I reviewed the Balblair 2005, First Release in May and in that review I noted that I do not understand how Balblair’s vintage releases worked. That has not changed. And so I can tell you that this was distilled in 1990 and released in 2015 and that it was described as the “Second Release” even though there was another with the appellation released in 2014 and again in 2016. Just typing this made my head hurt and glad again that Balblair has now moved to regular age-stated whiskies (though given the jump in price the occasional headache may have been a good deal). This was matured in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks but my understanding is that the sherry is more pronounced. On the one hand, the last sherried Balblair I had—this 10 yo—did not do very much for me. But on the other, the last Balblair 1990 I had was from a single sherry cask—this 21 yo—and I really liked that one. Let’s hope that the shared vintage and general age makes this more likely to be on the level of its sibling.
Balblair 1990-2015 (46%; US Release; from a sample from a friend)
Nose: A rich sherried nose with orange peel and toffee and sweet cereals mixed with oak and brine. On the second sniff the sweet citrus is stronger still and there’s a leafy note and some cocoa to go with it. As it sits there are darker notes of chocolate and pipe tobacco and some pepper as well. A few drops of water and the oak gets softer with butterscotch and some milky cocoa. With more time there’s a bit dose of apricot.
Palate: My first impression is that the texture is a bit too thin. My second impression is that the oak is a little too talkative and just a touch too tannic. All the stuff from the nose is here—with the darker notes trumping the citrus—but the oak is on top. Ah yes, much better balance with a few drops of water. The oak backs up and lets the sweeter notes emerge. After a minute it all comes together very nicely indeed: toffee, toasted oak, orange peel. apricot.
Finish: Long. Somewhat unusually, the oak actually subsides here, going from tannic to toasted and then letting the leafy note and the orange peel back out. As on the palate with water with the apricot and orange really coming on strong at the end.
Comments: Neat, I had this in the mid-80s. There was much I liked about it but the oak was out of balance on the palate and finish. Water fixed all that and turned this into a wonderfully balanced whisky. Not quite enough depth or development to make it into the next tier but I’d be very happy if I’d purchased a bottle of this at the time.
Rating: 88 points.
Thanks to Michael for the sample. See his review here.
Hey MAO, I agree the 1st release, 2nd release system is confusing, or at least poorly explained, but I would question what has been gained by having standard age statements on Balblair bottlings. I mean, yes, the old release confusion is avoided, but it’s not as though you previously couldn’t tell what the age was – i.e. the whiskies did effectively have age statements, just you also got the vintage. The release number was really just an extraneous quirk, in my eyes. So the drinker now gets less information and the distillery is releasing a significantly reduced range – particularly as the shift to age statements implies the goal of producing a consistent style at each age, so the biggest charm of the vintage releases, which was to allow the distillery to showcase a range of different styles of their whisky in their own bottlings, is now lost. The whole thing for me is depressing – the whisky landscape loses an interesting quirk, gains even more bland homogeneity, and prices go up (significantly!). Not that one should be too surprised.
In any case it sounds like a lovely whisky, so cheers to that!
(PS: A complicating factor with vintages vs age statements is that a vintage, I believe, means only whisky from that year can be included, whereas an age statement only refers to the youngest component of the vatting, so it might be that the vintage system was found to be too restrictive. I would see it as a plus, as it implies to me a whisky which is more singular, though that might be naive of me.)
(PPS: A stab in the dark as to the meaning of the release numbers: could it be that the 1st and 2nd releases were bottled at “round number” ages, and large out-turns, maybe intended as a continuous “family” of bottlings, whereas the other ’90s might be single casks/small batches, and just one-off bottlings which happen to have been distilled in ’90? Not that it matters really. I would almost like it more if it was down to confusion in the distillery office. “How many times have we released a 1990 Calum?” – “Oh I don’t know Mhairi, let’s say it’s the second one.” – “Are you sure?” – “No, but does it really matter?” – “Well, you know MAO’s going to give us trouble over it!”…)
Hi Kon: my digs at the confusing vintage/release business are not entirely serious. I’m mostly just making fun of the idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy’s sake that seems to be at play in things like this. I do agree that whatever the confusion about releases something like this engendered it is preferable to much higher priced basic age statements. Still, I do think they could have done it more clearly—it might have led to even greater commercial appeal.
That’s a fair point. I didn’t think the vintage system was well done, and nor was I that keen on the design of the bottles/labels/boxes – it all seemed a bit muddled and poorly thought through. You’re right to say that it would have been much better had it actually been done well – and maybe even commercially successful. Sorry I was so dreadfully serious in my response!
See my reply to MAO’s Balblair 2005 review – the different release numbers correspond to flavour profiles of the same vintage. So there’s a 2005 bottled in 2016 and a 2005 bot. 2018 for example, and both were called ‘First Release’. I still have bottles of both of them and can’t tell them apart. But, say they’d done a sherry finish of the 2005 vintage, it would then be called ‘Second Release’ because it’s a different profile altogether.
Sure, it is a bit confusing, but a small price to pay given the amazing quality to price ratio they used to put out there.
Thanks for the clarification Alex! I realise now I misread MAO’s description in the original post – your explanation definitely makes the most sense. It also matches the dim memories I have from a distillery visit better than the theory I came out with – should’ve thought a bit harder before hitting post!
Likewise, I have a much bigger problem with the fact I have to pay half a grand for the new Balblair 25 than I did with any confusion over the release numbers of old. I don’t, however, see how this premiumisation of Balblair can be successful (who has even heard of them outside of whisky geek circles?) so maybe we’ll have more reasonable prices in the future.
As for this bottle, I’d probably rate it along the same lines, although it’s probably a bit more sherried than I like my Balblairs to be (the 1991, also a partly sherried Balblair, is more to my taste).