Anniversaries can be tricky things. Sure, you want to celebrate, but you don't want to seem like you're being immodest. At any rate, the Old Town Alchemy Co. recently celebrated its first year at its current home, a milestone which happily coincided with a different kind of annual celebration. There are hundreds of whisky distilleries secreted around Scotland. Balblair might not be one of the immediately recognized ones but its heritage is undisputed. Established by John Ross in 1790 on the shores of the Dornoch Firth, it's the oldest working distillery in the Highland region and one of the oldest in Scotland. After changing hands a few times over the years, the distillery was sold to Inver House Distillers in 1996 and three years ago, Balblair took the decision to only release vintage single malts.
It's a brave decision. While most distilleries release vintages at some point, usually as special or limited editions with a matching pricetag, making them the entire basis of a portfolio is virtually unheard of in Scotch producers. The key difference between a vintage single malt, say from 1998, and a 12 year old malt is that right now, in 2010, the former is no younger than twelve years old, nor any older, while the latter contains a blend of liquids at different ages, all of which are at least twelve years old.
It's hard to separate the idea of a vintage whisky from that of a vintage wine. A vintage wine offers a liquid record of the year in which the wine was made, whereas because of the differing methods of production involved, a vintage whisky doesn't have that immediate relationship to the time of its creation. Instead, we get a snapshot of a particular spirit at a particular point of its development with all the detail that often gets blended out.
Along with some proper journalists and media guests, I was lucky enough to be invited to the National Museum of Scotland to try some of Balblair's vintages and enjoy an exclusive performance by the Scottish jazz vocalist Niki King. While I'm never one to turn down free whisky, the reason behind the combination of classic jazz and vintage single malt was the launch of Balblair's Vintage Lounge, with events planned for Paris and New York later in the year. The music was predictably awesome, and the three vintages we tried - 1997, 1989, and 1978 - were equally good. It was a fun evening, a chance to meet some interesting people - including the Balblair distillery manager, John MacDonald - and raise a toast to this, and other, good years.