And so the time has come. A entire year’s worth of dreams have suddenly been realized by the presence of the five small vials of liquid before me. This my friends is the penultimate chapter of the ultimate condition, a moment that by what good fortune I will never fully understand, is actually taking place right now. It’s safe to say that few will ever taste these museum-worthy whiskies as I suspect the majority who can stomach the near $40,000 price tag will like do so for the sake of their own collectibility. And so it is with great humility that I present to you, my dear whisky enthusiasts, a comprehensive review of The Balvenie DCS Compendium Chapter 4.
The Balvenie DCS Compendium is a collection of twenty-five single cask whiskies hand selected by Malt Master David C. Stewart MBE. Not only do these whiskies serve highlight very best of The Balvenie, they represent a passing down of everything David Stewart learning during is tenure as Malt Master. With a new apprentice now ready to take on the reigns herself, there is much to celebrate and learn from with this wonderful collection. The twenty-five chosen casks have been evenly assigned to five chapters, each with their own unique story to tell.
Some of you may remember that last year I had the great fortune of participating in a tasting of the DCS Compendium Chapter 3. It was a whisky tasting that, quite frankly, transcended all others before it. Chapter 3 was an extraordinary selection of casks including the oldest Balvenie ever bottled (55 years) and my personal favorite, a 43 year old sherry butt that to this day remains the single greatest spirit I have ever experienced.
I can honestly say I have not been the same since that cold winter’s day in New York. On one hand, it completely ruined my appreciation for the mere mortal whisky I enjoy on a daily basis but on the other, it inspired me to continue exploring the depths of what whisky has to offer. I have spent every night since dreaming of what this next chapter could bring and so it goes without saying that I am only a little excited to get back to it.
So here we are. Back again and ready to take on another chapter of this wonderful display of art, history and soul. And just to keep things consistent this year, Gemma Paterson, Global Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie, has decided to fly all the way from London to my home in Chicago so that we could taste these whiskies together. At the end of the day, sharing a whisky experience such as this is what matters most in my opinion and I could not be more grateful to be part of it. I think it’s safe to say that few friendships in this world have ever been formed through a mutual appreciation for The Balvenie DCS Compendium. Brilliant.
Now it’s worth noting that since we tasted Chapter 3 together last year, two life events have taken place that may impact my experience with this new series:
1.) I now work for The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and as such, I have spent the better part of a year assessing single cask whiskies professionally. By that logic, my understanding of this whisky should be somewhat improved and at the very least, I may be able to appreciate some of these unique casks to a greater degree.
2.) I spent a few days visiting The Balvenie distillery. On a recent trip to visit Glenfiddich for the annual #FestivalExperiment, I had a chance to tour Balvenie, lend a slight hand to the production process and meet the people who make it all happen. Visiting the physical location where this spirit was not only created but matured for its entire life could in theory deepen my understanding of what it is we are dealing with but also accentuate my enjoyment of it.
The theme of Chapter 4 is ‘Expect the Unexpected’, highlighting five rather unusual expressions of The Balvenie. Just how unexpected will these whiskies be? Let’s find out…
Cask 9304 (1999, 18 Years Old, Refill American Oak Hogshead, 46.8%)
The journey begins with a 19 year old American oak hogshead, an elegant and well-balanced spirit bursting with vibrant notes of mango, papaya and toasted coconut. Prior to maturation, the cask was fixed with toasted ends, which I suspect makes all the difference here. While yes, this whisky is certainly once cut from the Speyside cloth, it is far more tropical than your standard Balvenie (not including the rum-finished 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask). This is a dram is more suited for an afternoon on a dessert island, not a cold, rainy day in Dufftown. A rather friendly spirit and an appropriate start to the tasting.
Cask 608 (1992, 26 Years Old, European Oak Oloroso Sherry Puncheon, 49.8%)
Well this is certainly different. In many ways Cask 608 represents everything that the previous cask did not. A dark and seductive whisky with real weight to it. The cask influence is quite intense with this one. 26 years in European oak has produced an tannic, spicy profile much richer than anything I have ever tasted from The Balvenie. While this chapter is appropriately named ‘Expect the Unexpected’ and while this cask certainly is, well, unusual, I do find myself missing that Balvenie spirit hidden beneath. Oh one needn’t worry because we’re now moving on to…
Cask 635 (1982, 36 Years Old, European Oak Oloroso Sherry Hogshead, 51.1%)
This. 1982 is considered a “lean year” for The Balvenie. Very little whisky was produced, meaning few casks bearing a 1982 vintage exist today. And that’s a shame because when bottled at this age (mid-late thirties in age), this particular style of whisky can be sublime. This cask is no exception. Old leather, a strong herbal character (clove), a beautiful entanglement of black cherries, cinnamon and dampened wood. The texture is brilliant, aiding to a lengthy and rather sensual finish. Aside from the rare vintage, there is nothing unexpected about spirit. This is a true Balvenie at its best. Stunning.
Cask 2855 (1971, 47 Years Old, European Oak Oloroso Sherry Butt, 49.9%)
Which brings us to the whisky that will likely garner more attention than any other on the table: a 1971 oloroso sherry butt bottled just a few years short of five decades. In addition to the fact that this spirit has spent a considerable amount of time in wood, whisky production has evolved quite a bit since the early 70’s. It’s uniqueness is immediately identifiable by the aroma alone. An old and mellow spirit with heavy notes of saddle wood, ginseng and lavender. It’s such a delicate dram, one to savor for a long period of time. And that’s not just because a full bottle can fetch upward of $27,000 on its own. Nevermind the price, the opportunity to experience whisky of this era, especially from The Balvenie, is a true joy.
Cask 2855 was chosen because although a refill sherry butt, David Stewart felt it offered a greater degree of richness and spiciness suggesting it were a first fill cask. In other words, the cask wore the pants throughout this 47 year marriage. I’m certainly no Malt Master but this whisky seems to be in perfect harmony to me. A timeless spirit.
Cask 2724 (2009, 8 Years Old, First fill American Oak Bourbon Barrel, 61.1%)
Cask 2724 is without a doubt the most unexpected cask of the five chosen for Chapter 4. Every year, The Balvenie distillery dedicates a full week to the production of a peated malt known as ‘Peat Week’. Cask 2724 was filled shortly after the 2009 project and while unpeated itself, the spirit contained within this cask seems to have extracted a whisper of peat smoke from the walls of the wash backs and pipework from the earlier spirit runs. A bright bright and clear aroma of vanilla icing, white peppercorn, and fresh avocado makes for a completely unique sensory experience. The smoke is present but its off in the distance, allowing for the lively spirit to do the talking itself. The whisky is vibrant and viscous, such a wild card this. It’s safe to say this is unlike any Balvenie I have ever had or will ever have again. A compete freak of nature and I love it.
So that’s it! What a different experience that was. As someone who tends to gravitate toward what most would define as “unique” whisky, this was certainly a grown-up version of my daily obsession. While no two palates are alike and while none of these whiskies are technically “better” than the other, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that one of these casks has won my heart. As extraordinary as the 1971 was and as confused albeit wild and vivacious as the 2009 is, the 1982 oloroso sherry hogshead is simply too good. Ironic that after five unexpected experiences, I find myself gravitating to the most “Balvenie like” of the lot. Perhaps it’s because my thoughts still dwell on Dufftown or perhaps it’s because this spirit really is that good. Regardless, sharing such remarkable whisky with a friend and everyone reading this now is what matters most.