This is the story of one man. A man that some of you may know by name, most by reputation. He is a man who has contributed an entire lifetime to Scotch whisky yet he will be the first to downplay the remarkable success he has achieved along the way. The man is David Stewart MBE, Malt Master at The Balvenie Distillery, and yesterday, by what source of great fortune I still cannot comprehend, I was given a rare glimpse into the building blocks of this man’s glittering 55 years of creation. It was a matter of right-place-right-time, a wonderfully generous host, and perhaps a bit of luck that I found myself partaking in a whisky tasting that transcends anything I have experienced through this incredible journey.
The Balvenie DCS Compendium is a collection of single cask whiskies that celebrate everything David has learned throughout his career. More specifically, it is the handover of David’s knowledge to the future generation of craftsmen at The Balvenie distillery in both liquid and written form. Of the 300,000 casks aging in The Balvenie warehouse, David has selected 25 special casks to represent his legacy and the fundamental lessons he has learned as Malt Master. These 25 casks have been divided into five “chapters”, each representing different lesson or theme. At its release a few years back, Chapter 1 showcased the distillery’s traditional house style as it has been maintained over five decades. It was followed by Chapter 2, which focused on the influence of oak. It included casks that are more unique to The Balvenie such as Pedro Ximenez and a single Port Pipe, which is commonly used for finishing but never before offered as a full-term single cask expression.
Chapter 3 is the most recent of the DCS Compendium. It represents the secrets of the stock model. One of the biggest challenge for any whisky distillery is predicting future demand not just a few years down the road, but decades in advance. It’s an incredibly complicated process that requires a certain level of skill to properly manage the ever-changing variables that impact maturation. The five casks chosen for this chapter represent the mastery of this very skill as well as milestone years throughout the history of The Balvenie.
This particular set includes something very special to not just to DCS Compendium collection but to the distillery itself. It contains the oldest Balvenie ever bottled; a 55-Year-Old distilled in 1961 and matured in a single European oak Oloroso sherry hogshead. Chapter 3 is sold as a set of five single cask bottles priced at $60,000. The majority of these sets have already been allocated to big-time whisky collectors so if the price tag has not deterred you from owning this piece of liquid history, you may want to begin searching for the few that remain. And while it is safe to say that many of these bottles will remain unopened, perhaps to find their way into a museum one day, I…sorry my thumbs are still shaking…have tasted all of them. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on each cask from The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 3:
Cask 741 (2004, 13 Years Old, European Oak Oloroso sherry butt, 58.2%): This is, how should I put this, everything you would want from a traditional sherry bomb. Bold and tantalizing yet lush and smooth. Heavy on the rich, dark fruits and wintergreen spice. The Balvenie currently offers a single cask bottling from European oak and it happens to my my personal favorite of their core expressions. But this…this is an entirely different level. Never before have I experienced the distillery’s traditionally smooth and delicate character in full cask strength. A wonderfully whisky and a beautiful start to what will follow.
Cask 11621 (1993, 23 Years Old, Refill American oak hogshead, 51.9%): An entirely different experience than the one before it from the wood to the age to the ABV. I found this one to be a classic; the ordinary of the extraordinary if you will. Having been fortunate to become familiar with the twenty-something single cask Speysider style through various independent bottlers, this whisky exists in somewhat familiar territory for me (don’t worry we’re about to leave it here shortly). The bourbon notes are still bright and fresh but the spirit has begun to develop that brittle texture that I find somewhat common in older whiskies. It is deep and thought provoking but still very much alive. Everything is in balance and I can’t help but feel this cask is perhaps the truest representation of The Balvenie distillery as it is known around the world.
Cask 7824 (1981, 35 Years Old, Refill American oak hogshead, 43.8%): This is where things start to get interesting, which says a lot given the two whiskies before it. Cask 7824 is the point in which this experience becomes more than just a whisky tasting but a journey into the distant past. This is a mystical, provocative whisky that may just be one of the most interesting unpeated spirits ever matured in American oak. It’s almost as if the liquid has clawed past the inner lining of charred wood laced with Bourbon and has spent the last decade of its 35 years harvesting the inner workings of the cask. It is a very elegant whisky but at three and a half decades old, one that has gone beyond where most of us will ever know. Timeless in every way imaginable. In the moment I first tasted this whisky it was one of the best I ever had. But then this happened…
Cask 8556 (1973, 43 Years Old, European Oak Oloroso sherry butt, 46.6%): This was an emotional one for me. Let me put it this way: I’ve tasted a lot of whiskies in my day but never have I felt an immediate connection to something so unfamiliar. The aroma was unlike anything I have dreamt of because I simply never knew something like this was even possible. Yet it all seemed so perfect. It was was vegetal, floral even and almost perfume-like with a deep, musty undertone of mellowed oak and leather. The palate was lush and viscous with layers of autumnal spice and decayed earth. It was not “fruity”. No, the fruits have died off a decade ago. This is something unworldly, something truly special. For a fortunate few, this cask is also available as a limited edition stand-along bottling for $15,000. Believe me, in my head I am trying to justify it. It was, well, perfect.
Cask 4193 (1961, 55 Years Old, European Oak Oloroso sherry hogshead, 41.7%): when you taste a whisky this old, you cannot do so without thinking of what the world was like the day it was born. Some people only judge whisky by the liquid in the glass but I look for the full experience. And an experience is exactly what this was. At 55 years old it is the oldest whisky I have ever tasted to date. And while age is not a linear determinant of quality, the very nature of a whisky this old is simply different. Notes of candied orchard fruit and milk chocolate cake together is a silky but all very fragile body. It was wonderfully complex and very much alive for a whisky of its age and strength. More than five decades of maturation yet this one refuses to die out. Sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it?
A massive thank you to Gemma Paterson at The Balvenie for the opportunity to experience something as remarkable as this. It was the sort of tasting that dreams are made of and a memory that I will hold on to for the rest of my life. For those of you interested in learning more about the story behind the DCS Compendium, I would highly encourage you to check out the distillery’s website. With two chapters still to go, the story of Mr. David C. Stewart’s legacy is far from over.