There are a few misconceptions around Scotch whisky that I still hear today. First, I often hear how scotch is ‘smoky’ with strong iodine notes, and therefore a big turn-off for whisky drinkers. In truth, most scotch sold contains very little in terms of smoky notes. The second misconceptions is, only Islay distilleries make peated whiskies. In truth, peat was a main fuel source up until the 1950s in many parts of Scotland and was commonly used in the whisky making process.Read More
The Single Barrel line-extension is an example of a product intended for whisky enthusiasts. It's rare that single malt scotch is released in the single barrel variety--most are a blend of tens, if not hundreds, of barrels of whisky. When one blends multiple barrels of whisky to create a single malt scotch, the complexity of the whisky comes from the blending process. When a distillery bottles an individual barrel, this demonstrates the confidence distillery owners have in their whisky. You can't blend the faults away.Read More
In an armed robbery of a liquor store in Montreal, someone stole ￼$100k worth of whisky￼, including The Balvenie 50 Year Old whisky valued at $49,500 Canadian. This unfortunate theft takes one of only 88 bottles of The Balvenie Fifty out of legal circulation.
You’d think that The Balvenie 50 Year Old whisky would be rare on its own for the obvious reasons—it’s been matured for 50 years in European oak sherry hogshead and it’s extremely limited release. Personally, though, I think The Balvenie Fifty is worth far above the list price because of the man behind the whisky.
David Stewart is known as one of the most influential whisky innovators in Scotland. He was the first to double-mature whisky when he created The Balvenie DoubleWood. Double maturation is the process by which a whisky is primarily aged in one-type of oak (typically American oak), and later briefly finished in another type of oak (often European oak). Today, The Balvenie 12 Year Old DoubleWood is one of the best selling whiskies in the world, with full credit to David Stewart.
David Stewart has over 50 years of experience in the whisky industry. Unlike Drake, David Stewart actually started at the very bottom as a clerk for Grant & Sons. Over the course of his career, he was promoted to malt master for all of the company’s scotch including The Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Grant’s Family Reserve. He has seen the industry move from blended whisky, to high-quality single malt whisky, to age statements, to double-matured whisky, to no-age statement whisky.
While David Stewart is semi-retired now, he continues to innovate working strictly for The Balvenie distillery. The Balvenie Tun 1401, Tun 1507, and Caribbean Cask whiskies are excellent examples of continued innovation with a focus on flavour and balance. To put simply, David Stewart understands balance, and he understands the smallest measures of flavour and how those flavours influence the final product. If you drink and appreciate Balvenie, you appreciate this focus on balanced flavour.
As a legend like David Stewart moves into semi-retirement, the new limited release whiskies he’s responsible for become immediate collector’s items. In 2012, on the celebration of his 50th year, he selected one barrel that would become The Balvenie Fifty. This is the one in 88 bottles of whisky that was stolen.
Unfortunately, just like with the black market in the art world, I’m sure there’s someone that will be willing to buy this stolen rare whisky. It is, however, numbered. And that might make the person pouring The Balvenie Fifty a touch nervous when sharing it with friends.
A well balanced whisky show is unlike any other conference. It’s a gathering of some of the best whisky makers in the world coming to one place, competing for the attention of attendees by serving some of their best whisky. A well established whisky show is an excellent way to try new products and talk to the people behind the whisky.
A few months ago, I attended The Whisky Exchange Whisky Show in London, England. The event featured over 500 different whiskies. This gave those attending an excellent representation of today’s whisky scene with whiskies from around the world.
1. Buffalo Trace gutsy play
When competing for the attention of London’s whisky connoisseurs, Buffalo Trace wasn't shy about their whisky. I stood by the booth for twenty minutes across the span of the event watching the interaction between exhibitors and guests. Buffalo Trace employees unapologetically noted how cheap their entry-level whisky is. This is a gutsy play when almost everyone was pouring drinks three or more times the cost of the standard Buffalo Trace bottling. It worked with the audience. Going from Buffalo Trace to Eagle Rare, the tastings I observed were a success. Beyond entry level whisky, they also had Eagle Rare 17 and Stagg Jr. The energy at this booth and the wide variety of whisky available was a key to their success. The fact that they started with their cheapest drink to the delight of those attending was a big score.
2. I couldn't find a bad example of Japanese whisky
I keep having a single thought when drinking Japanese whisky--it's scotch whisky elevated. The balance of flavour is there, but the intensity is amped up. Both Nikka and Suntory were at the show, and they both poured whisky I've not had previously. The Coffey series from Nikka is excellent. Suntory's Hibiki continues to be one of my favourites. The Hakushu Single Malt 25 Year Old was one of my favourite whiskies of the show. Japanese whisky continues to make news, and there’s reason for it.
3. Redbreast gets better with age
While Redbreast 12 Year Old is generally available, the other whiskies from this range are a rare find. At the show the 15 and 21 year old were being poured. For the added time spent in oak, neither drink was overly oaky, and instead the focus was on Redbreast's balance of flavours. The 15 year old is my personal sweet-spot for age and flavour. The cask strength 12 Year Old was also quite excellent!
4. Indian whisky is the next wave
Whisky from India is going to be big. Already, Officer's Choice whisky is the number one selling blended whisky in the world having topped Johnnie Walker in 2013. As far as single malts, Amrut Distillery enjoys world recognition after Amrut Fusion won the respect of many whisky critics. I had the opportunity to taste whisky from a third player--John Distillery and its Paul John brand three styles of whisky. These are beautiful whiskies that are only sold in the UK for now, with plans of world distribution. The cask strength is my favourite of the group, and I expect these to be a hit as they get released into new markets.
5. Balvenie stole the show with their booth
As a whisky writer, one of my favourite experiences is doing barrel tastings. Drinking untouched whisky directly from the barrel is a memorable experience. While Balvenie couldn't quite give this experience at the Whisky Show (there's some legal reason why they could not), they did bring two barrels filled with bottle-poured whisky. One was filled with Balvenie 17 DoubleWood and the other with the Balvenie 21 Year Old. As you asked for either of these, they were served out of the barrels. It was an impressive showing that kept people around at the booth. I enjoyed both whiskies!
6. Scotch has competition, but they were still among my favourites.
This isn't a new statement, but it is worth repeating. My whisky drinking started with single malt scotch, and I own more whisky from Scotland than any other country. However, Scotch definitely enjoys a loyal following based on the prestige the brand 'single malt' brings to the conversation. Saying that, some of my favourite drinks were from Scotland. Bruichladdich’s 1970 35yo 125 Anniversary drink was incredibly, and despite its age, bravely finished in sherry casks giving this scotch an added element of flavour. Scotch blender Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend was marvellous. The Glenmorangie line continues continues to win big numbers. Balvenie’s TUN 1509 has has an intense level of spice that dares your taste-buds.
Scotch might be out-of-favour, but it’s not for the lack of incredible drinks.
I've toured Scotch distilleries before, but when touring Balvenie Distillery with top Canadian chefs, the tour became more about the senses. Chefs taste everything. Even as we stood on the malting floor (where barley is dried), the Chefs were reaching down, scooping up the barley and tasting it. The tour became more about the taste and smells, the art behind the craft in making scotch, and less about the technique.
The Chefs were asked to take inspiration from our tour and create a meal the following day based on the craftsmanship used to make a bottle of Scotch. Balvenie Distillery was the perfect distillery for the tour, as it is among the few that still keep all elements of Scotch craftsmanship on-premise. As an example, the malting facilities (which served as inspiration for the meal) have long-since been outsourced to third parties by other distilleries.
Not enough is said about whisky bottles, and Balvenie bottles deserve special mention. These bottles are fantastic, and not for innovation, but rather for their classic look. These bottles are the kind that you proudly inch forward on the booze shelf, the kind that you enjoy poring because the shape and heft in your hand. They’re also practical, designed with a short but wide rim in order to decrease the amount of drip.
Balvenie comes with great pedigree. In the early 1800s, William Grant & Sons (the owners of Glenfiddich) were looking to expand their operation and opened Balvenie. It’s one of the few family-run distilleries left in Scotland and they pride themselves on producing Scotch the traditional way. Most of the processes are done on-premise and by hand, a rarity these days in mass-produced whisky. They grow their own barley and rely on coopers for artisanal barrels. David Steward, long time William Grant & Sons Malt Master, is now solely focusing his attention on Balvenie during his semi-retirement. Stewart is largely credited for being among the first to do ‘cask’ finishes; that is, a process by which a traditional Scotch is aged in bourbon or sherry casks and then finished in a different cask to add more flavour.
The Balvenie Caribbean Cask
After 15 years of regular aging, this Balvenie Scotch was finished in a cask that previously held about 50 types of David Stewart’s choice rums. The intention was to imbue the Scotch with the rum’s buttery sweetness without making it overpowering. I’ve had this Scotch on two different occasions before writing this article and enjoyed it greatly each time.
The nose is only slightly sharp, with light tropical fruits and citrus. It’s a very vibrant, perky Scotch, both on the nose and on the pallet. That sharpness comes with a juicy sweetness, vanilla, and what best can be described as orange zest. On the finish there’s a more tropical dried fruit finish. I would consider this Scotch a mellow well rounded drink with a shorter finish that leaves you wanting for more. The buttery sweetness of the rum is apparent, but this is certainly a Scotch with the bolder flavours one would expect. It’s a fantastic treat and I’ll be saving this one for special occasions.
The Caribbean Cask is available at the LCBO for a limited time at just under $100, and while this would be a great addition to a whisky cabinet, you could easily opt for any of the other Balvenie products: The 12 year old Doublewood is only $65 and has a very loyal following, and on the higher end, Balvenie also has a 21 year old Portwood Scotch for about $215.
Originally published on Spotlight Toronto