Back in 2006, my tentative efforts to ‘get into’ whisky were going spectacularly wrong. Another run-in with an Islay single malt seemed to spell the end of my whisky journey before it had really begun … quite why I thought it was a good idea to start out with heavily peated whiskies rather than something from Speyside is anyone’s guess.
And then a glass of Balvenie 12 Year Old DoubleWood changed everything. Here was a whisky that ticked all the boxes: rich, nuanced but still accessible with an enjoyable finish. If you have a friend who is struggling to get into whisky or are looking for a solid Scotch, Balvenie DoubleWood is hard to beat.
Despite this breakout role in my whisky education, the rest of The Balvenie range remained something of a mystery. Apart from a hurried dram of the Balvenie Caribbean Cask release proffered by an exceptionally sleep deprived & grumpy Welsh barman in a Parisian pub last year, I hadn’t tried anything from The Balvenie, or any Speyside distillery for that matter, for several months with Japanese and American whiskies having proved something of a distraction. The launch event for The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter Two at the Stafford Hotel in London hosted by David Stewart MBE and Sam Simmonds via livestream from Warehouse 24 provided the perfect opportunity to put that right.
David Stewart, malt master at The Balvenie, can safely be described as a titan of the Scotch whisky industry. Having begun his career at the distillery as a whisky stocks clerk in 1962, he was appointed as malt master in 1974 and subsequently gained widespread recognition for his pioneering work on two cask maturation, now more commonly known as ‘finishing’, in the 1980s. Finished whiskies are now so commonplace that it’s strange to think of a time when they didn’t exist. Thanks to David’s work, they do.
The Balvenie DCS Compendium is an ambitious collection of 25 cask strength whiskies, to be released over five ‘chapters’, aimed at capturing the knowledge that David Stewart has accrued over the past five decades. The focus of the event was the newly released Chapter Two entitled “The Influence of Oak” priced at £20,000, which features five single cask whiskies aged in barrels including American oak bourbon and European oak port puncheon. As discussed previously on this site, decades of wood ageing can have a transformative impact on spirits, elevating the nose, palate & finish to new levels of complexity and depth. But, far more frequently, extended ageing creates spirits that taste of little else but wood.
Happily, Chapter Two falls firmly into the first category. The first whisky of the night was from Cask 13134, which had been aged for 43 years in a European oak oloroso sherry butt filled on 31 October 1972 (52.4% ABV). This was a truly stunning whisky; surprisingly soft and delicate for such an old, cask-strength whisky but with the depth, complexity and undefinably ethereal elegance that is the hallmark of a true great. Alongside the infamous ‘Bitter Truth’ release, this is undoubtedly one of the finest whiskies that I have tried in 2016. While a tough act to follow, the remaining whiskies in the DCS Chapter II were also excellent and succeeded in highlighting the fantastic flavour variance that can be achieved through careful cask selection. The Cask 7951 aged for 19 year years in European oak port puncheon filled on 6 August 1997 (61.8% ABV) received particular praise from the attendees on the night.
Super-premium whiskies releases, with huge price tags to match, are not a new phenomenon. To my mind, what stands out about the DCS Compendium is the integrity and rigour of the project. It was clear from David Stewart’s presentation that significant amounts of thought and effort had gone into selecting the 25 casks that make up the project. The final three chapters due for release by 2019 are titled ‘Secrets of the Stock Model’, ‘Expecting the Unexpected’ and ‘Malt Master’s indulgence’. If they are anything like as good as the Chapter Two, they will be very special indeed.
Thank you to The Balvenie for an exceptional evening of whisky and hospitality.