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Balblair has a reputation as a light, fruity, summertime whisky, and I agree with this assessment insofar as the three Balblair expressions in my cabinet go. They all remind me somewhat of basic Glenfiddich 12, yet bolder and mellower, in that the flavors are more vibrant and defined while the body is smoother with fewer rough edges.
This 18 year old expression (distilled 1991, bottled 2009) is bottled at 43% ABV, which is a bit disappointing given that 46% seems the house standard for recent Balblairs. Also off-putting is the price tag: at $120 U.S., it’s more than double the cost of my other two Balblairs (the 2000 and 2001), but far from double the quality. Yes, it’s a tasty dram – my favorite Balblair, in fact. But there’s no particular somethingorother that’s $65 worth of better than its younger siblings.
Mellower? Yes, but the 10 yo’s are pretty smooth themselves. More refined flavors? Yup, but the fiery ‘n’ fruity sharpness of the young’uns is no less an asset. More complex overall? Uh-huh, but it’s still Balblair, only with fancier buttons.
I don’t want to discourage anyone from Balblair ’91. I like it very much, and it has a palette of flavors that most whisky drinkers should find unique and subtle at best or friendly and inoffensive at least. But I’d be much less cautions about recommending it if it were a $65 Scotch. If you’re new to Balblair, the younger expressions will provide what you need to know about the distillery’s profile for about $65 less.
(All that said, I, ahem, got my bottle at a discount: $100. Still overpriced.)
Fourth dram from a three-week-old bottle. A little more pepper and citrus fruits when taken neat; loads of cream and bananas with one drop of water. Two drops kills it.
Nose: Sugar foam. I know there’s no such thing, but that’s what I’m getting. Vanilla, bananas, and orange peels after a few minutes. Limes, apples, peaches, grasses, and oak wood shortly thereafter. Cinnamon rolls baking in the neighbor’s kitchen is a nice final touch. If there’s such a thing as intensified lightness, this is it. Subtle and complex, with all the pretentious hyperbole those qualities engender.
Too bad about the note of nail polish that lurks throughout. Nail polish needs smoke for balance. This nose is sweeter than Carmen Miranda’s hat.
Palate: Attacks smooth but strong and stays that way. It’s like a Dairy Queen banana split with soft-serve vanilla ice cream, bananas, strawberries, pineapple, and chocolate. And all sprinkled with those little red-hot cinnamon candies. And with the flavors at about half intensity. That’s about the most ridiculous way I’ve ever described a whisky, but I’ll be danged if that doesn’t capture it.
The amazing finish reveals this to be a brilliantly logical and well-orchestrated whisky. Until now, Balblair ’91’s complexity has been in conflict with its reserved demeanor. But everything on the nose and palate has been a sly buildup to a finish that first explodes with a blast of vanilla, honey, and oak wood, then smolders for a full minute with hot pepper, cinnamon, and (finally and perfectly timed) a touch of smoke.
From fluff to fire, each component of the experience sets up the one that comes next. No surprises or red herrings along the way; this journey was practically storyboarded. Problem is, I could say the same about the other Balvenie expressions. And, minus a couple of adjectives and flavor notes, I could write mostly the same review about other Balvenies. They’re not the most challenging of whiskies, but they’ve got some depth beneath the sweetness and light.