The Iconic Spirits Blog: Balblair and Old Pulteney---Distinctive Single Malts
April 25, 2012
The Balblair distillery was founded in 1790, north of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. It claims to be one of the oldest working distilleries in the country, although a second Balblair facility was built in 1895, closer to the Edderton Railway Station on the Inverness and Ross-shire Railway Line. The fortunes of both Balblairs oscillated over the years, but they used the same water source---pure, soft and untreated water that flows down from the Allt Dearg burn and forms the foundation of the whisky’s distinctive taste.
Among Single Malts, Balblair is unique in that it releases only vintage-dated whiskies. The modern vintages have included 1965, 1975, 1978, 1989, 1995, the limited-edition 2000 Millenium Malt (released in January) and the 2001, coming on the market now. At first glance, a vintage-dated Scotch seems like a strange proposition. Unlike wine, there are no climate-related variations that affect quality, and we can assume that one year is more or less the same as the next. What makes one bottling of Balblair from another is the time the whisky spends in cask, and the composition of the casks themselves (used Bourbon barrels, Sherry casks, etc). Since the bottle may not carry an age statement, as Scotch generally would, the consumer is left to assess the overall presence of the spirit on his or her palate.
Other than water and cooperage, barley is one of the factors that distinguishes Balblair from other Single Malts. The unpeated, malted barley is milled and combined with the Allt Dearg burn water to create a mash. The mixture then goes on to fermentation barrels made of Oregon pine. These vessels are infused with ‘friendly bacteria” that puts the mash through a second fermentation, increasing both texture and flavor.
According to distillery manager John Macdonald, Balblair is “a very fruity, very flavorful whisky” with no harsh elements and a smooth, long-lasting finish. The specifics of the palate imprint change from vintage to vintage, but Macdonald says that “the whisky tells us when it’s ready” to be removed from cask and bottled. The 2000 was released at 86 proof (43% alcohol) after aging in bourbon barrels.
The Balblair 2000 Millenium Malt ($60) has a pale golden color with just the faintest touch of emerald green. The nose is sweet and floral, yielding whiffs of clover honey and fresh pine. In the mouth the whisky is bright and assertive, delivering all the sweetness suggested on the nose and all the fruit promised by Macdonald---flavors of peach and pear mix with hints of vanilla from the barrels. The texture is ripe and pleasantly fat. On the long finish, all the elements come together: tree fruit, honeyed sweetness and an abundance of echoing floral notes.
The story of Old Pulteney is intertwined with the town of Wick, the northernmost settlement in Scotland. In the early years of the 19th century, Sir William Johnstone Pulteney wanted to transform a sleepy village of several hundred inhabitants into an industrial metropolis. He created Wick’s substantial harbor, which led to a boom in herring fishery and the establishment of nearby Pulteneytown, built to accommodate the thousands of workers who streamed in to man the herring trade. The distillery opened in 1826. It thrived for a century, until the fishing declined and the Depression hit; it closed in 1930, reopened in 1947, and was sold to Inver House in 1995.
Old Pulteney is sometimes referred to as “the genuine maritime malt.” Stylistically, it is a totally different kettle of herring than Balblair, as it is heavily infused with peat during production. It is released with the age designations of 12 years ($40), 17 ($85), 21 ($125) and 30 ($350). The 21 Year-Old was named World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2012 (sadly, no samples were kept aside for spirits writers).
The Old Pulteney 12 year-Old has a brilliant tan color and a robust, earthy nose---you can smell the peat, but it’s not overwhelming. The texture is rich on entry, giving way to a lively mid palate which is spicy and floral. In the mouth, as on the nose, the earthiness is evident but ultimately balanced. It finishes long and ripe, with hints of caramel and a pleasant saline quality.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, will be published in November 2012 by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories: the ype a writer could never make up.”