Note: this is first in a series of 3 single-cask reviews. Skip to Review 105 for a comparison to a ‘guest cask’ from The Balvenie.
I like that the William Grant organization is a family firm and that they maintain the full breadth of skills in whisky-making at The Balvenie. They also give an excellent distillery tour. So when I spotted this bottle of Single Barrel, First Fill (SBFF) in the local shop, not long after a payday, I plunked down a C-note. Single cask is always a risk, as the malt master has no leeway in mixing in anything else to fill holes in a spirit’s flavor profile or to dilute a flavor that’s over the top. But I have very nice memories, and some remaining samples, of spirits valinched from casks during our tour. There were some odd ones!
As a single-cask selection, 12 years in a first-fill bourbon barrel, the SBFF piqued my interest. Most single malts, even very good ones, will have a mix of first- to 3rd-fill barrels in the marry. For a rough comparison, I have a Balvenie 14-year Caribbean Cask to compare, which despite the name, is your typical single malt of multiple casks married together.
The Balvenie has an attractive, classic style packaging. I like to poke fun at silliness where deserved, but in this case, the Balvenie crew went for deep and detailed informative text and drawings. You can see from the photos, there is a detailed encyclopedia entry printed on this carton. They go into great detail on the origin of the casks, the charring process and how it benefits the spirit, then covers the lack of chill filtration. The barrel notes explain how the barrel is chosen, and they state that this bottle is one of about 300 taken from that cask. Much of the whisky-making info you can find elsewhere, but the carton does the job of eliciting interest. Also, they are not kidding when they describe their on-site cooperage and malting floor. It is the real deal; the Balvenie is unique in having their own cooperage. Few distilleries do.
The bottle itself has a spare and cleanly designed label with the hand labeled bottle number (stamped, not script as you might find with a smaller shop). The spirit itself is a pleasant light amber. All the script in the world is not worth $100 so time to open the bottle and give a snort.
Uncorking releases floral and fruit aromas: mandarin orange, fig and Pink Lady apple. Getting into the Glencairn reveals fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, nutmeg and dry oak. The aroma reaches about twice as far as a similar pour of the Caribbean Cask, which has a similar but more muted nose. Although the SBFF has not a whiff of peaty smoke or peatwater funk, the aroma has good reach.
On the palate, the SBFF is creamy, light on the sweet and sporting mellow vanilla leading to cinnamon and ginger. The finish is nicely balanced with tannins, slightly astringent; good structure overall. The creamy essence and a taste of the apple carry through the finish as background notes. It is a crisp and lean flavor profile, unique and well-finished.
Compare the Caribbean cask: here, where the malt master has combined many barrels, none of the notes stand out in quite the stark relief of the single cask, but you have a fuller, broader palate and more sweetness from the rum casks, of course.
The Balvenie Single Barrel First Fill Scotch whisky, 47.8% ABV
Nose: Very aromatic; mandarin orange, fig and Pink Lady apple are the main components. Other notes include fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, nutmeg and oak.
Palate: Creamy mouthfeel, vanilla, hints of caramel but the sweet aspect is very subtle. Christmas-spicy with ginger and cinnamon being notable elements.
Finish: Crisp and lean. Just enough bitters from the oak to balance the subtle sweetness. The creamy hints of caramel and the apple aromas sustain through to the end.
Bottom Line: When you get to the $100 a bottle cost, you have high expectations. The whisky can’t just be good, it has to be great. Balvenie ticks the boxes, from the unique carton, classy numbered label, to aroma and flavor. As for the produces, we like to think it matters that they grow some of their own barley, do their own floor malting, and build their own casks. The level of craftsmanship which The Balvenie maintains is impressive to see, and the knowledge that they engage at that level brings a sense of satisfaction to the Scotch aficionado. But mainly, the SBFF is tasty and unique. If you have a c-note to burn and appreciate a lean and clean Speysider, it is a worthy selection.