,

    WT

    1. Taylor says:

      WT, apologies for my late acknowledgement of your comment, which is extensive and well-reasoned, as is your custom. As you point out, there are no guarantees, but I’m more happy to roll the dice on an IB bottling at good strength and with decent transparency, rather than much of what makes its way to us from official channels. Cheers!

  2. Bryan says:

    Glad you enjoyed this! You nailed my thoughts. It’s downright good juice and exceptional for the pricepoint. The kind of whisky that seems harder and harder to find these days.

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