Maltstock 2013: “Balvenie” Masterclass – Glenfiddich 21 Gran Reserva Deconstruction

So, there was another Maltstock. As is usual, it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get over the exertions of the weekend, but strangely it’s not to do with the booze – it’s sleep. A weekend in the Netherlands, surrounded by interesting whisky and whisky folk, leads to a distinct lack of kip, especially when the beds are so uncomfortable. However, it’s part of the event’s ‘charm’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Unless they want to change the beds, in which case I’d be all for it.

Anyway, outside of the many tasty boozes I drank while sitting around talking rubbish (with Jonthe balloon headed whisky disposal unitBeach winning on both the whisky providing [a 1978 Port Ellen. Best. Year. Evar] and rubbish talking [his repeated claims that he’s not the Whisky Sponge. We all know it’s really him…{it’s not}]) I also sat in on some masterclasses. First up – the ‘Balvenie’ class…

Donald Maclellan of BenRiach, GlenDronach and GlenGlAsSaUgH is a fire starter. A sensible fire starter

After last year’s NDA shrouded class (the mystery dram was the excellent Tun 1858) there was some anticipation for what might be on the might this time. However, due to the wonders of scheduling Dr Whisky couldn’t make it and Dutch Glenfiddich ambassador Tony van Rooijen stepped in to fill the gap. Speaking with Tony the night before he told me that while his tasting might not teach us anything new about whisky it would definitely be different to anything we’d done before, which intrigued me.

We arrived at the class to be confronted with just two glasses of whisky at each place setting. Tony explained that as he was the Glenfiddich ambassador he would rather do a Glenfiddich tasting, although if we chose to do a Balvenie tasting he had a box of interesting whiskies from Sam ready to pour. However, we would choose which tasting we would do simply by choosing which whisky in front of us we preferred. On the side were two boxes of whisky and a pile of glasses ready to be filled with whatever we chose…

The first whisky in front of us was lightly coloured with a nose of cinnamon biscuits, lemon drizzle cake and a touch of fruity jelly. To taste it was buttery with honey, lemon zest, fruit, brown sugar and uncooked cake batter. It finished with sweet butter, lemon and cinnamon.

The second whisky was much darker, with cinnamon, polished oak and pear. To taste there was sour fruit, soft wood and some woody spice, but not a lot of strength. It finished with toffee and sour wood, with bitterness lingering. A much less punchy dram.

I went for the first whisky, but with a 2/3rds majority going for the latter the choice was made and Tony showed us a video of how he had ‘created’ the second whisky before the tasting started – he poured a load of caramel into a bottle of Glenfiddich 12, gave it a shake and then poured it for everyone. The Glenfiddich was chosen, Sam’s box of goodies was taken away and Henk started pouring.

It was to be a deconstruction tasting, a style that Grant’s have been big fans of in recent times, with Grant’s 25yo, Balvenie’s Signature and Glenfiddich’s 15 year old Solera also getting the treatment. Tony kicked things up a notch from that pair, going instead with the Glenfiddich 21 year old Gran Reserva. The whisky is a combination of spirit matured in European oak oloroso casks and American oak ex-bourbon casks, vatted and then finished for three months in Caribbean rum casks. It also comes in a very pretty box.

We started off with the finished product – the Glenfiddich 21yo Gran Reserva. On the nose there was lemon meringue, butter toffee, soft caramel, light woody spice and barley sugar. On the palate it was soft and very sweet, with butter, burnt caramel and a touch of woody bitterness at the edges. It finished with sweet liquorice, cooling menthol and raisiny touches.

Second on the mat was a cask sample from American oak, distilled in 1991 and bottled at 57.8%. On the nose it had vanilla ice cream and lots of spice, with ferns and Shreddies with milk (but no sugar). To taste it had sweet lemons and cream, hot cinnamon spice, dark caramel and cooked apples – spiced tarte tatin? It finished with cream, anis and a cinnamon tingle.

Third was the other base – a cask sample of 1991 European oak oloroso cask matured whisky, bottled at 57.8%. On the nose it was much darker, heavier and richer than the American oak sample, with stewed raisins, liquorice, nutmeg and cinnamon butter, and soured PX sherry. To taste it was hot and spicy, and full of sugary oak notes, with nutmeg, tingly spice, lots of butter and dark fruit underneath everything else. It finished with spicy dark wood, more butter and more raisins. I added a drop of water to knock out some of the tingle, which revealed more sweet brown sugar notes, but at the cost of also adding some grippy wood and tannic dryness.

imageOur fourth dram was the rum used to season the casks: a blend of Caribbean rums assembled by the distillery in Dufftown and rolled into Grant’s own rums once emptied from the whisky casks – Grant’s own Sailor Jerry, so have a need for lots of rum. Other than being my only rum of the weekend it was also the first green rum I’ve seen – a colour christened ‘Disney Poison’ by drinking buddy Sander. I’ve no confirmed reason for it (although have received many theories) but brown spirits are known to occasionally go green.

On the nose it had nail varnish sweetness with a medicinal edge, sweet fruit chews, Panda Pops Cola, cinnamon butter and sharp cloves. The taste started with a  big hit of sweetness and bandages, moving on through bananas, whipped cream, cloves, cinnamon and syrup to a bit of a “dentist’s chair” medicinal end. It finished with sharp woody spice, sweet cream, bananas and mint.

A bit of in the glass blending, with a mix of the two whiskies dosed with a drop of rum and a good slug of water approximated the finished product, but without the big sweetness that the Gran Reserva shows – keeping that sweetness even at 40% shows quite how much the rum casks add even in 3 months. It’s all a bit sweet for me.

To finish off the class Tony pulled out something a bit special – not available in the shops and only poured at various masterclasses, it’s a replica of a 1963 Glenfiddich 8 year old, constructed using a recipe from the distillery’s archive. They have quite extensive records of the cask make-ups of their various expressions over the years, which as led to the Standfast replica that they made up last year, and Brian Kinsman, malt master, has put this together as a bit of a historical curiosity. The 8 year old was their standard expression back in the 1960s and 70s, before becoming a no-age-statement expression sometime in the 1980s. The reputation of the whisky suffered a bit of the following couple of decades and they switched back to a stated age in the 2000s, with the launch of the 12 year old, and have been building their fanbase back ever since – even I got over my snobbish dislike of their whisky.

Anyways, the replica is bottled at 62%, at little bit stronger than it was back in the 60s. On the nose it had ferns and raisins, clove and nutmeg, thick fruit (apples and stewed berries), meaty sherry undertones and crusty brown bread. To taste it was heavy and spicy with brown sugar, raisins, tingly cinnamon, lemon zest, red jelly, gummi hints and butter. A drop of water added more meatiness to the nose and dark fruit to the body along with a touch of chocolate. It finished with sweet butter, hot cinnamon, apples and thin custard, and lingering drying wood.

An impressive whisky with a much larger hit of sherry to it than the current 12 year old and more depth. A brave thing to show at a tasting, encouraging the inevitable “why don’t you make it like this any more?”, and definitely worth a taste. Now all I’ve got to do is find an old bottle somewhere and see if it was similar…

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