One of the famous pair of distilleries owned by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie (pronounced: bal-VEN-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...
One of the famous pair of distilleries owned by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie (pronounced: bal-VEN-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 complex; capable of profound depth and richness at a great age but also of vibrancy, freshness and playfulness in youth.
Founded: 1892 Stills: 5 Wash, 6 Spirit Capacity: 7 Million Litres Water Source: Robbie Dubh Owners: William Grant & Sons
1950s -1970s: Old Style Wax and Spice
Balvenie was produced in a traditional old style, post-war fashion up until the mid-sixties when a period of refurbishment and modernisation 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 a very famous 1937 50-year-old bottled in the eighties for Milroy's that is a stunning Cognac-esque whirl of dried fruit, herbal notes, rancio, resin and gentle peat. More realistic are the official vintage / age statement releases and the Tun series that have been bottled in the past couple of decades, they are expensive but almost always stunning.
Balvenie was bottled as a single malt by the distillery in the early seventies, in similar packaging to its sister Glenfiddich. These early bottlings are sometimes inconsistent but can be really great when they want to be. The whisky is 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 15-year-old by Signatory, 13-year-old by Samaroli and a pair of 28/29-year-olds by Cadenhead's from this vintage 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 teaspooned 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 Balvenie's own floor maltings started to play a role in modernising 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.
The long-aged expressions of Balvenie are increasingly expensive nowadays, which is a pity as there is also a natural problem inherent in the Balvenie distillate and that is that to be at its best it really needs age. While the younger expressions such as the 12-year-old and the old Founder's Reserve 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, walking the tightrope of age and youth, is the Single Barrel series. The core range includes a first fill bourbon cask 12-year-old and a sherried 15-year-old, both un-chillfiltered and bottled at a higher bottling strength. Although the sherried single barrel is now well over £100 - a sad sign of the times - these bottlings always give a much more honest and rigorous impression of Balvenie's 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.