My second tasting at Maltstock was the one I put at the top of my list – The Balvenie with Global Brand Ambassador Sam Simmons. Sam is a Whisky Exchange alumnus and I’ve bumped into him a bunch over the last year or so, but I’ve only managed to attend one of his tastings, a double header with UK ambassador Andrew Forrester. So, having heard tales of how good his Maltstock session was last year I was rather pleased to get a spot this time.
Sam isn’t a chap to do things by halves, and this was the first tasting that I’ve been to where I’ve signed an NDA before going in. Part of the showmanship and theatre of the tasting or a real thing I don’t know, but there was an empty glass on the mat when we went in and I’ll be avoiding mentioning what that ended up being filled with. For now.
The tasting was constructed around the work of David Stewart, Balvenie’s master blender. He’s just hit the 50th anniversary of his starting work at Grant’s, way back in 1962. Sam had a dig around in the sample cupboard to come up with five whiskies, one from each decade David has been with the company – all cask samples and none released. On top of that Sam paired up each dram with a piece of music – the finest from the decade in question, in his opinion. I will state here that as there was no Pink Floyd (an omission noted by a number of people in the room) he was obviously mistaken in his opinions, but I will let that slide for now.
Dram #1 wasn’t even a whisky. Distilled in 1964 and filled into a European oak ‘plain’ hogshead it had dropped to 33.5% ABV over the last 48 years and thus legally can’t be called whisky due to not hitting the magic 40% minimum limit. Usually this kind of thing would be vatted in with stronger whisky to add its flavours to the mix, so it’s rather rare to be able to taste it. Music-wise Sam went for I Want You Back by the Jackson 5:
On the nose there was sweet fruit, sweetened butter, spicy pine, cloves, liquorice and treacle toffee, although without the regular alcohol kick of a 40%+ whisky. To taste it was thin, with old spiced wood, gooseberry, sour butter, piney wood and loads of pleasantly sour fruit. It finished with green leaves, cinnamon, green bark and a touch of swimming pool chlorine. I’m a fan (weird palate that I sometimes have) of old under-strength whisky, although so far I’ve only tried it from bottles that have lost alcohol since production rather than something lost its strength in the cask. It’s almost a pity that this kind of thing won’t ever be released, but at the same time it’l hopefully adds something a bit special to the vatting it ends up in.
Dram #2 was from 1973 and was matured in a European oak sherry cask, which we reckoned might have been a refill. Music-wise Sam went for one of The Boss’s finest hours – Born To Run:
On the nose it was quite tannic, with dates, fruity caramel, sticky toffee and a background meatiness. To taste it had sour wood balanced by warming caramel, big spice, clove, tobacco, hot leather and Good old wood. It finished long, with liquorice and damp wood. A solid old sherried whisky that shows yet again that Balvenie from sherry casks can be great. If only they released more of the stuff at a price that more people could afford…
Dram #3 was from 1980 and was our first American oak matured whisky of the session. The tune selection this time was Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads, although I thought I’d got it wrong until it hit the chorus. I am a rubbish child of the ’80s.
On the nose the whisky had sweet pears, barley sugar, boiled sweets and toasted coconut. To taste it had sweet spice, caramel, fragrant wood (a hint of pot pourri), sour apple and fizzy sherbert. It finished leafy, with lingering cinnamon and a touch of sappy sawdust. Maybe a bit too much wood for me, but some nice fruitiness.
Dram #4 was from 1992 and was matured in European oak, as we could tell by its rather dark colouring. The musical accompaniment was Groove is in the Heart by Dee-lite. A song whose real name I just spent a while looking up – it’s not called “I’d never dance for another”. That’s not even the actual lyric… I am a rubbish teen of the ’90s
On the nose it was spicy, with an edge that reminded me of rye whiskey. It also had fig jam, orange peel, perfumed wood, white sugar, raisins and dark fruitcake. To taste it was mouthwatering with lots of spice, a good slab of vanilla, tannic and drying woodiness, brown sugar and dark chocolate. It finished softly, with sugar and brioche.
Dram #5 was from 2003 and topped the ABV list with 56.6%. Musically my notes said ‘Hey Now’, but dredging my memory I am fairly sure that it was meant to stay ‘Hey Ya’ – recorded by Outkast and released in 2003:
On the nose it was very young smelling, with lots of spirity new make notes and not a lot of complexity – sour grain, pear drops and candy sweetness. To taste it was quite sweet, with butter and bitter edges. It finished hot, with lemons and sweet cinnamon toast. A refill cask, I’d guess, and one that will sit and wait for a good while yet before bottling. However, young Balvenie is quite palatable, although maybe a little zingy at 56.6%.
And that’s that. I may mention the final dram when it finally appears. It’s not DoubleWood 17 (I tried that and it’s quite nice, it’ll be out soon) or Kininvie (I also tried some of that…)