I started this blog with the idea of bringing two of my passion projects together: whisky & writing. I like to write lyrically, whenever possible. My blog posts are a mix of creative writing and factual reviews. In the years that I have been looking for new expressions to explore, I have naturally gravitated towards those brands that spend extra time on their ‘story’. Last week, I was at a release event for the “Stories” range of The Balvenie. They’ve got their story straight. It was a delighful evening, and I enjoyed tasting the 3 new expressions. Ready to delve deeper? Well, once upon a time…
… there was a brand ambassador named Alwynne Gwilt, who hailed from the frozen waste of Canada. After having moved to the UK, she ran a well-known blog named Miss Whisky, worked as a Whisky Specialist at William Grant and Sons, and became the brand ambassador for The Balvenie in 2017. More recently, she traveled from the UK to the Flemish city of Leuven, as she was asked to give a talk and accompanying tasting session of The Balvenie’s “Stories” range. Oona Antwerp, the people behind the event, had chosen a beautiful venue: the workshop of Belgian Woordworker Herman Van Looveren (Belgian Woordworker Atelier). As I entered the workshop, I was greeted by the scent of wood, and a glass of cava. People were chatting happily, and some were taking pictures of the workshop, the tools, and the whisky bottles which were centered on a beautiful wooden table.
The Story of The Balvenie & “The Balvenie Stories”
During the tasting session, brand ambassador Alwynne also informed us of the rich past of The Balvenie. The distillery was founded in 1892 in Speyside, and its values always contained a strong hands-on approach, which is to be taken quite literally. Even though the distillery is now run by the 5th generation, this value hasn’t changed. Malting is still done by hand, for example. The sense of tradition can also be seen in the stills, as they are still the same type as in the early days of production.
The distillery also has a full-size on-site cooperage, which focuses on checking, repairing, and green-lighting casks from all over the world. Working at the cooperage means ‘building a home‘ for the new-make spirit, and taking care of it as it matures. Speaking of which, the oldest whisky casks in use are stored in the original malting building.
Although The Balvenie is the younger sibling to big brother Glenfiddich, they produce very distinct whiskies. Originally, the main focus of The Balvenie was producing whisky for blenders, but in 1973, their first single malt whisky was released. With this, the first steps towards building a solid single malt reputation was taken.
With the “Stories” range, The Balvenie wants to focus on bringing the stories from the distillery, but more importantly, its people, to the general public. There is a growing focus on a whisky experience that simply asks you to sit down together with your friends, and enjoy a dram while catching up, and that includes sharing opinions and experiences:
“We’ve got craftspeople who have worked here for many many years and they have great stories, it makes for very memorable moments when we tell them.” – Gemma Paterson, The Balvenie Global Ambassador.
Every bottle of the new range has a little storybook attached to it with a link to the website of The Balvenie. There, podcasts are available that feature stories of the distillery and the people working there. If you, like me, enjoy listening to people talking about their passion and expertise, then the podcasts are a must.
Lastly, the distillery asked several award-winning authors to write short stories about “pursuit”, another core value of The Balvenie. It is the pursuit for a high-quality product, but also focus on experimentation and pursuing your dreams and ideas. These short stories were brought together in a book, which is available from Amazon and Waterstones.
The Sweet Toast of American Oak (12y)
The first whisky that we tasted, immediately tasted bittersweet (but not literally). The Sweet Toast of American Oak is not going to be available on the Belgian market. A shame, as it’s a damn good dram.
Matured on american oak bourbon casks for 12 years, it does not differ from the core range 12y old The Balvenie, with the exception of one detail. In an attempt to create an even fruitier & sweeter Balvenie, Kelsey McKechnie -protegé of David Stewart – decided ‘to import virgin oak barrels from Kentucky‘ and have a second maturation for a couple of months. This resulted in a beautifully balanced whisky which is brighter and fuller than the core range 12y old. Because of the extra maturation on heavily-toasted virgin American oak casks, this expression packs a huge burst of flavour.
As I nosed the dram, I was able to recognise ripe banana, toffee, a warm fragrance of wood, and a little cinnamon and spice. When I tasted the liquid, I enjoyed flavours of toasted bread, glorious vanilla, brown sugar, and a little hint of smoke. I wonder where that came from. The liquid tasted quite oily, and there was a pleasant tingling on my tongue. Obviously, the general flavour of the whisky is influenced heavily by the American Bourbon casks that were used. I was impressed.
But then something happened. As I was thinking about what I was smelling and tasting, my brain connected the individual aspects and brought them together in a childhood memory: a slice of toasted bread, buttered up, and finished with mashed banana and just a sprinkle of brown sugar. And the whisky got even more spectacular after that. It doesn’t happen very often, but when I am able to link memories to whisky, I generally become a happier person. And I like the whisky better too!
The Week of Peat (14y)
We also tasted the ‘winter whisky‘, dixit Alwynne Gwilt, in the “Stories” range. Originally named “Peat Week“, but rebranded to “The Week of Peat“, this 14 year old whisky bring back peat to the distillery. Before WWII, peated whisky was produced by the distillery, and more recently, the peat burner was started up again:
“Eager to experiment with The Balvenie profile using what he had learnt from a recent trip to Islay, distillery manager Ian Millar ordered a batch of Speyside peat for the kiln. For a week a year, The Balvenie distills a batch of peated malt” – The Balvenie
The peat, which is shipped from the Highlands, is cut & dried in summer, but processed at the distillery one week before the yearly shutdown of the distillery for maintenance and cleaning. Apparently, the peat smoke gets everywhere, and afterwards, it’s virtually impossible to start producing other whiskies without having influence of peat. Hence the name: this expression can only be distilled for one week of the year.
The use of Highland Peat results in more earthy, foresty notes, combined with oiled leather, some sweetness, and a hint of gouache. Very inviting to the nose, and very approachable too. Tasting the dram, I experienced a campfire in my mouth. The whisky feels thick, very oily, and it wraps itself nicely around the tongue. As a finish, the campfire properly develops itself in your mouth, and you’re left with a beautiful smoky feeling. If you’re a fan of peated whisky, definitely try this one. A solid contender for my drinks cabinet at a reasonable price of 75 euro.
A Day of Dark Barley (26y)
Lastly, we were treated to the very exclusive “A Day of Dark Barley“, a 26 year old single american oak cask whisky, of which there is only one batch available. This very limited edition was already sold out in the UK when we got to taste it, despite it having a very steep price: 690 euro. If you have ’em, you can spend ’em.
The whisky itself was distilled from roasted, chocolate malt, the kind that is also used by breweries to brew (chocolate) porters. 26 years in the cask has resulted in a very delicate expression, offering scents of exotic fruits, which developed for me into canned syrupy pineapple. There are flavours of powdered sugar and vanilla, with a presence of oak and spice. The finish offered a gentle burning in the back of the throat.
I’m split about this one. On the one hand, the whisky is deliciously delicate, offering flavours that prove that whisky does not have to be ‘powerful’ or ‘smoky’. It can also be like nipping from a fragrant cloud, drop by drop. In that sense, this is a good whisky. On the other hand, because of the limited availability, the price was pushed up to a level which is too steep for me. I can see people buying this, as it offers both exclusivity and delicateness. At the same time, I’m confident that there are whiskies out there which do the same, but at a cheaper price. It all boils down to whether you want to focus on the value for collectors, or the tasting notes for connaisseurs, or both.
I think this could spark an interesting discussion, best held while having a sip of whisky. For me, that would be “The Sweet Toast of American Oak” or “The Week of Peat”. At least then I can pass around the bottle without second thoughts.
The Story Continues
In case you want to further explore what these expressions have to offer story-wise, I sugggest you check https://www.thebalvenie.com/balvenie-stories/ .
Don’t forget to sit back in your favourite arm chair, pour yourself a dram, and enjoy!
Photography is © Oona Antwerp & © The Balvenie.