Thanks to the good folks at International Beverage for the sample!
So, there’s this Pink Floyd song (and I do apologize, it’s a post-Syd Barrett song, but just bear with me) on the album Ummagumma called “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict”, which, despite its glaring lack of melody, seems to imply that the Picts were a savage people with a knack for getting along well with our smaller, fuzzier brethren. Popular culture and myth have definitely played up this mysterious, primitive image of the Picts, but they were in fact, thought to be fairly well-adjusted and pretty similar to other Gaelic and British tribes of the time (with the exception of nut jobs like Cínaed Rosenblum who really did live in a cave and swore up and down that fish and birds actually shared the same ancient dialect and actually claimed to have “translated” some of their more outlandish holiday poetry).
Indeed, The Picts were an amalgam of Celtic tribes, living in the North-east of Scotland for nearly a thousand years before being subsumed into the larger amalgam of Alba, and later Scotland. Balblair Distillery, located near Edderton on North East coast, has incorporated the area’s Pictish heritage into the its new brand identity, especially with its 1991 Vintage Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Since I’m always looking out for well-designed packaging and am a total sucker for good, evocative marketing in the Scotch world, I feel somewhat duty bound to comment on Balblairs interesting new packaging. Both the 1997 and 1991 vintages come in squat oval bottles with wide, wood-capped corks. Raised Pictish designs adorn the bottle and photos of the Dornoch Firth cover the squarish boxes. The 1991 vintage in particular is very elegant with two hinged sides opening like a book to show the encased malt within. On the inside cover there is a description of a local Pictish Standing Stone, Clach Biorach, which is near the distillery. Really nice packaging for the really nice, American oak aged Scotch inside.
The Nose: Like the ’97, this is a very sweet nose, perhaps even sweeter and more sugared, but much more oriented towards the tropical as there’s pineapple, toasted coconut and a little ripe banana drowning out some faint apple cider notes. There are some vanilla and cinnamon spice and oak notes but they’re so smoothed out and carmelized, they don’t provide as much contrast as they do in the younger malt. In a way it’s a very bourbon-y nose, very smooth and sweet with just a touch of earthy, wet peat to help tie it to the Highlands.
The Palate: A more luscious mouthfeel than the ’97, very sweet and fruity to start with juicy grapes and vanilla panna cotta. It quickly starts showing off the oak, but not in a heavy way. There are a lot of spicy, drying tannins but it’s still fairly crisp and lively for an 18 year old. Lots of clove and cinnamon dance around with the tropical fruit notes until they’re interrupted by more peaty smoke than I expected.
The Finish: Nicely longish and very drying. Good tropical fruit and oak mingle for quite a while with that wonderful dash of smoke at the end.
Thoughts: Just like the ’97, excellent stuff. Sweet and fruity without being too cloying, oakey but less so than 18 years would lead you to believe. Some of the more subtler vegetal notes might be lost in the overwhelming sweetened fruitiness of the nose, but there’s a lot there to be happy with. This is a warm summer/early fall evening dram to be sure, crisp and refreshing yet rich and just voluptuous enough to make a person behave.
Both the ’91 and the ’97 malts are very, very enjoyable. If the ’97 is a warm fall afternoon dram, the ’91 is what you have after you finish dinner that same night. A lot of the distillery character comes through consistently in both, fruity and sweet with lively oak. The ’91 is perhaps not as complex as I’d thought it would be, but I did enjoy its deft balance of age and vibrancy, while the ’97, for all its character and liveliness is a very solid, balanced malt. Well done, Balblair and thanks for coming back to the states.