It’s impossible to overstate how powerful stories are to cultures, from communicating history to laying out social and moral norms. They entertain and cement relationships. When we socialise, everyone loves to hear or re-hear a good yarn. Markets have long known the power of a good story to elicit a positive emotional response in relation to a product. Whisky marketers have cottoned on to this over the years, too. In whisky, the elaborate tall tales that have been woven into adverts over the years range from the historically accurate to complete fantasy. They have at times blurred the lines between what is helpful and what is downright misleading. Nowadays whisky drinkers listen sceptically to stories that emerge from distilleries’ marketing machines.
That’s not to say there are not great stories out there, but many of them lack authenticity. The best stories always have authenticity at their heart. Great stories are often firsthand accounts of individuals’ experiences, rich in detail in a way that can only be gained from an intimate knowledge of the subject. These authentic stories engage and enthral, whereas the manufactured, made up, false histories to suit a modern narrative – or stories that gloss over inconvenient truths – lack the essential ingredients to elicit an emotional response. Whilst a good storyteller can make any story – fact or fiction engaging – those hugely talented individuals are rare indeed.
When I came across The Balvenie’s Stories series of releases, based around stories from the distillery, I was somewhat sceptical. Each release is associated with a story about how the whisky was created. It all seemed a little too cheesy, a bit too convenient. But, during an online whisky tasting with The Balvenie Global Brand Ambassador Charlie Metcalf, I got an insight into this series and decided to dig a little deeper.
What interested me was accompanying podcasts that have been created to support each release. These are available on the website and also via your standard podcast provides such as Apple Podcasts. The series has been around since 2019, each one focusing on some of the more experimental whiskies created at the distillery.
The podcasts so far have been narrated by Global Brand Ambassador Gemma Patterson, whose soothing voice is augmented with ASMR quality noises from around the distillery, such as crunching around on gravel or staggering through heather. Doors creak and equipment clangs throughout each episode. Most importantly, the stories that accompany each dram are told in person by the key characters in each.
The overall effect of listening to all of these podcasts is a remote but immersive experience, bringing the people and the estate together. I believe these podcasts can be enjoyed by those who have never visited the distillery, but will certainly trigger happy memories for those who have had the privilege of one of their tours. Given that some of those interviewed have already retired following long careers, the podcast recordings form something of an oral history of these events.
One aspect I particularly enjoy about the Stories range is that the whisky within it varies from “The Sweet Toast of American Oak” (reviewed below) at the cheaper end (at just £45), with the most expensive being the recently released “A Rare Discovery from a Distant Shore” at £1,120. This makes at least parts the range accessible for any budget, rather than being a luxury. There is currently no podcast for the “Rare Discovery,” but I look forward to learning more about the Caroni rum barrels it was finished in.
The Sweet Toast of American Oak podcast tells the story of the American virgin oak barrels from source to cooperage. Importantly, it’s told in the voice of each of the characters that are involved in the supply chain, from head cooper Ian McDonald and his apprentice Liam, to Apprentice Malt Master Kelsey McKechnie, to Paul McLaughlin from Kelvin Cooperage, where the casks were prepared. The background noise of the cooperage is particularly atmospheric. Whilst the podcast is not as concise or chronological as the story on the cardboard tube that comes with the whisky, it is full of interesting information and anecdotes that add richness and interest.
The second whisky I review below is the 14 year old Week of Peat, the second edition in the Stories range, the first being 17 years old. The podcast remains relevant, featuring former Distillery Manager Ian Miller, Mashman Brian Webster, and Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart. The podcast involves a tour around the estate in a Land Rover, which begins to paint picture of the Balvenie Estate in your mind’s eye, encouraging one to visit and see for oneself. Brian Webster’s telling of the story of the Week of Peat in the strong local dialect adds to the sense of place. This story very much reminds me of a firsthand account of running peated barley at Balblair on one occasion, however – unlike The Balvenie – the powers at Balblair never repeated the experiment.
I recommend you find some time to enjoy the podcast either via the Balvenie website itself or, even better, if you find them via Apple Podcasts. You can find some stories from previous Stories editions which have now sold out, including my personal favourite: the “Tale of the Dog” featuring the charming Dennis McBain. But, I also enjoyed the story of the “Second Red Rose,” too, and the links to Balvenie Castle.
Whilst the authenticity of the stories – and that of the characters in the podcasts – are not in doubt, in my eyes there is a slight question in regard to the presentation of the whiskies. The whiskies here are not chill-filtered (a good thing) but they are likely to have been tweaked with artificial colouring. This, to me, seems a shame, especially with these limited batch releases which do not need to be as consistent as a core release.
The Balvenie “The Sweet Toast of American Oak” – Review
12 years old. Bourbon barrels finished in double toasted virgin American oak casks. 43% ABV. £46.99.
Colour: Warm amber
On the nose: A highly aromatic fruit note initially; apple, pear, apricot and grape juice. Sweetness of candyfloss, vanilla fudge, strawberry Starburst, dry sponge cake, citrus rind, icing sugar, heading towards Victoria sponge.
In the mouth: Creamy texture, bright and fresh, strawberry laces, freshly juicy citrus. Sweetness and wood spice. Gingernut biscuits, toffee, cinnamon dusted fresh melon, freshly cut ginger, toasted coconut, home popped corn kernels, Tunnock’s Snowball. Lemon Refresher Bar. Medium to long finish.
A big dram despite the low ABV; juicy, fresh, and flavoursome, this is lovely and enhanced by listening to the podcast. More sophisticated than some other drams such as Tomatin Legacy that use virgin oak, closer in style to Balblair 12. Very tasty
The Balvenie “The Week of Peat” – Review
14 years old. Heavily peated malt bourbon barrels. 48.3% ABV. £67.99.
Colour: Pale gold
On the nose: Smoky peat, slightly medicinal, tar shampoo, mulled cider, toasted coconut, old metallic pennies, shortbread biscuit, multi-seed bread.
In the mouth: Rich, heavy smoky peat, peat spices and thick malt. Toasted oats, buttery biscuit, a pinch of curry powder, coriander seed and cardamon, tobacco, fresh turmeric, galangal. Haribo Giant Strawberries, rubber bands, more medicinal on the finish.
This is smooth and drinkable at the bottling strength. It’s complex in a way that some peated drams fall short. It certainly brings something different to The Balvenie range, and I am sure that fans will enjoy these peaty excursions. It does not, however, offer anything new in the wider world of peated Scotch, in the way that one of the other Stories did. “The Edge of Burnhead Wood” used heather from the Balvenie estate to smoke the barley. Now, that’s an interesting dram to explore. The “Week of Peat” remains a strong…