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One of the famous pair of distilleries owned by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie (pronounced: bal-VEE-nee) is one of the names that, for many people, instantly conjures up images and olfactory memories of speyside. Balvenie is a whisky that today, perhaps more than any other, displays a profile that perfectly captures the classical idea of speyside whisky. It is a deservedly famous dram throughout the world, one that is approachable but also complex and capable of profound depth and richness at great age but also vibrancy, freshness and playfulness in youth.
Stills: 4 Wash 4 Spirit
Capacity: 5.6 Million Litres
Water Source: Robbie Dubh
Owners: William Grant & Sons
1950s -1970s: Old Style Wax and Spice
Balvenie was produced in a traditionally old style, post war fashion up until the mid sixties when a period of refurbishment and modernization took place. During this time the stills were largely converted to internal heating and the worm tubs were replaced. Bottlings from before this time are rare and madly expensive. There is an infamous 1937 50yo bottled in the eighties but Ive never tried this and probably never will. More realistic are the official vintage releases that have been bottled in the past couple of decades, they are expensive but almost always stunning.
Balvenie was bottled as a single malt officially in the early seventies, in a similar packaging to its sister Glenfiddich. These early bottlings are sometimes inconsistent but can be really great when they want to be. The whisky being delicately oily with full on waxy, herbaceous and floral qualities, often with a little more smoke than is currently found in Balvenie. The first independent bottlings date from around the early seventies and many of these are also stunning, in particular those from 1974, which seems to be a fairly spectacular year at Balvenie. A 15yo by Signatory, 13yo by Samaroli and a pair of 28/29yos by Cadenheads from this year are all fantastic examples of naked Balvenie. With little overt wood influence they all allow the natural complexity and old school beauty of the spirit to shine through. If you can find any of these bottlings they are all well worth it. Independent bottlings of Balvenie have completely disappeared in recent years and it is unlikely they will resurface as any casks of Glenfiddich or Balvenie that are sold on to second parties are diluted with a few drops of the other spirit to prevent them from being bottled as a single malt.
Towards the end of the 1970s the effects of increased production levels and, crucially, the reduced use of Balvenies own floor maltings started to play a role in modernizing the style of the distillate.
1980s-Present: Flowers, Spice, Fruit and Sweetness.
Modern day Balvenie is a naturally sweet, elegant and complex spirit with a slight bite of smoke and spice behind it. The current range of bottlings is wide and ever changing with several new limited expressions each year and often bottlings for duty free and international markets as well. Many of these bottlings are increasingly overpriced and dont seem to provide such good value for money. Especially considering their apparent reluctance as a company to move away from chill filtration. There is also a natural problem inherent in the Balvenie distillate and that is that to be at its best it really needs age and there is just no substitute for this. While the younger expressions such as the 12yo and the founders reserve from recent years are attractive and technically flawless whiskies. Balvenie just seems to need some extra years in order for it to really shine, when it has the right time to spread itself out it can be an absolutely stunningly rich and complex whisky. For many the best Balvenie for day to day dramming, the one that manages to walk the tightrope of age and youth, is the Single Barrel series. Usually at least 15 years old and unchillfiltered at a higher bottling strength, these bottlings always give a much more honest and rigorous impression of Balvenies great natural character. Hopefully in years to come they might focus more on these kinds of releases and less on the more flimsy limited editions. What remains certain is that Balvenie is a truly classy and reliable dram, one that is always well worth revisiting.