I was rather conscious, on the train down to London yesterday, that I was going to be drinking whisky old enough to be my father. As we get older we tend to appreciate facts like this, concerning the passing of time, and of age in particular. Such things niggle more with every passing year, don’t they?
So what exactly was this whisky-flavoured memento mori? It was a private tasting of The Balvenie’s latest DCS Compendium – Chapter 3: Secrets of the Stock Model. I’ve written private there not to show off about a fancy trip – I’ve consumed older whiskies than this, and anyway, that would make you think I was being a dick – but rather to indicate that there was some genuine time spent with these old fellows. We met at a hotel on an autumnal Sunday afternoon in London, and my host was The Balvenie’s Global Brand Ambassador, Sam Simmons (an absolute dude). It was one-on-one, very civilised. I took photos of the bottles to fill up my Instagram feed, and Sam took photos of my behind as I did so – to fill up some niche Balvenie image library.
The Balvenie’s DCS Compendium – Chapter 3 contains five rare single cask bottlings, and the star of the show is a 55-year-old European oak Oloroso sherry hogshead distilled in 1961. That’s the oldest whisky The Balvenie has ever released. The Balvenie’s Malt Master, David C. Stewart MBE, celebrates his 55th year with the company, hence the particular vintage. I should also add that each chapter of this series presents slices of Balvenie’s history, each wave being a liquid “handover” of David’s knowledge to future generations.
What is it about old whiskies that get us excited? I mean, we all know that some brilliant distilleries are putting out great young stuff these days, and that some old whiskies are actually not at all good – too unbalanced, too long in the cask, or simply just a badly made whisky or cask in the first place. I suppose like in real life, some people age better than others. This curious interaction with time in the cask – maturation – is in some obscure way a metaphor for our own ageing.
Take some old blend bought at auction: a snapshot in time, like someone refusing to change the way they dress and is consequently way out of fashion. Or this DCS Compendium 1961, someone that has grown with time in stature, thrown into a sharp Savile Row suit and presented with gravitas. And not forgetting those bottles that have oxidised and are a bit worse for wear…
In the material sent out with the announcement of this series, Malt Master David Stewart describes the 1961 as “a perfect depiction of the style of whisky The Balvenie distilled around this time… This chapter is a tribute to the strategic decisions we’ve made over the years, as we look to control stock management variables such as industry demand, new innovations and of course the angels’ share.” I’m not sure there are many industries where we could celebrate stock management, but whisky is one of those curious worlds. Indeed, when talking with Sam Simmons about the Balvenie’s stock management, it’s actually the real business end of whisky. A “master blender” might spend five percent of her time nosing whiskies in front of cameras for magazines, but in reality, far more time is spent looking over spreadsheets and the likes, trying to forecast – or rather divine – how casks are to be used now and in the future.
So celebrating stock management might sound bizarre, but this is really a huge part of life for a big brand like The Balvenie. The two of us, Sam and I, geeked out for some considerable time on what went on at the distillery, behind the scenes, stock levels, production and so on. It’s interesting to note that some casks were not kept by the Balvenie during Scotch whisky’s real low point – in the mid-1980s. Indeed, some of the casks were not that good either around this period, because who knew the transformation the industry would soon undergo?
To celebrate stock control, Chapter 3 of the DCS looks like this:
The line up for the Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 3
• 1961 Aged 55 years – Cask 4193, European oak Oloroso sherry hogshead, filled 14th June 1961, bottled at 41.7% ABV
• 1973 Aged 43 years – Cask 8556, European oak Oloroso sherry butt, filled 7th June 1973, bottled at 46.6% ABV
• 1981 Aged 35 years – Cask 7824, Refill American oak hogshead, filled 29th October 1981, bottled at 43.8% ABV
• 1993 Aged 23 years – Cask 11621, Refill American oak hogshead, filled 6th December 1993, bottled at 51.9% ABV
• 2004 Aged 13 years – Cask 741, European oak Oloroso sherry butt, filled 19th January 2004, bottled at 58.2% ABV
The cost to you? £57,000, my friends (and yes, they’ll all sell – indeed, Sam said they could easily have made more). The tasting contained a variety of The Balvenie whiskies, though only the 1961 out of the DCS selection here. (I mean, if you’re going to have one of them, you might as well have that one.) But also in the tasting was The Balvenie 50 Year Old, which today retails at a cool £25,000 a bottle. Imagine being that venerable and expensive, and not even being the star of the show?
The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 3 1961 – Review
Aged 55 years – Cask 4193, European oak Oloroso sherry hogshead, filled 14th June 1961.
Colour: deep gold – not at all dark considering the cask and the age.
On the nose: astonishingly fresh! At first, you’d never know that this was so, so old. Citrus notes, herbal, with cloves (not harsh) developing and a maltiness, digestive biscuit notes. Green tomatoes (right in the greenhouse).
In the mouth: Lime marmalade, with herbal notes. Dried apricots and orchard fruits, linseed oil on a cricket bat. Toffee. The citrus lingers. Sage. Reasonably viscous, with toffee showing, but there are lots of layers here, and what strikes me the most is that it does not at all feel like a single cask, but a complex single malt.
The Balvenie 50 Year Old – Review
On the nose: coal dust, cola, leather musty cellars, nutmeg and cinnamon. Perfume – lavender? Orange peel. Blackcurrants. Potpourri. Most unusual.
In the mouth: Funky as hell. Soapy – which I was reliably informed was what often developed with old Balvenies. Lavender, redcurrants, figs. Quite a thin texture. The funkiness returns on the finish. Genuinely a fascinating dram, despite the brief tasting notes.
No point in scoring these. They’re unusual experiences in their own right, off the charts in terms of reference points, and I wasn’t in my usual setting. Not to mention cost: one comes in a set that’s £57,000, the other would set you back £25,000, and if you can afford either to have on your shelf then you can damn well buy me an expensive drink and I’ll whisper the scores personally. But they were excellent – that much should be said. The 50 was funky and chock-full of character, and I actually respect whiskies like this. The 1961 was incredibly layered for a single cask, and surprisingly fresh.
Funnily enough, the best whisky I tasted here wasn’t actually one I’ve reviewed – it was The Balvenie Tun 1509, but I merely enjoyed that outrageously tasty offering whilst nerding out with Sam. Pen and paper were deployed for the big guns, and admittedly my notes were brief (they always are when I’m out and about). They are astonishing whiskies: not my favourites, as I say (hello, 1509) but slices of whisky history.
Going back to age, what was interesting about the 1961 was that David C. Stewart would have pretty much started his career around the same time as this single cask was rolled into the warehouse. He would, Sam explained, have nosed and tasted this over the years, following its progress over time. As he aged, so did the whisky. I can’t imagine, yet, what it’s like to be of an age where these very old friends are sent out to pasture, bottled and enjoyed. I like to think there’s some deep connection between the stock control man – for that’s what I’m assured David Stewart humbly sees himself as, after all these years – and the stock itself, making this DCS series more than just whisky. There’s romance among the spreadsheets. Emotion.
And judging by this oh-so-fresh 1961 Balvenie, there’s certainly life in the old boy yet.