...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Single Malt Report: The Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel

As you may have gleaned from last week's Diageo-related posts, I have some issues with the whisky industry, and more specifically with the largest of the corporate whisky makers.  In that vein, I often want to drill Balvenie a new a**hole.  Between their Doublewood lawsuit, the filtering and coloring of their products, the "The", and their whole American Craftsmanship marketing campaign, they can make any whisky snoot grumpy.

But I like their whisky.  The Doublewood 12yo is always reliable, Signature 12yo was leaner and less oaky before it flew the coop, Caribbean Cask makes for a great dessert malt, Portwood 21yo is the only port-influenced whisky I've ever loved, and the Tun 1401s render me stupid(er).

Then there's the Single Barrel.  At first it was a 15 year old, looking indie with its cask information, David Stewart's signature, and a higher ABV.  It once went for $60-$70.  Now it retails at $90, and has a younger brother (12 years old) filling in at the old price point.

I liked the 15yo SB the first three times I'd tried it (twice at bars and once at an official Balvenie craft thingy).  But when it made an appearance in my recent blind taste test (posted yesterday), I couldn't even recognize it.  That Single Barrel bottle in question didn't remotely resemble a Balvenie malt.  It wasn't terrible, but it fell short of a Speyburn 10 year old.

Variation must be anticipated in true single barrel releases.  That's part of the point of those sorts of bottlings; it provides the drinker the experience of sampling an individual cask.  BUT, large brands have an interest in keeping a level of character consistency amongst the barrels.  Balvenie needs to taste like Balvenie, because if one of Balvenie's single barrels tastes (for good or ill) like Glengoyne, a drinker may not stick around for another Balvenie Single Barrel bottle, and maybe even go out and buy some Glengoyne.  Balvenie wants you to come back and buy more Balvenie.  Thus there's a balance they try to hit with each of these barrels: it must fit in with their brand's flavor profile of honey, vanilla, apples, and caramel.  As Eric pointed out in yesterday's comments and Andrew Weir mentioned in a K&L podcast, the company will even age a barrel longer than 15 years in order for the resulting malt to gain the desired character.

Still, it appears as if the quality of the Balvenie Single Barrels varies greatly.  Aside from the discoveries that Florin (provider of the blind tasting whiskies) and I have made, a Twitter conversation I had with three folks from three different parts of the US revealed a considerable range in quality in bottles/barrels, from horrible to stellar.  There was some consensus that the odds of getting a great barrel was 50%.  When the 15yo SB was selling for $60, that would be a risk some would take.  But at $90?

The whisky from yesterday's post wasn't horrible.  It was okay -- a little spirity on the palate, alternating between industrial and fruity, a brief finish -- but it didn't resemble Balvenie.  And it wasn't something for which I'd pay much money.

Happily, I just recently consumed a Master of Malt sample that lines up with the qualities I would look for in a Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel.

Distillery: Balvenie
Region: Speyside (Dufftown)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: "Traditional oak whisky cask" (refill American oak, perhaps?)
Age: minimum 15 years
Alcohol by Volume: 47.8%

One obvious failing of this post is that I don't have the barrel information for this particular sample.  What I can tell you is that it was from a UK bottle from Master of Malt's store, likely from the last year or two since MoM goes through merchandise pretty quickly.  That is of no help, I know.  Onto the whisky!

The color is amber with light gold highlights.  Butterscotch candies and salted caramels lead the nose. Then, yes, Purple Stuff, followed by fresh bananas, cardamom, orange peel, vanilla beans, and molasses.  The thickly textured palate rolls in leading with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge.  There's some salt, lots of malt, and a little spirity bite that will hurt no one.  It finishes with a peppery zing.  Some vanilla beans, caramel sauce, and barley linger in the moderate length finale.

Much more orange and cardamom in the nose.  There's some sweet basil candy (not a thing), soft mild cheese, and something reminiscent of a lower-rye-mashbill rye whiskey.  The palate gets soft and quiet.  A little malt and vanilla.  More of spicy nibble than a bite, but otherwise challenge-free.  Lots of vanilla remains in the finish, along with cinnamon and brown sugar.

An odd thing that I will note is the difference in color between this sample and the one from the blind tasting.  This one was amber with a little bit of gold around the edges.  The blind tasting's Single Barrel?  A darker (and rosy) gold.  I'm not diagnosing too much caramel colorant as the problem, but there may have been a significant surplus of e150a in the lesser bottle.  It was the Speyburn 10 that had the mild amber hue.

How about some good news?  This sample represents what I would look for in a Balvenie 15yo SB.  The simple but delicious palate is much better neat.  The nose is solid with or without water.  It seems made to please, and I was pleased.  If THIS was what I could reliably expect this quality and character from the 15yo SB and if I could hunt it down at a price below the current point then I would consider buying this.  But I can't reliably expect this quality and character from the 15yo SB.  And at $90 a pop, there are many better whisky risks to take.

Availability - Most major liquor retailers
Pricing - $80-$100, though it can still be found at $70 if you do some snooping
Rating - 86
(This rating is for this sample only. Please note: There is considerable quality variation between barrels. Or, otherwise phrased, there are some crap bottles out there.)


  1. The Balvenie 15yo from yesterday's tasting was Barrel #3636 d.07/04/95 b.15/10/10. I purchased it from a corner liquor store in december last year. I'm starting to wonder now whether there is some "cooking" of the bottles happening in whisky as well.

    For wines, cooking is a serious, under-appreciated issue; in fact I'd venture to say that except for *very* few stores the odds are less than even that your bottle of wine will test anywhere as good when you drink it as when it was bottled. For this reason why I rarely buy non-local (California) wine these days.

    Could there be something going on with whisky too? Sure, batch variation is a possible explanation. But between the suspicious color that you identified on yesterday's Balvenie (and I agree with that!) and finding funny tastes in Glenlivet 12yo dusties that didn't use to be there, I wonder whether whisky gets cooked as well - especially on the shelves of a corner liquor store in Southern California. I was pretty sure it didn't, but now I'm worried. These defects that we're talking about are consistent with oxidation, and maybe some chemistry experts (you know who you are!) can explain to us what heat and light could do to whisky.

    1. One of the reasons I love madeira - it's pre-cooked, so you'd have to work pretty hard to mess it up.

    2. In our Twittering, Mr. MAO was also wondering about the storage conditions in some liquor stores, near vents and stuff. Around here I've seen whisky bottles in store windows, un-tinted windows that get 12+ hours of intense sunlight. This is the same reason I've moved even my cheapie whiskies out of our dining room.

  2. The 750ml Balvenie line is by far my favorite bottle shape. When I look at an empty Balvenie bottle, which is more often than it should be, I picture the classic message in a bottle being thrown from a deserted island.

    1. Yeah, a totally different shape than its cousin Glenfiddich's bottles. The Grants-'Fiddich triangle is unique-looking and storage efficient, but it looks like you can use it to brain the f*** out of an house thief.

    2. Balvenie has had a lot of bottle changes in the last 50+ years. I've seen pictures online of Balvenie in the 'Fiddich triangular bottles and Balvenie in the odd looking "cognac" bottle. Ralfy notes in his reviews that once the William Grant marketing department saw the Balvenie sales based on word of mouth, they gave the brand a makeover and we got the current bottle shape. "Because a product that sells itself is the WORST NIGHTMARE of a marketing department" is probably my favorite Ralfy line of all time.

    3. That is a great (and true) quote. Can't let quality and word of mouth boost sales. Gotta keep the marketing budget up!

  3. Balvenie Single Barrel (both 12 and 15) are aged in ex-bourbon casks but it appears that the barrels most likely held bourbon for varying lengths of time (i.e. Balvenie bought barrels from different bourbon distilleries). I think this is why a 20 year old Single Barrel needs five more years to fit the flavor profile. The previously filled bourbon probably took more of the flavor chemicals out of the wood.

    1. Their official descriptions always list the 12 as first fill and the 15 as "traditional oak whisky cask". I'm wondering if that "traditional" appellation is a handy catch-all for ex-bourbon casks no matter how many fills.

    2. 'Traditional oak' often means ex-grain whisky casks, so roughly equivalent to refill bourbon. Makes a certain amount of sense if they're giving it more time - more oxidation, less extraction. But overall it seems like obfuscating marketing speak.

    3. I'm sure most distilleries want to use either ex-grain casks or ex- casks from their own distillery so as to not introduce too many extraneous characteristics into their product.

      On a related note, Sam Simmons (formerly Dr Whisky, now a Balvenie ambassador) has an official comment on Scotch Hobbyist's blog:
      "I know that for Balvenie, we say ex-bourbon or ex-sherry only for the first time a cask has been used for Scotch whisky. After that, we call them “traditional oak” or “traditional casks”"

  4. Interesting that the sample tasted blind is the outlier, the ones tasted with the label in view fit the Balvenie "profile".
    IMO, this is less a case of "batch variation" than blind/brand variation. I suspect the sender of the blind sample didn't think it was a bad bottle - otherwise he wouldn't have sent it. So, the original owner - who knew it was a Balvenie - thought it fit the profile, the taster couldn't differentiate it from a MUCH cheaper (and younger) malt and attributes to batch variation.

    I wish bloggers:
    1. stopped reviewing based on small samples pulled from bottles at different fill levels open for indeterminate amounts of time, and
    2. sampled everything blind.
    That would be the only way to get more objective, unbiased reviews. But of course, that will rarely happen since more often than not the distillers sending the free samples wouldn't be too happy with the results.

    1. Thank you for your comment. You bring up many important issues. I'll attempt to reflect on a few.

      There seem to be two sets of whisky bloggers, those who receive free samples directly from company representatives and those who do not. I'm in the second group. While it would be fun to receive free whisky, I won't lie to an audience in order to get said whisky. There are a few bloggers out there who seem to love every single free sample they receive, and it makes folks like you and I question the opinions we're reading.

      The blind sampling process is exhilarating and sometimes humiliating. I will continue to do it from time to time because I don't mind a little public humiliation. :) And it keeps me honest.

      I agree with you 100% that whisky changes in the bottle depending on fill level and time. I've done a couple posts on how particular bottles changed as I made my way down 'em. I currently have a whisky open that seems very active, having shifted gears noticeably. There will be a post on it once the bottle has been completed. In the meantime, I will try to include where the fill level was for my reviews of my own whisky bottles.

      The gentleman who sent me the blind samples was partially trying to demonstrate that Speyburn 10yo wasn't as horrible as I'd once said it was. And he did find his Balvenie 15yo SB not bad but a bit different than his previous Balvenie 15yo SB bottles. Plus we were just having some fun.

      I don't think batch variation is a bad thing, in fact it can be considered bold that Balvenie would leave their products open to character variety. Plus I love getting indie single cask stuff because one never actually knows how the bottle will turn out. For me, in this case, I heard enough mixed reaction that it had me doubt the wisdom of a purchase (made by me) at the product's current price point.

      Thanks again for your comment.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Thanks for responding to my comments above.
      A couple further points:
      - sorry that my comments came off as a criticism to you personally. The intent was to be more general in pointing out faults with reviewing based on small samples and from uncontrolled pours.
      - the second point is that branding (seeing the bottle/label in front of you as you sample) has a huge impact on how we all assess a whisky (or any other consumer good). It appears your friend was trying to make the same point re: Speyburn (a generally maligned SM) vs Balvenie (a well branded SM).


    4. No worries! Sorry if I made it look like a personal thing. Closet narcissists tend to do that.

      You do point out some good issues in the blogger reviewing process. I wonder though about the samples being sent to Murray, Roskrow, Hansell, and other paid/published reviewers. Are they getting full bottles? If so, are they reviewing their first sips from the top of the bottle? Or are they getting tiny samples too? Are they even getting the batch/version that will hit the retail shelves? I know this doesn't excuse the rest of us, but clearly there are flaws to the reviewing process.

      In my mind, I liken a lot of this to album reviews. Most writers are rushing (or are rushed) to get their review out immediately. There is no way to fully appreciate a piece of music by listening to it once. Too small of a sample. Spending a month with an album or a bottle of whisky will result in a more complete and fulfilling review.

      And I do agree with you about how brand awareness impacts perception. It would be fun to see some more blind reviews in the blogosphere. It would force some of us to rethink a few things when we discover the emperor has no clothes.

  5. Well, my bottle of Single Barrel ended up being so good that I didn't save a sample when I emptied the bottle (it was at the last quarter of liquid left so I figured I needed to finish the bottle soon). But a Beltramo's Christmas coupon allowed me a chance to get a bottle of Balvenie Peated Cask. Since that was a 2010 limited release, I figured I'd help the store with a little shelf clearing and I was in the mood for something weird.

    1. I saw one of those Peated Cask bottles in Orange County last month. That's a curiosity.

      Looks like they released it first as Balvenie Islay Cask almost 10 years ago, but then the SWA announced that non-Islay distilleries couldn't use "Islay" in their product names. Thank you SWA for allowing even less disclosure and information for consumers.

    2. The Peated Cask is probably more interesting than the Islay Cask. According to the Malt (now Whisky) Advocate, Balvenie made a heavily peated whisky in 2001 which they used to season some casks. Those casks were left to mature, emptied, and filled with nearly 17 year old Balvenie for finishing. So essentially it's Balvenie that's been finished in a ex-peated Balvenie cask. This was then vatted with 17 year old Balvenie that had been finished in new oak. All in all a very complicated process that would lead Dark Helmet to say, "Everybody got that?"

      Oh, and that peated Balvenie that was used to season the casks? It's apparently now hiding in the Balvenie warehouses but I would love to taste it.

    3. I think it's about time they release the peated malt -- at 12 years of age -- and charge a comparable price to that of Doublewood. Peat is hip! Release it now!

      Or maybe it's hideous and they're hoping some barrel time improves the lot.

    4. I actually posted my query on the WhiskyWhiskyWhisky forums to see if anyone had heard something. Turns out Glenfiddich and Balvenie have been making peated whisky for the last nine years. The first release of peated Glenfiddich was in their 125th Anniversay edition (which didn't make it here if I recall) and that had been vatted with non-peated whisky. It could be Balvenie is saving theirs for a similar special release. At the very least they could just blend it into Tun 1401 for a special peated edition.

    5. Sadly, that GF anniversary edition didn't make it here. It's still selling at Duty Free shops and in Europe. In the UK it goes for north of $200! If Balvenie blended theirs into a Tun 1401 they could probably triple the price and it would still sell out. Not that I want to give anyone any ideas or anything. :(

  6. This is already a long comment thread but it seems appropriate to mention here that I am a bit divided on Balvenie's decision to discontinue the 15 year old Single Barrel for a 12 year old. Sure the 15 is now an ex-sherry cask but the price has gone up compared to the old ex-bourbon Single Barrel. The likely reason is that Balvenie has a significant number of ex-sherry casks that are of age but it seems strange that the ex-bourbon whisky had to go away.

    1. It's curious that they had more older ex-sherries sitting around than ex-bourbons. Maybe they're holding onto some for an older luxury level item. 17-year-old or 21-year-old single cask maybe? They did bump the 15yo ex-bourbon price up once the 12yos came along. The 15yo ex-sherries come at an additional $20 premium. I don't really know many folks who are rushing to buy $110 15 year old official bottlings, but there are apparently lots of people who have money to spend.

    2. The Balvenie 12 Single Barrel is a bit extreme in pricing. I've seen them go from $70 to 90.

    3. Yeah, I've seen that same range in pricing too. I wonder, are they really moving bottles at those prices?