Whisky Review #114: Balblair 1973 32 Years Old (Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection)

Ah Balblair. For all their releases, the distillery still remains somewhat underrated by the general community and somewhat overshadowed by Old Pulteney in the Inver House stable. But one thing is for sure: the distillery is capable of producing some truly exceptional whisky.

I have also realised that the one thing my previous reviews of Balblair have been missing is the history of the distillery, so this post shall seek to address that missing aspect.

Balblair distillery was founded in 1790 by James McKeddy, although the distillery didn’t remain under his control for long and was taken over by John Ross in the same year of its founding.

The distillery remained under the ownership of the Ross family until 1894, when it was sold to Alexander Cowan. In that time, the distillery was rebuilt in 1872 in order to meet the increased demand for whisky.

Alexander Cowan went a step further by moving the distillery a few kilometeres down the road and building an entirely new setup there. The reason for this was so that they could take advantage of the new Inverness-Ardgay railway line which connected Inverness with Wick in the very north of Scotland.

The distillery remained under the control of Cowan until 1911, when he was forced to cease payments and close the distillery. This led to an extended period of silence until 1948, when the distillery was sold to Robert Cumming for £48,000 (approximately £1,728,000 in 2017 after adjusting for inflation).

Production resumed the following year and the distillery remained under the same ownership until 1970, when it was sold to Hiram Walker. Ownership of the distillery was then transferred to Allied Distillers in 1988 after Hiram Walker merged with Allied Vintners and it remained under their ownership until 1996, when it was sold to Inver House Distillers (which was then taken over by Pacific Spirits).

After years of being an unknown malt which was primarily used for blending purposes, Inver House took the decision to radically overhaul the distillery’s core range and also decided to take a leaf out of Glenrothes’ book by repacking the whiskies with vintages rather than age statements (although the age statements can be worked out rather easily if one were to take the time to do so).

In terms of equipment, the distillery sports a 4.75 tonne stainless steel full lauter mash tun, 6 washbacks made of Oregon pine with a fermentation time of 56 hours and a pair of stills. The distillery has a total production capacity of 1.8 million litres and has been running at near full capacity over the last few years.

Interesting facts: Part of the production in 2011 and 2012 was heavily peated spirit and the phenol specification in the barley was 52ppm. Since then, the distillery has not produced any further peated spirit. The distillery also transitioned from using heavy fuel oil in its production process to a cleaner gas-fired process, thus significantly reducing its emissions.

This week’s review focuses on an expression of Balblair which was distilled in 1973 (which puts it well within the Allied Distillers years of ownership) and matured for 32 years in 2 sherry casks before being bottled at 45% abv by independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail for their Private Collection.

So, let’s jump right into the review!

Balblair 1973 32 Years Old (Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection)
Balblair 1973 32 Years Old (Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection)

Balblair 1973 32 Years Old (Bottled by Gordon & MacPhail, 45% abv)

Colour: Mahogany

Nose: Initial entry presents a powerful hit of old sherry, followed by sherried raisins, black cherries and supple oak. Apricots, nectarines and peaches soon follow and are complemented by hints of wood varnish and white pepper. With time, the oaky notes subside somewhat and the fruits and sherry shine through. (24/25)

Palate: Initial entry presents more of the old sherried notes followed by black cherries, sherried raisins and the trio of fruits from the nose. There is a hint of green mango and some kiwi lingering in the background and it is complemented by the wood varnish, white pepper and oak hints.

The typical meatiness that one would associate with a sherried Balblair is also on display here. With time, the oak does get more prominent on the palate and there is a slightly bitter hint that one would associate with cigar leaves. (24/25)

Finish: Long, lingering finish, with the fruits from the nose and palate intermingling well with the oak and cigar leaves. The white pepper fades into the backgrounds and the oak tannins start to impose themselves with time. A final flash of lime brings the proceedings to a close. (23/25)

Balance: A supremely well-balanced and engaging expression which showcases the beautiful marriage between exceptional sherry casks and wonderful distillate. There is a definite link here between the modern heavily sherried versions of Balblair (especially the TWE expressions), but this expression is definitely of a higher order. The mouthfel is oily for the most part and becomes drying towards the end. (23/25)

Rating: 94/100

This surely has to be one of the best expressions of Balblair that I have come across and I would rate this slightly higher than the exceptional 2000 vintage single cask release which was bottled for The Whisky Exchange.

This expression was tasted 2 years ago at The Auld Alliance and while quite a bit of time has elapsed since then, the memory of just how good this expression was still burns brightly. A truly exceptional dram!

If you were to come across a bottle of this at a bar or on an auction site, please do not hesitate. Chances are you will be just as appreciative of its contents as I was.

Until the next review, have a wonderful week ahead.

Slainte!

Brendan

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