The Ascent of Mount Balvenie: Three Whiskeys, Three Finishes, Three Nights

4652490124_b08e36fd58I love the whiskeys of the Balvenie Distillery. I even love the shape of their bottles, their wood-capped corks, the informative but restrained sophistication of their labels. But especially, and above all, I love the mollifying, mesmerizing, balmy elixirs cached in each of those shapely vessels.

Though I am not a fan of buying new make – after all, half or more of the magic of whiskey comes via cask choice, maturation and finishing, long after the new make courses through the worm – the Balvenie new make is something I do long to taste because there is a core to each of their expressions that is the object of my obsession with the brand. Going from expression to expression with this distillery is like falling in love with each of several beautiful sisters in the same family – makes you want to meet the mother, to get some insight regarding the origins of a gene pool that can be so beautifully and yet so variously expressed…

But anyway…

The sweet project I have set myself is to savor and taste three of my favorite Balvenie whiskeys in three consecutive nights: The 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask; the 17 Year Old Madeira Cask; and the 21 Year Old Port Cask. In that order…

Night I: Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask

The-Balvenie-14-Caribbean-Cask-e1341585859671-215x300Mmmm – That sweet honey-vanilla-and-oak mild-melting-toffee Balvenie thing.

Just. Sooo beautiful.

Like a Milky Way bar made by a summa cum laude graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.

The influence of the rum cask finish is definitely there rising from the glass, but it is in wondrous balance with other components; it isn’t there in a swashbuckling or bumptious or nagging way – no salt, sand, sea, hot native sweat nor piles of coconut flesh in a blazing tropic sun. Rather, the gentle rum cask influence presents itself as a perfectly fitting piece of the tasty puzzle this whiskey is. The good breeding in this dram is more than evident!

It’s viscous, but still light. A perfect weight for the many integrated flavors this whiskey holds like copper holds heat.

There is fruit – some Guava, I’m thinking, and Canary melon and, aah… what is that semi-sweet melon that also has some spiciness to it? It’s yellow and almost barky, with pink and green splotches on the skin. Hhmmm… Crenshaw! That’s it, Crenshaw melon. I taste Crenshaw melon. The fruity spiciness and clean sugar-honey taste of Crenshaw melon – with a bit of white pepper sprinkled on the flesh!

The core truth about this one is balance. Honey, vanilla, fudge, toffee, maple, moderate oak spice, white pepper, sweet but not overly sweet fruits, rum, a touch of coconut milk – all dancing in unison on a balance beam. Not too sweet, not too dry, with a lingering, flavorful, slowly developing then slowly drying finish.

In short, I think I’ll pour another dram…

Night II: Balvenie 17 Year Old Madeira Cask

madeira-caskAfter dating one of the youngest daughters in the Balvenie family, one thing stands out about her somewhat older sibling – she’s had more time in school and thus her refinement and sophistication are that much more evident.

The integration of oak, honey and fruit – apples, melon and fresh green grapes, mostly – is mouthwateringly rich and stunning here.

And there is more viscosity here and less white pepper than in the Caribbean Cask. Perhaps due to this voluminous mouthfeel, one of the first impressions I get when it hits the palate is the taste of a liquefied Charleston Chew bar! Or, rather, what I imagine that would taste like…

One begins to wonder how much of the nose and palate of these whiskeys is determined by the finishing casks and how much by the extra years in ex-bourbon casks. What differences would one experience in a Balvenie malt at 14, 17 and 21 years of age if there were no finishing casks used? Or, conversely, what if a cask of Balvenie aged, say, 15 years (so we could compare it with the ex-bourbon only Single Barrel), were finished some in rum, some in sherry and some in port barrels, so that the finishing became the distinguishing characteristic of each? If anyone reading this should happen to run into Balvenie’s longtime malt master, David Stewart, be sure to ask him these questions and get back to me – with an assortment of samples, if possible!

Anyway, the array of fruits proffered by the Madeira Cask is broader and more extensive than in the Caribbean Cask. There are the apples, honeydew melon and green grapes already noted, but also hints of banana and even of blackberries. With a slight touch of citrus zest.

The spiciness here puts the white pepper much further back in the profile and brings forward both fresh and candied ginger with just a wisp of cinnamon.

There’s something like shortbread cookies in there, maybe a bit undercooked, but with a very slight maple coating. I taste vanilla sponge cake, too. With a bit of bittersweet chocolate frosting on top.

Oak, as always with Balvenie, is present, but there is no resinous chewiness nor any woody tannins as found in the anCnoc 16 I reviewed last week (drying aspects of the palate I liked in that whiskey). In the same general category of taste notes, there is a nuttiness – almonds, primarily – and the slight taste of oats or oat clusters – no, actually, it is the taste of Muesli, the cereal.

In a sense, this is a whiskey for all seasons. It has the lightness of Spring veering into Summer with its diverse fruits and honeycomb and plenty of oak and a spicy warm glow to carry one through the Fall and Winter months.

And the finish is long with Madeira wine, chocolate and drying oaky spices. This is superb!

Night III: Balvenie 21 Year Old Port Cask

Singapore-Whisky-Balvenie-21Aahhh, now – This Balvenie sister is old enough to drive, drink, vote and marry. In many respects, her refinement and sophistication surpass that of her 17 year old sister, but all that extra time and schooling haven’t rendered her any less sweet.

In fact, that sweet honey-vanilla-and-oak mild-toffee-caramel Balvenie thing seems at once both more prominent here but less sweet overall. This is a sweetness that does not in any way verge on cloying.

What may account for this sense of somewhat attenuated volume or impact of sweetness is the thinner body of this one compared to the other two. It is not creamy nor does it display much viscosity, if any. It is actually a bit thin, especially compared against the Madeira Cask.

Is that perhaps the price one pays for the extra refinement and sophistication? One remembers the bulbous lips of glowing youth, but this one’s lips have thinned a bit in the years of becoming more urbane.

But just a bit – she is still achingly kissable!

One difference that is immediately noticeable upon drawing a dram of this elegant elixir is its color. Whereas both the Caribbean Cask and the Madeira Cask were of similar shades of golden amber honey, the pink of the port is clearly visible in this one. And it may be, if I am not mistaken, just a tad lighter overall.

On the nose, beyond the vanilla-honey-caramel sweetness mentioned above, is a very distinctive aroma of port wine – of deep red savory port wine. There is also something rind-like in there, like the smell of the orange itself after zesting. And malty waftings as from a bowl of dry cereal.

Unusual aromas announce their presence. Wet cotton t-shirts? Really? Yes, and even a bit of that starchy-earthy smell of potato peels. But these are buried between layers of rich, sweet honey and wine. This is, in my estimation, the most complex nose of the three whiskeys under consideration here (though the others are wonderfully complex in themselves).

The array of fruits here is as broad and extensive as in the Madeira Cask, with some blueberry, pineapple and other tropical fruits added along with the banana, melon, green grapes and blackberries.

On the palate, these same fruit notes are there, but almost as if the fruits have been dried. Dried apricot and mango are added on the palate. This is not an unpleasant taste whatsoever. And there is plenty of vanilla and spiciness from the oak as well. The white pepper is back in the forefront and the ginger has receded almost beyond notice – but not quite. For the first time with these Balvenies, I sense a hint of nutmeg in the spice. And there are tannins in there, perhaps too many, drying out the otherwise multiplex sweetness of this malt.

The finish is sweet and peppery and moderately long, leaving a spicy, vinous dryness on the tongue.

Conclusion?

I’m bad at choosing. My suggestion would be, of course, to run out and buy all three of these tomorrow. Sell those old CDs you never listen to anymore and those old snow tires gathering moss out in the shed – and why keep those running shoes and wellingtons you never wore, those old silk ties and turtleneck sweaters? That’s what eBay exists for, right? I love good single malts and these are all very-good-to-great single malts proffering delightful infusions of richness and sophistication. You should really have them all in your cabinet.

The Port Cask offers a bit more refinement than the others; still, though it displays the richest complexity of the three, it is lacking (only relative to the others) in puissance and a sense of body.

The Caribbean Cask is delightful and rich and almost splendid in its spicy-sweet rum-tinged fruitiness.

The Madeira Cask is the most sensual and seductive with all its creaminess, layers of fruitiness, deeply satisfying honey-sweetness and warm spice.

If I had to marry one of these gals right now and sail off to a deserted island with her and her alone, I would, with sidelong glances at the others, propose to the 17 year old Madeira Cask. It is just a more sensual and luxurious experience. I know I would not regret my choice.

Still, as every one of you single malt drinkers reading this knows, it’s possible I would make a different choice if asked again tomorrow night.

Slainte!

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