Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Balvenie, 12 year DoubleWood vs. 17 year DoubleWood vs. 14 year Caribbean Cask

Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $57
Balvenie 17 year DoubleWood: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $150
Balvenie 14 year Caribbean Cask: single malt Scotch, Speyside, 43%, $68

I’ve never been an ardent admirer of the Balvenie. I have nothing against the brand and the whisky is highly regarded by most people; it’s just that the house style not really compatible with my personal preferences. I’ve always had a hard time enjoying single malts that have a strong floral component, as the Balvenie does. That being said, I do find some of their expressions a little more palatable than others. Those tend to be the longer aged and/or cask finished bottlings, where to original character of the spirit has been somewhat muted by the maturation process.

When I was whiskey hunting in New Hampshire last year, I was quite excited to come across a three-pack of Balvenie miniatures. I’m always keen to sample whiskies that I’ve never had before and the distillery has been putting out quite a few new expressions in recent years. But it seems silly to buy expensive bottles of single malt that I’ll likely be indifferent toward; three miniatures for $20 is the perfect solution.

I started looking into the history of Balvenie and found some interesting things, especially regarding a few related distilleries. Established in 1892 by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie was built to supplement demand for whisky from its nearby sister distillery, Glenfiddich, which had gone into production just five years earlier, in 1887.

In that era very little single malt Scotch was sold as such; almost all of it was bought by blenders and married with grain whisky. In 1898 William Grant & Sons launched the Grant’s brand of blended Scotch whisky. This move made the company less dependent on other blenders and helped to ensure sales of the malt whisky they produced.

In 1963 the company made a couple of interesting maneuvers. Having grown Grant’s into a very successful line of blended Scotches, they built the Girvan grain distillery. This put them into a position where they were producing most of the whisky (both malt and grain) that went into their blends. In the same year, they started bottling and selling Glenfiddich as a single malt. They weren’t the first distillery to do this, but up until then single malts had been a niche market and were really only sold domestically. Glenfiddich was the first to build a brand around a single malt distillery and they did pioneering work to develop “single malt Scotch” as a category, especially in foreign markets. The company eventually followed suit with Balvenie, officially bottling it as a single malt in the early 1970’s.

With Glenfiddich enjoying rapid sales growth, the company likely felt the need to produce more single malt for their blends. I suspect this situation is what prompted them to build the Ladyburn distillery in 1966. It was a single malt distillery with four pot stills, which was located within the Girvan grain distillery. The whisky industry downturn that started in the 1970’s and lasted through the 1980’s is likely the reason that Ladyburn was decommissioned after just ten years, in 1976. But that wasn’t the only “distillery within a distillery” that the company would construct.

The industry had started to rebound in the late 1980’s, and in 1990 William Grant & Sons built the Kininvie single malt distillery, which may be Scotland’s most obscure. It is located within the Balvenie distillery and really consists of nothing more than a stillhouse. The rest of the whisky making process is carried out in Balvenie’s facilities. Kininvie does maintain a dedicated mash tun and group of washbacks, but they housed in buildings that are an integral part of Balvenie.

I have seen the argument put forth that Kininvie shouldn’t even be considered a separate distillery; that it should rather be classified as Balvenie’s second stillhouse. But if you dig around online you’ll find pictures of Kininvie’s stills, and their shape is dramatically different than those of the Balvenie. In my mind, that makes all of the difference in the world, and entitles Kininvie to its status as a separate distillery. Those who have tasted all three say that the whisky from Kininvie is stylistically midway between that of Balvenie and Glenfiddich. With nothing more than a stillhouse that visitors rarely get to see inside and the fact that no Kininvie was bottled as single malt until a limited release in 2013, it’s easy to understand why this is possibly the least known distillery in Scotland.

Then, in 2007, William Grant & Sons made another big move. They built the Ailsa Bay distillery; a new, modern single malt distillery within the Girvan grain distillery (quite close to where Ladyburn had originally been). In 2010, three years after Ailsa Bay went online, Kininvie was mothballed, but there are rumors that it went back into production in 2013.

What really surprised me though were the relative sizes of these distilleries. Glenfiddich maintains the title of best selling single malt in the world. As such, one would expect the distillery to have a pretty big production capacity, and it does at 10 million lpa (liters per annum) of alcohol.

While the single malts from Balvenie can’t match those of Glenfiddich in terms of sales volume, they do garner more prestige and respect. The Balvenie also projects an image of producing a more handcrafted whisky on a smaller scale. Even though the distillery went through the typical period of modernization in the 1960’s, they have held onto some traditions. Chief among them is growing barley on their 1000 acre farm and malting barley on a traditional floor malting. Like most of the handful of distilleries that still malt barley in-house, it is only a percentage of the total that they use each year. As production goes up and the amount of floor malted barley remains the same, that percentage goes down; it is currently between 9% and 10% at the Balvenie. The distillery is also one of the last to have its own cooperage and a coppersmith on staff to maintain the stills, although those resources are shared with Glenfiddich.

In spite of its artisanal image, production at Balvenie is still quite massive at 5.6 million lpa. Considering that there is little more to Kininvie than a stillhouse, which is often disparagingly referred to as a shed behind Balvenie, it’s natural to assume that a lot less whisky is made there. Surprisingly, Kininvie is capable of putting out 4.8 million lpa of alcohol. Ailsa Bay, which likely won’t be bottled as single malt since the primary purpose of the distillery is to provide malt whisky for the Grant’s blends, originally had a capacity of 5 million lpa. But the number of washbacks and stills at Ailsa Bay were doubled in 2013, increasing capacity to 10 million lpa, and equaling the output of Glenfiddich.

Just to put all of that in perspective, Edradour and Kilchoman, which are some of the smallest distilleries in Scotland are each capable of producing just 100,000 lpa.

Okay, enough of the history lesson, on to the whisky. Most of the bottlings in the Balvenie range were matured in former bourbon barrels (or traditional oak whisky casks, as the company prefers to call them). Many of the expressions have an additional cask finish, usually done for short periods of time. When their 10 year Founder’s Reserve expression was retired in 2009, the 12 year DoubleWood moved into the position of being the Balvenie’s flagship offering. It is aged primarily in bourbon barrels with a finish of just a few months in European oak Sherry casks. The 14 year Caribbean Cask bottling was introduced in 2011. This expression is also aged primarily in bourbon barrels, with just a short finish in American oak casks (I suspect these were also former bourbon barrels) that had been seasoned with rum from the West Indies at Balvenie. The 17 year DoubleWood was introduced in 2012. Like its 12 year sibling, it sees a relatively short finish in European oak Sherry casks, but it spends an extra four years in bourbon barrels beforehand.

Balvenie 12 year DoubleWood:
The nose is floral and grassy, with perhaps a slight vegetal note. Some dry oak aromas come through as well.
On the palate, vanilla and honey also come into play but the floral notes become more dominant by the mid-palate.
As it moves into the finish a dry woodiness emerges along with a very subtle Sherry influence and just a whiff of peat smoke.
Overall, it is well balanced and approachable.

Balvenie 17 year DoubleWood:
The nose is somewhat restrained. Although similar to the 12 year, the aromas lean a bit more toward vanilla and clay.
On the palate it has a little more sweetness up front, but it’s also primarily driven by vanilla and honey. The floral notes are still present, but subdued and playing second-fiddle to the vanilla notes that carry further through on this expression.
It does eventually become dry on the finish, which is much more spice driven compared to the 12 year. The Sherry and peat are still there, but have an even more delicate presence.
Overall, the flavors are more robust throughout compared to the 12 year.

Balvenie 14 year Caribbean Cask:
The nose is oaky with vanilla and a hint of molasses.
On the palate it stays somewhat dry, in spite of the vanilla and demerara sugar notes.
The floral aspect doesn’t really emerge until it moves into the finish, where it also becomes spicy and notably bitter. The peat smoke is all but undetectable.
Overall, it is surprisingly less floral than I expected, but it becomes astringent too a fault on the finish and doesn’t have enough other redeeming qualities to sway my opinion.

With or without my anti-floral biases, the 17 year DoubleWood is the clear winner here. Of course, I’m not about to run out and plunk down $150 for a bottle of it. As for the other two, even though the 14 year Caribbean cask is less offensively floral to me, I can still be unbiased enough to say that the 12 year DoubleWood is clearly its superior.

No comments: