We were recently invited to spend an evening sampling a range of The Balvenie's fine scotches with Dr. Samuel Simmons, the Global Ambassador for The Balvenie, who also as it turns out was a fellow Torontonian.
Dr. Simmons moved from Toronto to Scotland in 2002, and is now residing in London England. A poetry / language geek by education, Sam makes it a personal goal to read as many whisky related books at possible. Sam's interest in Scotch whisky developed in Scotland to the point where for a time he was president of the Edinburgh Water of Life Society.
The reason for our gathering was primarily for a sampling of The Balvenie's newest expression, the Caribbean Rum Cask release. Aged 14 years and finished in Jamaican Rum casks, we were interested to experience this latest of a number of rum cask finishes by David Stewart. Sam noted David Stewart's predisposition to rum as his drink of choice outside the "office". Good rum has a wonderful rich sweetness almost as if you could pour it over ice cream. It is with this in mind that Stewart sets out to enrich his speyside malt.
The Balvenie was one of the first distilleries doing cask finishes to impart unique flavours since back in the 80s. In fact, the Balvenie DoubleWood (which is finished in a Spanish oak sherry cask) was originally branded as the Balvenie Classic back then.
Another historical tidbit we learned while chatting with Sam is that The Balvenie's cooperage is actually shared with Glenfiddich, though it's on The Balvenie's property. The jury is still out between them on whose name to put on it, though Sam hinted that the coopers themselves might prefer to drink The Balvenie.
On this eve, we were happy to work through five different Balvenie expressions with Sam.
The first expression, The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 year old is their standard, widely available release. Aged for a period in standard ex-bourbon casks, and then transferred for continued aging in first fill European oak sherry casks. A nutty caramel sweetness leads off before deploying more citrus notes and finishing with excellent smoothness.
The second expression offered up was The Balvenie Signature 12 Year Old. This is the consensus favourite Balvenie expression here at ScotchBlog, and a review can be read here. It's important to note that our review was specific to that 2009 release, as David Stewart hand selects the casks that go into his Signature expression on an ongoing basis.
The third expression was the feature of the evening, The Balvenie Caribbean Cask. Aged 14 years, this new release has a rich spicy aromatic profile mediated a wonderful lingering sweet banana. A background but ever present rum sweetness is accented by fresh malty cereal notes. I found it enjoyable, but almost overly complex.
The fourth expression was The Balvenie 17 Year Old Peated Cask Single Malt. Obviously this is not a traditional Islay peated malt, only peat cask finished. The peat is definitely present in the palate of the whisky, but is in no rush and waits its turn to present itself. With very minimal smoke and iodine flavours instead a rich vanilla and honey profile shine through which is well accented by the peat.
The fifth expression, and one that this writer personally feels honored to have sampled, is one an experiment that is hard to find outside the distillery. Named "Tun 1401" for now, this single run bottling was produced from a mixture of Balvenie whiskies which began aging in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Samuel described to us witnessing David Stewart himself, dressed in a suit and tie kneeling on the dirt floor of one of the warehouses at the distillery, pumping this exact whisky into a Tun pool. After aging, the whisky was mellowed in wooden tuns for a period of time (Sam described these Tuns like small wooden swimming pools). There were only 336 bottles produced, and as mentioned above, the remaining bottles are only for sale at the distillery (for a mere £150). The nose is rich with apple and baking spices. The spice is repeated on the palate along with anise, vanilla, and rich toffee. Later, it evolves into bitter orange after initial hints of dark chocolate. Vanilla flavours combined with the texture are almost reminiscent of a melted vanilla ice cream. It is fleshy, rich, and surprisingly mellow, requiring no further dilution.
After the tasting we continued to throw questions at Sam and found that he wasn't exactly the shy type.
ScotchBlog: We haven't seen a lot of French cask finishes with the exception of the Murray McDavid series. Why is this?
Sam: Why? Because who wants to be seen drinking pink whisky? There are several distilleries who regularly release whiskies finished in wine casks: Springbank/Longrow/Cadenheads has used sweet dessert wines in the past, Arran has done everything from rich Italian reds to champagne casks, and Bruichladdich has nearly run out of chateaus for their string of "Chateau de ________" casks. We did have The Balvenie 17yo Madeira Cask and I know David Stewart and Brian Kinsman have done some trials with French wine casks, but as we haven't seen The Balvenie 17yo Muscat de Hambourg, I can only guess at the results. The price of sherry casks can be prohibitive to small producers and the quality can be inconsistent when you don't have the buying power of a larger whisky company so wine casks have been a viable option and a way to create new flavour expressions and placeholders on the retailers shelf, especially for new distilleries, reborn distilleries, or for independent bottlers. Tradition has done us well so far so it is probably best to stick with European and American oak that has previously held sherry, bourbon or scotch whisky. But who knows? If and when America changes the law about first fill only for bourbon classification, we may have to look to new pastures for cask sourcing and create a few new traditions.
ScotchBlog: We rarely see any older whiskies from Balvenie past 17 years or so. Why is that?
Sam: In Ontario? Maybe. The Balvenie has a good amount of mature casks, many of which go into our 21yo PortWood, our Thirty, our Forty, our vintage casks, or into the Tun 1401 we just tasted. We do have the 17yo variants over the past decade, and David chose that age intentionally. He has said that at around 17 years, maturing whisky tends to two extremes: like a teenager who could either proceed to university, get a degree, a great job, blah blah OR, one who could drift through life with no clear direction; either it is ready to bottle or it is going to be one that will reach great maturity. But there are some casks that fall between the extremes and could benefit from new accents of flavour. These are the ones that David carefully experiments with in small batches. Islay Cask, New Wood, New Oak, Sherry Oak, Rum Cask, Madeira Cask, and the new Peated Cask are the happy results.
ScotchBlog: Did you go through tests to become a global ambassador, or professional whisky taster in general?
Sam: There is no exam to become an ambassador for whisky, thankfully. I did have to prove that I was "a globally recognised Scotch Whisky expert" to get an Alien of Extraordinary Ability visa and have working rights in the USA from 2008-2010. Actually, William Grant & Sons does randomly select employees to be a part of a tasting panel. They are sent, say, 4 whiskies and asked to taste and answer a few questions. This is helpful new product research but it is also a way to discover the next great nose from within our own ranks. I know that Brian Kinsman, David Stewart's 9 year apprentice, was "discovered" in this way. We have internal nosing programmes that Leslie Gracie oversees and talks about in The Balvenie Whisky Academy. We have created The Balvenie Whisky Academy within our online community Warehouse 24 online at www.thebalvenie.com and it is another good resource for training your nose and palate.
Finally, always keep an open mind and keep researching. Read and taste as much whisky as you can get your hands on/nose into.
Thanks again to Dr. Whisky for sharing conversation and his copious selection of Balvenie with us. We wish Sam all the best in his latest gig as Global Ambassador.