What is craft? I find myself debating the meaning of these five letters that we see attached to so many releases nowadays, whether it is promotional literature or the phrases that adorn the packing. Craft is everywhere, and craftsmanship is a feature that many of us subscribe to and appreciate.
he Balvenie like to make a big deal of their craft and dedication to the art of whisky making. Is craft merely having coopers on site or a small percentage of your malt being traditionally floor malted? What is craft? Is it such examples as these, or when we discuss craft in whisky, do we actually mean something else? Or have we possibly reached a point of confusion wherein no one truly knows anymore?
When in doubt, I always turn to the Oxford English dictionary for enlightenment, and it offers a handful of meanings:
Work or objects made by hand.
Skills involved in carrying out one’s work.
Denoting or relating to food or drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company.
So again, various meanings and connotations as to what craft actually means. In essence, it seems to be a more hands-on, authentic approach, deviating from the modern ways, and returning control to human touch and intuition. However, whilst all these things do resonate with craft, there is the other factor that I often feel co-exists with such ethics: one of size and scale.
Give or take, the Balvenie is capable of producing over 5 million litres annually. This frankly isn’t craft, despite the skills of those involved. I’m not knocking their years of dedication or efforts spent learning unique skills to perform their roles. Yes, it’s a personal opinion, but for an enthusiast such as myself, the ‘craft’ are smaller distilleries that are shunning the formula of efficiency and production over flavour.
It’s this new wave of craft (i.e. small scale) distilleries that cannot compete with the big boys and never will. The intelligent distilleries know and understand this – so what approach do they take? They look at regionality, provenance and flavour. After all, every distillery seems to use the best casks, so much so that you question where the bad ones end up. Possibly your local garden centre? Maybe Jura? Every distillery uses the purest water and the most flavoursome grain, even though the majority buy the latest high-yielding grain, engineered for maximum effect and grown by farmers from the UK and beyond.
In effect, the craft distilleries are bringing the whisky home. As consumers, we’re all a little jaded, I feel, from the onslaught of average and benign whiskies. These come in all shapes and sizes, matched by the rising cost of making a purchase. Do I feel inclined by purchase something laced in artificial colouring or bottled at 40% or 43%, minus an age statement or any real tangible information about the contents? Truthfully, I’m becoming less inclined, and have been walking away from more and more potential purchases. I want flavour, I want provenance, and I want to support distilleries that are showcasing and pursuing elements within whisky of which I wish to see more.
The sheer scale of Balvenie means it’s as craft-orientated as the BMW in my driveway. I appreciate the skill and engineering involved, but the handcrafted nature and sheer personal touch and love have been sucked dry by the corporate machine. And whilst many of us do enjoy the consistency and reliability of a staple whisky, I’m more on the jagged edge in search of real character.
This particular single barrel is a 1st fill cask #6562 and is bottle number 291. Bottled at 47.8% strength, it is non chill-filtered. Although not the same cask you’ll find a sister release available via the Whisky Exchange for £54.75, or Amazon for £64.95.
The Balvenie 12 year old single barrel – Mark’s review
Colour: pale straw.
On the nose: lemonade, green grass or straw perhaps. Cardboard boxes. Parmaviolets. A little soapy.
In the mouth: lemons and grapefruits, overdose of citrus, very new-make spirit and to me the cask has done next to nothing. Apples and some mealy, briney water. Pepper on the finish, cloves. That’s about it, folks. Unbalanced, not a lot to give, not a lot to love.
First-fill? Really? It is not up to standards for this distillery…
The Balvenie 12 year old single barrel – Jason’s review
On the nose: shortbread and a vanilla sponge with a touch of lemon peel. Floral with pine nuts, tablet and white chocolate. Then more vanilla, honey and wood. Water reveals pineapple and apricot.
In the mouth: fairly inoffensive with a touch of honey and Custard Creams. Cold butter, a touch of alcohol on the fringes and calamine lotion. Some cask char followed by biscuits and a creamy aspect. Water reveals more nuttiness, wood spice and a tannic nature emphasising the tyrannical control the 1st fill cask has deployed.
This is a fairly inoffensive, tepid and dull single cask Balvenie. I can appreciate why some out there do enjoy this style and buy into the brand. Believe me, I’ve tried to enjoy this going back several times over the course of four weeks, but it has no hidden delights and a cold heart. I’ve given it every opportunity to shine, and acknowledge that this was £55 well spent.
Ultimately, this has a safe, predictable and almost soulless consistency that leaves me empty and emotionally cold. This is the staple whisky fodder we’re being fed on a regular basis by many distilleries, wrapped up in a message and brand that leads us astray. A disappointing release from Balvenie, and as a single cask exponent, this wouldn’t have me rushing back to purchase another in the series.
If you’re picking a single cask, then a key component would be to select an example that truly showcases your distillery and what it can produce—not something that is so middle of the road or fundamentally flawed that it becomes instantly forgettable.
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