Once a month I’ll be handing over the reigns of AmateurDrammer.com to new columnist Rob Beaton. Rob is a whisky enthusiast and a barman so brings a new perspective to the site. For this months piece he has chosen to take a closer look at a well known yet often overlooked malt.
It is more important than ever with the extended lockdown to stay positive and occupied. For me that comes in the form of the amber nectar, both drinking it and talking about it, so a warm whisky welcome to those still surviving lockdown.
For this months review I’d like to go back to the beginning of my whisky journey, back to an old favourite, an old friend. Not actually the first whisky I ever tried but certainly a memorable one and the first single malt that I ever tried – The Balvenie 12 year old Doublewood.
The Balvenie is a powerhouse of the whisky world following in the footsteps of its older Sister distillery, Glenfiddich. The Balvenie is still a family owned distillery (William Grant & Sons Ltd) and a very successful family business at that, you may indeed recognise some other big brands that they own; Glenfiddich, Monkey Shoulder, Hendricks gin, Sailor Jerry rum, Reyka vodka, Tia Maria and Disaronno are just a few well known names amongst their portfolio.
This empire all started with a young farm boy born on the 19th December 1839. William Grant, the son of a local farmer from Dufftown. From the age of 7 William was helping on the farm but his journey into whisky didn’t start until he gained employment at his local distillery – Mortlach “The Beast of Dufftown”
He started as a Book-keeper, progressing to become a Clerk and then finally up to Distillery Manager. After 20 years William left Mortlach and bought a field near Balvenie Castle where he started to draw up plans for his own distillery. The first foundation stone was laid in the Autumn of 1886. This was to become his first distillery, Glenfiddich, which was established in 1887.
It was later in 1892 not far from Glenfiddich distillery that works began to convert an old 18th century mansion (Balvenie House) into a 2nd distillery. Although established in 1892 Balvenie distillery took 15 months to build and the first distillation didn’t take place until 1st May 1893.
Grant died in 1923 at the age of 83 but his legacy certainly grew with Glenfiddich which became one of the first commercially exported, biggest selling and most awarded single malts in the world. With all this success I suppose Balvenie has always been in the shadow of Glenfiddich but for me it is the winner, it may be less known and not as marketed but it is the younger, modest and classier sibling, oozing quality & prestige.
Many people are integral to the success & popularity of The Balvenie and I praise everyone of them but if I had to focus on one the person that has been vital to the distillery it would have to be The Balvenie’s Malt Master, David C Stewart MBE. A legend in the whisky industry with over 50 years experience in the trade, there are few people who can match his years of service and expertise.
He started his career with William Grant & Sons in 1962 and with many accomplishments and accolades under his belt, including being awarded an M.B.E by Her Majesty the Queen for his services and contributions to the Scotch whisky industry. Stewart is probably most well known for pioneering the concept of ‘cask finishing’, a process whereby you mature a whisky in one style of cask, then transfer the liquid into a different type of cask to ‘finish’ it’s maturation (eg. Ex-bourbon then ex-sherry casks). This adds a richer, more complex flavour profile to the whisky.
The Balvenie has an extensive portfolio of releases and having become such a popular dram it is no wonder it now produces around 5.6 million litres of spirit per year to keep up with demand.
Over the years it has had releases from 8 years old to 55 years old but when it comes down to it I always go back to an old favourite. The Balvenie 12 year old Doublewood.
Released in 1993 this was the brainchild of David Stewart, the very whisky that he pioneered cask finishing with. Matured in traditional (ex-bourbon) oak casks for 12 years then finished in Spanish ex-oloroso sherry casks for approximately 9 months before being decanted into large oak vessels called Tuns for between 3 and 4 months to allow the various casks to marry seamlessly together. The Doublewood is the Balvenie flagship single malt and one of their best sellers alongside their 14 year old Caribbean Cask (a rum cask finish).
The Doublewood is a perfect example of a whisky being built from a strong platform. The Balvenie house style is smooth, sweet and fruity, when matched up with the ex-bourbon casks its brings forward smooth and sweet notes of vanilla and honey then with an ex-sherry cask influence a rich complexity of fruitcake and soft spices gives a warming finish.
A great go-to dram for both whisky veterans and whisky virgins.
It isn’t just the taste of this whisky that makes it special to me though. As I mentioned at the start this was the first single malt that I ever tried and it was love at first taste.
That goes for every Balvenie I have tried, from 10 to 50 years old and every sip that has graced my palate, one word comes to mind – Quality! Let us also not forget that the Doublewood is excellent value at around £40.
I get asked all the time in the bar “What is your favourite whisky?” My immediate answer is always that I can’t choose just one, I have tried so many that I have thought are amazing it is impossible to name just one.
However, what I like to classify as a “favourite” in my mind is something that you can enjoy often and that you can afford to go back to again and again, something that represents 4 key factors:
For those reasons it is The Balvenie 12 year old Doublewood that wins it for me. It is a safe and enjoyable go-to dram and will remain so for many years.
Next month I will be looking at something a little different – a look at whisky cocktails from a bartenders perspective.
Rob Beaton can mostly be found behind the bar at The Malt Room in Inverness – if he’s not there he’s probably experimenting by mixing cocktails at home or wandering around a distillery.