Much of my life, professional or otherwise is spend dealing with words. Over time you develop strong associations to certain words – look over the body of work of any whisky writer and you’ll be able to quickly distinguish common descriptors and go-to phraseology. These language hallmarks and constructions are what gives a writer their style, their personality on paper – and in terms of tasting notes - a sense of consistency (and hopefully also dependability). But, when you deal with words day-in, day-out you also develop some pretty strong opinions about the use of language. There are countless overused words within the whisky lexicon – there are also countless misunderstood words. But that doesn’t stop these being rolled out time and time again.
The word of the day is ‘balance’.
All too often, balance is bandied around as a synonym for something being tasty. And as a word its meaning is rarely given any context as to why something is deemed as being balanced. Its overuse encompasses extension:’ well-balanced’, ‘well-rounded balance’, ‘presenting a balance’ and, when the barrel truly requiring scraping ‘nice balance’. But none of these uses actually give the reader or listener any discernibly useful information.
Distilleries and bottlers also bear some of the blame here – they too draw from the same whisky lexicon and they too utilise forms of balance to promote the supposedly superior quality of their liquid. Whether these whiskies are actually balanced or not is by-the-by, it’s an easy adjective to slip into a bottle description or producer tasting note. Balance as a word loses much of its meaning when its utilisation is purely intended to justify perceived value and pricing.
As a whisky concept and descriptor, balance can be implied about the equilibrium of alcohol, sweetness, acidity, oakiness and tannins (to name but a few facets) – but it by itself doesn’t infer any sense of elegance. One could argue that some of the world’s best-selling malts are indeed well-balanced – as boring as they might seem to your palates. These ‘classic’ whiskies possess a character where all of their aroma and flavour elements are in tune – no single component jars or sticks out awkwardly. But that’s does not by implication equal exceptional drinking, nor should one consider that the finest of whiskies would necessarily automatically possess this type of congruence.
Francis Bacon noted in ‘of beauty’ that "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion”. Whisky appreciation can and should be thought of in the same way – balance is not just a byword for something being delicious, but it is equally also a more encompassing term than something simply having symmetry and evenness.
As a concept balance is relatively easy to comprehend, but its application is all too often overlooked or even ignored.
You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
The Whisky Barrel introduced a new monogram logo last October – described as “simple, clean, dynamic, contemporary and more” (a field day for any brand design agency) – ‘TWB’ was apparently already being well-used by those who felt overly stifled by the character limits of social media, and is further proof that there is no industry adverse to the allure of acronyms. A slight slur of this one over a dram and you’ve moved from Cupar in Fife down to the less green surrounds of a dense Park Royal business estate. On the plus side you’ll find plenty of whisky in both locations
To help establish the brand, TWB (I suppose I should play along) released a series of six new independent bottlings adorned in the new logo and revised livery, under the series name of ‘Originals’. Previously virtually all of the retailers own bottlings were released under the ‘Burns Malt’ brand – an SEO disaster which likely drove a lot of web traffic over to Arran Distillery. A change was certainly needed. The initial line up of Originals consists of bottlings from Balblair, Bunnahabhain (one peated, one unpeated), Cameronbridge, Ledaig (good shout) and Miltonduff.
We’ll be taking a dive into the unpeated Bunna today which was laid down in September of 2009 in a 1st fill oloroso hogshead (TWB1004) and matured for ten years before being released this February. 292 bottles were produced at an ABV of 57.1% - they’re still available directly from TWB for £99.00 each.
Nose: Expressive overt soft and sweet sherry tones with plump raisins, macerated cherries and blackberry cordial aside rich chocolate sauce and a newly delivered DFS leather sofa. In the background, dustiness – from spicing with cinnamon and ginger – from earthiness with potting sheds and compost. Dilution moves things towards creamy toffee, supported by salinity and coastal breeze alongside corkboard and viney green leaves.
Taste: Impact right from the start – big and syrupy with intensely reduced berry fruits (raspberry, cherry and blackberry jams and preserves) sitting alongside oily espresso beans, dark chocolate and a whack of booziness. The development brings spices – stem ginger and hot cinnamon – with a squeeze of tart lime juice and returning sweetness from burnt toffee. Water refocussed on brown sugar with additions of leatherette and wood lacquer.
Finish: Long with bold oakiness, fading chocolate and a final pang of salinity.
The Whisky Barrel’s Originals Bunnahabhain 2009 is a modern cask-forward whisky that lets its 1st fill oloroso sherry do much of the talking. But whilst the sherry wine takes centre stage, the distillery’s spirit profile is not completely subsumed here. There are pleasant coastal asides and characterful flourishes which give this bottling some appealing and tasty personality.
As to balance (you are going to ask) – whilst sweetness levels are high, they are restrained by the perky cask spicing and natural salinity of the spirit. The ABV however is palpable throughtout – particularly in the arrival which delivers a boozy kick. Diluted down, this arguably offers a better overall equilibrium – but then in doing so, it loses some of the attractiveness and discernment which made it stand out in the first place.