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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.)