With the news of Balblair’s longstanding distillery manager John MacDonald’s retirement, we thought we’d pay him a visit at the historic Highland Scotch whisky distillery and have taste of some of our favourite single malts.

After 18 years as Balblair distillery manager, John MacDonald is retiring, and handing over the keys to his successor, David Rogerson. I joined the two of them for MacDonald’s final tour of the distillery to hear about their paths in the industry and of course, taste a drop or two of whisky along the way. 

Balblair distillery

18 years at the helm

Nestled on a hillside overlooking the Dornoch Firth in the north of Scotland, Balblair is a quintessential Highland distillery complete with a cupola (the bit that looks like a pagoda), chimney, and traditional dunnage warehouses. 

Before Balblair, MacDonald’s local connections found him working at the nearby Glenmorangie distillery, starting out as a warehouseman in what he’d initially anticipated would be a good stopgap, rather than a career. 17 years later, he was still there having discovered a passion for the industry he worked in, and in his words, blagged his way through the ranks to become assistant distillery manager. 

When the chance arose to apply for the role of distillery manager at Balblair it was a dream opportunity, John sent in his application without hesitation and didn’t even read the contract before accepting the job when it was offered to him. 

John MacDonald and David Rogerson at Balblair distillery

“You ordered your waistcoat yet, son?” John MacDonald (left) and David Rogerson

An old school distillery

As we walk around the site, it’s clear that he has a deep fondness for the distillery, explaining with relief that he’ll be retiring only five minutes up the road and can see the chimney from his window. Relief at remaining close by, but perhaps also that it will no longer be him who gets a call in the middle of the night in the case of anything unexpected happening on-site! 

Balblair is a 24/7 distillery, and the majority of its process remains manned by skilled staff. Once someone gets a role in the distillery, he tells us, it’s rare for them to leave, and he believes this is key when it comes to the quality and consistency of the whisky they make. One time, a supplier delivered a batch of malted barley that had been mistakenly mixed with some peated barley – something that is never used at Balblair. This could have caused all sorts of nightmares with peat-contaminated equipment and batches of spirit. Thankfully, staff noticed a different aroma in the wash almost immediately, catching the problem at the earliest possible opportunity, which might not have been the case in a distillery using more automation, John believes. 

Cask of whisky at Balblair

In safe hands

Taking over the reins from MacDonald, David Rogerson was inspired to forge a career in whisky-making at the age of 16 following a family holiday to Islay. A tour of the island’s distilleries in all their various shapes and sizes left him captivated by the process of whisky making and when he returned to school after that summer, he dedicated his time to studying sciences, intending to make his way into distilling.

Rogerson went on to secure a first-class honours degree in brewing and distilling and worked brewing for Marston’s before landing a role as assistant distillery manager at Speyburn (which is in the same group as Balblair). Now, at just 30 years old, his aspirations and hard work have come to fruition, with what he describes as a truly dream role as the new distillery manager at Balblair. He’s moved in two minutes up the road, and as well as shadowing MacDonald in recent months, has spent countless hours in his evenings immersing himself in every nook and cranny of the distillery and its workings. It certainly feels like the place is being left in capable hands. 

Balblair core range

Tasting the Balblair core range

Balblair 12 Year Old

Matured in American oak bourbon and double-fired American oak casks, the 12-year-old offers an array of juicy, honeyed orchard fruit and creamy malt making it a superb introduction to the Balblair range. 

Nose Waxy peels, sponge cake, soft cedar earthiness and some nutmeg.

Palate Juicy red apple and cooked pear, with layers of honey and barley developing.

Finish Honey continues, with some milky tea and sultana notes for company.

Balblair 15 Year Old

This expression is treated to an initial maturation in American oak bourbon casks, followed by a stay in first fill Spanish oak butts, concentrating the fruity character that’s found in the 12-year-old, and offering up some delicious chocolate notes.

Nose Honey-covered apple, citrus freshness, coffee and walnut cake.

Palate Dried fruit and more apple, dark chocolate shavings, ginger.

Finish Curaçao orange, dried oak, caramelised dates.

Balblair 18 Year Old

The 18-year-old is also matured in American oak bourbon barrels, followed by first-fill Spanish oak butts, but those additional years have ramped up layers of autumnal spice and thick runny toffee, making it a superb after dinner dram. 

Nose Toffee apple and stewed pears, with warming chai spices and new leather.

Palate Ripe and juicy apricots and dried fruits, with oak spices and thick, creamy vanilla custard.

Finish Warming Christmassy spices, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Balblair 21 Year Old

After an initial 15-year maturation in American oak bourbon and double-fired American oak casks, the 21-year-old finishes its maturation with a nice long stay in oloroso sherry seasoned Spanish oak casks. Here you’ll find huge helpings of tropical fruit and spice, with rich, biscuity malt in tow. 

Nose It’s gloriously tropical with grilled mango, coconut and pineapple chunks as well aromas of nutmeg, banoffee pie, creamy fudge, gingerbread, marzipan, and coffee.

Palate More aromatic, woody spice with clove and ginger blends well with rich toffee elements and heaps of fruit, from red apples to nectarines and papaya.

Finish Biscuity, chocolatey, tropical, and with just a hint of pencil shavings.

Balblair 25 Year Old

A spectacular way to wrap things up, the 25-year-old is first matured in American oak bourbon casks, before a second maturation in Spanish oak. Over time, it’s developed a rich and complex profile, laden with old oak, oily citrus, chocolate praline, and tobacco.

Nose Indulgent overripe apricots and dark liquorice stand out against polished oak and a touch of saddle wax.

Palate Full-bodied with oily citrus, chocolate praline and a faint note of fresh tobacco leaf.

Finish Warming with smooth chocolate and blood oranges.