The Balblair Hand-Bottling Distillery Exclusive Bottling, Vintage 2006, Ex-Bourbon Cask #448

The Balblair Hand-Bottling Distillery Exclusive Bottling, Vintage 2006, Ex-Bourbon Cask #448.


We arrived at our "base camp" in Tullochwood Lodges, just outside the town of Forres on Sunday afternoon having driven through the night on Motzei Shabbos, Parshas Noach, from South West Essex. The weather in October 2017 was cold but sunny.

Tullochwood Lodges is set in 23 acres of beautiful woodland and even its own mini Loch. Self-catering challets and cottages are generally of very high standard and excellent value for money in Scotland but Tullochwood Lodges is in a class of its own. Simon Giles, the owner took great care of us, offering my parents lifts into Forres and dealing with any requests we had. It is the only self-catering place in Scotland to where we have returned twice in a row. Considering all the years we have visited Scotland, this is high praise indeed. However, let this place remain our little secret. After all, I don't want every challet to be booked up if we visit again.














The plan for Monday, our first full day in Scotland was to drive up past Inverness on the A9 North-East-Highlands coastal road to visit Clynelish/Brora in the morning and on the way back down, visit Balblair in the afternoon.
 


I will Be’ezrat Hashem write a separate blog post on, what turned out to be an amazing tour of the old Brora distillery soon but as I intend to write a comparison review of two different Balblair Vintage 2005s (one bottled 2016, the other 2017), I shall write about our visit to this distillery first.
We had arranged to catch the last Balblair tour at 2:00pm but the Clynelish / Brora visit that morning took much longer than anticipated and my dear wife insisted that we stop for lunch and a walk along the beach for an activity which wasn’t whisky related. Just as we began our stroll along the North-East Highlands coastline, glancing at my watch I realised that we couldn’t possibly make it in time for the last tour. My heart sank but “Shalom Bayis” (preserving marital peace), dictated that I kept quiet and continued our romantic stroll, looking at the unusual bright and varied colours of the pebbles along the beach. I was just hoping that we could get to the distillery in time at least to buy a Balblair embossed Glencairn glass before the distillery shop closed.

The road is shown on Google Maps but clicking on the road, it refuses to go down there and pushes you onto the road above.
The distillery as seen from the road above.
 
We drove through Edderton and after following what looked like a small private road leading into someone’s back garden, eventually arrived at Balblair around 3:00pm.


 
I entered the office to introduce myself and immediately apologised to a woman, who seemed to be in charge of the tours, for being booked on the tour and not having turned up. Curiously, the manager’s name happened to be Gabrielle Balfour. (I did not ask her if she was related in any way to Lord Balfour of the eponymous 1917 Declaration fame). I complimented her on her lovely Hebrew name and proceeded to call her the rest of the time, “Gabriella” which is the Hebrew girl’s name equivalent of the name of the malach (G-d’s angel) Gavriel. Gavriel is, according to Rashi in parshas Vayeishev, the supernatural “man” who appears suddenly (a bit like the shop keeper in “Mr Ben”), to ask Yosef if he needs any assistance, after Yosef gets lost trying to find his brothers.
She did not complain that I kept calling her Gabriella but in hindsight, I must have seemed pretty rude insisting on calling her by what after all, was not her name. If she was put out by it, she didn’t let on and remained charming and warm throughout our visit during which I bombarded her with questions.
It seems that Hashem obviously had taken note of my decision to put Shalom Bayis over a distillery group tour and rewarded me with something far better. Gabrielle looked at her watch and told us that she had just enough time to give my wife and me a private tour of the distillery and she would answer all my questions as we went around.

The attention she gave us was simply amazing! She made us feel like royalty.

By the way, for reasons which I found very unconvincing, we weren’t allowed to take any photos inside the distillery, only in the visitor’s shop and outside.

 

After the private "royal " tour around the distillery and ending up at the visitor’s centre shop, I asked Gabrielle about the non-sherried expressions they currently produce.  She told me that apart from the standard 2005 Vintage, she just happened to have in the shop a single ex-Bourbon cask, No 448.
Gabrielle first gave me some standard bottling Vintage 2005, (Bottled 2016) to sample. I commend Balblair on their general policy of not adding artificial E150a colouring but it did not do this 2005 any favours as the colour appeared a very pale yellow and gave the impression of under maturity. Although one should never base an assessment of a whisky upon a cursory distillery tasting, my initial impression of the Vintage 2005 was sadly, rather underwhelming. My impression gained from the pale colour was confirmed by nosing and tasting. It seemed to lack any character and flavour and had quite an alcoholic bite to it despite the addition of water. My first ever taste of Balblair whisky had not been a positive experience. After all the excitement of reading so many positive reviews of Balblair, I was, to say the least, disappointed by this Vintage 2005. It can best be described as clean hot white wine fruity new make spirit with a mild splash of orange zest and a touch of vanilla essence.


(Update Note: My view of this whisky has somewhat changed since and Be’ezrat Hashem I will have a full review of the various incarnations of this whisky very soon).
Next, Gabrielle gave me some of this exclusive Cask 448 to try. Yes, Yes, Yes! This is what I dreamed Balblair would be like. It was simply wonderful. The natural colour was a deep Chardonnay yellow. I added water to my glass before smelling and tasting. Don’t forget folks, after all, this is cask strength. In fact, I was standing next to the very cask it had just come out of!! How many times in your life could you experience that?


Sniffing brought out deep and complex flavours. There was everything in this tiny 20ml of dram that one would hope to find in a single malt matured in a top quality Ex-Bourbon cask. A perfect start!
Holding the liquid in my mouth, I experienced its rich full flavour honey, melt in the mouth biscuity, creamy mouth-feel of vanilla cake and spices with apples, sultanas and thick yellow custard. I waited a second and there it was....that signature Balblair flavour profile of some lovely chocolatey fresh orange notes. Freshly squeezed orange juice with a touch of bitterness from the pith. Delicious!
The finish was like a piece of classical orchestral music having been perfectly crafted to produce a satisfying finale, containing all the elements of the previous movements which now reaches its powerful crescendo and gracefully and gradually fades away, leaving you with a warm glow. (Editor's notes: Delete this paragraph. It's far too shmotzi).
Again, I stress, never rely on distillery tastings to asses a whisky, for good or bad. There are simply too many subjective influences: the smell of the casks in the distillery, the excitement of simply being there, and the subtle comments made by the guides. All of these things can and will have a powerful effect on how you perceive a whisky.
I was however so impressed by this single cask that I decided to purchase a bottle. Gabrielle didn’t reach for the shelf to hand me a box of this single malt. Oh no! Now began a whole ceremony whereby I was expected to bottle it myself!

 
 

After the bottle was full there remained a tiny bit left in the tube so Gabrielle poured this into a tiny sample bottle which I shared with my father that evening. I have to tell you that it was just as good as I perceived earlier that day.

 

 
 
 
 

She then proceeded to use what looked like a paint stripper or industrial hair dryer to meld the famous Balblair plastic black seal onto the bottle. Then it was onto the next stage, where she used a special stand to wrap the label around the bottle. The last stage was to carefully insert the bottle into its presentation box where upon the finished product was handed to me with great fanfare. Call me silly and too gullible to marketing nonsense but it really was an emotional occasion.

 
 
 
 

And so, this is probably going to be the last time for some time I will get to drink this wonderful dram and you dear readers, will not be seeing a full review of this Cask 448 from me any time soon. The problem is that after all this ceremony and looking at the hand-written label etc., I just cannot bring myself to open this very special bottle. Perhaps one day….
It was well past closing time for the distillery. I was still standing outside in the car park asking Gabrielle more questions when my wife nudged me in the side and whispered that, if I hadn't noticed,  Gabrielle really wanted to leave...
Besides the bottle of Cask #448, I also bought four miniatures of the Balblair 2005 Vintage, Bottled 2016 as well as the obligatory Balblair engraved Glencairn glass.

When I got back home to Israel, my favourite whisky shop in Ramat Gan coincidently had just got in a single 70cl bottle of Balblair Vintage 2005 but this was bottled in 2017. I noticed straight away that curiously, the colour of this bottling was a lot darker than the miniatures. It was that obvious. So, Friday night, I opened another miniature and this standard sized bottle and proceeded to compare them. This will, bli neder, be the subject of my next review:


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

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