Balblair is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, dating from 1790 but until recent times had been overshadowed by its more vocal neighbour Glenmorangie, which is just a couple of miles up the road from Edderton. However, this all changed in 2001 when Inver House Distillers, the then current owners, were taken over by Thai Beverages Plc, who also own the distilleries of Speyburn, Knockdhu, Old Pulteney and Balmenach.
The Highland whisky region is often overshadowed by Islay and Speyside yet within the vicinity of Balblair you can visit Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Glen Ord or even Clynelish with the sleeping giant of Brora nearby. Teaninich and Invergordon are also close, although not open to the public and mainly supporters of blends, with a young pretender in Dornoch distillery on the horizon. It’s a revitalised and confident region of Scotland that has a great heritage of whisky.
A general trend you’ll recognise from reading these Abbey Whisky introductions for most distilleries is that the site was originally used by illicit distillers. Balblair is no different with the location being utilised further back into the 1740’s. The distillery whilst founded by James McKeddy, did not take hold until 1790 when the Ross family took ownership. An interesting side note is that several Ross’s work at Balblair today, keeping the tradition ongoing. Balblair was moved slightly and rebuilt to meet increased demand in the 1890’s. A relocation that allowed it to take advantage of the proximity of the nearby railway that still exists today. This method of transportation was a key component of any distillery looking to send its wares south to new markets.
Whilst many distilleries have been expanded, modernised and revamped, Balblair still only uses a pair of stills, which is unusual after all this time. Back in 1949 after the distillery was purchased by Robert Cumming, a solicitor from Banff, this number was increased to 3 stills, but the majority of production utilised only 2. In recent years when visiting Balblair, you could see the idle still in situ with no pipes attached serving no purpose other than a spectacle. Given the confined space of the distillery still house it’s unlikely the number of stills could be increased without sizeable invasive development that we have seen take hold at other distilleries. Today, these stills account for around 1.8 million litres annually, with approximately 88% heading towards the blended market and the remaining kept for single malts. Balblair over the years has been staple supporter of many blends including most notably Ballantines and continues to be in demand.
Balblair operates computers and modern elements but it feels more like a traditional, picturesque distillery. Many of the buildings date from the 18th century, or from a similarly distant era. There are a handful of potential reasons for its untouched status, as it remained in private hands until Hiram Walker took over, before being acquired by Allied Distillers in 1988. Robert Cummings did engage in numerous improvements at Balblair, but the character was retained. Prior to his period of ownership, Balblair had been closed since the 1910’s, effectively mothballed during the Great Depression and Prohibition that put an end to several distilleries.
The distillery tour at Balblair is high recommended and visitors are made to feel welcome with an excellent bottle-your-own option available. The site has a more traditional feel than other nearby distilleries and is laid out around a courtyard, with the bulk of the buildings being warehouses. These are of the more faithful dunnage style and were heavily featured in the Angel’s Share film from 2012, as was the surrounding area. Unfortunately, there are no casks of Malt Mill hidden away, but a great deal of vintage Balblair is maturating peacefully.
Around a decade ago, Balblair made a more committed entry into the single malt market enhanced with several changes. A distinctive bottle shape and labelling was utilised along with the increased strength of 46% and a Vintage statement rather than an actual age equivalent. This has proven extremely successful with a growth in sales and recognition, assisted by a consistently good standard of whisky. Thanks to the Vintage approach, the Balblair range continues to evolve displaying a confidence with ex-bourbon or sherry casks. The interplay of spices and fruit makes a Balblair single malt appreciated by many even though it is unpeated and widely supported by the independent bottlers.