A tale of two Grants
The distance from J&G Grant’s Glenfarclas distillery to William Grant & Sons’ Balvenie location is but 13 miles by road; it’s a much shorter distance by helicopter. Both are Speyside distillers, and both offer whiskies finished in sherry casks. Like J&G Grant, William Grant & Sons is an independent company. Both started in the 19th century: William laid down his distillery in 1889 (finished in 1892); John Grant of J&G Grant bought Glenfarclas distillery (built in 1836) in 1865.
However, the William Grant company has since grown into the largest independent distiller in Scotland. In fact, with over 10% market share, William Grant and Sons represents the third largest producer of Scotch, behind Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Not bad for a family company.
The Balvenie distillery is a bigger operation than J&G’s Glenfarclas by about double (5.6 M litres vs 3 M litres per year) and William Grant have a more varied range. Furthermore, they achieve their market share by operating a constellation of associated distilleries. This was pointed out in the Monkey Shoulder review, as that blend from this same distiller boasts of 25 composite single malts. Similarly, Grants Family Reserve blends a similarly numerous number of malts. This Grant is a giant. We know from these reviews they make respectable blends, so let’s investigate a single-malt whisky.
The first thing you’ll note from the Balvenie website is that the site has a lot about the distillery (with some great 360-degree views), but the pages are rather short on information on the various expressions. We find that the Doublewood 12 is transferred at some point “from a traditional oak whisky cask to a first fill European oak sherry cask.” But what is ‘traditional?’ We might assume ex-bourbon, that’s fairly traditional, why not say so outright? [Note: I heard from Lorne Cousin from The Balvenie, they do indeed use ex-bourbon barrels from the US.]
Other information is more readily at hand. The Balvenie operation grows and malts their own barley. That’s cool, and a vanishing part of the activities in most distilleries. But I wondered — do they grow and malt all of it? Let’s do some math. The Balvenie web site states they have 1000 acres of barley growing on their farm. Barley produces about 67 bushels of grain per acre (in the US anyway), is that enough for 5.6 million litres of spirit per year? Those bushels would have to produce on the order of 83 litres of spirit each. I don’t think so. Two gallons pure ethanol per bushel is a common yardstick for alcohol production. That’s about 18 litres of finished product per bushel. So, yeah, they grow and malt some barley (about 10%) and buy the rest from the big malt producers (again, confirmed by Lorne). That’s expected in the modern whisky industry.
Marketing aside, kudos to Grant for letting the Balvenie barley fields and malting floors continue in the 21st century. It is a treat to view a malting floor on the distillery tour (like you can at Balvenie). Meanwhile, the product matters most, and this is a seriously good whisky. It should be: at $56 locally (Oregon), it’s right up against the Macallan 12 in price and market position, and about 25% more in price than the Glenfarclas 12. How does it fare?
The Balvenie DoubleWood 12-year old Speyside single malt, 43% ABV
Nose: Moderate mineral, the barest whiff of peat, toffee and malt like from a fresh red ale or bread rising; rose petals, a dash of peppermint. The complexity of floral notes is not found in Glenfarclas, and the mineral/peat aroma make it more interesting than The Macallan 12.
Palate: Sweet malt, cherry, cloves, prunes ride on the floral aroma from the nose — more complex than Glenfarclas or The Macallan, but not as smooth as either: there is a quite forward peppery action on the sides of the tongue.
Finish: A long, very peppery finish; still some mineral notes hanging on to the end, and I taste some peat (but not smoke). Oak tannins nicely balance with the floral (rose) notes. Definitely lively on the finish — like prickly-ash pod (a characteristic Szechuan spice) on the side of the tongue. Strange.
Bottom Line: This is just so close to blowing other sherried whiskies out of the water… but I think a good edition of Aberlour A’Bunadh, at cask strength and with good complexity, it is tough to beat when tasting sherry-finished whiskies.* But the Balvenie is certainly got more going on than its rivals The Macallan and Glenfarclas, presenting a more interesting complex of aromas — but it also has a less smooth mouthfeel, and that’s puzzling. That peppery characteristic might turn off some folks, so I can’t say it’s better. It’s different. And for those who say ‘let it rest’, it was opened over three months ago. It had time to ‘rest’, whatever that means (e.g., blow off some volatile esters, perhaps?).
And what about my old fave Bunnahabhain 12? I’ll have to say, the Doublewood is as complex and interesting as Bunnahabhain, but not as smooth on the finish. Bunna 12 is smooth to the last and maintains it’s characteristic flavor profile without harshness or tingling your tongue — despite being 46% ABV (vs 43%). Bunnahabhain opens with more earthy (versus mineral) peat and though Bunna has nice floral tones, they are less forward and are accompanied by more fruit aromas than The Balvenie. Hence, Bunna’s 12 is still #1 for me, but it’s also a $12 premium.
*Note an A’Bunadh will set you back $75. But at 60%, you get some efficiency from that bottle!