Balblair was my third distillery stop on the day of my visit. The day had begin with a tour of Aberlour. Then on the way out of the Speyside we stopped briefly at Glenfarclas. A couple of hours later we were at Balblair. If you’re ever planning a trip in this part of Scotland and wondering about distillery visits, you should know that it’s very easy to get to Balblair. It’s less than an hour from Inverness and mostly on a nice big highway. It’s very easy to combine it with a visit to the Loch Ness area. And if you so chose, you could stop at Dalmore and Glenmorangie along the way. We did not stop and arrived at Balblair about an hour and a half before closing time.
I’d originally thought that I might try to tour Balblair but it didn’t quite work out. With the Aberlour tour that morning it was going to be a rush to get there for a tour; instead we enjoyed a leisurely lunch with our friends at the Mash Tun. Then I thought it might be possible to do a tour on our way back to Edinburgh from Orkney. As it happened, we stayed at the excellent Edderton Lodge on the way back and it’s literally steps from Balblair. But their first tour is at 10 am and we had an appointment at Tomatin at 11. So I had to content myself with a brief walk around the public parts of the distillery’s grounds and a peek at the visitor centre, where I ended up filling a bottle from the cask they had on the go.
The distillery’s aesthetic is decidedly not flashy but it’s attractive enough in a dark, dour sort of way. I like the approach through farmland, with sheep alongside and the fact that the visitor centre/shop is not effectively separate from the rest of the distillery (as at Glen Grant or Aberlour). The visitor centre is also not very flashy. The shop part is compact and largely devoid of the branding/merchandise overload of a Glenfiddich or Glen Grant. Yes, there are a few items of clothing you can buy but the emphasis is squarely on the whisky. Of this whisky I was most interested in the “fill your own” cask they had. I asked a member of the staff if I could have a taste and she gave me a generous pour from a bottle they’d already filled. I liked it a lot—fruity, ex-bourbon goodness—and decided to indeed fill my own. Their set-up for filling your own is a bit different from the few other places I’ve done it—you can see what it looks like in the photos below. If I remember correctly, they have some pre-filled bottles if you don’t want to fill your own—but I may be misremembering.
The shop opens into a larger space that includes a bar and lounge (with some half-hearted and not especially attractive stabs at branding); there’s also what appears to be a tasting room in there. There seemed to be a number of bottles open at the bar and if not for the fact that I was driving I would have liked to taste a few. On the whole, it seemed like a very pleasant place and in the unlikely event that I’m ever back within striking range I’d like to come back and spend more time here. If you’ve already done that or if you’ve done a tour there, please write in below to say what it was like.
Here now is a slideshow of images of the public areas of the distillery plus the visitor centre. Take a look and then scroll down to see what’s coming next.
My next whisky stop was at the Dornoch Castle Hotel. We stayed one night there and I spent some time at their famous whisky bar; the next morning I got a “tour” of their distillery from Phil Thompson. But I’m going to break chronology for the first time and finish all my reports on the established distilleries I visited and come back to a report on the Dornoch Castle Hotel bar and distillery at the end. Accordingly, my next distillery report will be of another brief stop, at Clynelish. Before that, a few more whisky reviews and another Twin Cities Vietnamese restaurant report.
We’ve already compared notes on our brief visits to Balblair, but it’s interesting that you say the set-up for the fill your own is different. I’ve been to fewer distilleries than you have, but I can confirm that Glengoyne and Deanston also have exactly the same system, so from my point of view, Tomatin has been the different one so far. Had you only encountered the Tomatin style before, i.e. the whisky sitting in dead casks and then fill from there from a tap?
Looking at the cask, it’s different to the one I bottled – mine was cask 702 at 55.5% ABV. Yours must also be first fill bourbon I imagine?
You’re quite right that I’m generalizing—probably inaccurately—from limited experience. In fact, very few of the distilleries I’ve visited have had “fill your own” casks and the fact that the very first I visited (last year) was Tomatin with their array of five casks has probably conditioned my view of what the normal set-up is. Looking at my pictures from the Glenfiddich shop, that looks like Balblair’s setup. On the other hand, Pulteney has the Tomatin-style taps (as you’ll see when I report on it in a week or two). Of the Islay distilleries I visited last summer, only Bruichladdich had “fill your own” casks displayed and they had the taps too (see here). Then again, I didn’t even notice the “fill your own” cask at Glen Moray this June, so my powers of observation are clearly suspect. We need people who’ve filled bottles at far more distilleries to weigh in here on what the more standard set-up is.
And yes, I got bottle 226 from a bourbon hogshead, so it would have been pretty close to the end (I was there the first half of June). I’m guessing your bottle number from the new cask would have been much lower. And from the collour of my bottle I’m guessing it was indeed first fill.
I was there at around the 20th of July, my bottle was no. 144 – these bottle your own casks seem to be pretty popular. And you’re right about first experiences – my first distillery visit was Glengoyne (a very beautiful distillery to visit, by the way) so I tend think of their system as the default one.
I had no idea this distillery had so much character. I want to go to there!
The photo of the registry cuts right above bottle #226 so I couldn’t see that guy’s signature and words of wisdom – you should fix that.
It’s interesting and unusual, I think, that they went all spiffy on the bottles, but they left the distillery and the visitors’ experience relatively unspoiled. Good for Inver House! In the indoors photos it feels like you’re in an aging ship.
Have you opened the bottle you filled yet? I’m asking because I’ve had an interesting experience with mine – my first impression was that it was harsh, astringent and quite new-makey. In other words, that it could’ve done with a few more years in the cask. Now, nothing too strange there, as bottles often need a bit of time to breathe and open up, but given that I tried this at the distillery this was the biggest difference I’ve noticed between different tastings. Could my distillery sample have been left over from a previous cask?
Second impression – better, but still quite astringent. Not the full, rounded fruitiness you often get from Balblair. Again, that’s perhaps to be expected from a single cask – in a lot of cases it won’t be as rich as a marriage of casks. I found this very interesting since I felt like I was tasting a component of the finished product – put this together with a woodier and a sweeter cask and you’ll have the complete article.
However, after much experimentation, I managed to convince it to open up the way I expected. It needed a lot of water (I normally don’t add much but to this it’s probably more than 2 tea spoons’ worth), and a lot of time: I put it aside for about an hour, and when I return to it, it’s beautifully fruity and more rounded.
Conclusions: maybe the amount of time (and water) will reduce as the fill level goes down. If I’m to judge by the distillery sample, which came from a half-empty bottle, oxygenation plays a bigger part in this than most other whiskies I’ve had.
I haven’t opened mine yet. Maybe next month.
Interesting what happened with yours. I’d hope they’d not give people tastes with bits from a different cask. Seems more likely that the bottle had just been open a while and tipped on numerous occasions daily, making the whisky open up faster.