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.

Making Up for Lost Time, Part One: Aberlour Distillery

I know it’s been an atrociously long time since I posted. My only excuses are that in the last six weeks I

– finished my Masters dissertation in Edinburgh;

– packed up my life and moved from Edinburgh back to the US;

– got married, for the second and third times*; and

– moved from one state to another, unpacked and reorganized my life.

*I actually got married in August 2011, so that my fiancé-then-husband, Sunjay, could get a visa to join me in Scotland for the year. It was a strictly-immediate-family affair, with no celebration to speak of, so this year we renewed our vows and held a reception with all our family and friends. On top of that, my mother-in-law organized a Hindu wedding ceremony. Three weddings, no funerals.

In light of those events, I hope it’s okay that I took a hiatus. I’ll try to be more with it from here on out, although I’m going back to work full-time tomorrow and frankly have no idea how I will feel for awhile. I’m still sorting out all that reverse culture shock business and trying to figure out how to be a New Yorker again. I miss Scotland terribly, so this post, in addition to being my re-entry to blogging, will function also as a chance for me to wallow in my reminiscences for awhile, whisky in hand, head in clouds.

Before life got so crazy (or perhaps this just contributed to the craziness), Sunjay and I went for one last Scottish hurrah through Speyside, Orkney, and Shetland. The next four posts will showcase the whisky highlights of the trip.


Our first stop was Aberlour Distillery, which at £12 rated as a bargain even before tasting the whisky. The friendly, knowledgeable guide whose name I have forgotten (Sarah? Julia?) led us through the usual mash tuns and wash backs, stills and spirit safes while detailing the history of the distillery and its founder, James Fleming, who was a businessman and philanthropist whose contributions in both fields still give back today. These days, Aberlour is owned by Pernod Ricard.


The tasting, of course, was more or less what we came for, and it did not disappoint, In fact, I think it’s the best distillery tasting I’ve had yet, both in terms of quality of spirit offered and content of the “tutored” session. In this aspect, our guide shone with evident passion and knowledge which made for an ideal atmosphere.

Look at the size of those drams!

We started with Aberlour’s new spirit (“clearac”) which is unaged, extremely strong, and basically right off the still — this is what goes into the casks. Think of it as proto-whisky. To me, it was quite like other clearacs I’ve tasted in that it had the usual oats-and-honey smells with strong tones of grapes and currants and a thick mouthfeel. Not bad, not whisky.

Throughout the tasting, I sipped and sniffed and reserved bits of each dram to compare at the end. Some of my notes, therefore, reflect a healthy amount of breathing — I certainly didn’t get every note on the first time around.

Aberlour 16yo Bourbon Cask – 54%
Nose of banana, vanilla, and light caramel — reminded me a lot of a Mary Jane. Palate extremely peppery but still light with oak and leather on the finish. Improved with time/air.

Aberlour 16yo Sherry Cask – 58.5%
Nose of dates and raisins, icing sugar, some maple sugar too. Thick and velvety palate, rich with dark fruits and syrup. Long finish with just a hint of bitterness and everlasting sugar. Both this and the preceding Bourbon Cask were available to”bottle your own” in the tasting room that day.

Aberlour 10yo Sherry Cask finish
Available only France, which is a shame as I found it highly quaffable. Nose of pear with an earthiness that reminded me of a certain Mortlach 15. Despite the sherry finish, heavy bourbon notes prevailed throughout a smooth and creamy palate. Finish short but satisfying. I could see myself drinking this on a nearly daily basis.

Aberlour 16 yo
With a nose of berries — raspberry and bramble mostly — and a lovely cinnamon-and-pepper palate, I loved this whisky even before it ended. Which it nearly didn’t. I swear, they had to kick me out before the finish was done. Truly a remarkable and delicious whisky.

Aberlour A’bunadh batch 38 – 60.3%
Having tasted a whole range of A’bunadh batches from 35 to 39, I already knew what to expect with this one — and that was a good thing. The A’bunadh (“the original”) range came about when some distillery workers in the 70s discovered a bottle of whisky in the wall with a newspaper from the late 1800s wrapped around it. Realizing that they’d stumbled on what may have been the original recipe for Aberlour whisky, the distillery sent the spirit for analysis and has produced this expression as a way to reach back through the annals of time and recreate what had once been lost. Of course, each batch (no age statement) is slightly different from the others, so if you find one you really like, buy up as many bottles as you can because it ain’t coming back.

Batch 38 is good (though batch 35 is definitely my preference out of all the ones I’ve tried) — typical sherried notes of plum and other cooked fruits, but with a lovely twist of bitter orange or perhaps orange oils. It improves with a bit of water and really packs a punch (a good one!) on the finish.


Visiting Aberlour made for a marvelous start to our long trip. Big thanks to our lovely guide and the staff at the distillery who made us feel so welcome and even allowed us to store our rucksacks in the manager’s office. I sincerely hope to visit again someday.

Tasting Notes: Water of Life Society Annual General Meeting


The other night, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society held its Annual General Meeting and final (formal) tasting of the academic year. Knowing we would all be on the brink of depression over the summer hiatus — for some of us, the forever hiatus as we leave Edinburgh — the committee selected a cracking line up of truly superb drams, each member getting one selection which made for an unthemed but nevertheless delicious tasting.

Balblair 2001
Balblair doesn’t do age statements, opting instead for vintages. This one was probably bottled in 2010 or 2011.

Nose: Very light and subtle with both toffee and caramel, brown butter, hay. Deepened to include chocolate notes after some time.

Palate: Incredibly smooth and balanced — nothing too complex here but still an enjoyable whisky to roll around a bit on the tongue.

Finish: Like everything else, very subtle. A perfect starter dram to the evening.

Blair Athol y.o. 12 Flora and Fauna
Nose: Lots of desserts here: caramel shortbread, sticky toffee pudding, some light marshmallow notes and something green I couldn’t put my finger on at first — perhaps watercress?

Palate: Not quite as sweet as the nose would have me believe; mainly nutty and a bit leathery with, yes, a hint of watercress.

Finish: Spicy, short, and satisfying. This was my favorite dram of the evening.

Cadenhead’s 15 y.o. single cask (Ord distillery)
One assumes that by Ord they mean Glen Ord…?

Nose: The first thing I thought was, This smells like a granola bar! And indeed, there’s lots of toasted oats and honey.

Palate: Spiciness hit me like a swarm of bees, but once that settled down I got dark plum with some bits of apricot and nice heavy oak. Adding a drop of three of water allowed the fruity notes to really blossom.

Finish: I neglected to note the finish but from what I remember it was quite lengthy and rich.

SMWS 26.77 “Church Pews and Hymn Books” (Clynelish 27 y.o.)
Nose: I didn’t get the name from the nose at all. To me it was a meadow of sun-warmed wildflowers, with hints of vanilla and some sea-saltiness.

Palate: Here I did get some mustiness of old books and dark wood, but also lemon and rosemary, some other light fruits as well.

Finish: Again, no notes, but it continued in the same fashion as the palate. The dram as a whole definitely improved in balance and depth with water.

Good things come in threes.

Mortlach 16 y.o.
I recently had the 15 year old and found its older brother to be worlds apart in terms of nose and taste. I much prefer this one.

Nose: Quite briny with a bit of cream soda and very light orange — almost Irn Bru-y, come to think of it.

Palate: Lots of cherry and other dried fruit; some vague hints of cough syrup, but not unpleasant.

Finish: Warm and slightly spicy.

Kilchoman 4 1/2 y.o.
Nose: Smoke, brine, and gorse — very pleasant indeed.

Palate: Quite peaty, naturally, with some oatcake and, oddly enough, green lentil. I also got some nice spearmint notes and plenty of oak.

Finish: Still nicely smoky/peaty and not heavy. A really nice final dram to the evening.

During the meeting we conducted business, like electing a new committee for next year, and also held an auction — timed towards the end of the night, as we were all quite steamin’ — for WaterAid. Although I’d have liked to pick up several of the lovely bottles up for auction (like the Wemyss Honey Harvest or a liter of The Dalmore 15 y.o.), I had to think  of luggage restrictions — and all the other bottles I have to take home in August — so I contented myself with one bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street, a fantastic blend which seems to be rapidly growing in popularity.

I’m trying not to think about leaving Edinburgh and WOLS, overwhelmed as I am with work, school, and wedding planning; but when it does cross my mind that there will be no more Thursday night meetings, no more silly banter, no more opportunities to taste amazing whiskies with awesome people at an insanely low price — I feel a little ache, one I’m certain will deepen over time.

One of my biggest personal flaws is my inability to live in the moment, my tendency to feel nostalgic for things before they’ve even passed, but this time, I think it’s warranted.

Thanks for an incredible year, WOLS. Slàinte!

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…