The Speyside distillery Balvenie just added a second selection to Scotland's only single-barrel whisky range with a non-chill-filtered, 15-year-old malt aged in Sherry butts.
The whisky joins the company's 12 Year Old Single Barrel First Fill, released in 2013, and will be accompanied by a 25-year-old aged in reused American oak in the fall. The Balvenie inaugurated its single-barrel program in 1993 with a 15-year-old aged in Bourbon barrels. Malt master David Stewart notes that the program was a "bold step" two decades ago when single-cask Scotch was "pretty rare and reserved for the release of very old whiskies." He adds that the relative youth of the malts in the program has opened it up for more whisky enthusiasts.
Single-barrel bottlings use the whisky from a single vessel without the typical marrying step that ensures overall consistency. Instead, they highlight the variables that exist from cask to cask. Single-barrel offerings are more prevalent in the American whiskey world, where wide temperature variations throughout the warehouses make for even greater differences from barrel to barrel.
The casks for the single-barrel program are specially selected from the vessels in the Balvenie warehouses for their quality. No more than 650 numbered bottles are drawn from each one. Strictly speaking, this Balvenie would be more accurately dubbed a "single-cask" whisky as it was aged in Sherry butts, an industry term which refers to vessels that are about four times the size of the standard barrel used to age Bourbon.
The Balvenie is also unique among Scotch distilleries in that it performs all of the steps in the whisky-making process at its Dufftown, Banffshire site. Some of its barley is grown in surrounding fields. Traditional floor maltings are done on site, where coopers attend to the casks and coppersmiths maintain the fat, short-necked stills for which the whisky is known.
The Balvenie 15 Year Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask (95.6 proof, or 47.8 percent alcohol by volume; 15 years old; $99.99 per 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Very dark, rich amber/copper color. Slow to medium legs in big droplets.
NOSE: A rather complex nose, with whiffs of raisins, Sherry, molasses, banana, honey and just the slightest bit of rubber.
PALATE: Spice is the resounding opening note, with a flush of licorice. That backs off to a burst of fruit, including berries, raisins, and meatier fruits like pear and banana. As the tartness of the first two rounds wears down, rounder flavors emerge, including caramel and a nutty quality.
FINISH: The long finish reflects the notes on the palate with the addition f a hint of Stilton cheese. As it goes on, the rancio/nuttiness increases and then turns to an insistent reminder of a cinnamon graham cracker.
CIGAR PAIRING: Quesada Jalapa Prominente (7 5/8 inches by 54 ring gauge, $8.75, 89 points, Cigar Aficionado June 2014) A bright and creamy smoke that draws and burns evenly. It's mild though flavorful with notes of toasted marshmallow and wood. The cigar's light flavors almost instantly gain more heft from the marriage with the whisky. A pronounced nutty quality develops as well as significant toast. The Quesada in turn underlines the cheese notes on The Balvenie even as develops its licorice flavors.
Joya de Nicaragua Antaño 1970 Churchill (6 7/8 inches by 48 ring gauge, $7.55, 88 Points, Cigar Aficionado June 2014) Draped in an oily, reddish-brown wrapper, this large cigar starts with some heavy tar notes that sweeten to black cherry, toast and wood. A full-bodied smoke with interesting flavor. These two strike it up like old friends reunited. The whisky pulls back the curtains straight away, and the cherry of the cigar is fully revealed and realized. The Joya's woodiness gives extra roundness to the Balvenie, which develops its caramel and vanilla notes. A brilliant pairing.