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The Balvenie 12 year old single barrel

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.

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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.

Conclusions

First-fill? Really? It is not up to standards for this distillery…

Score: 2/10

The Balvenie 12 year old single barrel – Jason’s review

Colour: marzipan.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Score: 3/10

Thanks to our Patreon Supporters for making this review possible.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Danylo Zayats says:

    This is interesting because I really like this bottle. Could you give me an example of a whisky around the same price point that you would recommend opposed to this? If you deem this shit, I’m really curious as to what you deem is good.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Danylo, thanks for dropping by. Firstly, it ain’t ‘shit’ to quote your scoring summary, as this would warrant a 1/10. That’s a score we give out only a handful of times per year on average. This Balvenie isn’t very good hence my 3/10 score.

      Moving onto your question the price point of this release gives us plenty of opportunity for superior whiskies if you’re not looking for a single barrel, which would mean looking into the independent field. The Ben Nevis 10-year-old dumps on this Balvenie from a great height; it’s cheaper as well. Also springing to mind are Kilkerran 12, Glencadam 13 Reawakening, Deanston 12, Springbank 10 (if no cask strength), Inchmurrin 12, Clynelish 14, Port Charlotte 10, Kilkerran 8, Benromach 15…

      All better and for the most part cheaper – just off the top of my head.

  2. Avatar
    Coenraad V says:

    I think it is just a matter of bad luck with a bad cask.
    There casks can vary quite a lot, also with the Balvenie SB 15 Sherry.
    I had 2 different cask-numbers of the 12 SB up to now, and both were very good.
    But ofcourse, you would expect good quality for the money you spend, so such quality as the cask in this review is actually unacceptable.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi, Coenraad, yes a disappointing whisky this one and I have to query why it was picked for the single cask release. Surely there were better examples in the warehouse? I’m sure both of us given the keys to the warehouse could have found something better. Or is it a case of being able to dump anything onto the market that snaps up limited expressions and loves a brand? Some might suggest this is an option, but I just feel it was a bad pick. Cheers, Jason,

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    Welsh Toro says:

    Cheers Jason. Spot on review and I completely agree. The word ‘craftsmanship’ is used on the bottle and Balvenie are quite happy to give that impression. It is of course, let’s be polite, disingenuous. The 12 Single Barrel, let’s not forget, is a dumbed down offering of the fine, now discontinued, 15 Year Single Barrel. That did taste like first fill ex-bourbon. The 12 is alright but there’s no ‘Single Barrel’ element about it and could easily be mistaken for a batch. I also think it inferior to the initial releases. I agree with Mark – where do these barrels come from? I also agree with you about labeling and provenance, not just for whisky but everything. The abv is good but it’s overpriced like most Balvenie and most whisky in general.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi WT, spot on as always and thank you. Little I can add to your synopsis.

      We’ll keep trying with Balvenie for the magic moment in this cask format; we’re stubborn like that here at MALT. Cheers, Jason.

  4. Avatar
    Fraser Bell says:

    I enjoyed your review but got confused about the influence of the first fill barrel. I read it as Mark saying that the barrel did too little whilst you’re saying that it overpowered the distillate. Have I misunderstood or do you and the Tweed Lord disagree?

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Fraser, no you’re correct. I thought this was an interesting aspect when the reviews came together as well. I didn’t get any new make aspect and I’ve had fair bit recently, as has Tweed no doubt via Waterford. I felt the cask was very active but to a different degree. Noortje has a sample, so I’ll be looking forward to hearing her view and as we share out the remnants; the opinions of others.

    2. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Worth adding, that the cask could have been active in weird ways.

      But I would also wonder if this isn’t one of the classic ‘first fill’ barrels, in that it’s been “rinsed” using water to squeeze out the remnants in the wood after they’re emptied the first time; not all first fills are equal, there’s a two-tier market out there that no one speaks about. But that’s an aside, just one guess as to what’s happened. Some curiosity in the production process.

      My other guess is that Jason could be wrong!!

  5. Avatar
    Fraser Bell says:

    Proper arm wrestle now. I’m looking forward to Noortje being the arbiter. I’m happy to send a crown and a dunce hat to Malt Towers ready for her pronouncement.

  6. Avatar
    bifter says:

    It’s a very interesting point you raise about what craft connotes. But that can lead to maudlin romanticism for lost eras that never existed or that came with some rough as well as the smooth (Campbeltown comes to mind). Craft isn’t a teuchter up a far flung glen distilling hooch out of reach of the excise man. Conversely it certainly isn’t the North Korean cement factory that is Cameronbridge distillery. However neither was craft invented by the new wave of boutique distilleries. The Scotch industry has consistently moved with the times to improve efficiency and, yes, to exploit its target markets (and those boutique whiskies aren’t cheap so who are they aimed at?). Sure, the term ‘craft’ is misused a lot in Scotch whisky marketing but, if efficiency were the only measure of a large malt whisky distillery, then Balvenie surely wouldn’t exist? I would argue that it actually has several claims to the word, not least the hand malting of the barley or the fact they are one of the only remaining distilleries with its own cooperage.

    As far as the whisky goes maybe you got unlucky. I attended a (free!) Balvenie tasting some years ago where they plied us with the 12 Doublewood, the 12 Single Barrel, 17 Doublewood, 21 Portwood and the Tun 1401 (batch 2 or 3 as I recall). I thought the range was pricey but that particular 12 SB definitely didn’t seem out of place.

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