Balvenie GoldenCask 14 Year Old
This month Charles Maclean reviews the Balvenie GoldenCask 14 Year Old.
The idea of re-racking from a tired cask into a more active one is not new - indeed, it is likely to have been a common practice in the whisky industry since the beginning - but it is only in the last two decades that it has been commercially exploited and extended to embrace ‘finishing' in casks which have contained liquids other than whisky - typically sherry or port.
It was David Stewart, William Grant's Whisky Master, who first introduced a ‘sherry finished' malt - Balvenie Classic - in 1982/83, although this was not revealed on the label. He followed it up with the hugely successful Balvenie DoubleWood 12YO (1993) and PortWood (1995), and went on to explore a variety of other finishing casks, including Caribbean rum.
The Balvenie Golden Cask is one such. The whisky has been matured in standard ex-Bourbon barrels - as is the majority of Scotch malt whisky - then re-racked into puncheons that have been used for mellowing blond Caribbean rum for the final years of maturation, in order to add depth, complexity and extra layers of flavour to the spirit.
In 2012 David Stewart celebrated his fiftieth year in the Scotch whisky industry. He joined William Grant & Sons, the owner of Balvenie and Glenfiddich Distilleries, aged seventeen, in 1962 - the year before single malt Scotch whisky was first officially exported to England - and rose through the ranks to become the company's ‘Malt Master' in 1974. He is universally respected - a modest, quiet, hugely experienced craftsman; the acknowledged senior Master Blender in the entire industry.
William Grant opened Glenfiddich Distillery in 1886, and bought twelve acres of adjacent land in March 1890, including ‘the new House of Balvenie'. The Old Castle of Balvenie is a massive medieval keep and stands not far away, its walls veiled by trees.
Balvenie House was actually a Neo-Classical mansion, commissioned in 1722 by William Duff, later 1st Earl of Fife, from the prominent architect James Gibbs (the year after he began St. Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square). It is said that Duff built it for ‘a beautiful countess', not necessarily his own wife, who had been gifted a greyhound by a local admirer. The dog turned out to be rabid. It bit her and she soon died of hydrophobia, as a result of which its owner abandoned the house. It had been lived in for only eight years, and been derelict for eighty.
The new distillery went into production on 1st May 1892, with the old mansion house being converted into a maltings. In 1929 the upper storeys were demolished, and the lower storey turned into Warehouse 24, a place said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman.
Balvenie Distillery prides itself on ‘doing everything in-house'. The distillery grows its own barley (albeit only a tiny amount), has its own floor maltings (producing about 10% of its requirement), its own coppersmiths and its own bottling facility. The single malt was first bottled in the early 1970s, in the iconic ‘triangular bottle' used by Glenfiddich and Grant's Standfast blend (I have been told it was designed by Prince Ingvar Bernadotte, brother of the King of Sweden). From 1982 Balvenie Founder's Reserve was filled into a striking ‘vintage champagne' bottle, while Balvenie Classic went into an oval flask. The equally stylish current bottle-shape dates from 1993.
The colour of golden autumn sunlight - as befits its name! Good legs, indicating rich texture. The aroma is fruity overall, with orange and grape scents in the foreground (developing into fruit salad), bound by light almond oil, with a faint mustiness in the background after a while. Subtle and well-integrated, and despite its generous 47.5% strength, very accessible.
The taste at natural strength is sweet to start (momentarily reminiscent of apricot jam), then dries out pleasantly into a long warming finish. It drinks well without water, but a dash reveals an attractive spiciness in the mouth (allspice?), reduces the sweetness slightly and introduces a light chocolate taste to the finish. The aroma at reduced strength is similar to that unreduced. There is no trace of rum, which is as it should be. A whisper of chocolate remains in the empty glass.
Occasion: Instead of afternoon tea!
Pleasant, fresh and easy to drink