Monday, December 17, 2012

The Balvenie – Celebrating David Stuart's 50 Years

The Balvenie 50yo official photographic release of the bottle and hand crafted wood container

Recently, we at the D.T.W.C. were invited to take part (unfortunately only one of us could attend) in celebrating the recognition of Malt Master David Stuart's 50 years of service to The Balvenie Distillery and the whisky industry as a whole.

To crown this milestone The Balvenie has released, in a very limited quantity, a 50yo Single Malt Whisky. With only enough whisky left in the barrel to fill 88 bottles and valued at A$30,000 each, access to taste such an epic achievement is near impossible. This is why it was such a privilege to be one of the very few granted an opportunity to experience it first hand.

A strictly invite only affair, the Australian event was hosted at the Sheraton On The Park in Sydney. With only 2 sessions of 6 guests, totalling 12 invited individuals, it made for a very intimate affair. It should be noted we shared the evening with William Grant & Sons Australian General Manager Brian Sharp, William Grant & Sons National Accounts Manager Daniel Eagan and several representatives of Webber Shandwick, with a special note to Steve Stammers and Emma Wilson.

Though I know many of you are eager to discover what I thought of the 50yo, I think it is fair to say this event really wasn't so much about the whisky but rather the celebration of David Stuarts achievements. So I would like to take time to go into the details of the event first.

The evening started with a small tipple of The Balvenie 12yo Double Wood, whilst guests took the time to meet and greet. The evenings supper was delightful with everyone chatting and conversing as though we were all well acquainted friends. A fine menu choice was on offer as well as whisky and wines for the table. Being Christmas, my choice of was to stick with the table whisky to keep the pallet wet. We were presented with several introductory movies in between the meal which always sparked the whisky conversation. Below you will find the complete 15 minute movie, which I recommend taking the time to view in its entirety.

Retiring from the evenings supper, we moved to the tasting room to be greeted with a rather expansive Tele Conference facility. It was huge! Larger than life in fact and a top bit of fun really. We immediately linked up with David Stuart and Sam Simons (Balvenie Global Brand Ambassador) as they proceeded to take us on a journey of nosing and tasting the staple Balvenie family before the inevitable coup de grâce we had all be waiting for...The Balvenie 50yo.

David and Sam conferencing in from the UK.
During the link up with David and Sam we all had opportunities to ask a few burning questions. My  primary questions were to David and the answers were as follows:

Q. When was this barrel (used for this 50yo) earmarked to risk being laid down and to become a 50 year old whisky?

A. About 20 to 30 years ago I felt this barrel to be special (David then went onto comment about the wood and how the whisky was not dropping as fast in alcohol as some of the others).

Q. Do you know if you had any hand in this whisky's barreling (meaning distillation and choice of wood)?

A. No. I started with The Balvenie 3rd of September 1962 and this barrel was filled 29th June 1962. 

Q. How much longer do you think this whisky could go for if left in the barrel?

A. Maybe it would last another 5 more years.

Q. Was this a first fill cask?

A. No. It was probably a 2nd or 3rd fill hogshead European oak cask.

Through conversation and questions, many other facts also came to light such as David's tendency to water down and nose his whisky at around 20% to 30% ABV. It was also interesting to note that at the time of this 50yo barreling, The Balvenie was still only producing whisky for blending purposes.

The tasting lineup
The whiskies we tasted prior to the 50yo were as follows (I'll keep these notes brief):

The Balvenie 12yo Double Wood: 40% ABv. Quite smooth and well rounded with lot's of sherry notes on the nose with like spices.

The Balvenie Single Barrel 15yo: 47.8% ABV. Pale in colour, dry grass and oak. To taste a high sting balanced by the clear wood char vanillas from the American white oak. Lots of pointy bits poking around in the pallet.

The Balvenie Port Wood 21yo: 40% ABV. Very light and creamy on the pallet, typical dried fruits notes of a port wood, some salts, but a tinge of nail varnish that levels the lightness. The least favourite of mine on the night but I am sure on it's own it would be outstanding.

The Balvenie 30yo: 47.3% ABV. Dark in colour, strong hints of cocoa and a high spice on the finish. Very enjoyable.

The Balvenie 50yo: 44.1%ABV, gold in colour, very fine on the nose with the woods clearly starting to take it a mildly musty background. I first taste some citrus, caramels, honeys and creams, before a hit of old leather chair, moth balls and a tacky bees wax coating that then begins to retire to caramels again on the finish. No heat in the chest as far as I sensed. Interestingly, I left the residue capped in the glass overnight (which we were graciously given to take home) and found the nose to be all the things expected in The Balvenie family...without the mothballs and old leather. It really was a rather crazy flavour profile I had never encountered before, which I have to put down the whiksy's age and my inexperience at tasting aged whisky's. David noted that if the 50yo was put into a first fill cask it would be much darker in colour, which is one of the ways he knows this was second or third fill cask.

I would also like to note in my original phone conversations prior to attending the event I was led to believe we were in fact NOT to be tasting the actual celebration 50yo but in a bottling of a 50yo from the year previous. During the tasting this topic was not raised and I am kicking myself for forgetting to get this clarified. It may also be the reasoning behind what we were tasting was not really jelling with what the tasting notes and David was saying (that or my taste buds discern a very different profile which is most likely as well).

To get a whisky to 50 years and not have it totally decay is a feat in itself, when really the cask and whisky was never intended to make it this far. Certainly I think in the next 20 to 30 years a 50yo whisky is going to become more common place as the science of whisky (i.e. choice of casks, distillation processes, storage and so on) is perfected. Is older better? Not necessarily as most of us already know. However, I have to say that The Balvenie 12yo and The Balvenie 50yo sit on completely opposite sides of the fence when tasted together.

Overall, a fantastic opportunity and I appreciated greatly the chance to take part in this celebration. Thanks to everyone involved, it was swell.

The Baron

D.T.W.C. was invited as a guest this event. All views and opinions are our own unless otherwise stated.