Note: this is third in a series of 3 single-cask reviews.
On our visit to The Balvenie, we had the opportunity to valinch a small bottle (200 ml) from one of a few barrels they had set aside for that purpose. After a quick, slurped taste out of my hand, I chose the 14-year-old sherry cask. Each bottle we valinched was £15, which is not too crazy considering a 5 cl bottle of Tomintoul cost me £10 in a shop! In fact, the three retired insurance company execs we toured with made off with armloads of these little bottles from The Balvenie.
I still have about half of my valinched bottle, as I’ve only broken it out for a couple special occasions. As I happened to review two single-barrel selections this month, I thought, why not compare this single barrel? How does the random ‘guest cask’ at the distillery tour compare to the malt master’s selected single cask release? And what better comparison than from Review 103, the Balvenie First Fill, Single Barrel?
I have wondered, what’s the provenance of these barrels the distilleries make available to their guests? We had a hint at the Caol Isla ‘cask tasting experience‘ as our guide allowed as how a couple of the casks we were tasting had been determined not suitable for bottling. Sometimes a cask has been mislaid* and the spirit spends too long for a specific cask’s character, she explained. Or perhaps a barrel just has too characteristic a flavor to marry well with other casks. But that does not mean the whisky is bad, just not suited to the flavor profile of the commercial product.
On to the tasting. As the Single Barrel review noted, that spirit was 12 years in ex-bourbon cask and bottled at 47.8% strength, and my valinched bottle was 14 years in a sherry cask bottled at 63% ABV. But the comparison is not intended like-for-like in flavor, but more, how does the character of the malt master’s selected cask compare to some random cask chosen for guests?
First off, my bottle, small as it is, has a huge aroma. I uncorked and could smell it from across my (admittedly small) kitchen. The sherry is strong in this one and from the deep color (see photos) I suspect it was a first-fill sherry cask. From a powerful whiff of sherry, the nose hits a solid wall of dry woody spice: oak sawdust, cinnamon, powdered ginger and barely ripe red apple. The expectation is for astringency. Surprisingly for its stiff ABV (63%) it is kind on the nose, no sting.
Palate starts off well, a brief burst of caramel and vanilla that dries very quickly into a modestly bitter but very tannic astringency. I would not say it is luxurious! The finish has an undertone of wild ‘shiny geranium‘ (I have pulled a ton of those out at my house) which I assure you is not a compliment.
Now compare the bottle whose cask was selected by David Stewart, the Balvenie Malt Master, for a special bottling. When they say they search for rare casks to do these releases, they are not kidding. The nose is of course different being from a bourbon cask but well balanced, and the palate is smooth, luxurious, and free of oddball flavors. It is also below actual cask strength (bottled at 47.8%). So, to be fair, I also tried my 63% valinched bottle with a splash of water.
With a bit of water (more than a few drops) in the valinched sample, the spiciness is still there but the tannic overload is reduced. There is more time for the vanilla and caramel to register. The finish is still bitter but the geraniums have backed off to the point they are not overwhelming.
Balvenie Guest Cask Single Malt Scotch whisky, 63% ABV
Nose: Sherry (lots), oak sawdust, cinnamon, powdered ginger and barely ripe red apple.
Palate: BRIEFLY fulfilling with caramel and vanilla but passing quickly to very tannin-driven dryness.
Finish: Lots of heat from the alcohol (though pleasant), peppery spice, sherry and a notable strain of unpleasant herb (shiny geranium).
Bottom Line: This is not about cost, though it’s not outrageous. The cost in sterling at the time equated to a full 750 ml at about $70 US, in the ‘should be good whisky’ range. Was it good? Well, this was not, in the conventional sense. But it is notable! Other valinched whiskies we have had were quite nice. The value here is of course as a keepsake, one you can savor, in all its quirky glory, months or years later (if you are disciplined) and with that, bring back a moment in time. If you visit a distillery that offers take-aways, I would not suggest getting armfuls like the insurance company execs, but one for yourself makes perfect sense.
* That happens as distilleries will lend warehouse space to others.
N.B.: I have obscured the name on the label because H.W. is a nom de plume.