How much of a whisky’s flavour comes from the influence of the cask it has been matured in? Dr Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie is famously quoted in suggesting that 60% is the answer to this question. But, you don’t have to spend long on the Internet to find myriad other differing answers. Last week, I saw Irish bottler proposing (quite authoritatively, but with no evidence provided of course) that 80% was of course the answer. Regardless, all within the whisky industry would posit that the flavour of whisky is primarily derived from a combination of spirit and cask. This brings us onto the concept of cask finishing.
A tun is a very large oak vat used to blend together different casks of whiskies. Most whisky, unless single cask, is a marriage of some description, however Balvenie’s Master Blender David Steward has been using his tuns to push the boundaries of blending further than most. The 1401 tun is a particularly large vessel of 2000 litres capacity, that Stewart used to produce nine different complex marriages for Balvenie’s 1401 Tun series. The Tun bottlings are pretty legendary with whisky fans - earlier batches have sold for many times their original retail price on the secondary market. As it’s a Friday, I think we’re due a treat, so we’ll take a look at the penultimate 1401 bottling – batch #8.
Balvenie’s now famous Tun series was launched in 2010 with the Tun 1401 (A tun being the name for a large marrying vat). Nine batches later, Balvenie Master Distiller David Stewart moved to an even bigger marrying vessel – the Tun 1509. The latest version, launched in the middle of 2017 was not without early controversy – somehow, a small batch (around 800 bottles) of whisky which had been stored in the Tun had mistakenly been bottled and distributed in several regions (The Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel and several travel retail outlets). Whilst it was single malt from the distillery and produced at the correct strength, it was not in fact meant to be bottled as ‘Tun’ whisky. Cue, slightly embarrassing recall notice.
The Balvenie Founder’s Reserve was launched in the 1980’s as the entry-point for the distillery’s core range of single malt whiskies. Much missed by many malt enthusiasts, it was discontinued around a decade ago and replaced by the Balvenie 12 year old Signature series, which ran for five batches over five years before being discontinued itself in 2010.
I read yesterday that sales in global travel retail (also known as GTR, because the world is too fast moving to miss creating yet another acronym) rose by 9.3% over 2018, with wine and spirits currently accounting for 6% of all sales. That’s a lot of bottles of uneventful NAS whisky. However, taken in isolation these statistics are somewhat misleading (isn’t that often the case?) – passenger numbers are up – up to such an extent that the individual spend per person is actually falling.
Balvenie’s popular 14 year old Caribbean Cask spends most of its life in ex-bourbon casks before being re-racked for a finishing period (of around 6 months) in ex-rum casks. Whilst the name ‘Caribbean’ conjures up images of palm trees and beaches, the actual rum casks used by Balvenie are custom ones from UK-based Bristol spirits. ‘Avon Cask’ just didn’t have the same ring to it I imagine.
Since 2002, Balvenie have spent one week of each year using Highland peat to dry their barley. The result of this is now available for us all to enjoy in the form of ‘Peat Week’. Although, whilst peated to a level of 30ppm, you might consider this to be heavily peated release, the use of both highland peat (as opposed to Islay peat) and the bottling ppm of closer to 5, both indicate that rather than a punchy iodine packed peat-fest, we should be expecting something a little more delicate.
Since 2002, Balvenie have spent one week each year running peated spirit through the distillery’s stills – replicating experimental smoky runs which were conducted in the 1950s. By using highland peat to dry their barley Balvenie have achieved an end result spirit that is tangentially different to the coastal style found at Islay’s distilleries. Peated Balvenie, once consigned to the dustbin of history is now a fairly common sight – the distillery seems to be weaving the style into all of its ranges. But, the brand education behind these newer styles of peated whisky seems to be lagging behind the launches – there’s still a customer mystic which surrounds the utilisation of peat and expectations of its intensity and medicinalness.
Balvenie’s 15 year old Single Barrel Sherry Cask was launched in 2014, following on from the distillery’s Single Barrel First Fill 12 year old which was unveiled the previous year. To date, there’s been 86 bottlings of this batch produced whisky (according to Whiskybase), each one drawn from a single European oak sherry butt that produces no more than 650 bottles. Being batch produced, no two casks will ever be completely identical, and therefore, the is a reported variation across different batches of this whisky – we’ve certainly experienced some variance in the past. That said, they are all selected by Master Distillery David Steward and bottled at the same ABV of 47.8%.
Balvenie’s big brother to the 12 year old Doublewood was launched in 2012 to mark the 50th Birthday of their Master Distillery David Stewart. Similarly to the 12 year old (which we’ve reviewed on The Dramble previously), the 17 year old has been matured in American oak ex-bourbon casks and then finished in European oak sherry casks. It has been part of the distillery’s core range since its introduction.
Balvenie’s core range whisky the 21 year old Portwood was amongst the very first commercially promoted finished whiskies when it was released in the 1990s. The highly regarded bottling is matured in ex-bourbon barrels for over two decades and then finished in aged port pipes (they’re still barrels, not actually pipes) for a period of finishing. At one time a non-chillfiltered version was released (which implies that this ‘normal’ bottling is chillfiltered) for travel retail, which upped the ABV to 47.6%. Normal versions of the bottling are delivered at 40%.