Balblair Vintage 1997 - Fake or Fortune?

This is not a whisky tasting review because I have as yet, not tasted a Balblair. This is despite owning two bottles which I picked up here in Israel. The reason why I don’t wish to open them is that they are really old bottlings and rather valuable.
I am waiting until I visit the distillery, Be’ezrat Hashem, in October to try their latest expressions. I must admit I’m very excited about it as I’ve heard so many good things from trusted commentators about Balblair whisky, I cannot wait to taste their products.
Out of the two Balblairs I own, one is a 1990 Vintage with box in mint condition and the booklet inside which had sat there undisturbed on the top shelf of a wine store in Machane Yehuda Jerusalem market, gathering dust for the best part of 25 years before I bought it. This is probably my best whisky “find” here in Israel so far. The other is a Balblair Vintage 1997, unfortunately without a box, which I picked up from the “Wine and Flavours” store in Ramat Gan. Both bottlings were Travel Retail expressions as Balblair do not as yet export to Israel. This blog post is going to be about an interesting story about the 1997 bottle.
Vintages and Terroir
Rather than printing specific age statements, all Balblair expressions are categorised by a vintage statement similar to wines. I quite like this idea as it conveys an air of sophistication. As long as they state bottling date/year as well (which they do), so that we know how long the spirit has sat in the cask, this is also considered by the Scotch Whisky Regulations 1992 as having an age statement. (See my previous posts on this subject).

I find it interesting why a distillery would decide to use a Vintage statement method rather than simply stating the age of the whisky, calculated as the amount of time spent in the wood. Is there actually any real significance to a whisky vintage as there is when it comes to wine? The vintage statement with wines refers to the raw material used, that is, grapes. Obviously the wine will vary year by year depending upon the vineyard, that season’s weather and temperature.
Is Balblair implying that whisky shares these same properties? If a whisky vintage statement is referring to the raw material, that is the barley they used to distil the whisky, then in order for this to have any real significance we must assume that the bottle contains 100% of its spirit from a single distillation run. It could however equally apply to a marriage of spirits taken from multiple distillations but all from the same year! There are two barley seasons per year, the winter and spring season. Can we assume that all Vintage statement single malts contain barley which was taken from a single season and distilled at the same time?
All these questions I can ask when I Be’ezrat Hashem get to Balblair distillery as they unfortunately neglect to give us any relevant information on the bottle.
I’d like to see stated on the label, what type of barley they have used and which farm the barley came from (like they do at Bruichladdich), in order that the vintage statements have any meaning, or am I missing something?
I am actually somewhat sympathetic to the idea of single malt whisky having “Terroir”. Just as with wine, I do believe that the place, time and climate where the barley grows has some influence on the spirit regarding oiliness mouthfeel and general flavour. Indeed, a recent WhiskyCask.com broadcast from 3rd September 2017, talked about scientific studies carried out with the same strains of rye planted on farms all over North America and the chemical analysis comparisons showing significant differences which translates into unique flavours and body when distilled into whiskey.
For instance, they mentioned that in a particular location where the roots could reach down deeper into the soul, the rye picked up mineral components which had a direct effect on flavour.
A word of caution here however. All the above is true and distilleries have sufficient justification in my opinion, to talk about Terroir and Vintages for that matter, so long as the distillery is honest and states that it has used a single source for its barley from the same season. Therefore, I am a little sceptical of distilleries who use words like Vintage and Terroir yet do not state barley type or source as Bruichladdich, Benromach and Kilchoman do.
If a stated Vintage year merely refers to the year which they distilled the spirit in the bottle where the contents actually contains whiskies from different distillation dates and perhaps different barley sources, then frankly, the vintage year is pretty meaningless and simply a marketing gimmick.
Anyway, let me come off my soap box now and get to the story about the Balblair Vintage 1997 I purchased last month.
Fake or Fortune?
A few days after purchasing the Balblair Vintage 1997 I was watching an episode of “Fake Britain”, a series about counterfeit items sold in the UK. They had a segment there on how to identify counterfeit bottles of expensive collectable single malt whisky which had been refilled with brown liquid and then capped and sealed to look like an unopened bottle.
(I have included a short YouTube clip taken from a TV programme, below)

So this expert was saying to watch out for signs of dodgy caps like crinkly plastic, wrapping that doesn’t seem to fit properly, uneven seals, bubbles in the plastic, signs that the peel off strip has been tampered with and missing “tear” lines running down the plastic. The plastic should look tight and clean.

Apparently there was a whole department at the Scotch Whisky Association dedicated to investigating possible fake bottles. Incidentally, the expert was saying that the fakers tend to go for Vintage whiskies.
So, that evening I looked more closely at my newly purchased bottle of Balblair Vintage 1997 and what I saw alarmed me somewhat. The plastic cap looked uneven, full of crinkles and bubbles, lose fitting and did not exactly fit to the contours of the bottle and cork. Yikes! Could I have bought a fake bottle?


It immediately brought me back some 25 years ago, to the days when I used to go round all the Philatelic Postage Stamp shops in Israel buying stamps for my now neglected British Stamp collection. I was particularly interested in mint King George V/King George VI British Mandate era stamps so always on the lookout for good examples. I soon found out that many of the shops in Tel Aviv were selling stamps with high Stanley Gibbons catalogue values, which had been bleached to remove postage cancellation or “used” marking and gone through a process of re-gumming to make them look like unused mint examples. Talking to the honest dealers they taught me how to tell the fakes from the real ones by looking at remnants of glue left over on the perforations. Rough and uneven gummed backs as well as the stamp slightly curling at the edges were tell-tael signs. Slight fading of the stamps in circles might indicate attempts at removing cancellation marks.  Could there be a fake whisky market here in Israel as well?

So, I started Image Googling for “Balblair 1997” and comparing my bottle against the photos. What I saw made me even more alarmed!


All the Whisky sites and promotion photos showed clean contoured perfect plastic wrapping. Nothing like my bottle!
However, searching for LARGE format images brought up photos of “real” bottles which people had actually reviewed. Interestingly, the plastic wrapping did seem to look more like mine. Uneven, crinkly and with bubbles!



Despite the fact that my Balblair was not worth thousands of Pounds at auction like the ones shown in the programme, I decided to send an email with photos to the Scottish Whisky Association’s special fake department, and see if they replied.
Dear Sir/Madam,
I was reading up on fake whiskies as I have only just started collecting old but affordable single malts.
I came across a Balblair Vintage 97 Travel Retail here in Israel.
Now, I don't think this is old or valuable enough for someone to go to the trouble of refilling and faking the seal but it did look suspicious with all those bubbles in the plastic and no proper tear line to remove the wrapper.
I have included the photos but I have also done some Google Image searches and did indeed find some photos of Vintage 97 with bubbles in the plastic so I assume that Balblair themselves did not plastic wrap their own bottles very well back then? However, another thing that concerns me was the buyer had no box with it and the plastic seal does not go in on the indent between the bottle and the cork. It seems too flat to me.
My guess though is that it is just Balblair not being ​ consistent with their sealing and I think it is a genuine seal.

I would appreciate your opinion though.

Thanks











To my utter amazement, they replied to me after just two days and sent me the results of their investigation. They had taken my query very seriously indeed. (I have deleted names for confidentiality reasons).
Dear Sir,
I enclose a reply from the owner company of the Balblair distillery regarding your query on your Balbair Vintage 1997 bottling.
Please feel free to contact me should you have any further queries.
Kind Regards
Scotch Whisky Association
1st Floor
Quartermile Two
2 Lister Square
Edinburgh
EH3 9GL
W:  www.scotch-whisky.org.uk  | Twitter:  @ScotchWhiskySWA
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Sent: 29 August 2017 15:31
Subject: FW: Balbair Vintage 1997
 Sent: 28 August 2017 15:55
To: Legal
Subject: Balbair Vintage 1997
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: @interbevgroup.com>
To: @swa.org.uk>
Date: Tue, 29 Aug 2017 20:06:44 +0000
Subject: RE: Contact E-Mail - Balblair Distillery
 
This would be handled by my team which covers production planning, procurement and customer services.  
I can tell you that the bottle looks entirely genuine and that this is an older presentation of our Balblair 1997.  I cannot fully read the lot number to be able determine exact bottling date, but it is over 10 years old.  We have subsequently changed the heat shrink application to avoid bubbles and are bottling in another location.  Additionally, we have added in a more defined rip opener to current Balblair design.
 
While I cannot definitely be sure unless the contents were analysed, there is nothing from the images which makes me suspect this product has been tampered with or been refilled.
If there is concern, I can certainly organise for collection and replacement etc.
Kind regards
Logistics & Supply Chain Manager
International Beverage Holdings Ltd
 
I wrote back to the person dealing with my query:
Dear …..
I am simply awestruck by the quick and professional reply and the effort you and your team have put into my inquiry.
Thank you so much for your amazing response.
….
Well, there you have it! My Balblair Vintage 1997 is 100% genuine. The only question now is if I am going to open it for a special occasion or keep it for an investment. These early Balblairs are fetching good prices at Auction and the signs are they will only increase in value over the coming years.

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