If you’re anything like me, the idea of being a bad ass knight, swinging a broad ass sword and slaying some big ass dragons is somewhat of a longing fantasy. And if you’re nothing like me, you can at least admit that being a bad ass knight, swinging a broad ass sword and slaying some big ass dragons is still pretty cool.
Growing up, reading the adventures of mythical figures like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table epitomized chivalry and bravery. Then there were all the movies that brought these myths to life. You know, now that I think about it, clearly there are a lot of people like me, because they’re still making movies about bad ass knights. And movies that look pretty damn good too!
Welp! I’m sold! Guy Ritchie is amazing. I don’t think anyone has ever said they don’t like a Guy Ritchie movie. Ever. I mean, have you seen Snatch?! Wait, what I was talking about again? Oh right, knights! Well, this isn’t about knights per say, but it is about someone who is damn near close. As I’m sure some of you may know – or maybe the vast majority of you who stumbled upon this by accident may not know – earlier this year, David Stewart, Malt Master at The Balvenie distillery (where he has been working since 1962), was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, being awarded the MBE Medal on behalf of the Queen. That is a huge honour in itself, considering it’s one step below being knighted. What’s more, and don’t take this as gospel, I do believe that David may be the first Malt Master to ever receive such a distinction. Now that’s even more impressive!
Anyway, I say all this to set the stage for just how revered The Balvenie is. With a Malt Master like David Stewart behind the scenes, it should be no surprise that the distillery is considered to be one of the most respectable out there.
Recently, I went to The Balvenie’s Master Class tasting with Brand Ambassador Gemma Paterson at the Hill Center, Old Naval Hospital in Washington DC. Needless to say, the night proved to be fascinating. Starting off with a small mix and mingle in an adjoining room, we were served cocktails made with The Balvenie 12 Double Wood mixed with some juice I honestly can’t remember the name of, but I do recall that the whole concoction was delicious.
After some finger food and more conversing with guests, it was time to make our way to the presentation room for the main event.
The room was spacious, yet simultaneously intimate and nicely lit, seating about 60 eager bodies in a variety of configurations; from large circular tables to small square tables and high tops. Obviously I made my way to the front of the room to be within ear shot of Gemma, who was an absolute delight.
Highly knowledgeable about everything Balvenie – and probably everything whisky in general – Gemma hails from Scotland, where she was first introduced to whisky at the age of 19 while on a fishing trip. That whisky? The Balvenie 12 Double Wood. Thus, it was pretty much destined that she would end up working for the brand that began her journey. After years working at the distillery, Gemma is now the new East Coast brand ambassador for The Balvenie. How new? Well this was actually her first event as host, here in DC. A self-proclaimed whisky nerd, Gemma walked us through the five (5) rare crafts that The Balvenie still holds true to: home-grown barley, the malting floor, the coppersmith, the coopers and finally, the aforementioned malt master. But while the history and stories were all very fascinating, even she admitted that we were all there for one reason, and one reason only, to drink some fine scotch.
The line-up for the evening:
- The Balvenie 12 Double Wood
- The Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask
- The Balvenie 17 Double Wood
- The Balvenie 21 Port Wood
Without wasting anytime, let’s jump right into it.
The Balvenie 12 Double Wood
I consider this the flagship offering of the Speyside distillery. The Double Wood, as its name suggests, is matured first in traditional oak casks before being transferred to first fill European sherry casks. Interestingly enough, “first fill” casks are never really first filled, because, well, there was something in it before. In this case, sherry. But when they call it first fill, it means it’s the first time whisky has been in the cask. Makes sense? I know it’s obvious to most of you, but you know, I like to share the knowledge. So hey. Anyway… That double maturation results in a lovely warm feeling immersed in vanilla, oak and honey. The sherry is present, but not dominant. Ever so slightly medicinal, but still very approachable nonetheless. With a few drops of water, the whole package unfolds and the sweetness is intensified! I mean seriously, it’s almost as if a little dilution from the out of bottle 43% ABV, completely changes the character of the dram. The honey I got when I tried it neat morphs into a sweet and spicy cinnamon. I’ve heard – and read – that a lot of people get notes of cocoa and fruit, but I don’t quite get those. Maybe a hint of that fruity flavour on the finish, but not enough for me to have noticed if someone hadn’t pointed it out. Regardless, this is a great dram that I would be quick to share on any occasion.
The Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask
I know what you are all thinking: Peat is from the Caribbean and he’s thus going to have a completely bias opinion on this one. Well you know what, you’re right. But for one completely justifiable reason: it’s bloody fantastic! No, I mean this is hands down my favourite from the distillery that I’ve tried. I mean, the soft lushness of it all. Jeez! Ok, now that I’ve finished gushing, let’s really get into it. The Caribbean Cask is a product of David Stewart himself. Looking on The Balvenie’s official website, “David Stewart filled American oak casks with his own blend of select West Indian rums. When he judged the casks to be ready, the rum was replaced with the 14 year old spirit.” According to Gemma though, apparently they had quite a few rum barrels just lying around the distillery, and one day David decided to just throw some Balvenie in it to see what happens. Or maybe I heard that wrong and I made that whole story up. Either way, The Balvenie finished in rum casks is the stuff dreams are made of. I asked Gemma which rum barrels were used, (I admit, I was being a bit bias) hoping something out of Angostura is in there. Alas, she skilfully avoided being direct by simply stating it’s a mixture of various rums from various Caribbean islands. Touché, Gemma. Touché. But back to the whisky. This is the dram I have to close my eyes and sip, shutting out everything else so my sense of taste is elevated. And when I do, I am transported back home, eating some rum and raisin ice cream, on a warm January afternoon, on a boat.
I may be the only one who gets that though, because everyone at the Master Class tasting spoke on tropical fruits and the such, which I suppose is there, but to me, it’s more subtle than people make it out to be. I mean, some sweetness is certainly present, but I would be doing you an injustice if I tried to pin point which fruit it was. A creaminess covers the palate as it goes down that’s reminiscent of… toffee perhaps? I don’t know. I don’t care. What I do know is the finish is long and beautiful, with layer after layer of flavour lingering on the tongue. All around, it’s beautifully balanced, meaning no one flavour dominates the other. And for roughly $65, this is simply stupendous.
The Balvenie 17 Double Wood
The 12 year old’s big brother, The Balvenie 17 Double Wood was David Stewart’s return to the basics. Released in 2012 to celebrate David’s 50 years at the distillery, the 17 is even packaged differently. The label has that hint of purple which is symbolic of royalty. Oddly enough though, in spite of the special bottle and the extra 5 years I wasn’t that impressed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a marvellous dram, but compared to the 12, the flavours are much more mellow. More subtle. I know in a lot of cases, the additional time aging tends to add more flavour to the whisky, but as has been established by many folks in the industry, older doesn’t necessarily mean better. Case in point, this almost feels lighter than the 12 as you don’t get that initial punch in the face. The finish is shorter too. Granted, you still get that wonderful honey and caramel flavour you would associate to the Double Wood, but as I said, it’s more subtle. Maybe someone with a more experienced palate would describe it as being “more refined.” To that person I say pish posh, I know what I’m tasting dammit. Now, I know it sounds like I’m just berating this whisky, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This does indeed taste very good. It’s just almost too smooth for its own good, even at 43% ABV. But then again, this is coming from a guy who sips on Uigeadail for breakfast – so take my opinion with a grain of salt if you must.
The Balvenie 21 Port Wood
The whisky that is old enough to order its own whisky (clearly I’m writing this in America). The Balvenie 21 Port Wood was first crafted in 1995 by, you guessed it, David Stewart. Gemma even told us that David holds this one in very high esteem, possibly being his favourite. Well, I can see (taste?) why. The Port Wood is really good. You get that classic honey that the distillery is known for, but finishing it in cask that once held port wine adds a completely different complexity to it. Unlike the Double Wood, the Port Wood doesn’t have that cinnamon flavour but rather has a weird tannic taste that after a couple sips, I honestly couldn’t get pass, no matter how much I tried. On the flip side, the burn is almost non-existent. Which is great, but odd. See, the official website states the ABV at about 47%, but the bottle we got was 43%, but no matter which, I would’ve expected just a little spark on the back-end of this thing. Instead, it really is an easy drink. I would say though, even though I enjoyed this offering, the Port Wood is actually my least favourite of the four we had at the Master Class tasting. Now, I don’t know if the fact that David Stewart’s favourite is my least favourite says something about my own palate (it probably does), but it is what it is. Maybe it’s because by the time I got to this I was already transfixed by the Caribbean Cask (which is about 1/3 the price) and couldn’t wait to get back to it. Maybe. But I doubt.
All in all, this was a great evening. Gemma was remarkable. Her passion for what she does shined through in every word. The crowd was also very enthusiastic and though everyone had at least attended one whisky tasting before, quite a few people had some very engaging questions that roused lots of comments from the entire audience. This tasting was much different from a few other events from the larger brands that I’ve been to, and with the exception of Laphroaig, probably the most intimate. Everything from the delicious hors d’oeuvres by Geppetto Catering, to the complimentary swag that we were able to take home, was well received and greatly appreciated. Yet, aside from Gemma’s infectious personality, the biggest impression I left with was how much David Stewart has done, not just for The Balvenie, but for the whisky industry as a whole. If you’re a fan of the golden liquid, David has probably had a hand in molding your palate. Remember when I said he’s been working at The Balvenie distillery since 1962? To put that in perspective, he was a mere 17 years old then. Seventeen! At that age I still had braces and was hoping it wouldn’t affect my chances with girls. David on the other hand was beginning his journey which would result in him crafting award-winning whiskies for the likes of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Grant’s. He would also play a role in the launch of Monkey Shoulder. David would go on to be recognised by his peers being named an Icon of Whisky by Whisky Magazine. As one of 12 Malt Masters and the longest serving, his MBE medal seems more inevitable than incredible.
Maybe I need to rethink my fantasies. Perhaps being a bad ass knight, swinging a broad ass sword and slaying some big ass dragons isn’t as epic as simply being recognised for your hard work and dedication in a profession that is more than a job, but a lifelong passion.
4 thoughts on “The MBE of Whisky: The Balvenie Master Class”
Great piece, Peat! And I thought that was you on that boat…
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Ha! Thank you sir! I didn’t know if folks would recognise me or not, so figured I would make it obvious. Ha!
Very nice review! Great seeing you there, and really enjoyed the Balvenie offerings. I’m still very much an Islay guy, but these were great examples of Speyside whisky. They were all wonderful whisky to enjoy nosing. The Caribbean Cask was particularly unique in its nose. If I felt the need to keep a bottle of Balvenie in my collection, this one could it be it.
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Hey Aaron, was great seeing you there as well! I couldn’t agree more with your opinion. Being a huge fan of the peatier side of whisky, I think it’s understandable why I wasn’t swept away by the 17 or 21. But seems that we Islay fans are really drawn to the Caribbean Cask, in-spite of it’s apparent lack of overwhelming smoke.