Scotch is frequently described as an “acquired taste,” in large part due to the presence of peat (decayed vegetable matter) in a number of Highland malts. Yet there are a handful of single malts that have enough richness and amplitude to appeal to Bourbon drinkers. The Balvenie is one of those.
If you’re seeking the romance of tradition, The Balvenie is the place to look. Their whisky is made the old-fashioned way: barley is grown on the distillery’s 1000-acre farm, steeped in spring water, and germinated on the malting floor—the only one left in the Scottish Highlands. From there it’s transferred to the kiln, and ultimately to the still. The Balvenie employs its own coppersmith and coopers, who spend four years in apprenticeship. This is nothing compared to the Malt Master, David Stewart, who has logged more than five decades on the premises. The result is a range of whiskies that are splendid examples of Speyside malts, and take their place among the best produced in Scotland.
I recently had the opportunity to revisit some whisky from The Balvenie range, beginning with the two DoubleWood malts—aged first in used Kentucky Bourbon barrels, then finished in Spanish Sherry casks. The DoubleWood 12 ($55) has a gloriously sweet nose with overtones of earth, honey and spice. It is rich and full-bodied on the palate, with complex flavors of caramel, pepper, honey and vanilla. The DoubleWood 17 ($145) exudes assertive aromas of herb and menthol. Compact and delicious in the mouth, it yields fruit notes balanced with earth, tobacco and fresh herbs.
Caribbean Cask ($75), launched in 2014, combines whisky aged for 14 years in traditional barrels and finished in rum casks. The high-toned, spicy nose gives off whiffs of cinnamon and tropical fruit, along with marked evidence of oak. Sweet and fruity on entry, it turns spicy in the mid palate and brings back echoes of tropical fruit on the long finish—a very poised and stylish whisky.
PortWood 21 Year Old ($210), finished in a Port pipe that previously held 40 year-old tawny, was a fitting conclusion to the evening. The meaty nose blends earth notes and suggestions of black fruits. Intense and candied on entry, the palate reveals flavors of dried fruit, citrus, menthol and spice: a remarkable dram, and proof that you don’t have to be a Scotch drinker to love Scotch.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.