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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Single Malt Report: The Balvenie 21 year old Portwood

Goodness, it feels like it's been forever since I've reported on a single malt.  So, we'll get to two (or three?) this week.  I'll start with a whisky that was on my previous Dram Quest.  The Balvenie 21yr Portwood.

There have been a few posts here about my struggles with "finished" whiskys.  To me, finished whiskies almost never feel like a complete piece.  The elements often remain separate.  Rarely does the character from the wine cask integrate with the malt.

There is undoubtedly a true art to whisky-making.  A wine-cask-finished major release requires the blender to commingle well over 100 separate casks into a single product with a nose and palate that's not only consistent, but also fits into the company's brand.  The producer likely has to test up to 1000 separate barrels of whisky, with each vessel bringing along its own quirks.  So when this process actually works, it's an impressive bit of craft.

When I find a finished whisky that works, I'm first in line to be one of those momentarily sated consumers.  But those finishes usually don't work for me.  Especially port pipe finished whisky.  I've tried about a dozen, and would rather not sample them again.  Well, except for this one.
I'd first tried it at a Balvenie tasting and was surprised by how well the malt, port, and wood was woven into a single whisky unit.  I shouldn't have been surprised since this whisky had been recommended to me by many folks.  Yet I went into the experience with my grudge against port-ed whisky.  But I found the Portwood so nice that I made sure to pick up a dram in a Master of Malt order.

Distillery: Balvenie
Region: Speyside (Dufftown)
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: Most of its life in re-fill American oak, then a short period in ex-port pipes
Age: minimum 21 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

The color is dark gold, like a bourbon.  The nose starts with maraschino cherries in a jar of molasses.  Then there's lots of orange zest, fruit punch, ripe stone fruits, and maple syrup.  After about a half hour, it smells of a dessert of bread pudding with a light port.  Great silky body and texture on this one.  Milk chocolate and raisins start the palate.  There's some sweet cream, vanilla pudding, cinnamon, salt, and whole wheat bread with honey butter.  The late-night finish blooms with raisins in honey, citrus and brown sugar, and finally a healthy dose of pipe tobacco.

Yeah.  Seriously, screw water.  I only drank this one neatly.  It needed no assistance.

Balvenie Master Blender David Stewart really is a master of his craft.  The 12yr Doublewood (the original single malt report!) is honeyed, creamy, and easygoing.  The Signature and Single Barrel are less rounded than the Doublewood, but are more interesting for the same reason.  The Carribean Cask is desserty delicious.  The 17yr Doublewood is, well, a 17yr version of the younger Doublewood.  My Tun 1401 experiences have left me speechless.  The 30yr is dynamite.  And now he's made a port-finished whisky that is all of one piece.  I know Mr. Stewart is in the process of retiring but I'm sure he feels good to have brought so many good products to so many happy drinkers.

Availability - Many liquor specialists
Pricing - $140-$160 (US East Coast and Europe), $180-$200 (California), a 47.6% verison goes for 120GBP at Duty Free
Rating - 90