I write far less about Balblair than I did back in 2017. At the time I was really championing both the spirit quality and the overall proposition of the Highland distillery based 40-odd miles north of Inverness. But times really do change. And the March 2019 rebranding of the whisky was far more than just a cosmetic overhaul. To my mind it was a complete redefinition of what the distillery’s single malt was and particularly how it was believed it should be perceived within the wide whisky market. And sadly, it left me feeling like I needed to back a new horse.
It's foolhardy to either expect or want whisky to never change or adapt. That’s both being a prisoner to the past as well as being wholly unrealistic about the future. But nevertheless, I still believe that the changes that were made to Balblair two years ago have likely lost the distillery more fans than they have gained. I’ll deal with them one by one.
We’ll start with the smallest and frankly least consequential change. Whilst the bottle shape is still largely (but not completely) the same, the same cannot be said about the packaging. Whilst all producers need to be mindful of the sustainability impacts of their production and products – the new packaging is as generic as it comes. I genuinely loved the distinctiveness of the side opening boxes adorned with attractively coloured Highland landscapes – they stood out and caught the eye immediately upon the shelves of retailers. In terms of the new cartons, if find them to be completely in-tune with the raft of ‘modern-traditionalism’ that has rolled out across many brands over the last few years. There’s nothing overtly wrong with that, but at the same time, to my eye, there’s nothing which grabs my attention either.
Moving to age statements. Whilst it was certainly pleasing to see Balblair not adopting an NAS-focussed range, I simply don’t get the notion that whisky lovers didn’t understand the previous vintage system. We did. Whilst I appreciate that more casual drinkers might take a few more moments to comprehend the offering, enthusiasts (who to my mind still are Balblair’s core audience) are well-verged in taking a bottling date and subtracting the distillation date to get a near-enough calculation of age. Of course, there’s obviously a move here by owners Inverhouse to position Balblair wider than just us enthusiasts – hence the removal of the vintages – but nevertheless, this change has in my view removed an appealing distinctiveness from the distillery’s offering. And I’m far from convinced that the perceived benefits – I.E. casual drinkers being more likely to understand and therefore purchase Balblair – has manifested itself – at least not as yet.
Whilst I will still fundamentally believe in Balblair from a spirit quality point of view, the same cannot be said about the asking prices. We all should appreciated that times move on, and prices will invariably rise. But the 2019 jumps in the Balblair range felt like putting the cart before the horse.
It takes considerably time and effort to establish a marque brand - years, maybe decades, maybe even generations. Particularly to achieve enough goodwill and traction that a ‘purchase at near any price’ fandom is all but guaranteed. And that time and effort is not and cannot be equitable to simply rebranding, repackaging, and then setting some sky-high pricing.
I won’t run through the whole range – but the 25 year old is the clear outlier of the bunch. It asks a mighty £500 – outside of my whisky budget and substantially more than equivalently aged offerings from - Bowmore, Laphroaig, Bunnahabhain, Highland Park, Glengoyne….indeed, most (but not all) of the long-established, fan-laden Scotch distilleries. The equivalently aged vintage Balblair’s were clocking in at around £120 – and I purchased a fair number of them. I dare say I’d still have purchased at a higher price. But at £500 I’m afraid I’m very much out. Times really do change.
Listen, I try not to rant about price increases. There are countless posts doing that on daily basis. But the real point here is not actually about the prices themselves…..it’s the near overnight change from the old to the new. There was no incremental ratcheting up. No gradual acclimatation that allows for loyalty to increase in line with price rises. No, concerted effort to reposition the distillery, to change the messaging to persuade customers that the quality and the new price offer a balance – just a lick of fresh paint and an expectation that Balblair will in-turn be treated like a Veblen good. "It's more expensive....I wants it my precious."
How many times have we seen this? And how many times has the approach worked?
Over the 2.5 years since, I have still purchased Balblair. I fundamentally believe that their spirit is excellent – particularly when matured in a humble ex-bourbon cask. But all bar one (a distillery exclusive – still in the old livery - purchased when I visited in September) have come via indy bottlers. Whilst of course, prices there have also risen, they have done so at a rate where my eyes have not popped out of my head. The changes happen, but they happen slowly and somewhat-organically – and in that regard my purchasing ceilings don’t feel instantaneous detonated.
It can be tough being a fan of pretty much anything. Change is sometimes hard to swallow and adapt to. But nevertheless, I still firmly believe that in the whisky world, which tends towards a pace as leisurely as a long maturation, that any repositioning no matter its size, must endeavour to take the fans along for the ride. They’re not just customers – they’re potential advocates and evangelists – and losing them straight out of the gates is a sure-fire method for ensuring an uphill struggle when it comes to substantive price increases.
Boutique-y have released two batches from Balblair thus far – both in 2019 – with Batch 1 being the younger of the two at a mere 7 years of age. This edition which features behind door No. 9 of the 2021 Advent calendar comes from a release of 1,305 bottles and is presented at 49.9% ABV. It’s still available from Master of Malt for £46.95.
Once you’re done here, both Sorren at OCD Whisky and Brian at Brian's Malt Musings and undertaking the 24 days of Boutique-y this year - so go check them out for some alternative views.
Nose: Tart cider apples and sweeter apple turnovers mingle with vanilla buttercream and fingers of fudge, whilst rolled dough and pastry are livened with a pang of salty minerality and a squeeze of lemon juice. The addition of water presents a stack of pancakes, shortbread and asides of peach and melon.
Taste: Sunflower oil and salted pasta water open alongside some prickly heat. Vanilla buttercream again features, together with apple pie and sharp Granny Smiths. The development brings palpable peppery bite together with brass piping and a pile of damp leaves. Reduction offers a lovely softness very quickly – plenty of fudge-iness together with wafer biscuits and cookie dough.
Finish: Medium to long with brown sugars fading, but pepper and heat remaining for longer.
Other than a touch of youthful, alcoholic ‘rawness’ (far from unexpected), Boutique-y’s first foray into Balblair really showcases the underlying qualities of the distillate. Dialled down with a touch of water to reduce the prickle, what remains is a highly approachable, characterful Highlander that marries defined fruit and bakery qualities with an agreeable, structural salinity. High quality adolescence.