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On my wife's and I first day in Speyside we visited two whisky distilleries, Benromach and Balvenie. I'd never had Benromanch before and it wound up being a very nice little tour, with a bottle of the Benromach smoky picked up for my father in law. It did not make it to him (review to shortly come)
However the second distillery of the tour, Balvenie, was a distillery that I knew well, and loved. Having had quite a few of their expressions and knowing that they had a much more in depth tour then their sister distillery, Glenfiddich, I'd asked Roy, our guide to book a tour for us.
God I'm thrilled that I did.
Now Balvenie does only 2 tours a day, they run at 35 pounds per person. No idea what to expect other then the fact that I enjoy Balvenie quite a bit, owning 2 different bottles at home, the 12 year old Doublewood and the 21 year old Port Wood (SEXY!)
While we wait we're offered food, coffee and tea and we're introduced to our tour guide, David Mair, who I'm actually informed after the tour is THE Balvenie ambassador.
After waiting 10 minutes or so David decides that we're just going to start the tour and they can join us as they're able. First off we put on reflective vests to wear as we move about the distillery (remember that ALL of these distilleries are WORKING distilleries, so in some ways it's just like taking a tour through a lumber yard or construction site, you have to be careful!) and then we set off.
The tour starts out a little different then all of our other tours as Balvenie actually does a small portion of their maltings on site. Now maltings for those who don't know is basically malted barley. When you malt it what you do is you spread many tons of barley across a wide floor and then you let it get wet, not too wet, not too damp, in order for it germinate or sprout. This is done over about 5 to 7 days with the barley being turned every couple of hours in order to encourage starch to develop on the barley which then turns to sugar.
Now almost NO distilleries left in Scotland do this on site as it's a VERY intensive process requiring a good bit of man power as the barley HAS to be turned every couple of hours and in the old days used to cause a physical disorder called Monkey Shoulder (yes the whisky is named after that). This is done over the entire day, for 5 to 7 days, so there is no break. Even though there are now machines that do this it is still a time intensive process.
The other reason why most distilleries don't do this anymore is they can't malt fast enough to keep up with demand. You're going through megaton lots in a week so it's a HUGE undertaking. Most distilleries get their malt from companies that specialize in maltings, they'll gather the barley that you need and malt to your specifications on smoke, peat, etc.
Balvenie however still does some maltings at their distillery, not much and it's more for visitors to see, but they do it. Sadly they weren't doing it when we arrived, but as we arrive in the malting house there are these MASSIVE mounds of barley just waiting to being the process of making whisky. Huge massive piles of barley.
David says that if we want to touch any we're more then welcome to. We all stand outside the malting area, handling the little bits of barley that are there, but everything in me screams to go jump into a pile of the barley. My lovely wife says that she doesn't think that David meant that when he said we could handle the barley.
David then informs us that that is indeed what he meant.
I'm over the little barrier so fast that you wouldn't believe it, heading to the mounds of barley, running my hands through it as my wife laughs and takes photos. David talks about the barley and is an engaging speaker, which is a very difficult thing to do considering that almost every single distillery makes whisky the exact same way with only the details changing. It's VERY hard to keep it fresh for someone who's been through distillery after distillery.
Right around this time we're joined by the missing Americans and we start moving through the distillery, actually seeing how the malt is dried, heading by the mill, the tun room where we try some more wort (whisky beer!) the still house, taking photos the entire way! Once we're done with the still house we're informed of something special!
Balvenie and Glenfiddich are SO massive and go through so many casks that they have their own onsight cooperage that they use to repair casks after use. We get to watch it in action.
OH SWEET BABY JESUS!!! SO COOL!!!
We hope into a little vehicle and drive over to the cooperage which is running flat out with maybe a dozen guys repairing casks in all stages of repair. It is VERY cool. Actually it's insanely cool! I take several hundred photos of just the cooperage and repairs having already taken several hundred photos throughout the distillery. I'm asking David questions left and right and he answers them all without fail, after about 10, maybe 15 minutes David, after confirming that everyone has seen what they want to, calls for a move on.
It's time for the big game, the cask warehouse!
Now we're informed by David that this is the area of the tour where we're not allowed to take photos (remember what I said about the distilleries and this, TECHNICALLY it's supposed to be due to Occupation Health and Safety running wild). He however lets us take photos from outside the distillery through the door. I grab a few and then eagerly head in!
David, my wife and I chat as we wander through the warehouse with the other tourists wandering through the warehouse. It's beautiful! Casks from the early 70's, 80's, 90's everywhere. You can smell the whisky in the air my friends, it's the Angel's Share.
As my wife, David and I walk through the warehouse he asks me if I'm a member of the Warehouse 24 club. For a minute or two I'm trying to figure out what he means....Warehouse 24? I'm a member of the Balvenie Club, having signed up about a year ago when I signed up for every distillery's club in Scotland who's whisky I enjoyed.
He then describes the club, seeing my confusion. YES! I am a member of the club.
At that point he informs me with that being the case there is a VERY special cask inside of the warehouse which has whisky in it for me. A cask that was 39 years old from 1974.
Oh my god!
This was a cask selected by David Stewart, the Malt Master of Balvenie, for club members to sample while they were visiting the distillery. There are no words to describe the way I felt at that moment. My wife just had a GIANT grin on her face and me, I was speechless.
We head into a lower level of the warehouse where the rest of the tour group has gathered. At the end of the room are 3 different casks, different ages, pretty much 14 to 17 years or so old, that people can bottle for a 200ml bottle if I recall correctly for around 25 pounds. You get to dip the dog (the item used to pull whisky out of a cask for sampling) and bottle it yourself, char and all!
David then hands my wife and myself a bottle, dog, and funnel and informs the group that because we're Warehouse 24 members we get to bottle a 39 year old whisky for sampling. However unlike them we can not TAKE this whisky off the property, it must be drunk there. If they're lucky we'll be kind and share it with them he says.
Everyone looks on with envy as my wife and I head back upstairs to bottle the whisky, which takes me a couple minutes to figure out how to do, however it takes my wife just a minute or so to figure out how to do this and the rest of the time is spent explaining it to me (hey I've said I'm an idiot before :D)
We come back down after bottling this sexy looking 39 year old single malt which comes from a 2nd fill bourbon barrel and join the rest of the group who are bottling their 16 year old whiskies, which Thao and I then try all the casks. Very nice whiskies, but right now I'm budgeting like you wouldn't believe to make sure my money will last throughout the trip.
Once everyone has their whiskies bottled we head into the tasting room, hang up our vests, and sit down for a most excellent tasting. On the table are 5 different whisky samples, Balvenie 12 year old Double wood, Balvenie 14 year old Caribbean cask, Balvenie 15 year old Single Barrel and Balvenie 21 year old Port Wood.
We sit down for a tasting as David walks everyone through all the whiskies, tasting notes, cask finishings, etc. I try and tune everyone out as I've poured the 39 year into glasses for everyone, with a bit more left over for me for seconds.
This is a 39 year old CASK strength whisky, poured straight from the cask, into my bottle, bits of char and imprefections and all.
It's lovely to behold.
I have tried most of the Balvenie line, love it, the major exception which normally would have had me super excited was the Caribbean cask which I'd heard rave reviews about. But right in front of me was a 39 year old cask strength Balvenie. NOTHING AND I MEAN NOTHING was going to distract me from this bad boy.
The first thing that my wife and I noticed as the tasting went on was how the other visitors wound up changing their drinking habits while watching me. As the start a couple of the guys were treating it like shots, gulping the poor whiskies down, others would take a sip of whisky and then immediately take a drink of water. After about 15 minutes of them watching me nose and slowly sample the whisky, they wound up doing the same thing. Pretty cool!
This Balvenie had me instantly hooked on first nose, making me fall in love with it. Complex and gorgeous, like you wouldn't believe. But enough of me telling you how good and awesome it was, let me give you the tasting notes!
The nose is sweet with honey and fruit, specifically oranges, pineapples, orange zest and lychees, but there's a hint of smoke in the background, along with vanilla, nutmeg, and polished book shelves and a slight toasty aroma that makes you think this whisky is going to be chewy. This is definitely a whisky that needs some time to open up and the longer you spend with it, the more your efforts will be repaid.
Finally it's time to take a sip, at this stage the rest of the tasting is on their 3rd or so whisky, but my wife and I are noticing more and more people focusing on us, and then looking back down to their tasting set, staring at their lass glass which contains a sample of the 39 year old.
The flavors on this whisky are excellent, coating the palate, you get honey, coconut, pears, green apples, cocoa, slightly floral notes, and spices of nutmeg and cloves. A hint of toffee is also present. Again this is a sipping whisky, definitely not a gulping whisky, and if you pour it into coke, you and I are going to have some words.
The finish like so many old, cask strength whiskies, is long with grapes, vanilla and toffee lingering on your palate for a good long while.
Roy even got in on the action, giving the whisky a nose and exclaiming how lovely it was.
Now the downside. I would have happily paid over 100 pounds for a 200ml bottle of this whisky, to have been able to sit down and enjoy it at my leisure, with no distractions and especially with my wife and brother and sister in law. However this whisky needs to be consumed on the premises.
Now the upside: If you're in Scotland and you visit Balvenie, as long as you're a member of the Warehouse 24 club, you get to drink this whisky (or if the cask is empty, something equally awesome) for free. To share as you decide to. If you're not a member of Warehouse 24 and are ever going to visit Scotland, you should definitely sign up as I'm so very glad that I did!
God I miss that whisky...