By Richard Thomas
Balblair is one of a very select group of Scottish distilleries that releases their single malts as vintages rather than age statement or no age statement (NAS) expressions. It’s an odd way of going about doing things for a whisky, for while wine is very much influenced by how good the grape crop of a given year turned out, world whiskey is by and large unaffected by how good a given grain crop was. An outstanding barley crop just means more malt that is up to snuff, not better malt in the mash.
It’s also a tad confusing. If you didn’t know better, you would look at a bottle of Balblair 2003 and say “Hey, a 14 year old!” In reality, this single malt was released in 2013, alongside the 1990 and 1983 vintages. Thus, it is not just a 10 year old, but it’s a 10 year old just like Balblair 2005.
And that is where vintages open an interesting window for serious enthusiasts to pass through. The same distillery produces two single malt expressions of aged in similar stock and for a similar amount of time, but in two different, overlapping periods of time. If the vintage of the grain crop doesn’t impact on a whisky, the ebb and flow of a given year’s weather does. What jumped out at me was that Balblair 2003 and 2005 share 2/3s of their maturation period, but not the whole thing, and they were not created to meet a consistent flavor profile. Sometimes such things make a real difference.
Like it’s cousin, Balblair 2003 has such a pale yellow appearance in the glass as to be almost translucent. The swish put a coat on the glass that either had a forest of thick legs or none at all, depending on how you look at it, because that coating became a viscous, rippled affair.
The scent is light, almost faint, but the part that jumps out at you are the pear blossoms. I know the smell well, since I used to own a house that had a pear tree in the front yard. Underscoring this is a drop of honey, a hint of fresh cut hay and the barest whiff of smoke. To say the least, the nose is a shy and delicate thing, and in that it diverges from Balblair 2005 sharply.
The flavor profile, however, isn’t reluctant at all. It starts on pears and lemon zest, sweetened still further by plenty of honey, before rolling over onto a sweet, leaf tobacco note. That whole picture lingers on for a time in the finish, before fading to a note of light pepper.
So are two ten year old whiskies from the same distillery aged at different times really so different? The answer is yes, they can be.
Expect to pay $70 in the U.S.