A comparison of the Balblair 2005 Vintage (Bottled 2016) and 2005 Vintage (Bottled 2017)

A comparison of the Balblair 2005 Vintage (Bottled 2016) and 2005 Vintage (Bottled 2017).


 
See my previous blog post for a description of my personal visit to Balblair.
 
Also, for an excellent inside look into the inner workings of the distillery and dunnage warehouse, see Mark Gillespie’s Whisky Cask video on Balblair. Incidentally, the video was recorded in 2011, before the opening of the visitor’s centre which I visited.
I’m not sure if the pun was intentional but right at the beginning Mark mentions that the stills are all computerised today and handled by a single person on shifts who has to do various jobs. I’m sure Mark says, “so there’s a lot of ‘Malty-Tasking’ going on”! (Nice one Mark).
Packaging:
Note the very pale colour of the 2015 miniature compared to the others.

The bottle design deserves a marketing award. Just glancing at this bottle or seeing it from across the room, it is nonetheless, instantly recognisable as Balblair with its large elliptical shape and beautiful embossed floral pattern on one side.


 
Then there is the oversized cork. A massive wooden stopper with the ‘B’ for Balblair also embossed on the top with the little cork in the middle, reminding me of a little Chasid wearing a huge black shreimel.

 
 

The box is elegant and extravagant but highly impractical as it is very difficult to remove and put the bottle back afterwards. A Shabbos guest tried removing the bottle from its case and ended up splitting the top. She was very apologetic but I assured her I wasn’t upset and it wasn’t her fault. It is simply a bad design.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
I do like the general design though that makes use of magnets to secure the sides in place and that ribbon to open the box. Very stylish.

 

The Curious Case of the same Balblair Vintage Release being bottled in three separate years.
If you look on the online whisky stores they list three versions of the Balblair Vintage 2005. The bottlings are differentiated by the bottling years 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively. The peculiar thing is that all three versions state “1st Release” on the box!

 
 

When I visited the distillery back in October 2017 I enquired about the different releases to our guide, Gabrielle Balfour. She said she had no knowledge of different releases. They were all the same whisky! This makes no sense to me. Different bottling years surely necessitates calling it a different release as it has been maturing in the cask for longer. Right?
Well, in the case of the 2015 and 2016 versions, the answer is no!
According to the Spirit Business, the Balblair Vintage 2005 was originally bottled in December 2015 and continued to be bottled into 2016.
Such is the nature of Vintage statements. One bottle says bottled in 2015, the other in 2016 but in reality, they were bottled only a few days apart! Indeed, these 2016 miniatures I bought at the distillery were bottled in January 2016. So, both 2015 and 2016 versions can legitimately be called the “1st Release”.
However, the 2017 bottling must be different! Indeed, The Whisky Exchange lists it as the “Second Release” despite the box stating it is also “1st Release”! The fact that it was bottled a year apart must surely make it a different whisky as it has had almost a year more maturation.

 
 
Despite Balblair’s denials, from the colour and more importantly, the taste, it is quite clear to me at least, that these are very different whiskies.
 
A comparison of the Balblair 2005 Vintage (Bottled 2016) and 2005 Vintage (Bottled 2017).

Both bottlings are Non-Chill Filtered and natural colour, as are Balblair’s entire range and a big Kol HaKavod (high praise) must go to them for this policy. Both are bottled at a very respectable 46% abv. Both bottles and boxes look identical in every way (except of course the bottling year). This however is where the similarities end.
Let us begin with the 2015/2016 Bottling edition.



 

The natural colour of the whisky is almost water like clear with just a tinge of lime greeny/yellow. This di-spirit-ing (excuse the pun), hue indicates to me that the whisky has spent almost 10 years under-maturing in inactive tired out casks which have failed to impart hardly any colour. From speaking to various cask experts, First or even Second Fill American Oak Ex-Bourbon casks would have turned the spirit straw yellow within two to three months.


This lack of wood interaction is confirmed by the smell and taste.
The first thing you notice, even at 46% abv is a massive alcohol prickle on the nose. The nose experience is sharp and thin with a hint of Orange Sherbet and hot Aniseed gobstoppers.
The taste is of well-made new make spirit with a thin sweet white wine fruitiness. There is an immediate sense that it is lacking flavour and character like a 3-year-old immature whisky. Seeing as the Vintage statement (D:2005, B:2015), indicates that this whisky has been maturing for around 10 years, one can only surmise that it has been maturing in somewhat tired 3rd Fill Ex-Bourbon casks.
There is a hint of green Apples and watery custard in sharp but diluted orange juice but it’s smothered in hot white pepper!  Had this been a 3-Year-Old sample I would have said that it shows great potential and I am looking forward to when it will be ready to bottle in another seven years.
My advice is to give this Balblair 2015/16 a miss. It is certainly not undrinkable and even quite pleasant if you add sufficient water, but with its bland character, lacking body and overall flavour, I cannot in all conscious, recommend it.

Balblair Vintage 2005, Bottled 2017.
Bought in "Wine and Flavours", Ramat Gan for 230 Shekels.

 
 

Deep Chardonnay yellow colour indicative of quality maturation in active 2nd Fill American Ex-Bourbon casks.

 

On the nose, without water there is some very mild soft chilli pepper but one would certainly not describe it as alcohol heat. Indeed, it has a rich apple brandy note to it with touches of shortcake biscuits. In the background, there is a slight ‘farmyardy’ moist hay smell which rather than being off putting, actually seems to add character. The nose is quite closed before adding water. It doesn’t take much, perhaps a teaspoon but it is enough to open the bouquet up. Waiting a few minutes reaps rich rewards. Very well balanced with a luxuriously deep nose. Rich Scottish Butter Shortcake with freshly cut roses and the signature Balblair zesty Orangy fruitiness is very much in evidence. This whisky deserves your complete attention. There are heaps of soft tannins like the smell you get in a new luxury car with leather upholstery.

 

The mouth fill is thick, buttery and sesame seed oily. First you get the typical sweet heather honey followed by loads of yellow oaky fruitiness.
The taste is less like shortbread and more like Petti Burr biscuits that melt in the mouth. Soft vanilla cream and thick sweet and bitter orange with stewed sultanas. There is a strange but delicious flavour as the whisky slips down your throat which after much thought, I would describe as a creamy chumas with sesame seeds and orange marmalade.  Despite all these somewhat heavy flavours, the body actually remains quite light in character. It’s fresh and fruity with dominant tropical fruit juice and greeny/yellow bananas, edible but with a palatable slight bitterness. There is a lovely oaked chardonnay wine flavour in the middle turning to soft tannins at the end with vanilla essence, green apple and sweet challa dough.
On the finish, there is more soggy Pettie Bur biscuits in sweet cream cheese cake mix and Vanilla cream eclairs. This Balblair leaves you with the taste of dry apple brandy, creamy chumas, sweet white pepper and oranges matured in oaky syrup.
This is a very engaging and unusual whisky which I have no hesitation in recommending. It is beautifully balanced with light freshness but at the same time, complex multi-layered flavours which adds up to a most delicious dram.
Similar to the story of Yaakov and Eisav, these two whiskies were born from the same stills. at the same time. The twins grew up in the same family home but, in terms of fulfilling the full potential of their personalities during their maturity to adulthood, they couldn’t be further apart. The 2015/16 is shallow, rough and wild. The 2017 is soft and smooth with great depth.


The distillery representatives might continue to insist that the 2016 and 2017 are the same whisky. With the deepest respect to the good people at Balblair distillery, I have to disagree. The one that gets my blessing is the 2017.

*** UPDATE ***

Balblair in Israel used to be very rare. However, looking online yesterday, I noticed with delight that this Balblair Vintage 2005 (Bottled 2017), is now listed in three shops in Israel. Thank you Inver House for your decision to export to Israel.

"Wine and Flavours" store in Ramat Gan. 239 Shekels

"Beit HaMashkaot Shel Naftali" in Tel Aviv. 199 Shekels

"SIPIL" in Tel Aviv. 220 Shekels.
 

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