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Saturday, 14 August 2010

Calling A Spade a Shiel

Distillery character is a wonderful thing. Perhaps it is best exemplified by the moment when you pour a large dram and the mind starts to race and the tastebuds to go into overdrive.

I suppose you could say that distillery character gives you a 6th sense before opening a bottle. It is the standard which you have come to expect- Citrus notes... Check... Cereals... Check... chocolate/fudge... Check...

Peat... Hang on!!!

Some distilleries like to experiment and play with our senses a bit. You know, throw in a few curved balls. Sometimes they work, adding to (and in many cases) enhancing the already stand out distillery character, but sometimes these experiments mask out and undermine everything that the distillery has worked hard to build up over time.

On Wednesday, we got a great opportunity to see the former of these principles executed to perfection.

To us, Balvenie have always felt like they're slightly in the shadow of their giant and highly successful sister, Glenfiddich but have revelled in not having such a high profile image to keep up. As a result, their bottlings, from the classic Signature through to the 21yo Portwood finish have always hit the high notes without even trying. To go back to exam times, they're the slightly laid back, yet highly gifted sibling, who just turns up and achieves top marks, whereas Glenfiddich have been studying and cramming for months.

Both great distilleries, yet in very different ways.

Master Distiller and Whisky Creator David Stewart apparently does his experimenting in Cellar 24- and it is in this warehouse that their newest limited release, The Peated Cask was born.

We got to meet with Dr Andrew Forrester, who to demonstrate this new bottling had decided to bring an ENTIRE MALTING FLOOR to London and invited the assembled audience to come up and play around in it.

Oh yes!

That certainly got our attention. Malt Angel anyone? Our thoughts travelled to a slightly crazed Brian Wilson, playing a vast sandpit he had built inside his LA home, whilst the Beach Boys went off on tour...Not sure we'd be allowed to convert the ground floor of Caskstrength Towers into a malting floor though.

Andrew explained that in 2001 the distillery bought some heavily peated malt to experiment with, explaining that they wanted to explore the maturation process of a 'peated Balvenie' using fresh bourbon casks. It is not the first time that the distillery had experimented with peat, producing the extremely limited Islay Cask bottling.

After a time, the whisky was emptied and the casks were used to essentially finish a fully (17yo) matured Balvenie. But the results on their own masked that wonderful distillery character with too much smoke. However David stewart had another trick up his sleeve. At same time, he transferred some 17yo into totally fresh bourbon casks to gain some extra fruity character. A marriage between the 2 seemed to do the trick and The Peated Cask bottling was complete- essentially a marriage of 2 finishes!! An industry first- from the distillery that bought you the original concept of Doublewood.

So did the experiment work??

Well first, to get our senses in tune with the original distillery character, Andrew gave us a dram of Signature to try first:

Balvenie - Signature - Batch 3 - 43% Vol

As many of you will know- this is a whisky aged around 12 years, matured in 3 types of cask 1st fill Bourbon, refill Bourbon and Oloroso sherry butts. We have done notes on this before, so compare and contrast here.

Nose: Dark orange fruits, fudge notes and slight wafts of cinnamon spice and honey.

Palate: Cereal notes on the initial sip, slightly malty, with a touch of molasses bitter-sweetness. Then the citrus notes from return (Grapefruit), along with spice (there is definitely an element of cinnamon in here)

Finish: Lingering spices and drying notes with a sharp citrus bite.

Overall: A great starting point, which serves to highlight the emerging character Balvenie has.

It was then time to try the limited release Peated Cask... and a slight sense of the unknown!

Balvenie - Peated Cask- 17yo- 43% - Around 3000 bottles for the UK

Nose: Spices, licorice notes, a small amount of quite delicate smoke and fresh citrus notes. With time, a little smoked meat starts to develop.

Palate: Very sweet, cereal notes, then the vanilla from the fresh bourbon comes through in waves mixed with citrus notes. And Bang- there's the peat! It's not a particularly medicinal style peat, but has a much more ash-like quality to it. But the importance is that it doesn't dominate the whisky.

Finish: The peat develops, as does the vanilla lightness, giving slightly floral notes right on the death.

Overall: A brilliant display of how to put on a balancing act. The lightness and richer notes of classic Balvenie are enhanced by the slight addition of smoke, giving you a dram, which scores highly again for quality and innovation. Well done Mr Stewart.