Q&A With Balblair’s John MacDonald

By Richard Thomas

John MacDonald and his casks
(Credit: Balblair)

My personal preferences lead me to trot out the Scotch whisky only once I can exert myself outdoors and not become drenched with sweat. It’s a style of whisky I prefer to avoid putting on ice, and thus better suited to mild and cold weathers in my book. So it was that in late autumn of 2020, I brought out a bottle of Balblair 2005, one that was emptied only this past weekend.

That caused me to recall that, as a brand, Balblair had recently shifted from its unorthodox practice of releasing its own single malts in the vintage style to the more conventional age statement style. That prompted me to reach out and ask their distillery manager, John MacDonald, some questions about Balblair and his career.

RT: It seems whisky runs in your family, because your brother Kenny is in the business. So there was a period of several years you and your brother were running whisky distilleries just five miles apart. What was that like?

JM: A bit of confusion here. My brother Kenny has worked at Glenmorangie as a stillman for almost 43 years now. I started in  1989 after leaving college in Edinburgh. I had no intention of working in the whisky business but when Kenny told me there was a warehouse job going I decided to give it a go. I went round to the manager’s house and knocked on his door. Ian MacGregor invited me in and we sat down at his kitchen table. He pored 2 drams and asked if I wanted some water in it. I said a little and he offered me the job there and then. I often wonder what would have happened had I said no.

RT: Sorry. I was mistaken about Kenny still working there. Now, when I’m talking to other Americans about Scottish malts, probably the most intimidating aspect for them is the sheer number of distilleries, each with its own identity. How would you describe Balblair’s core flavor profile?

Balblair Distillery
(Credit: Balblair)

JM: Balblair is a very robust spirit. Unpeated highland style. Fruity, meaty with a lovely  undercurrent of leather. It is testament to the guys that make it. Only six guys make the whisky. Mike has been here now for almost 36 years. The two John’s over 25. They have so much experience and skill that they make my job very easy. We take things slowly here. From mashing through distillation. High quality casks on top of that ensures we achieve high quality whisky.

RT: Balblair was one of the single malts that adopted a vintage approach to its whiskies, but last year you moved away from that and  to a more conventional, age statement line, one which just recently became available in the United States. If my memory is correct, the original transition to vintage-style expressions started before you came over to Balblair in 2006, but it was completed after that.  Perhaps you can explain how vintage whiskies work and what the advantages are?

JM: Vintages were in motion before I came to Balblair. It was exciting to get involved in a new strategy. The idea was to take only the very best of a particular year and to bottle it. Sampling as you can imagine was intense. The advantage was that it gave us a point of difference in the whisky world.

RT: Keeping that in mind, what prompted the switch back to age statement whiskies?

JM: It was time to move on. By moving to aged statements it allows us to bring consistency to our range and to showcase our true character. The whisky has not changed. It is as good as ever. The same attention goes into cask selection as before. The new range I believe offers a Balblair for every palate. I am immensely proud of them all.

Casks of Balblair are regularly bought by independent bottlers
(Credit: Balblair)

RT: Balblair is a whisky that shows up quite a bit as a single malt in independent bottlings. What’s it like to try your handiwork as it’s been matured and batched by someone else?

JM: I’ve tried a few in the past and have to say that I’ve not been disappointed. It’s nice to be appreciated by other people in the business.

RT: What’s the best way to drink a dram of Balblair?

JM: I always like to have a dram with friends and colleagues but I do enjoy a dram in solitude sometimes. It’s nice to reflect with a dram. Sitting by the stove with some good music on. A splash of water in the 12 year old but no water in 15, 18 or 25.

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