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.
Batch #8 is a marriage of 12 different casks. Nine American oak ex-bourbon casks and three European oak ex-sherry casks. The youngest whisky in the composition was distilled in 1991 (making it a 21 or 22 year old), two of the casks are from the 1980’s and the remainder comes from way back when in the 1970’s – the majority of the whisky here is therefore heading towards 40 years of age. Released in 2013 in Canada, Australia, the UK, France and a few other European countries it only had an outturn of 2,700 bottles. Whilst technically an NAS bottling by name, all of the information about the cask composition is helpfully, and transparently, printed on the bottle tube itself.
Nose: Pronounced, expressive and pretty damn glorious to boot. A melting pot of aromas drawing from both vibrant, fruity bourbon casks and richly spiced sherry butts. Prominent tropical bananas and pineapples conjugate with cherries, dried fruits (rum soaked raisins), dark chocolate and coffee grounds. Sweetness from big toffee notes and wild heathery honey is counterbalanced by some seriously aged aromas of old leather chairs, heavy furniture polish and huge plumes of dense tobacco smoke. Interestingly, repeat nosings draw out one characteristic or the other – sometimes the big basket of sultry ripe fruit, other times the dusty old library with its aged sherry affections. There’s a lot going on here. Wood is pervading and comes across so dark as to almost seem like ebony rather than oak. This leads unsurprisingly to tangible sharp spice notes of cinnamon and ginger.
Taste: Viscous and opulent with a superb translation from the nose to the palate. The deeper sherry notes are now starting to take control from the fresher more lively bourbon inflections (and indeed the longer you leave this glass to rest the more this becomes the case). Rich plums, prunes and other dried fruits along with increased oak spiciness from cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Excellent balance of sweetness to bitterness with our toffee now firmly tranformed in to gloopy butterscotch and chewy liquorice. Polish is diminished, but leathers are heightened – again the aged components of this marriage are coming to the fore to make themselves known.
Finish: Long and lingering with a fairly tannic dryness. Spicy with pepperiness coming across strongly. And here comes the only misstep – the bitterness is quite infiltrating at this point with a real sharpness in the finish.
Tun 1401 #8 oozes class from the get go – more sherried than some of the previous 1401 batches, but to my taste all the more profounder for it. Inspired juxtapositioning of younger, fresher bourbon casks with older austere sherry butts has created a truly remarkable whisky which, save for an overly bitter finish, screams near perfection at every other step. It was originally released for £220, and was the penultimate release of the 1401 Tun marriages. Balvenie have now moved to the larger capacity '1509 Tun' and subsequently, the price of this older, and well regarded, bottle has increased far beyond its initial RRP. Whether you're going for drinking or thinking, the Tun 1401 #8 is an exceptionally high quality dram to be savoured and applauded. Truth be told, I've possibly scored this a couple of points too high, but what the hell, I absolutely adore it.
With thanks to Thijs at Words of Whisky for the sample swap.