Speyside has more distilleries than any other region in Scotland, and produces over 40 different malts. These range from the most popular Scotch whiskies in the world (Glenlivet and Glenfiddich) to some of the most prized (The Macallan). Dufftown is located on the River Fiddich, and is home to six major distilleries; the town is fond of describing itself as “The Whisky Capital of the World,” although I can think of a few locales in Kentucky that might take issue with that. The most traditional of those distilleries is The Balvenie.
Whisky is made the old-fashioned way at The Balvenie. The barley is grown on the distillery’s 1000-acre farm, steeped in spring water, and germinated on the malting floor—the only one left in the Scottish Highlands. From there it’s transferred to the kiln, and ultimately to the still. The Balvenie employs its own coppersmith and coopers, who spend four years in apprenticeship; this is nothing compared to the Malt Master, David Stewart, who has logged five decades on the premises. The result is a range of whiskies that are splendid examples of Speyside malts, and take their place among the best produced in Scotland.
Tasted side by side, the new 12 Year Single Barrel and the well-established 15 Year Single Barrel (both around $80) display a distinct family resemblance. The 12 Year is rich and fat on entry, but this is followed by a rush of spice and white pepper in the mid palate; a few drops of water tame the spirit’s raw power and bring it into balance. The 15 Year is leaner, with nicely focused notes of spice and dried flowers in the middle. A touch of water rounds it out, but also enhances the peppery quality on the finish.
The Balvenie produces two Doublewood malts—aged first in American oak barrels, then finished in European Sherry casks. The Doublewood 12 Year-Old ($55) is sweet and plump, with scents of menthol, dried fruits and sea air; water mellows out the spirit even further. The newly created Doublewood 17 ($130) is more angular in the mouth, although the same combination of spice and honeyed sweetness emerges in the mid palate; the extra time in wood gives the spirit a restrained elegance that is very appealing. A few drops of water fatten it up nicely.
Near the upper end of the range is the Port Wood 21 year-Old ($175), transferred to port casks for final aging prior to bottling. It enters the mouth effortlessly, massive yet seamless; the texture is viscous, and the flavors fan out gently in the mid palate and persist on the finish. I didn’t have the heart to add water, even for an experiment. This spirit may not be cheap, but it’s definitely beautiful.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot): for more information, click here.