DISTILLING whisky takes a lot of patience.
Few other drinks take literally decades before they’re even ready for the bottle.
John MacDonald is a man who is willing to wait. He heads up Balblair, a painfully picturesque 18th-century distillery situated in the heather-topped hills of Scotland’s Northern Highlands.
And while one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries has some of the most contemporary and clean-cut branding in the trade, MacDonald keeps production unapologetically traditional.
He invited us into one of Balblair’s earthen-floored warehouses, cracked open a few casks and poured us some drams before telling us why…
What’s your background? How do you end up running a whisky distillery?
I was born in Inverness but brought up in Fort William and Tain. My dad was from the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and my mum from the Kingdom of Fife down in the Lowlands. I think that makes me a bit of a mongrel Scot.
I left school and went to college in Edinburgh. I loved being a student; the course not so much. I left to take a year out to find myself and all that nonsense.
I then heard that Glenmorangie were looking for warehousemen. I knew Ian [MacGregor – Glenmorangie’s then manager] so instead of bothering with a CV, I went round to his house one weekend. He took me into the kitchen and poured two drams. He asked if I wanted water in mine so I said “just a drop.” He told me I could start on Monday.
I was there for 17 years before heading over to Balblair to manage things here.
What defines Balblair’s raw spirit character? And how does your production set up contribute to it?
Our new make is crammed full of notes of apricots, oranges, spices, and green apples. We’re also on the more full bodied side of spirit types with a slightly leathery texture and a nuttiness coming through on the palate, too.
Production wise, we do a few things which get us there, none of which are ever rushed. We take our time. We take over six hours to get through a four tonne mash [in which barley is soaked with water to prepare it for fermentation] which is longer than the trade average.
Moreover, we drain that liquid away very slowly which gives us a clear, bright wort [a sugary cereal drink which will be fermented into a beer then distilled into spirit] which sets us up well for fermentation. We find that a clearer wort – as opposed to a ‘cloudy’ one in which remnants from the barley are left in the liquid – gives us much more flavour and fruitiness in the end spirit. Open up the wooden washbacks in which we ferment and you’ll get it; it’s like smelling an orchard!
The classic shape of Balblair’s old-style squat stills – being on the smaller side with a short neck – also ensures the new make spirit is complex and full bodied as there is enough copper contact to give us a clean spirit but not too much as to strip the weight out of it.
We then cut the spirit which comes off the stills at 69% and it is filled into cask at that strength, which is higher than industry standard and allows us to capture more from the casks. If you nose new make below this point, you’d pick up unpleasant notes; harsher, oily, fishy, and sulphury, aromas which we don’t want in a Balblair. This is a small spirit cut compared to industry norms but we’d rather be fussy and have less yield if it makes for a better dram.
So, if the spirit style is so instrumental, is barley more important than barrel in terms of the end flavour profile of a whisky?
Without one or the other you have nothing. A good cask will never save a poorly made spirit and vice versa. Likewise, timing is everything. It is all very well to age whisky for decades but if you’re overaging a whisky which is otherwise ready for bottling just because you want to release something old with a big age statement which will fetch a high price, that’s not doing anyone any favours, either.
I’d say we strike a good balance, in that regard; we know how Balblair matures and how long it takes to get where we want it to be in different wood types. We don’t rush it but we also know when to call time on maturation and bottle casks at their ‘peak’, the point at which that spirit has taken everything it can from the wood.
It helps that I have a team of folks who never fail to deliver; they’d rather re-do a whole spirit run if it means getting it right. And that’s easy to say but harder to do in practice when you have production targets – like anyone in the trade does – but we back each other up; we’ll take as long as it takes to do this place – and the people who have lived here for generations – proud.
What cask type does Balblair best mature in (in your view). And why?
We rely heavily on both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry seasoned casks. The current core range broadly reflects that, too; the 12 year old is fully ex-bourbon matured whilst the old expressions, including 15, 18 and 25 year olds, begin life in that ex-bourbon wood before further maturation in fresh, sherry-seasoned Spanish oak casks.
Provenance is often a bit of a controversial topic in Scotch, with many downplaying the contribution that certain ingredients make to the end whisky. How important is local sourcing to Balblair?
Our barley is 100% Scottish and it does make a difference. We source from local farmers on the Black Isle and Moray who send it off to nearby maltsters where the grain is soaked and dried out before being delivered to us.
We have some of the best arable lands in the country so we’re naturally going to source local grain and keep the resulting raw spirit as close to that crafted by the crofters and smugglers who first distilled in these lands.
Favourite all-time bottling of Balblair?
The current 12 year old will always be special to me as it is the first Balblair I can really put my name to as Distillery Manager. That would certainly be my sipping whisky, anyway.
The year 1969 likewise yielded some unbeatable vintage Balblairs, as did 1989 and 1990.
Every distillery’s production style has changed over the years, partly down to barley varieties and yeast strains coming and going, and also as a result of the scarcity of certain casks on the open market. The net effect is that those old spirit styles are lost forever; they’re not necessarily better – indeed, we’re probably laying down a better new-make spirit now than we’ve ever done – but they’re lost nonetheless. And that makes them a real honour to try.