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Wednesday 13 April 2011

A Tun Of Fun

When you sit on the tarmac at any given airport, you see small vehicles scurrying around the runway the size and shape which never enter real life. Never seen on the motorway or A roads, these tugs are akin to the deep sea blob-fish that are projected in green limelight on TV nature shows; odd shapes and sizes, they scurry around demanding attention, like 1970’s punks.

Flying is a funny old game, especially when you’re going from one part of an island to another. That’s why I’ve chosen to make a trip up to Scotland via train. Nothing new there, we’ve done that plenty of times before. This time however, I’m going further than ever before (Aberdeen, from London) and I’m taking the sleeper train...

As you can see from the video, the trip was pretty good, despite the small cabin, with the added bonus of waking up in the Highlands of Scotland just a stone’s throw from Speyside, my ultimate destination.

The first stop on today’s journey is a quick nip in to the town of Huntly where independent bottlers Duncan Taylor are based. A whistle –stop tour of their small (but well formed) bottling plant just off the main street was a real education. Plenty of interesting stock, including some maturing cask of very old, very rare Speyside malts shows the company in rude health and if their recent Black Bull 40 Year Old is anything to go by, they’ll be churning out quality offerings for a while to come yet.

One nice innovation they are developing is to additionally mature some casks in smaller quarter casks and octaves. This way, bottles can be released in smaller batches with enhanced finishes over a number of different days.

I was treated to some small samples of a Single Cask Cameron Bridge from 1979 (tinned pineapple and huge, gluey grain notes, sweet and syrupy) and a 1972 Caperdonich which left me wanting to discover more about this lost distillery. Look out for them in the near future.

Onward from Huntly to Dufftown, the heartland of whisky making and the real reason for taking the sleeper up from London: a visit to The Balvenie Distillery.

Last year The Balvenie released a very limited edition bottling developed by Malt Master David Stewart Tun 1401, especially for visitors taking the tour of their facilities, one of the only places in Scotland where you can experience whisky making from cooperage, through to malting and the whisky making process itself. A tour well worth taking, if you can get on one (8 people, twice a day, 4 times a week is a pretty limited offer). This bottling was preceded by two other successful distillery only bottlings, Rose Batch 1 and Rose Batch 2, but more on them later...

For the original Tun 1401, Stewart took 6 casks (4 American Oak and 2 Sherry Butts) and married the contents together in a large tun. Just 336 bottles were released at 48.1% ABV and such was the reception for this bottling that Stewart and his team have decided to create a second batch. Using a new selection of barrels, the new Tun 1401 Batch 2 will yield an increased number of bottles with a worldwide release in late May 2011.

The newer batch is made up of 10 barrels ranging from 1969 to 1989, with the majority of the spirit made in the early 1970’s. Let’s have a look at 9 of these constituent parts:

1967, Hogshead:

N. Pineapple chunks

P. More tinned pineapple with Vanilla Ice Cream and Soda Water

F. Lime Cordial

1970, Sherry Butt:

N. Garibaldi Biscuits, Wheat.

P. Copper, Raisin, Digestive Biscuits

F. Sweet Tea

1971, Sherry Butt:

N. Dusty Furniture Polish.

P. Boiled sweets, wood polish.

F. Oaky and dry

1971, ex-Bourbon:

N. Fresh pineapple, cream, white grape juice.

P. Fresh lemon, cloudy apple juice.

F. Oak and dry sherry

1972, Hogshead:

N. Pear soap.

P. Lime juice.

F. Lime peel

1973, sherry butt:

N. rich red fruits

P. Wonderful depth, freshly sliced red apple.

F. Deep and rounded summer fruits

1974, Hogshead:

N. Cream Soda.

P. Cream soda again but mixed with fresh pineapple and green apple slices

F. Short and sweet.

1975, Hogshead:

N. Black Currant juice

P. Dark Chocolate

F. Very short with a hint of bitterness and oak

1978, Bourbon:

N. Vanilla cream cakes

P. Hints of mint, éclairs

F. Toasted Marshmallow.

There was one final cask, a bourbon barrel from 1989 but I didn’t get a chance to have a nose / taste of that sample, sadly.

My biggest impression from each of these casks (sampled with water) was that they would all make a good single cask bottlings, with a couple being exceptional single casks (1967 and 1978 as my personal picks). So how will these individual whiskies come together to create one Single Malt? Well, let’s hear from David Stewart about the process in this short video:

The Balvenie – Tun 1401 – Batch 2 - ~3000 bottles – Sample strength at 52.2% ABV

Nose: Wow, this is a whisky with a big personality and the nose jumps out the glass at you; citrus fruit juices come through first, followed by a dumbing down of the energy thanks to some runny honey tones and finally oak and wood spices add some last min left turns to the aroma.

Palate: A huge hit of spiced pineapple, as if used in a mild curry with some lime chutney and Seville orange marmalade.

Finish: Very rich with toffee and coffee giving way to soft brown sugar and spices.

Overall: Dave Broom taught me not to confuse power with complexity when judging a whisky, but this is both powerful and complex but equally well balanced. For me, The Balvenie produces very drinkable whisky (the Double Wood was the whisky that got me in to whisky) but occasionally can lack bite and personality. The Tun 1401 makes up for that in bucket loads, with a huge personality that still plays to all the key strengths of what makes The Balvenie such an easy whisky to drink. Fingers crossed this gets bottled as near to this sample strength as possible...

The Tun 1401 Batch 1 which we reviewed here, replaces The Balvenie Rose (two batches, both around 400 bottles per batch, finished in Port Pipes) as the Distillery Only bottling. As well as picking up my very own bottle of the Tun 1401 Batch 1 to sink at home, there were a few bottles of the Rose Batch 2 left on the shelf at the distillery shop. What to do? Ignore the last credit card bill, dive in to purchase a bottle and have a taste. Let's see how it compares to the Tun 1401...

The Balvenie- 16 Years Old - Rose – Batch 2 – Distillery Only Bottling - 50.3% ABV

Nose: Copper notes, rich summer fruits, rose petals, runny honey and sweet cure bacon.

Palate: malty and sweet, poached pears in syrup, tinned apricots. Soft.

Finish: Very sweet, crème brulee topping, sugared tea and some wood spices to round it off.

Overall: A solid Balvenie with the Port Wood giving loads of character to the classic tones of honey and sweet sugar. A good dram, but the Tun 1401 Batch 1 wins this battle for me. A note for the presentation of this, which is stunning, with the bottling coming in a velvet-lined box. Very fancy indeed!

All-in-all, a cracking day at The Balvenie. A huge ‘thank you’ must go out to Malt Master David Stewart for his time, as well as to David Mair, The Balvenie Distillery Ambassador, for making the day possible, for so much information and drams.

We will get back to you with a firm date for the release of Tun 1401 and any further details should they be available.

I’m off back to the train station but this time not for the sleeper train to London, but a much shorter hop to Glasgow. Who knows what we might find down in the Lowlands...