Balmenach is another distillery you hear about being one of those distilleries you never hear about. The distillery traces its roots back to a 1824 when a small distillery called “Balminoch” was given its legal license. Founded by one James MacGregor, Balmenach remained in the MacGregor family’s hands until 1922 when it was sold to a business consortium…and then, three years later, was folded into the growing Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1925. In 1992, the distillery released its first official single malt bottling, a 12 Year Old and then, less than a year later in 1993, I guess when all that excitement wore off, Balmenach was mothballed.
In 1997, Inver House, who had previously purchased the Hankey Bannister Blend in 1988, purchased Balmenach from United Distillers (which is what DCL became after being purchased by Guinness in 1986…and what would shortly after become a major part of Diageo after that merger in 1997, confused? Good, so is everyone else). Balmenach always had a reputation as an excellent “blender’s malt” and Inver House was specifically looking for that quality when they purchased the distillery. Indeed, Inver House did not obtain any mature stock in the deal. Since that one 12 Year Old release in 1992, there have been no official bottlings of Balmenach, though it does show up on occasion in independent releases. Best known and most common among is these is the Deerstalker 18 Year Old from Glasgow’s Aberko Ltd.
Given the substantial push that the other Inver House distilleries (Balblair, Knockdhu/AnCnoc, Pulteney, and Speyburn) have received of late, there was some thought that we might see an official distillery bottling from Balmenach now that enough time has passed for stocks to mature, but, alas, that Hankey Bannister is a demanding mistress and therefore pretty much all of Balmenach’s output goes that direction. So, we will just have to be content with the occasional independent release like this beauty from Ian Macleod’s Chieftain’s range. Distilled in 1983 and matured for 28 years in a re-fill hogshead, this one was bottled at cask strength, non-colored and non chill-filtered.
The Nose: Man…a luciously sweet, rich nose with just enough zip to make it…dare I say, seductive and a little racy. Cinnamon honey, warm caramel apples, French vanilla ice cream are right upfront with sawn oak, old cedar, and more waxy Golden Delicious apples close behind. Elegant woodspice notes in the form soft nutmeg, cinnamon stick, and earthy clove show off all those years in wood. The addition of water lessens the sweetness a bit and brings out more soft spice, losing a bit of that coquettish charm, but gaining some brightness.
The Palate: Again, so lush and sweetly voluptuous, with a creamy, buttery mouth-feel absolutely full of more cinnamon honey. After that, even more honey, floral now, waxy apples, and vanilla bean transition into blooming spice notes. Old oak, hot cinnamon, sweet clove, and candied ginger are well balanced against the earlier sweetness, never getting too big. Like the nose, adding a bit of water, reduces that voluptuousness, but it also draws out more oaky, slightly peppery spice and brings in a wisp of wood smoke.
The Finish: Most of it disappears relatively quickly, leaving wonderful subtle notes of honey, ginger and oak, with the faintest slip of dry wood smoke at the last.
Thoughts: A beautiful whisky. While it doesn’t have the broadest of flavor profiles, its complexity is packed into that layered honey and spice sweetness. While my overall impression of this one focuses on that sweetness, the wood and spice do provide an excellent counterpoint. The nose and palate mirror each other closely, and the amount of oak influence is balanced just right as the dram progresses. I definitely preferred this at strength, water settled some aspects down, but for me, it also took away from the richness and depth it has straight. This one was going for around $170, which while no small amount of dough, also seems like an excellent value for an older malt of this quality. Highly recommended.
Chieftain’s 1983 Balmenach 28 Year Old, Speyside