A positive outcome of the social isolation required to combat COVID has been the proliferation of online whisky tastings.
Many groups have returned to in person tastings or tried the (quite frankly dreadful) hybrid format where some people dial in from home to a room full of others socialising with wicked abandon. There remain many opportunities for online tastings. Whisky shops have a greater reach with their products online than the standard open bottles in the corner of their store, brands can reach a wider audience, those in rural and remote locations can attend without a complex logistical expedition. Time zones can be accommodated.
The online format offers something above in person tastings when it comes to high-end niche tastings. It allows a global audience and therefore the greatest chance of sufficient numbers to make these tastings work financially. Master of the high-end tasting is Fredrick Maitland of East Coast Whisky, who has put together a “clan” of aficionados who attend his events. Previous tastings have included vertical tastings from some of the most sought after closed distilleries, or deep dives into the historic back catalogue of current distilleries such as Jura and Mortlach. A great tasting must be like a great blend: the whole must add up to more than each of the individual parts. This is consistently the case with East Coast Whisky’s distillery vertical tastings.
I recently attended a tasting of The Balvenie curated and hosted by Fred and the Global Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie, Charlie Metcalfe. I deliberately write “curated” here because – although it is a rather haughty and overused word – it is appropriate in this context, as Fred and Charlie came up with a line up which, as you will see, was a masterclass on the unpeated character of the distillery. Fred recently explained his view of Scotch whisky:
“Whisky for me is distilled life, both poisonous and sweet, and teaches us what we can do from the simplest of ingredients. It is one of the best things humanity has created. More than this it connects us with deep time and stillness, to this beautiful land, and to the beating heart of creation wherein the whisky gods reside!”
That’s a powerful view which certainly creates expectations of the liquid in any East Coast Whisky tasting! During this Balvenie tasting each dram spoke for itself, but the guidance and insight from Charlie Metcalfe brought the distillery to life through each whisky. As a result, I have changed the standard Malt format to intertwine the whisky reviews within the article rather than having them all at the end.
The Balvenie Single Barrel First Fill Aged 12 Years – Review
Bourbon cask. 47.8% ABV. £59.95
Throughout the tasting you will notice a number of bottlings around 47% to 48%, which is quite deliberate as David Stewart, Malt Master (Master Blender), believes that is a sweet spot for the spirit. Charlie selected this dram to start the tasting with as a good example of the classic distillery house style.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Rich malty vanilla, white fruit, a little grist, crushed grape, honey, very bright and fresh, a touch of butterscotch, pressed apple juice, poached pear, and some crumble topping.
In the mouth: Malty and fruity, bright and fresh, light toffee, honeycomb, oak spices nicely balanced, dry dusty vanilla finish.
For me this is the perfect bourbon cask, picked at a great age and bottled at a complimentary strength for an accessible price.
The Balvenie distillery has been continuously owned by William Grant & Sons since its foundation in 1982. Originally built as a Glenfiddich II, there were plans in the early years to sell off Balvenie as a quick money maker. However, once the character of the whisky was discovered William Grant held onto the distillery, which now is a crucial part of the enduring business. The Balvenie process is largely unchanged over the years, retaining features such as the in house maltings. The distillery moved away from coal fired stills on 1972. The next dram we tried was from the direct fire era.
Signatory Vintage The Balvenie 1974 – Review
15 years old. 57.1% ABV. Expect to pay upwards of £450 at auction
This is a legendary dram for Balvenie enthusiasts, from a parcel of casks 18103 – 18130, sold to Signatory by Balvenie. There have been a further four bottlings by Signatory using these same cask numbers, including two decanter releases and two bottlings for Prestonfield House. In researching the auction market value, I spotted a 5cl miniature of this release selling for £175!
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Bottle age: a little dusty dry cardboard. The old-style whisky: rounded and aromatic ripe orchard fruit, biscuity grain, vanilla shortcake, sandwich loaf toasted and spread with honey, some heavier waxy notes, with time the original brightness comes forward and the cardboard falls away.
In the mouth: Rounded fruit, slightly prickly alcohol, thick honey. Beautiful aromatic fruits that are most prominent with retro-nasal olfaction. The fruit and gentle oak spices are integrated, the spirit is heavy and waxy yet also effervescent. The finish is a little dusty with liquorice and some phenolic notes.
This is a super dram, one I appreciated more by revisiting after tasting the other drams in the line-up. Going back to this after tasting the modern 25-year-olds really highlights the depth and complexity of flavour at just 15 years old. No doubt the coal firing, different barley strains, and whisky casks from the 1950s and 1960s all contributing to a little drop of liquid history. I don’t necessarily pine for a return to this style of whisky, but I’m certainly grateful to have experienced it.
The next dram in the lineup is a testament to the creative and experimental approach that has made David Stewart a legend in the industry. Not only was he the first to pioneer cask finishing, but he introduced the higher peated levels with the first Week of Peat experiments in 2002.
It’s worth pointing out there is an almost imperceptible amount of peat in the standard “unpeated” house style via the in house floor malting, which peats the barley up to about 4ppm. This house malted floor barley is then combined with bought-in unpeated barley for the mash. The in house peated barley makes up just under a tenth of each mashing.
For this dram we have The Balvenie (standard “unpeated”) matured in Islay Whisky Casks (rumoured to be ex-Laphroaig). The full casks were acquired by William Grant & Sons as a parcel of whisky destined for some of the company blended Scotch and David Stewart filled all 94 casks with The Balvenie new make.
The Balvenie Islay Casks Aged 17 Years – Review
43% ABV. Typically £200 to £300 at auction.
Colour: Pale gold
On the nose: Fruity initially, then slightly smoky vanilla, more rich ripe orchard fruits, a touch of honey, heavier sweetness, buttery flapjack from the edges of the baking tin.
In the mouth: Soft smoky peat initially, less sweet than expected, dry savoury, vanilla, Jacobs Crackers, a hint of bacon fat, salt, BBQ pineapple, puffed pork rind, a little seaweed on the finish.
This was presently out of step withh the other sweeter drams on the night. I know Charlie and Fred debated where to place this dram in the line-up. I felt it could have sat between the 25 year olds and the Tuns as a bit of a refresher for the palate before diving into the rich complex Tuns.
Heading back into legendary bottlings, the next example of Balvenie of old is The Balvenie Classic. This range of bottlings from 1983 and 1984 include a non-age statement, a 12 year old, and the rarest of all: the 18 year old, which we tasted. The bottles are shaped like classic Cognac decanters. Charlie explained that the thinking at the time of release was to link The Balvenie whisky with associations of after-dinner drinking and sophistication and a weighty spirit.
Perhaps the most significant point of interest for whisky history in general is that these releases are the first ever cask finished whisky from any distillery. An unusual quirk about the packaging is that the only place the 18 year age statement is found on the bottle is the wax seal on the front, which is notoriously easy to accidentally knock off older bottles.
The Balvenie Classic 18 Years Old – Review
This is a bourbon cask whisky with 10 months finish in sherry casks. 43% ABV. Expect £300 – £350 at auction.
Colour: Warm gold.
On the nose: A little of that old cardboard from the time in the bottle, but behind it a rich heavy sweetness comes through, slightly funky Normandie apple juice, slightly peaty, dried pineapples and dried mango, thick manuka honey, a lightness to the nose with a malty and slightly yeasty backbone
In the mouth: Round and oily, darker fruits, slightly spicy, almost dirty, the sherry is not too forceful but brings a darker sugary sweetness, fig rolls, a slightly savoury oily finish that is again spicy and almost phenolic.
Well, from the outset the cask finishing creates a lovely balance between the complex late 1960s distillate and the sherry. As with the 1974 the underlying distillate is liquid history, and the time in the bottle here has been quite kind to the mature whisky. Modern independent cask finishers should take a note on how to do subtlety. A privilege to taste.
Moving back into the modern range: next we tasted another of the Single Barrel range. These whiskies fall into the “craft” designation on The Balvenie website, along with the Tuns, which we will come to later. For readers “craft” here can be interpreted as delivering the slightly geekier whiskies often offered at higher strength and released with all sorts of information such as cask numbers, which we often demand. Whiskies destined for the craft range are either good examples of a particular character of the distillery’s house style or complex marriages of whiskies which, for me at least, are the kind of whiskies you savour when you can concentrate on them rather than the sort of whiskies you open and share around a room on special occasions.
The Balvenie Single Barrel #3742 Aged 21 Years – Review
First fill bourbon barrel. 47.8% ABV. £220
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Fresh, juicy green apples followed by dry vanilla and some oak spices, a slight minerality, sweet confectionary, apple rock, gooseberry compote, more green apple and cheap concentrated apple juice. Apple jolly ranchers.
In the mouth: Very juicy, a little tropical pineapple, passion fruit, ripe soft melon, vanilla and bruised banana. There is a greater effervescence than on the 12 year old single barrel we started with. Some lemon peel and a little biscuit, soft spiced wood on the finish with a little mint leaf.
A release selected to showcase the pure Balvenie style championed by Charlie Metcalfe, this is the style of whisky I normally love. Within the tasting group there were many who listed this as their dram of the night. I loved the clear DNA shared with the 12 year old we tasted earlier; it was a super opportunity to taste both side by side to examine how the spirit changes over time in similar casks. I felt the tropical notes were a little too restrained for me to give it a bumper score and, pound for pound, would choose the 12 year old over this every time.
The tasting kicked up a gear after this fresh dram, moving on to try two 25 year old Balvenies. It’s rare to get one in a tasting, let alone two side by side. The first was the 25 year old Double Wood. The original 12 year old Double Wood was released in 1993, then later a 17 year old Double Wood was released to mark 50 years of David Stewart’s time at Balvenie. In 2018, on the 25th anniversary of the Double Wood, this 25 year old was released. As with all of the Double Wood range it represents bourbon cask whisky with a further maturation in sherry casks, in this case just five or six months to ensure the gentle well-aged spirit is not overpowered by the sherry.
The Balvenie Double Wood Aged 25 Years – Review
Bourbon casks with five to six months finish in sherry casks. 43% ABV. £415.
Colour: Copper beach
On the nose: A modern sherry, giving old leather workshop, roasted coffee beans, high cocoa milk chocolate, wood spices, ground ginger, freshly grated nutmeg, clove, fennel seed and aniseed, a little earthy, dunnage, sweet sherry fruits, soaked dates, juicy golden raisins, some polished oak.
In the mouth: Gentle sherry, toasted sugar, rich toffee, smooth soft spices, very distinguished oxidised fruit on the mid palate, more of the spices from the nose, nutmeg, clove, fennel, aniseed, then a big punch of funky aged fruit, a leathery earthy finish with caramel notes.
Distinguished but very sweet, almost cloying. I wonder if you’d enjoy a second pour as much as the first. Nevertheless, this is very accomplished, making modern sherry work through the gentle application of a finish. I understand considerable iterations were gone through before the shorter finishing period was determined by David Stewart. Only a large distillery with extensive resources, singular understanding of their spirit, consistency of cask supply, etc, can commit to the level of experimentation in finishing to produce a product like this, hence why I am always wary of small independents finishing whisky. These luxury whiskies in The Balvenie range are for special occasions where a bottle can be opened and shared. A birth, a graduation, a celebration, or respectful remembrance. In that context the whisky is really spot on. Smooth and sophisticated, gentle and approachable. But for my palate it’s a strong…
For comparison we also tasted the Balvenie 25 from the Rare Marriages range. These vattings of full maturation casks are a more traditional style of single malt, where a blend of casks is vatted to create the release, in this case 70% American oak and 30% sherry.
The Balvenie Rare Marriages Aged 25 Years – Review
70% American Oak, 30% Sherry. 48% ABV. £600
On the nose: Inviting aged malty fruits (gladly missing the cardboard from the vintage bottles) rounded aromatic stone fruits, white peach skin, apricot jam, buttery vanilla shortbread, slightly yeasty buttered crumpet with honey drizzled over. Baking spices prominent.
In the mouth: Delicious, rounded fruits, rich golden raisin, dried figs, oxidised fruits, dusty vanilla and baking spices. The sherry is restrained, and so sophisticated giving gentle hints of whisky served from a leather tantalus set in an old drawing room. The rounded aromatic fruits join with oak spices for a long lingering finish.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison of late; very different outcomes from similar components. The full maturation here is probably the best example of why neither of these techniques will ever replace each other but must, by necessity, coexist. The slightly higher ABV here is right in The Balvenie sweet spot too. Which of the two is greater? Well, I prefer the depth of the full maturation sherry in this release. Anyone lucky enough to celebrate their own rare marriage with a toast from this Rare Marriage will be starting off married life very well.
The next three drams were from The Balvenie Tuns range. I have tasted only one Tun release before and it was the Tun 1509, reviewed below. For some reason I assumed that there was only one Tun, which in fairness would be strange given the serial number.
Charlie informed me that the Tun process is very common at William Grant & Sons, with the Glenfiddich 18 being prepared in Tuns, as well as their being used throughout the Balvenie ranges. At the Balvenie their Tuns are European oak; they have about 200 Tuns of varying sizes, many around 2000 litres. This was a system brought to the distillery following David Stewart having seen them in use in Europe, obviously not for whisky but for cuvees of other spirits.
Tun 1509 is the largest at 8,000 litres. David Stewart uses these Tuns to blend, or vat casks together of the course of eight to 10 months. He uses older casks with lower ABVs which have gone a little flat, pepped up with lively marginally younger casks. There can be no doubt that the extended marrying period of the liquid is a significant contributor to the integration of flavours.
The Balvenie Tun 1509 Batch Number 1 – Review
47.1% ABV. £400 – £500 at auction.
The first Tun release from 2014, this was a vatting of 42 different casks: seven sherry and 35 ex-bourbon, with the youngest age being 21 years old and the oldest 42 years. This whisky was reviewed by Henry in 2019 when he picked it up for a little over £200 at auction.
On the nose: Beautiful well aged spirit; rounded and mellow ripe fruits, honeydew melon, bruised apple, caramel, roasted pineapple and a squeeze of orange peel, all integrated with well oxidised malty spirit with a backbone of oily baking spices and darker fruity notes such as blackberry jam and chopped dates, dried figs, a nose you can enjoy for hours.
In the mouth: Sweet complex aged fruit, super-aromatic over ripe tropical fruits, almost dunder-rum fruitiness, baking spices and resinous oak, juicy roasted pineapple, crushed mango, fizzy fermented pineapple, a little fresh chilli, water brings out more of the quality sherry notes to the fore. The finish is luscious.
I first tasted this dram at the end of a long day drinking incredible whisky with friends. Even then, we had a moment together, me and this whisky. Time stood still. Again, at this tasting, I was faced with the same conflicting thought that every sip I enjoy is a sip less for the future. This is a whisky sufficiently complex that just nosing for hours is possible. It’s perfect.
The Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch Number 8 – Review
This was nine bourbon and 3 sherry casks from the 70s, 80s and 90s. 50.2% ABV. Around £1,000 at auction.
Colour: Recently applied spray tan.
On the nose: Thick sweet Pedro Ximenes style funky old sherry, boiled sugar, treacle toffee, peanut and almond brittle, molasses, slightly funky dunder, oily almost industrial wax, rum baba chewy sweetness, creosote, tarred pine telegraph poles, freshly polished oak floors, slightly minty and antiseptic.
In the mouth: Again thick oily funky old sherry, more boiled molasses, paxarette perhaps, rich caramel, roasted dark fruits and spices, forest fruits streusel, before the rich waxy funky industrial notes come back in.
Really quite remarkable; the first time I’ve had such industrial notes from a whisky other than Springbank. Charlie Metcalfe felt it was possible that some paxarette casks made it into the Balvenie inventory in the 1970s, but the cask management programme had eliminated them by the 1980s. So it’s possible one of those casks, or a refill of a paxarette cask is at work here. It’s no criticism; the complexity coupled with the unusual notes uncommon for The Balvenie are exactly the kind of thing whisky geeks enjoy and a great release from the Tun series.
Balvenie Tun 1858 Batch Number 5 – Review
Tun 1858 is kept exclusively for Taiwanese releases, a huge market for The Balvenie. This was a vatting of 10 casks, six of which were bourbon and four sherry casks, again from 70s, 80s, and 90s stock. 51.4% ABV. Bottled 2016.
On the nose: Quite tight, butterscotch, toffee, baked figs, plum jam, dusty vanilla, rich sherry notes, struck match, rubber bands.
In the mouth: Sherry! Toffypops, Christmas Pudding, copper coins, raisins, dates, raspberry jam, spicy cracked black pepper, water brings out the richer sophisticated sherry, some leather, tobacco, toasted oak, more sweet funky fruit to finish.
A very tasty sherry bomb of a whisky. Some great notes, and of course the bourbon content helps temper the overall experience stopping it becoming too cloying and sweet. Perhaps lacking a little zing.
I was genuinely thrilled by this line up from Fred Maitland at East Coast Whisky, and the detail and information from Charlie Metcalfe. I feel that I have had a great introduction into the recent history of Balvenie’s house style and some contemporary expressions. The enduring fresh, effervescent fruitiness of the base spirit is lively and works well with sherry, too. I’m certainly going to try to explore the range more going forward, including giving the peated expressions a try.