Scotchy scotch scotch: Tasting the Balvenie line-up

Three Balvenies

Unlike my discovery of craft beer, which can pretty handily be traced to the time I started writing about beer and has therefore been well documented, I’m not exactly sure how or when I started to like scotch.

Perhaps it’s true that a taste for scotch is something that you simply develop as you get older because without even noticing it over the years, I seem to have gone from someone who didn’t drink scotch, to someone who has a relatively decent assortment of the stuff.

One thing I am quite sure of, however, is that The Balvenie has almost always had a place among my collection. In particular, I’ve always been fond of The Balvenie DoubleWood. I think it might have been the first scotch I ever bought and it was clearly well-suited to the task of serving as my introduction to better drinking owing to its relative smoothness, round fruit aroma, and a sort of honey and vanilla flavour. It’s the sort of scotch that won’t turn anyone off with crazy peat or smokiness and it’s those qualities that make it so accessible.

So, a few weeks ago, when I received an email inviting me to an exclusive tasting of some of the whiskys in the Balvenine lineup, I didn’t hesitate to RSVP.

I’ll admit that, prior to the tasting, I didn’t actually know much about The Balvenie other than I liked to pour it in my food hole. I didn’t know, for example, that The Balvenie actually began as a secondary distillery to Glenfiddich and, for most of its life, the Balvenie distillery only existed to create spirits that were blended with those made at Glenfiddich and that the resulting blend was dubbed Grant’s Whisky. Apparently, while the distillery has been in production since 1893, they didn’t actually produce whisky under the Balvenie name until the 1980s. I actually didn’t even know that The Balvenie was owned by William Grant & Sons Ltd, and I didn’t know that that company is still run by descendants of William Grant, making it the largest family-owned Scotch whisky distiller.

But now I do know that. And if you’re not asleep yet, you now do too.

As for the booze sampling, on a ridiculously frigid March afternoon I had the good fortune of drinking not only the 12 year old DoubleWood, but also the 15 year old Single Barrel, and the 17 year old DoubleWood.

What do all those names mean? Well they’re not as cryptic as you might think. The 12 year old DoubleWood gets its name from being aged in two different casks. It ages for 12 years in oak, then is rounded out by aging an additional three months in sherry casks, which, to my mind, are what lend it that smooth fruit on the nose and a richer, honeyed taste.

Balvenie 12 year old single barrel

The 12 year old Single Barrel is a new release, having only been made available for the first time this February. As I’m sure you can guess, the Single Barrel spends its entire aging life in one cask, ideally one that has the “essential characteristics of The Balvenie Single Barrel, particularly honey, vanilla and oaky notes,” or so says their marketing materials. Every time they bottle a cask of Single Barrel, they yield no more than 300 hand-numbered bottles, so in theory each bottle is unique and each batch will take on the unique characteristics of the specific barrel. The Single Barrel is also meant to show Balvenine fans the whisky that goes into the DoubleWood before it gets that special treatment in sherry casks.

For me, the Single Barrel didn’t do much. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a tasty whisky, and had a fragrant aroma reminiscent of honeyed sweetness and had flavours like dry oak and delicate spices, but it lacked some of that bigger, richer taste that I get from the 12 year old DoubleWood. It’s bottle at cask strength (47.8%) so the alcohol was quite pronounced,  and it should be said it opened up considerably with the addition of a little water, but I still didn’t love it. If you want to try it, and you’re lucky enough to find an LCBO currently stocking it, the 12 year old Single Barrel retails for $104.95.

Balvenie 17 year old double barrel

It stood to reason then, that if I prefer the 12 year old DoubleWood to the Single Barrel, I’d likely prefer the 17 year old version even more. Wood, it seems, is good.

And the explanation for the 17 year old version seemed to confirm that:

The DoubleWood 17 Year Old is an elder sibling to DoubleWood 12 Year Old and shares its honeyed, spicy characteristics, but it is distinctly different, with deeper vanilla notes, hints of green apple, creamy toffee and a striking richness and complexity.

But the truth is, the DoubleWood, for me, didn’t live up to expectations. It should first be noted that I’m being exceptionally critical here and that if someone offers you a glass of The Balvenie DoubleWood 17 year old (available only in a very limited release for $199.95/bottle as of March 29th), you’d be a total asshole to turn it down, but given what I know about the 12 year old version, and a description that seems to suggest this iteration will amplify all my favourite parts of that Scotch, I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t find that the extra aging lent that much to the spirit. There was a richness and complexity to it, but I didn’t find that the sweet, honey and vanilla notes that make the 12 year old so good were accentuated here and instead the “hints of green apple” and a sort of spiciness tend to muddle the flavour more than amplify it and this older version seems somehow less smooth than its younger brother.

Balvenie 12 year old double barrel

I think there’s something to be said for the 12 year aging balanced with a finish in sherry casks. It’s not too much aging, it’s not too little aging, it’s just right. At $84.95, it may be the least expensive of these three offerings, but to my mind it’s the best. Perhaps I’m just a philistine or perhaps I’m simply overly fond of one of the first scotches I remember drinking, but the MVP from my Balvenie tasting was still the good ‘ol DoubleWood 12 year old.  It’s an uncomplicated, smooth and mellow Scotch with well balanced flavours of honey, spice, vanilla, and cinnamon; that’s probably the reason it was among my first scotches and it’s definitely the reason it’s still on my shelf today.

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