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db meets: John MacDonald of Balblair

We catch up with Balblair’s longstanding distillery manager to find out about his plans for Burns Night next Monday and what lies in store for the Highlands distillery this year.

It will be a quiet Burns Night in Scotland this year, but John MacDonald, distillery manager at Balblair since 2006, still plans to savour his haggis with an 18 Year Old single malt.

As with most people during the Covid-19 lockdowns, over the past year MacDonald has had to adjust his plans. He won’t, however, be abandoning the annual celebration of Burns Night on Monday 25 January; the Scottish holiday honouring the poet Robert Burns, who died on that date in 1796.

“Normally,” MacDonald says, “we gather together to honour Scotland’s national bard by dusting off kilts, reciting his poetry, having the haggis piped in and by raising a glass in tribute to his life.”

Even without the opportunity for staging a large gala, MacDonald will still be putting together a full, if quiet, Burns Night dinner, matching each course with an age-statement Balblair – a Balblair 12 Years Old with cullen skink, an 18 YO with haggis, neeps and tatties and a 15 YO with cranachan.

db: Haggis is a pretty stout dish. Why an older Balblair? 

MacDonald: The 18 Year Old is mature, deep and lusciously rich. It’s matured in American oak casks first before being transferred into ex-Sherry casks, which lend it its chocolaty and spicy characteristics along with layers of dried fruit and sweetness. It’s also my favourite whisky.

db: For years, Balblair made only vintage malts, but then in 2019, you switched to age-statement whiskies. Why was that?

MacDonald: It was time for a change. The vintages had served their purpose – a point of differentiation for us. But it was a difficult programme to manage, and we thought, “Why not use all of this marvellous aged whisky?”

db: As managing the amount of ageing whisky you have in your cellars versus future demand is always a tricky challenge, then Balblair must be well-stocked?

MacDonald: We are in a very, very good place in managing supply versus demand.

db: The tariff war between the EU and the United States has hurt one of your major markets. How are things for Balblair in America?

MacDonald: We’re having a very good January there so far, and things are starting to take off for us in the States. I think the main reason is just good salesmanship.

db: And what about Brexit so far? 

MacDonald: We’ve not been impacted that much, but it’s still very early. Tariffs are not good, wherever they are.

db: How much has work at the distillery been affected by Covid-19?

MacDonald: We had to shut down the distillery for April, May and June. There was no one at the distillery except me…

db: I know that cocktails have grown in importance, especially in the United States, as part of the consumption of whiskies of all kinds. Do you have a favurite one?

MacDonald: I have to be honest – I don’t. I’m a traditionalist, but I certainly don’t have any objections to other people enjoying Balblair in cocktails. I generally drink it neat, with maybe a splash of water for the young 12 Year Old.

db: Speaking of water, distillers are very much like winemakers in believing that where they make their drink is of utmost importance. Do you agree with that?

MacDonald. I do. We have an abundance of fresh Scottish water for the entire production. It’s damp and humid here, so that helps with maturing. And the air quality is excellent, although we occasionally have the exhaust from a passing car.

db: A couple of more questions about Burns Night. Do you like to cook?

MacDonald. I do like to cook, although I don’t mind someone cooking for me. Cooking goes along with what you need to do to be a distiller, having all the flavours, aromas and textures coming together.

db: Did you have a big celebration of Burns Night at the distillery in 2020 before Covid-19 struck?

MacDonald: Unfortunately, no. Last year I was abroad on business.

db: So you’ll really be ready for a big celebration on 25 January 2022!

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