I like Twitter (capital letter required). I’m @cowfish over there and talk a lot of rubbish for most of the day – one of the bonuses of being a computer programmer is the constant connection to the internet which works with my tiny attention span to allow me to context switch back and forth between the Twitter-verse’s stream of consciousness ramblings and whatever code is currently filling up my screen. One of the things that I like about it is that people are often trying new things, with trial and error being the common method of getting those things right, slowly iterating from failure to success. Happily it was at the latter end of the scale that a tasting I ‘went’ to ended up – an online tasting of Balblair’s 2000 and 1989 vintages.
I’ve been involved with various online events using only twitter as the communication medium and they’ve been a bit of a mixed bag – filtering relevant messages for a large event becomes a chore for both attendees and others who are following the Twitter streams of the attendees who don’t care (Twitter is a broadcast to all medium – those who choose to receive a user’s utterances must filter them themselves if they don’t want to see everything), and a small event ends up with too little interaction and not enough spread across Twitter (as getting the details of the tasting out to those who aren’t directly involved is part of the reason why Twitter events are so effective from a PR point of view). Anyways, suffice to say that Lucas from The Edinburgh Whisky Blog managed to balance the size well, creating a group of tasters spread far and wide both geographically and in groups of followers on Twitter.
Balblair is now part of the Inver House group (the same guys who own Old Pulteney) but has been running since 1790. Sat on the Dornoch Firth in the Scottish highlands, along the coast from Glenmorangie, it was family run operation from opening until 1970 at which point it was sold on to Allied Distillers, being further sold on to Inver House in 1996. I first heard about them in 2008 during (as with so many whiskies) an interview with Mark Gillespie on WhiskyCast (Episode 170), when distillery manager John MacDonald talked about their newly revamped range – switching from age statemented expressions to vintages. I was intrigued by John’s talk of banana flavours in their 1989 vintage and after a bit of searching managed to find a bottle – I don’t remember much about it apart from finding it quite banana-y and being impressed by the packaging. They’ve not changed much since, bringing out new vintages but continuing to put them in pretty bottles and boxes, and I’ve been meaning to try more than just the 1989 so I was rather pleased to be able to join in the tasting.
The plan for the evening was simple – take the two samples that we’d each been sent, pour them, drink them and tweet about them. Added to that mix we had a Twitter host to lead us through the tasting, the previously mentioned John MacDonald. At 7pm Scottish time John announced the first pour – the Balblair 2000. This is the first release of this whisky, bottled earlier this year at 10 years old after maturing in a 2nd fill ex-bourbon cask. It was very pale, a light gold that I took issue with Whisky Emporium‘s Keith Wood describing as ‘Light straw in midday sunshine’ – that would be much darker than this I reckon. The nose changed a lot as it sat in the glass, with an initial waxiness fading away to reveal lots of fruity flavours – pineapple, apple and rhubarb & custard sweets. To taste it was fresh and light, but had an underlying woody caramel base with sweet vanilla cream, dark chocolate and slightly unripe grapes on top. It was spiced up with a hint of pepper and as it developed in the glass picked up a coppery tint – excellently described by Colin Campbell (aka TheScotsDreamer) as being like old coins. It finished quite woody – my notes describe it as ‘a bit too twiggy’. A drop of water, as it didn’t take much more before becoming washed out, brought out more astrigency – stronger vanilla backed with acetone, more heat and a thinner alcohol flavour. This was paired with some bigger creaminess at the back of the mouth, with thick custard coming through. The finish lost a lot of the wood, with a bit of minty menthol joining some spicy woody fruit.
After 20 minutes of tweeting John called for a move onto dram number 2 – the Balblair 1989. This is the second edition of this whisky, matured in 2nd fill bourbon and bottled from 37 casks this year rather than in 2008 like the one I tried previously, clocking in now at 21 years old. This also poured very light (no caramel colouring is to be found in either of these whiskies to hide their natural paleness, for which I applaud the distillery) although closer to Keith’s ‘light straw’ from earlier. On the nose there was a hint of ripe banana and an acetoney smell that faded quickly after pouring. This was joined by vanilla, unripe mangos, lemons and something I referred to as ‘cakey bread/bready cake’. To taste it was quite rich and rounded, or at least more than its light colouring would suggest (further evidence that whisky colour tells you little more than how light passes through it) with some smoky leather, more bananas, lemons and milk chocolate. There was more fruit, with lemons and pineapple, and it finished interestingly with sweet vanilla cream and tobacco. Water brought out more creaminess and mixed up the citrus and fruit into one big sweet & sour mess wrapped up in leather. It remained fruity with a lightly tannic tickle down the side of the tongue, and a hint of sawdust and pencil shavings on the finish.
On the side there was a competition running, with John’s favourite tasting note of the evening winning a bottle of the 1989. My slightly over the top suggestions of ‘Crushed rhubarb and custard sweets rolled in sweet scented candlewax and left to melt in the sun’ and ‘Ripe bananas squashed on a hot leather carseat’ for the 2000 and 1989 respectively didn’t get too far (other than a couple of retweets and a ‘Ew’ from Scott Spolverino, aka @InWithBacchus), with the bottle being won by a description of the 1989 being like ‘Earl Grey tea infused with pineapples’ from Dramming‘s Oliver Klimek.
All in all it worked rather well, with the a few people piping up and asking me how they could get involved next time and the discussion being friendly and akin to being in a large room full of people shouting at each other, but in a controlled manner. I grabbed a transcript of the whole tasting and have put it up if you want to follow through and see what we all said.
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 10 years old. 43%. ~£30.75 from The Whisky Exchange
Highland single malt Scotch whisky. 21 years old. 43%. ~£40 from Master of Malt (although it may be the first edition)
Many thanks to Lucas of The Edinburgh Whisky Blog and Balblair for sending me over the samples, and getting me involved.