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Monday, June 12, 2023

Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrels: Bourbon vs Sherry

Many of us remember the Balvenie 15yo Single Barrel, the stronger, older sibling to the 12yo Doublewood, back when that Barrel was of the bourbon sort. This bourbon cask expression existed for at least 23 years before it was retired, and traded out for a sherry cask version in 2015. That more expensive version lasted less than seven years. It appears to have been replaced by the even more expensive 16yo French Oak in 2022.

The evolution matches the times:

  • The 15 year old single bourbon barrel listed the exact distillation and bottling dates, and was sometimes older than its age statement.
  • The 15 year old single sherry barrel did not list the distillation and bottling dates.
  • The 16 year old French Oak is not a single cask, is wine cask finished, and has a slightly lower ABV.

I had the opportunity to try the bourbon version of the 15 about a half dozen times (as recently as 2017 when I found a bottle in a neighborhood bar), and tried the 15yo sherry barrel twice. All eight barrels were pleasantly tasty casual sippers, which is right on brand for Balvenie. Had I known the older version was going to vanish, and had the newer version been cheaper, I would have been happy to buy a bottle of each. But here I am, in 2023, sourcing a sample of both for this Taste Off.

15 year old Single Barrel
bourbon cask 11950 - 47.8%abv
10 Dec 1993 to 12 Oct 2009
15 year old Single Barrel
sherry cask 1900 - 47.8%abv
A mix of honeydew, honey, peach candy, and vanilla ice cream appears first in the nose. Cracked black pepper and smoky barrel char fills in the background. It gets more floral (roses) with time.The nose starts with flower blossoms and raw almonds, followed by honey, nectarines, and strawberry candy. Milky chocolate and orange peels appear after 20 minutes. Butter caramel at the 30-minute mark.
The sweet and fruity palate offers up Juicy Fruit gum, pear juice, pineapple juice, and toasty oak spices. Hints of chile peppers and vanilla slowly emerge. It all gets tarter and sweeter with time.The palate is very salty, and not that sweet. Limes and chiles, first. Dried apples and dried apricots second. Leaner and meaner than expected.
The pineapples, peaches, vanilla, and chile peppers stick around through the finish.The finish gets sweeter while holding onto the salt and tart limes. Maybe some dried apples too.
Lots of oak, lots of fruit. I'm not sure they ever balance out, but it is another "tasty casual sipper", as referenced above. More of a drinker than a thinker.
Not a contemporary sherry cask, much to my surprise. I expected a sherry-seasoned barrel to be much different than this. The palate is pretty simple, but I appreciate its spartan character.


Contrary to my expectations, the older bourbon barrel has a style more of this decade than the more recent sherry barrel. I'm sort of torn about which one I like more. Part of me likes that an austere(!) Balvenie exists, but I could drink the fruity sweet one all day...

The bourbon barrel gets the edge! Emotions win out over the intellect today (and every day). Also, the bourbon barrel's palate was more complex (intellect!).

If you find a version of either edition in the wild, at non-secondary prices, it should provide solid quality and plenty of character. Keep in mind more than 2000 of these barrels were bottled, so expect variety!

15 year old Single Barrel, bourbon cask 11950 - 85
15 year old Single Barrel, sherry cask 1900 - 84

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