Making Up for Lost Time, Part Two: Balvenie Distillery

On the same day we visited Aberlour, Sunjay and I penetrated further into beautiful Speyside and took part in Balvenie’s rather-exclusive distillery tour.

Although we were late getting there (ah, the travails of public transport), no one else on our seven or eight person tour seemed to mind — they were all enjoying tea and shortbread in the tasting cottage. How civilized!

We made our way to the malting floor, empty and a bit forlorn as the distillery was in the middle of silent season, but still redolent with the smell of malted barley and rather romantic thanks to its quaint fittings.

The guide allowed us to peer into the kiln where the malted barley dries so nicely. It looked (and smelled!) so inviting I wanted to lie down in it and take a wee nap. Instead I contented myself with a wee taste — nutty and rich, perfect for porridge!

No sleeping in here!

Of all the stills I’ve seen, the Balvenie pot stills are some of the loveliest. Notice the William Grant emblem — a charming logo I’d love to see in future brandings.

No visit to Balvenie would be complete without entering their marvelous cooperage. Simply walking through yards full of casks overwhelmed me with the kind of awe usually reserved for astronomical phenomena.

Witnessing the coopers hard at work putting casks together, taking them apart, repairing others was a privilege and much more riveting than I initially supposed: I could easily have poured myself a dram and whiled away the afternoon watching in fascination.

We ended the visit in the warehouse, which like all whisky warehouses is the sort of place I picture myself being locked in and happily living off fumes and the occasional siphoned spirit for the rest of my days. As at Aberlour, Balvenie offered a “bottle your own” experience from three different casks.

Of course, the visit concluded with a marvelous tasting of five Balvenie expressions: the Doublewood, Signature 12yo, Single Barrel 15yo, Portwood 21yo, and the 30yo. As I’ve already reviewed the first four, I’ll only give my notes for the 30yo here. (Comparing my notes from earlier in the year with those from this last visit is interesting though: it’s nice to see the progression of my palate, however small that progression may be.)

Balvenie 30 yo
Nose: Dark fruits, honey, wet grass, and hay.

Palate: Incredibly complex with dark chocolate and a mocha flavor that was nearly stout-like. Balanced well with vanilla, spice, and plums, hints of icing sugar.

Finish: All I wrote was “goes on forever”.

Having had the privilege to taste a couple of 30yo + Balvenie single cask whiskies earlier in the year, I knew the standard 30yo expression would not disappoint. In fact, the only disappointing thing is that at £335 I am going to have to wait a long time to afford a bottle of my own!

I really enjoyed my visit to the distillery, which is set far off the road behind a somewhat mysterious stand of forest. Although our guide admitted that she was more of a Glenfiddich devotee, she gamely led the tasting with notes from, I believe, master blender David Stewart. My previous enjoyment of Balvenie allowed me to take this tasting a bit casually, quaffing some and sipping some whilst exchanging banter with others on the tour.

As a note to those who want to visit Balvenie, be sure to book your spaces well in advance. The tours are kept deliberately small (a major benefit, in my opinion) and it’s my impression that they fill up quickly during the high season. If you manage to get a spot, I hope you find it as enriching and delightful as I did.

Tasting Notes: Balvenie

As a member of the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society, I am lucky enough to have some really nice whisky on a regular basis for a much cheaper price than I’d ever find elsewhere. Most weeks there’s a theme — Sherry and Chocolate for Valentine’s Day, or International Whiskies, or — the best so far — five different batches of Aberlour A’bunadh. Other weeks, we’re visited by ambassadors from various distilleries and bottlers. In the past year, I’ve enjoyed lovely tastings from Wemyss Malts, Bruichladdich, Glenfiddich, and last night (for the second time this month, actually) Balvenie.

The beginning of a very good evening

Starting with a ‘welcome dram’ of Monkey Shoulder (always a nice drinkable delight) and progressing through the Balvenie range, Andy described the history of the distillery, its innovations, and especially the genius of one man, Mr David Stewart, Malt Master for Balvenie and Glenfiddich. David is responsible for coming up with nifty little ideas like finishing whisky in a different cask than the one it’s aged in — hence beautiful drams like the 21 year old Portwood.

Balvenie Signature
Andy described this as his ‘quaffing whisky’ and I quite agree. It’s not too complex, goes down like juice, and could easily be enjoyed during a lively party.

Nose: Honey, grapes, grass, a bit of brine.

Palate: Very honeyed and sweet with some light dried fruits (more dried apricot than raisin) and citrus and a nice silky mouthfeel.

Finish: Pleasantly balanced with oak and spice.

Balvenie Single Barrel 15 (Cask # 1566)
Nose: Honey, of course, and vanilla, pear, apple, hints of gorse.

Palate: Lovely spicy-sweet interplay with vanilla, honey, hard fruits.

Finish: Very clean with the best notes of spice saved for the end, and just a hint of coconut.

Balvenie Doublewood
Andy called this a ‘gateway whisky’ — the kind of whisky that gets novices hooked. It starts its life in bourbon casks and finishes in sherry — hence the name.

Nose: Deep, rich, full of cooked apples, figs, bread pudding, butter, cinnamon.

Palate: Well fruited just as the nose suggests, but balanced by the rich vanilla of the bourbon casks.

Finish: Continuing the sweet warmth of the palate, it tapers off ever so gently.

Portwood 21
As I mentioned, this whisky (some of which is likely older than 21 years) is finished for several months in port ‘pipes’. It’s stunning.

Nose: Full of grapes and fresh rain, notes of plum.

Palate: Fruity with plum, grape, and a wee bit of rhubarb. Unbelievably silky mouthfeel.

Finish: I never wanted it to end, and it nearly didn’t. Goes on forever with a delicate nuttiness.

After enjoying all those beautiful whiskies, what better way to end the night than with a mysteriously green non-whisky concoction?

‘The Seaweed Experience’?

My friend Calum delights in buying obscure spirits from a German auction website. Evidently Celp is quite popular among the Danish. It’s put out by Lagavulin and actually doesn’t taste half bad, for all that it appears to be Kermit the Frog’s bathwater. I’m sure you’re not surprised to find out that it’s heavily peated, very briny and oily and tastes like a clam salad. You might be surprised to learn that I actually thought it quite nice! Not something I’d drink often, of course, but the kind of spirit I could see myself pouring on a chilly day when I need reminding of beaches and summertime…