How did you start working in the working in the whisky distillery industry?
I started back in 1989. After a year at college I had heard there was a job as a warehouseman at a distillery so I went to the manager’s house, knocked on his door and asked him about the job. It was probably the shortest interview in the whisky industry; he asked me one question, “would you like some water in that?”, I said “yes” and I started on Monday. I’ve never looked back and still find the industry fascinating, since the 25 years that I have been in it.
What is it about whisky that you find intriguing?
Whisky is a unique product and, personally speaking I don’t really like white spirits, which I find quite bland; whisky is the exact opposite.
Having had positions throughout the numerous distilling processes, which is your favourite and why?
My favourite position is the one I have now, purely because Balblair is a fantastic whisky with a beautiful distillery; it’s a great company to work for and the location is fantastic. To be involved with Balblair and the processes of its Vintages makes it fascinating for me.
Can you talk us through the processes of distilling Balblair whisky?
Almost all distilleries will adopt the same basic processes, starting with the malted barley that’s ground and mashed with three waters at specific temperatures to get a sugary liquid. The sugary liquid is then cooled and fermented with yeast to be distilled twice, giving the body of the liquid, which we use. It will provide us with about 1,800 litres of alcohol to fill oak casks. We store the casks in traditional warehouses at Balblair where they will mature for 10 years or more.
When they’ve matured, I then step in and do some nosing – it’s all done through the nose. When we look for a new Vintage we take a sample of every single cask of that year from the warehouse, take it back to the office and nose every individual cask. And we will cherry pick the best of that year.
What defines the very best Vintage?
We choose those that are a cut above the rest. You can fill two identical oak casks, put them in the warehouse but they might not mature in the same way. That’s what makes it fascinating – each cask can be different.
The casks that are not selected simply haven’t reached their optimum maturation point yet. They will just remain in the warehouse and we’ll reinvestigate them at a later date.
Why is Balblair whisky apart from others?
Putting bias aside, I think Balblair whisky is very complex and all the Vintages that we release have that particular house style of Balblair. It’s very fruity and flavoursome and it maintains all its integrity, even at high age in the warehouse – it’s not overtaken by oak. It’s very much alive.
Balblair has kept much of its warehouses and machinery the same – why is that?
All our warehousing here is traditional, which is proven to be the best condition to mature Scottish whisky. The temperatures and humidity in the warehouses are very constant all year without all the peaks and troughs that you may have in a high-level rack warehouse. And as per the traditional machinery – if it’s not broken, don’t fix it! We make good stuff and we don’t think that our flavour profile should be changed.
What’s the difference between each Balblair collection?
Each Vintage that we release maintains the Balblair house style but is distinguished from year to year. For example the first release 1997 was a 10 year old first-fill ex-bourbon cask from America, so it was a full bodied flavour with hints of toffees and vanilla. Whereas the 1989 was a 19 year old second-full ex-bourbon and had much more complexity and more spice to it. The high age Vintage 1979 that we released at the time had much darker and richer notes. So they’re all very individual whiskies, which provide a whisky for every occasion and for every palate.
And finally, which would you say is your favourite Balblair?
That’s very hard to say. It all depends on my mood and what I’ve been eating so I tend to float around.
Head to your nearest Whisky Exchange to get your bottle of Balblair in time for Burns Night, sit back and enjoy the Scottish Vintages, timed to perfection. Meanwhile, find out more about Balblair Distillery here.