Balvenie tasting at the American Craft Council Show

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This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a Balvenie tasting at the American Craft Council Show.  Scotch and gorgeous handcrafted objects?  I mean, come on!  That’s awesome!  If they somehow also integrated sci-fi/fantasy novels, corsetry, and abundant f-bombs, my entire personality could be wholly represented in one place. 

(Actually, it’s entirely possible there could have been a corsetier or two there, but I didn’t see any.)

Amazing wheel thrown porcelain by Jennifer McCurdy
Amazing wheel thrown porcelain by Jennifer McCurdy

If you ever have a chance to go to this show, go.  Beautifully crafted wooden furniture, some of the most stunning and creative jewelry I have ever seen, glass and ceramic work, every craft you can think of.  I am certainly not in a place in my life to be buying $5000 benches made of natural edge lumber or $1000 necklaces made of smooth river rocks with silver somehow magically inlaid into them.  But even if you’re not either, you’ll still have fun ogling all of the pretty.

So. Much. Pretty.

And then to add to the fun, Scotch in the middle of the day!

The tasting included the Balvenie DoubleWood 12, Carribean Cask 14, DoubleWood 17, and PortWood 21.  The 12 and the Carribean Cask are two of the Scotches that I recommend to people often, and are both whiskies I return to over and over, so I was excited to try the higher end offerings from the Balvenie distillery.

turntableThe space for the tasting was created by Luke Works, a local Baltimore-based team of artisans and manufacturers who do everything from stand-alone furniture pieces and kitchen and bath installations to commercial spaces.  The space at the ACC Show was functional as well as beautiful.  I loved the aesthetic juxtaposition of natural organic shapes with sleek modern lines.  And there is a special place in my heart for anyone who makes a turntable that becomes extra counter space when not in use.

But on to the hooch.

Balvenie brand ambassador Lorne Cousin. Photo by John Thompson.

Leading the tasting was Balvenie brand ambassador Lorne Cousin, who charmed us with impressive knowledge, historical information, quirky stories about long-term distillery employees, and of course, his luscious Scottish accent.

I deeply appreciated the atmosphere he created, encouraging everyone to discuss the whiskies as we perceived them rather than relying on his “expert” evaluations of what we should be smelling or tasting.

He did encourage us to add a splash of water to our wee drams, which you all know… I don’t like to do.  So I didn’t.  Notes below are based on neat pours.

The Balvenie DoubleWood 12

balvenie12The DoubleWood 12 is one of those whiskies I buy again and again.  I used to be all about Islay Scotch, but over the past few years, I have wandered into Speyside, and come to really appreciate the more subtle notes that region can offer.

The nose is a lovely blend of sweet and earthy, with vanilla and honey from the bourbon barrel and a distinct note of sherry from the second aging in sherry casks.  The taste is cinnamon and citrus, sweet and spicy, with honey, vanilla, and just a hint of peat.  There is a green banana note as it moves to the back of the mouth.  The finish is fairly long with toasted nuts, spices, oak, and again, a bit of the sherry.

This is a crowd-pleasing Scotch, with enough peat and complexity to satisfy Scotch drinkers, but plenty of the sweetness and honey that bourbon drinkers appreciate.  This is often a Scotch I recommend to bourbon drinkers looking to branch out into Scotch, but it’s not a “beginner” Scotch by any means.  I enjoy the heavily peated Islay Scotches that make most Scotch newbies grimace in distaste, but I still find the complexity I want in the 12 year Balvenie DoubleWood.

The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14

balvenieccThe Balvenie Caribbean Cask may well be my favorite Scotch.  Well, no, it’s not.  But it’s a favorite among those I can afford to buy on any kind of regular basis.  Every time I drink it, I ask myself why I ever drink anything else.

The nose is sweet and rich, with honey at the front and plenty of exotic fruit and floral notes as part of that honey essence.  The taste is vanilla and fruit, with caramel, honey, toasted oak, and the barest whisper of peat.  The finish is long, with sweet vanilla and lingering oak and honey.

This is a Scotch that takes you for a sweet and gentle ride, with plenty of flavor and depth, but no harsh edges.  One of my favorites.

The Balvenie DoubleWood 17

balvenie17Like the DoubleWood 12, the 17 is started in American oak (i.e., old bourbon barrels) and finished in European oak sherry casks.  Given my love affair with the 12-year-old version, I was excited to try this one!

The nose is the expected honey, vanilla, and cinnamon from the bourbon barrels, but also has a strong note of apple.  The taste is honey, cinnamon, dried fruit, vanilla, oak, and toasted nuts.  There is a brief note of the sherry in the mouth.  The finish is nice, with sweetness and oak, but is shorter than the finish on the Caribbean Cask.

Overall, I hate to say it, but this one was a bit of a disappointment.  I see this typically in the $140-150 range, and it didn’t come up to that level for me.  It was a lovely Scotch, but with the DoubleWood 12 available under $50 and the Caribbean Cask in the mid $60’s, there’s no compelling reason to drop $150 on the 17-year-old.

Instead, save your money for…

The Balvenie PortWood 21

balvenie21Yeah.  Buy this.  I hadn’t had it, and was beyond excited to try it.  I tend to be a sucker for port wood finishes.  I’m a sucker for Balvenie.  It’s 21 years old.  Um, yeah, expectations were high.  And they were exceeded.

The nose is sweet and refined, with dried fruit, cocoa, and nuts.  The taste is creamy honey and cinnamon, fruit and a hint of florals.  The mouthfeel is luscious.  The finish is very long with wood, dried fruit, toasted nuts, and again that hint of chocolate.

Between the buttery mouthfeel, the lingering finish, the delicate balance… this is a truly extraordinary Scotch.  It has a price tag to match, but you won’t be disappointed.  It’s absolutely divine.


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