Today I look back to Monday 11th July 2016, an epic day that included a tour of Glenfiddich [report to follow], the Speyside Cooperage [WLP], and lastly, Balvenie. As part of Whiskylounge Backstage, Fergus took us round this distillery that sports its own floor maltings, a cooperage and even houses another distillery within – Kininvie. Here are some tour snippets and a tasting afterward.
Balvenie’s in-house floor maltings meet around 15% of its needs. The grain is brought up on a long Archimedes’ screw. What the world would have done without this amazing [Egyptian wiki] invention I do not know? Balvenie steeps their barley for around a day, “low and slow”. One batch of steeped barley is called ‘a floor’ [literally one floor’s worth from the malting hall]. We are told winter barley takes in more nitrogen from the soil than spring barley. Nitrogen inhibits the production of enzymes meaning spring barley realises a higher yield.
After the germinated barley has been kiln-dried, it’s referred to as ‘chalk-ready’. Fergus points to the chalk markings on the floor from crushed malted barley, mostly from dancing when the maltings hall is hired out as a wedding venue. We are encouraged to try the malted barley. It’s sweet!
Fergus tells us that milling can be the most dangerous part of the whole whisky-making process. A piece of stone hitting the grain-filtration blades could cause a spark, igniting combustibles [flour] and disrupting production. Today, the coast is clear. More tasting!
Balvenie appears to have 2 mash tuns but one is Kininvie’s. Each distillery has its own floor malting spec, separate mash tun, washbacks, and spirit house.
Balvenie’s washbacks smell hammy and bready compared with Glenfiddich’s positively apple strudel-like profile that we experienced earlier in the day. The wash itself tastes like a sour blonde beer and is one of the most desirable washes I’ve tasted. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for sale but this experience informed my tasting appreciation later on.
- Balvenie = 9 washbacks [now 14] 65-hour fermentation
- Kininvie – 10 washbacks with a longer fermentation time of 85 hours.
At Balvenie, their stills are steam-fired yet Fergus admits he believes that direct/indirect firing does affect/change the flavour of the spirit. I always thought that direct firing generally led to a heavier spirit, but that is certainly not the case with Glenfiddich who have a combination of steam and direct firing for their light spirit. More on Glenfiddich another day.
Balvenie’s spirit stills are Glen Albyn’s old wash stills with the windows sealed up. Balvenie then sealed up the windows on their own wash stills in the name of superstition and symmetry.
Compared to the Speyside Cooperage [WLP], Balvenie’s small-scale operation appears far more laid back, even allowing piped music [no pun intended] to accompany the coopers as they work. Balvenie’s coopers have a quota of 18 casks per day meaning they can work at their own pace. The division of labour isn’t applicable here. Each cooper plains his/her own wood for their individual casks, setting up the whole cask one at a time. In what other job/profession can you work/operate/oversee every part of the process?
The cask machine [see video above] is only used to re-tightening still-intact casks that are slightly leaking but don’t require stave replacements or those that have arrived fully assembled from the US for example.
Coopering is a highly-skilled and respected profession, a job for life if you and your body can take it. At the time of writing , Balvenie employed seven full-time coopers and had taken on two apprentices [from 800 applications] who were to undergo a minimum of four years training. They should be trained up around now.
Back outside, we peruse the variety of casks used at Balvenie and the wider whisky industry as a whole. Fergus tells us to expect a lot more wine casks in the future, and don’t we know it?!
We then enter a warehouse where we can bottle our own Balvenie. We choose the sherry cask for its rarity/novelty value.
Balvenie 13yo  Ob. Warehouse Bottling cask #2393 62.7% [20cl] WB86.30
- N: Stupidly strong and sherry-heavy – dessert-sweet and nutty with dark berry fruits and more complex touches on the periphery.
- T: Follows on from the nose, met by a heavy-handed cask. Too much water tends to cancel things out so add with care.
- F: Starts to soften and stretch out with some rubbery sponge. Long
- C: Much to devour but don’t expect too much subtlety or complexity.
Scores 84 points
Now situated inside Balvenie’s tasting room we try the core range, a range which shows off the wood finishes that Balvenie’s master distiller Dave Stewart has been utilising for decades. These were initially tasted blind, revealed one at a time. First up, a classic.
- N: This has to be the Doublewood, one of the most consistent malts around. It smells as always, like a soft fluffed-up malty pillow with a soft sour-sweet yeasty citrus profile.
- T: Sweet and floury-fluffy popcorn-like honey malt with a super-soft [Egyptian] cotton mouthfeel.
- F: Soft comforting dry and not a hint of astringency.
- C: This is right up there with the best batches I’ve had in the last 15 years. This is my benchmark for Balvenie’s contemporary distillery profile.
Scores 86 points
- N: Higher abv now with lots of sherry, or madeira [cake] perhaps? Aah ok, it’s rum and it’s talking rather firmly of tropical dry fruits [melon, pineapple] with gentle spices. Rich and thicker than the Doublewood.
- T: Some immediate spiciness on the palate with a rather frenetic form. Adding water promotes the cereal malty putty notes.
- F: All sorts.
- C: Whilst retaining Balvenie’s signature and quality, I still prefer the Doublewood.
Scores 84 points
- N: I find more sherry here than in the 12yo but no signs of rum or madeira. Apparently, it’s been finished in sherry casks for twice as long as the 12yo. Sweet, candy-sweet with a spongey wash. Good bottling strength.
- T: Richer, and with more complex wash-like notes with more depth of flavour than the 12yo [is all I wrote].
- F: Plenty of sherried richness and chocolate caramel. Good sustain till the last.
- C: Equally as good as the 12yo but for different reasons.
Scores 86 points
- N: This is nice, very nice. Sweet shop-sweet with a deep maltiness and a buckwheat=doughy [Eddu] beer note.
- T: Sherry-like with sulphury notes for my sulphur-sensitive palate.
- F: At the minimum bottling strength, it really struggles to keep going.
- C: Nicely soft in keeping with the whole Balvenie range, but this one is noticeably underpowered.
Scores 83 points
Sold as a ‘guaranteed investment’, we are offered this at an exclusive ‘distillery-only’ price. First of all, let’s see what it’s like. Notes are short in keeping with our brief time in Balvenie’s tasting room.
- N: OK this is something rather special but let’s be cautious and not get carried away by expectations and group hysteria. The one key descriptor I noted was ‘French white unsalted butter’ amongst the plethora of other delights. The abv sets this apart from the others though the family resemblance is clear to see.
- T&F: Yep, all good. Rich, full-bodied. Plenty of nods of agreement around the room. Everyone’s getting a little twitchy. Peeps wrestle with their individual budgets and justify to themselves purchasing a bottle or two.
- C: Excellent whisky though it needed to be significantly more emotive to justify £250, even as an investment. Let’s see where prices are now four years on,…. Hmm, available from £295.
Scores 89 points
I maintain to this day that if Balvenie bottled the 12yo Doublewood [not single cask] at high strength [say 56%], we’d be going nuts over it.
With thanks to Whisky Lounge, Fergus, and the Foz for photos & videos.