I have wanted to bring The Balvenie to St Andrews for a tasting for a very long time. Since UK brand ambassador Dr Andrew Forrester’s star turn for the Quaich Society last month, I have wanted to tell you about it for what feels like nearly as long. Deferred gratitification seem to be the watchwords for this family-owned Speyside favourite, and indeed in the shape of Malt Master David Stewart who recently celebrated 50 years with William Grant and Sons, the distillery understands better than most the virtues of patience and timing.
Andrew’s youthful energy complemented the mature selection of whiskies he had brought along. We opened with the 12yo Signature, a malt I had not come across before but whose sharp pear and clean oak aromas pleased me. The citrus and vanilla notes on the palate were also appreciated. It enabled Andrew to discuss the highly-specialised know-how which offsets the traditional ethos of The Balvenie: multiple cask maturation. The Signature is a vatting of first- and second-fill Bourbon and Sherry which makes for a ‘quaffing whisky’ if ever there was one.
Next on the palate was the paragon of Bourbon maturation, the 15yo Single Barrel. I love this whisky, and could appreciate the effects of gentle refill American oak on the Balvenie spirit. Sweet and floral with gummy fruits on the nose, pear was still very much in evidence with vanilla and light muscovado sugar. The palate was clean, lemony and delicate with some late dryish cereals and charcoal.
Reconnecting with the example set by the Signature, Andrew directed us towards the third glass filled with deep amber liquid. The Double Wood was described as an exemplary introduction to the wonderful world of whisky, and represents Stewart’s pioneering experiments in wood finishing. Each ‘batch’ of Double Wood hails from maybe 100 casks, with the Bourbon-matured 12-year-old spirit placed in first-fill Oloroso Sherry casks for 4-5 months. ‘Gentle and easy-going’ summed up the resulting whisky perfectly.
Andrew’s surprise package of the night turned out to be the 14yo Caribbean Rum Cask expression, enjoying only its third outing at a tasting. True to form, the finishing process epitomises David Stewart’s attention to detail, with the rum cask mix comprising wood from three different origins. The sheer weight of the aroma was a delight, with gristy sugars and sweet lemon peel. Some smoke and heather emerged and that sweet pear puckered in the glass, too. The rum finish was notably discreet, until I took a gulp where golden rum, latte coffee notes and spice galore hit the tongue. Water pulled out pralines and an oozing deep sweetness on the nose. Delicious, although it wasn’t to everyone’s liking.
We finished with what has been a mainstay for premium, high-quality aged single malts for some time now: the 21yo Portwood. To Andrew, this was Nigella Lawson constructed from water, barley, yeast and oak. He waxed lyrical about its grace and elegance, and I would concur with his conclusion that this boasts sublime silkiness and a ballroom dancer’s poise.
Outwith student whisky tastings, keep an eye open for how your next Balvenie is served. In certain fashionable bars, the spirit of chicanery and alcoholic liberation will be revived as the company intends to create a serve celebrating the illicit opportunism of distillery workers of the past. You will soon be able to have your Balvenie poured from a handmade copper ‘dog’, the kind of contraptions workers improvised to purloin extra whisky. Everyone seems to appreciate these stories of yesteryear – even retired excisemen – and the Quaich Society were no exception, lapping up tales of those with the skill and nerve to appropriate some stunning whisky when no one was looking. For many Quaich Society die-hards, these are their heroes, after all.
A huge thank you must go to Andrew and The Balvenie for venturing across to St Andrews and putting on such a professional, educational and massively enjoyable evening. We could not have asked for more from our opening tasting of the year.