In a couple of earlier reviews, I had some less-than-positive comments about Balvenie, and I now wish I could edit those reviews to qualify my opinions. In short, the first three Balvenie expressions I tried left me underwhelmed. The next three I tried...well, maybe they weren’t over-the-moon experiences, but they were good enough to make me raise my estimation of the distillery by several notches. This is actually a double review of two of those whiskies, the DoubleWood siblings of 12 and 17 years.
Both the 12 and the 17 are aged mostly in bourbon oak, with a brief finish in sherry casks. Upon first taste, the sherry influence in the 12 yo was not pleasant. To my palate, sherry is great when it dominates, but sometimes renders other sweet flavors bitter when its influence is slight. The characteristic Balvenie flavors of honey, malt, and vanilla could have been well-balanced supporting players had the 12 yo been given more than a token sherry finish of a few months. But I found too many incompatible flavors competing for attention, and the result was a whisky as well-balanced as Laurel & Hardy on a seesaw. Just the opinion of one man’s taste buds, based on my first couple of drams from a fresh bottle.
But with the bottle level about 1/3 down, and after a few months’ rest on the shelf – what a difference! The flavors are now more articulate, and the bitterness has given way to balance. Now it tastes like the younger sibling of the 17 yo, with the progression from one to the other being downright logical. These are both good whiskies, although I have some issues with the 17’s price tag. More on this later; let’s get to the tasting.
Nose, 12 yo: The characteristic Balvenie honey and vanilla, plus plenty of fruits, florals, cake frosting, and, oh yes, sherry. I think there’s a touch of peat, but it comes and goes. Complex enough, if rather tame in its overall effect.
Nose, 17 yo: On both nose and palate, the 17 tastes like what the 12 wants to be. What’s subdued in the 12 is brazen in the 17. Honey is now very dominant, and the fruity mishmash in the 12 has separated into distinct touches of bananas, cherries, grapes, and lemons. There’s also plenty of sherry and malt, and they work as perfect compliments to everything else.
Palate, 12 yo: Pleasant, but very light. There’s a mild mix of sherry, vanilla, malt, and fruit, but it quickly turns into watery, weak tea. The medium-length finish is interesting in that the bourbon casks suddenly overwhelm the sherry finish.
Overall, the 12 yo is a mixed bag, but it’s a smooth and easy dram with a number of pleasing touches. With no bitter or off notes (once you let the open bottle sit for a while), the worst that can be said about it is that it’s on the bland and underwhelming side. Very drinkable nonetheless. Rating for the 12 yo: 85.
Palate, 17 yo: Superior to the 12 yo in (almost) every way. The arrival is a burst of malt, vanilla, cinnamon, apples, shortbread, honey, and just the right touch of sherry. The finish is nice, with caramel and vanilla dominant, along with a touch of pepper and plenty of heat. There’s a slight touch of bitterness that emerges in the finish, but not enough to spoil anything that came before.
I usually don’t discuss a whisky’s price (mainly because price is not an issue with most of the whiskies in my cabinet), and I don’t make adjustments to my score even if I think a whisky is ridiculously overpriced. But this is one instance that I think represents the recent trend for marketing gimmickry, rather than the quality of the whisky, justifying the high cost. The 17 yo is a good $70 whisky, no more. For $120 US (its average price at most locations), I want a spectacular whisky that scores well into the 90s. This one almost makes it, but lacks that “wow” factor present in my favorite drams. Fine stuff, to be sure, but falls short of the superstar it strives to be.
If you’re a fan of the 12 yo DoubleWood, then you’ll want to try the 17 yo at some point. But you might want to wait until somebody else is buying. My favorite Balvenie remains the 14 yo Caribbean Rum Cask, which sells for about half the price of the 17 yo DoubleWood.