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Balblair pursues vintage growth

Balblair distillery manager John MacDonald has insisted that the Highland brand’s vintage specialism remains sustainable, despite ongoing growth in the Scotch whisky market.

Balblair distillery manager John MacDonald at a tasting of the new vintage bottlings in London this week

As Balblair launched a trio of new vintage expressions alongside a rare bottling of a whisky laid down in 1969, MacDonald maintained: “We’ve still got a lot of room for growth if you manage it carefully.”

However, as other single malt Scotch whisky producers step up their focus on releases without an age statement, MacDonald said this was highly unlikely to happen at Balblair. “I’d be worried about that,” he said. “You can be a victim of your own success; I’d rather focus on quality.”

Since joining Balblair in 2006, MacDonald has overseen the distillery’s step up in output to its current level of near-constant production for 47 weeks of the year. This increase follows an ongoing surge in Scotch whisky exports, which according to the Scotch Whisky Association rose by 11% in the first six months of 2013 alone.

With travel retail currently the largest market for Balblair, the company’s UK sales manager Neil MacKinlay outlined the distillery’s plans for the future. “We’re picking where we grow the brand but it’s a slow process and tricky to forecast what we’re going to be selling in 10 years’ time,” he remarked.

Among the most exciting export destinations for Balblair at the moment, MacKinlay described Russia as “an incredible market, very aspirational.”  However he illustrated the unpredictable nature of demand from emerging markets with the example of Venezuela, where political instability has seen the brand’s business go from being “fantastic” in 2012 to “dead” this year.

As reported previously by the drinks business, the Highland distillery has just launched its 2003, 1990 and 1983 vintages, which are available in the UK through whisky specialist retailers and independent merchants.

This is the distillery’s first release from 2003, which becomes its youngest whisky on the market and has an RRP of £40.99. A total of 18 second-fill Bourbon hogsheads (casks with a capacity of around 238 litres) were originally laid down, although the distillery insists that the quantity bottled at any one time is determined by ongoing assessment of individual casks.

A total of five butts (500-litre capacity) of the 1990 vintage were laid down, with this new bottling marking its second release. Matured for the first 21 years of its life in ex-Bourbon casks, the whisky has spent its last two years in old Oloroso butts. It carries an RRP of £84.99 and replaces the brand’s 1989 vintage.

Now 30 years old, the 1983 represents the first Balblair bottling from this vintage, which saw a total of 18 second-fill Bourbon casks laid down. Highlighting the value of its £200 RRP, Balblair distillery manager John MacDonald remarked: “If you can look around the market place and find a 30-year-old whisky of that quality for that price, then come and tell me.”

Having first launched its 1969 vintage in the US last year, Balblair is now extending its first ever bottling from this year to the UK and other key markets in mainland Europe. A total of eight

The newly released Balblair 1969 vintage

ex-Bourbon hogsheads were produced of the 1969, which is now available through specialist retailers with an RRP of £1,300 for a 70cl bottle.

Although its long ageing has given the 1969 a lower abv of 41.4%, compared to 46% for the distillery’s fellow non-chill-filtered but younger releases, MacDonald used the 1969 to highlight the quality of Balblair’s distillation process. “It shows the power of the new make spirit that it can last that long,” he concluded. “All our vintages so far link back to that house style.”

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