As one of the giants of the whisky industry, when The Balvenie announces a release, people listen. Always looking to understand the world around us, Malt took an Instagram poll of the readership’s thoughts on the distillery. The summary of the responses was along the lines of – Core range bad. Tun range good. But this oversimplifies the brand and the bottles it has released. Remember, only the dark side of the Force deals in absolutes. To assess an entire distillery, we need to dig deeper. This is a sizeable task, but I shall prevail, “for my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is”.
Core range releases have evolved in recent years away from “limited releases” to tens or hundreds of thousands of bottles. And, The Balvenie in particular, has quite an expansive range with varied reviews. The younger bottles – think the 12-year-old Doublewood, the Caribbean Cask and the Triple Casks (travel retail) – do not tend to generate a lot of excitement. However, as you venture into the premium bottlings, such as the 21-year-old Portwood and 17- and 25-year-old Doublewood, you start hearing those words of praise.
What about the story behind the Tun range? “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Actually, you only need to think back to 2010. A mixed year across the board – Vancouver and Whistler host the Winter Olympics, Mount Eyjafjallajökull erupts stranding thousands of travellers (this writer included) and Deepwater Horizon explodes in the Gulf of Mexico destroying the ecosystem – April 2010 was not a great month. But, as if almost to provide some respite to the whisky drinker, The Balvenie released Batch 1 of Tun 1401 – a “no age-statement” whisky named for the vessel where the various casks that made up its contents were married together. This travel retail exclusive evolved into nine batches that have now captured the enthusiasm of whisky drinkers across the globe.
Odds are that the majority of us will never try that first Tun 1401 bottling. But, The Balvenie have continued the tradition by introducing the Tun 1509 in 2014. Following on from the success of the Tun 1401 releases, is the release of the Tun 1509 just a cheap copy of the 1401, trying to make a quick buck off the original success? “Victory? Victory, you say? Master Obi-Wan, not victory. The shroud of the dark side has fallen. Begun, the Clone War has!”
For the Tun 1509 series, like Star Wars, let’s start with Episodes IV and V…
Tun 1509 (Batch 4) is made up of 23 casks – 13 traditional American oak barrels and 10 European oak sherry butts. Meanwhile, Tun 1509 (Batch 5) is made up of 10 Bourbon, 8 Sherry hogsheads, 3 refill American Oak casks and 8 Sherry butts. Not much else is known about these releases, and yet they have generated their own cult following. So, is David Stewart our Yoda, looking to show us the ways of the Force and drams, alike? Or is he Emperor Palpatine, self-appointed ruler of the whisky galaxy and our palates?
At the risk of repeating myself, your overall experience will likely impact your tasting notes. I purchased the bottles on a recommendation from a friend (we went halves on these) and took the opportunity to open them up together. We sat down, started up a new TV series (some background noise) and poured out one dram from each bottle. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect… “The dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future is”.
The Balvenie Tun 1509 (Batch 4) – review
Colour: Salted caramel
On the nose: A melange of honey and orchard fruits (apples and pears). Some golden syrup over cereal and malt also works its way through. There is a lot of sweetness here and it strikes hard and true. Spices (cardamom mainly) work through as well, but very much sprinkled throughout.
In the mouth: Brilliant texture that fits the distillery’s profile – a soft, smooth, viscous texture that complements the honey flavours. The orchard fruits follow on from the nose – apples and pears again, toffeed now, but ripe white peaches join the harvest. The spices are more prevalent in the palate than on the nose and the presence of cardamom is amplified by the appearance of ginger. A medium to long finish that has elements of dry oak, green apple and lighter spices.
The Balvenie Tun 1509 (Batch 5) – review
Colour: Rich mahogany
On the nose: Bright – flavours of chocolate, vanilla and orange coming together. Some ripe red fruits glide in as well (strawberries and raspberries). Malty scents support the base – fruity sponge cake baked to perfection. This is accompanied by earthy notes that provide even more grounding to the sweet aromas. Light honey and nectarines swirl in as well to add even more complexity.
In the mouth: The texture – creamy, velvety, smooth. It starts off soft and sweet – those vanilla sponge cake flavours kicking things off. Add in a staccato of chocolate notes. Nectarines work alongside baked apple crisp. Maple sap (that raw sweetness before it becomes delicious maple syrup) makes a cameo appearance. A lovely long finish with just the slightest touch of oak to complement a few herbal and spicy notes that make a fleeting appearance.
The look of disbelief on my face must have said it all. The Tun 1509 was delicious. I could hear scores of The Balvenie ambassadors booming “I find your lack of faith disturbing” in unison. The Batch 5 was lovely while the Batch 4 fell down at the last hurdle in comparison only because it felt less cohesive. The notes were individually pleasant, but the marriage that the tun aimed to achieve didn’t work perfectly. It is always going to be a challenge bringing together so many casks. If you have a sweet tooth though, this is going to hit the right spots.
At 8,850 and 8,000 bottles in each respective release, these are bottles that might, and hopefully will, get drunk and disappear. So, I would recommend you search these out before they go the way of the Tun 1401. The Batch 5 will set you back around £225, so buying a bottle will be no small decision. But to me (and I rarely say this), the Batch 5 is one of those bottles that was worth the price of admission and I truly will celebrate as the product of the marriage of science and art. Overall, the Tun 1509 does live up to expectations, although as with most multiple releases in a series, people will debate which batch is the better one.
What I would love to see for the next iteration is the age of each cask used to provide a bit more transparency. A small request and, I am probably just being picky here, hopefully one that can be accommodated.
At the end of the night, I found that I was perfectly content to sit back and enjoy the rest of a relaxing evening – no regrets, no sense of disappointment, just a happy glow. As I look longingly at both Tun 1509 bottles as if to say, “I love you” and they reply, “I know”.
Images from the whisky exchange. There are also commission links within this review, however, such things never influence our opinion.