Monday 8 June 2015

The Balvenie Masterclass with David Stewart (Tasted #187 - #191)

It's no secret that we're all huge fans of The Balvenie here at TimeforWhisky - Steph, Hendy and myself. For me personally, Glenfiddich may have been the malt that got me into whisky in the first place, but The Balvenie has since taken the mantle as my favourite whisky in the William Grant and Sons stable.

It was therefore with much excitement that I went along to Tiffany's New York Bar at the Intercontinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong last Friday, to meet The Balvenie Malt Master (and industry legend) David Stewart. We've mentioned David a few times in this blog before (when we met Sam Simmons, and when we were fortunate enough to try a 1973 40yo The Balvenie pulled from the warehouse just weeks earlier), but this was the first time we'd met him. David had been in Shanghai to launch the new range of single barrel releases (12, 15 and 25) and luckily for us, made a brief stopover in Hong Kong for a few events.

This event was attended by a mix of media and industry, and was a full house, with every seat at every table taken with people keen to hear David talk about the whisky he's worked with (most of the time, creating) for an incredible 53 years.

Starting off with a dram of The Balvenie 12yo DoubleWood, guests chatted and explored the exhibits placed around the bar, showcasing the various elements that make up The Balvenie (copper from the stills, wooden staves from the oak barrels, malted barley, even some peat etc...) while enjoying substantial canapés from Tiffany's New York Bar kitchen.

After half an hour, it was time to take our seats and soak up some of David's wisdom. David started by talking us through some of the background of The Balvenie (being one of only 6 Scottish distilleries that still performs its own in-house malting, using Barley grown from their own fields around the distillery, as well as barley brought in from elsewhere) and his background within it - from starting off as a teenager, through to being William Grant and Sons' master belnder, through to his current (part-time) position as The Balvenie Malt Master.

David also explained the significant variety The Balvenie has in their "core" lineup - wine finishes (21yo Portwood), rum finishes (14yo Caribbean Cask), DoubleWoods (12, 17), single cask (15) etc.. something for everyone.

After the introduction, it was time to start tasting. We've tasted all of this lineup before (here, here and here) but it's always a special experience to taste a range with the Malt Master who created it (and hey, re-visiting a line-up like The Balvenie's core range is never a chore)! First up, the 12yo...

The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 (40% ABV, 12yo, Speyside, Scotland, $488HKD / $87.99AUD)
Aged in American oak ex-Bourbon casks and finished in first fill sherry casks for between 6 and 9 months.
Colour: Light, golden honey
Nose: Big honey, and some vanilla. Trademark ex-Bourbon cask aged whisky really. Has a slight hint of a fuller, richer nuttiness too.
Palate: Initially light, but growing in intensity. Some citrus, lots of vanilla and plenty of honey, but not just average honey - richer, creamier, honey. Manuka honey almost.
Finish: Medium length, sweet and with some spice at the very end.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 91/100. A dram you'd happily sip every day.

The Balvenie Carribean Cask 14 (43% ABV, 14yo, Speyside, Scotland, $980HKD / $115.99AUD)
Interestingly, The Balvenie have introduced a number of rum-finished 14yo releases in the past - Golden Cask, Cuban Cask and this Carribean Cask. David explained that they mainly differ in the rum used, and that the casks for the Carribean cask are filled with rum for 6 months at The Balvenie, before being used for finishing.
Colour: Orange gold - darker than the 12.
Nose: Rounder, fuller and more sugary than the 12. Plenty of toffee, but no spice and hardly any of the honey that was so evident on the 12.
Palate: Fuller, richer than the 12. A lot of Demerara sugar and some brief citrus notes. Still some honey, but it's in the background, not the foreground like with the 12.
Finish: Medium to long length. Toffee-like sweetness.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 91/100. Very different to the 12 but equally enjoyable.

The Balvenie DoubleWood 17 (43% ABV, 17yo, Speyside, Scotland, $1,468HKD / $163.99AUD)
Made using a similar method to the 12 - ex-American Oak aged whisky finished in first fill sherry for 6-9 months.
Colour: Golden - somewhere between the 12 and the 14.
Nose: The honey is there, but it doesn't hit you in the face like the 12 does (not that it's a bad thing in the 12!). It's sweet, but there are also some vegetal notes.
Palate: Smooth, oaky and lots more caramel and toffee than honey or vanilla. A hint of BBQ meat (?) - a nice complex palate which still retains trademark The Balvenie characteristics.
Finish: Longer, oakier, and extremely moorish.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 93/100. Fantastic.

The Balvenie 21 Portwood (40% ABV, 21yo, Speyside, Scotland, $1,968HKD / $229.99AUD)
Finished (for only ~4 months) in 40yo 600L port casks. One of David's favourites.
Colour: Noticeably red-amber.
Nose: Rich, with lots of sultanas and toffee.
Palate: Big and bold (I'd love to try the 47.6% duty-free version!). Lots of Christmas cake, sultanas, and some mulled wine, but with a backbone of vanilla all the way through.
Finish: Sweet, honied, but with cake icing at the very end.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 93/100. Please, could I have another?

Finally, it was time for the pinnacle dram of the night - The Balvenie Thirty. No fancy finishing with this one, just good old fashioned aging of a quality spirit in high quality wood (bottled non-chill filtered).

The Balvenie Thirty 30yo (47.3% ABV, 30yo, Speyside, Scotland, $6,480HKD / $899.99AUD)
Non-chill filtered (anything below 46% from The Balvenie is chill-filtered) and laid down to rest in the 80s.
Colour: Rich amber.
Nose: Furniture polish and leather. Honey. 75% cacao chocolate. Whole oranges, mandarins, even some almonds. So much going on. So complex. So wonderful.
Palate: Big mouthfeel, oily, lots of citrus and honey, with a constant undertone of oak (though not overpowering), brazil nuts and hints of leather.
Finish: Long, subtle honey and vanilla - almost back to the key notes from this same whisky in its youth! Much smoother though, and much longer. Slight hints of bitter dark chocolate at the end.
Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 94/100. Marvelous, the sort of dram you'd enjoy every day if you could afford it! Complex and robust, but also very approachable.

After an interview with David (which will be up on the blog soon), it was time to head home, content in the knowledge that I'd just thoroughly enjoyed 5 of my favourite drams with the man who's been making them for longer than I've been alive. A fantastic evening.

Time for Whisky would like to thank Telford for the invitation and for putting on such a wonderful event.



  1. Curious where you got the info that all balvenie under 46% abv is chill filtered? Trying to. Find definitive info, specifically regarding the three different 21 portwood versions. Thanks!

    1. Good question! I definitely remember it being mentioned it one of the Balvenie tastings / presentations we've attended, just can't remember exactly who said it!