Sometimes I get to do particularly ridiculous whisky things and today’s post is about one of them.
It’s not every day you get to drink whisky that was distilled four days after you were born, on a boat, motoring down the Thames and going underneath Tower Bridge, which had been raised to allow you through.
I bloody love boats.
So, day #10 – Balvenie 1978, part of Chapter One of the DCS Compendium.
I’m increasingly not a morning person, but when Balvenie brand ambassador Sam Simmons – aka Dr Whisky – tells you to be at a pier near Tower Bridge early in the morning, with the promise of coffee, bacon and maybe some whisky, you generally say yes. That’s how I found myself in the mahogany-lined bowels of a former cargo barge – Will, a pretty awesome boat – at 9am with a glass of 1978 whisky in my hand.
It was in honour of the DCS Compendium, a thoroughly silly range of 25 whiskies, chosen to celebrate the career of Balvenie malt master David Charles Stewart. He’s now been with Balvenie owner Grant’s since 1962, and after the past few years of long-service celebrations, he and Sam Simmons have put together something that might be the culmination of his work. The whiskies are inspired by a book – the titular compendium – penned by Sam, that lays out many of the skills and secrets David has picked up over the past 50 plus years.
Sam Simmons and some whisky. This caption can be used for most pictures of Sam
It’s divided up into five chapters, each which has an accompanying five drams. The bottles are being released individually, as well as in a limited number of sets, complete with protective leather trunks and hand-made wooden cases made by Sam Chinnery. The first chapter – examining Balvenie’s distillery style – has recently launched, and the whisky set comes with an impressive price tag of £27,000, of which £19,000 is for the oldest bottle, a 1968 vintage.
The set has got some stick for its price – the 9yo that’s the youngest in the range, as well as the youngest currently commercially available bottling from the distillery, goes for £400 – but the 50 complete sets have already been allocated and there’s a waiting list in case any become available. Yes, they’re very expensive, but there are lots of people out there who have lots of money and like spending it on whisky. Who are we to get in the way of the whisky companies and the people who want to shower them with cash? Yes, I do work for a whisky shop, how did you tell?
Anyways, the whisky we tried from Chapter One is the one that I most lusted after – a 1978. Not only from my birth year, but distilled on 11 March, four days after I was born – this is the closest I’ve got to trying a whisky distilled on my actual birthday.
It’s a single refill American oak cask, bottled at a cask strength of 50.2% ABV. This specific cask was chosen as the wood hasn’t done as much to the whisky as others: there’s certainly some oak influence, but the intention of the first chapter of the DCS Compendium is to showcase Balvenie’s distillery character rather than the wood used to mature the spirit – that’s the job of Chapter Two.
Nose: Poached pears, heather honey, vanilla fudge and shortbread. Soft grassy and floral notes – my oft mentioned ‘honeysuckle in a spring meadow’ – appear as it sits in the glass, as well as more leafy and green notes: damp leaves and pine needles. There is oaky spice, but it’s gentle – mace, nutmeg and buttery cinnamon toast – and is joined by a little bit of fruit and sweetness – dried apple and Garibaldi biscuits (although light on the raisins).
Palate: At first, you get a hit of good cask – vanilla, soft spice and lashings of cream, along with sharper notes of sap. But after that, it’s lots of stuff that for me are signs of well-aged spirit: soft honey, gentle floral notes, pink shrimp and foam banana sweets, as well as sweet and sour apple.
Finish: Damp oak and leaves, fading to sponge cake and soft spice.
An excellent whisky, which is what I’d hope for a bottle that costs £4,500. Fortunately for me, I have a Balvenie 15yo single cask that was distilled in 1978 in my birthday stash, which cost me significantly less and will hopefully have the same style of spirit – it may not have the extra 22 years of age that this one did, but I can dream. All I need to do now is work out a way of sneaking it onto a boat…
Balvenie 1978, 37 Years Old, cask #2708
Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 50.2%. £4,500