Thanks to the good folks at International Beverage for the sample!
A locally grown, crisply sweet, juicy Honeycrisp apple is one of the surest signs of Fall here in San Francisco, where far too few leaves change color to give the full effect. September and early October usually holds some of the best weather we see all year, and there are few things better than a perfect Honeycrisp on a perfect early fall day. Obviously, I’m a fan. It doesn’t hurt that the Honeycrisp was developed in Minnesota (at the U of M in the mid-70’s…go Gophers!), also the home state of my recently wedded wife, of whom I am also a fan…an incredibly big fan.
What does this have to do with whisky? Not much, other than the fact that from the moment I poured some Balblair 1997 into my glass, I was overcome by the urge to slice up a honeycrisp and enjoy a dram on the porch (that I do not have) while watching golden leaves twirl gently to the ground. Joshua of the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society is great at pairing whiskies with the seasons of the year, me…not so much. Of course, I live in city where there are two and half seasons: sunny, cloudy and rainy, and usually the first two happen every day, so I’m just as apt to pour a heavy, smokey Islay in August as I am in December, the weather’s about the same, so why not? Even so, there are occasions when a malt and a mood and a season line up in uncanny fashion, the Balblair 1997 is one of those malts.
The Balblair Distillery has been around for a few years, being originally founded in 1790. They are one of the few Scotch distilleries (perhaps the only?) to release their malts with a vintage date instead of an age statement. An interesting twist, though still I found myself counting on my fingers (this took several minutes) to figure out that this was pretty much a 12 yo expression. Balblair is primarily matured in Bourbon casks with small percentage of Spanish oak casks thrown in for good measure. This 1997 edition as well as the 1991 vintage are new to the U.S. in 2010 and come in nicely redesigned Pict-ish bottles and boxes.
The Nose: Lots of fruit, delicious Honeycrisp apples to be sure, there’s a great cider-y quality here, but also juicy grapes, sweet Meyer lemon and ripe cantaloupe. Behind all that fruit are subtle spice notes, cinnamon and vanilla as well as hints of dried leaves and tiny bit of Highland peat
The Palate: Sweet to start as the fruit veers away from the apple and turns a bit more tropical with a little canned pineapple along with more sweet juicy grape and melon notes. A bit of cardamom and vanilla help the oak turn things nicely spicy towards the end with a subtle, subtle hint of smoke lurking in the background. There’s a bit of harshness tucked in with the woodiness towards the end, not really in a bad way, just in a brash, youthful, kind of way.
The Finish: Still sweet, yet crisp and drying with a nice acidity as well. That little bit of peat and smoke comes through right at the end.
Thoughts: Very enjoyable stuff, this is an excellent malt for an early fall afternoon. While it’s definitely sweet on the nose and palate, it’s never cloying, just fruity and balanced with nice spice notes. There’s a really appealing crispness, and while there are some rough woody edges, the overall effect is pretty bracing. The Balblair ’97 is perhaps a tiny bit youthful for its age, but it makes up for it in its solid structure and exuberance.