Cheers To 50 Years! Breaking Bread With The Balvenie
In a previous generation, it was almost a cliche to get a gold watch for 50 years of service to one company. But somehow it doesn’t seem grand enough for Malt Master David Stewart, who celebrated 50 years with William Grant and The Balvenie distillery this past September. Fifty years with one company is almost […]
In a previous generation, it was almost a cliche to get a gold watch for 50 years of service to one company. But somehow it doesn’t seem grand enough for Malt Master David Stewart, who celebrated 50 years with William Grant and The Balvenie distillery this past September. Fifty years with one company is almost unheard of these days, even if you own the place!
Yesterday, I was one of three journalist/bloggers in LA lucky enough to be invited along to a private luncheon with Mr. Stewart at Chateau Marmont with a very select gathering of VIBs (Very Important Bartenders), including the Marmont’s own François Vera, Hemingway’s Alex Straus, the inimitable Aidan Demarest (Neat and every other respectable joint in town) and others from Thirsty Crow, etc. The Balvenie’s Global Ambassador Sam Simmons and local William Grant reps Bryan Chenault and Rachel Furman also participated.
Homeland star Damian Lewis was lurking around (well it’s the Marmont, star sightings are mandatory), but he wasn’t invited to join. That’s how exclusive this was!
Over a lunch including a hearty Beluga lentil vegetable soup, a charred Branzino salad and impressive chevre & hazelnut cheesecake (see nowimhungry.com), Stewart recalled that in 1962, “I just wanted to get a job, and a whisky company sounded more interesting than a bank.” The occasion of his 50th year with the company was convenient for releasing an extremely limited 50 year reserve bottling, only 88 bottles, of which one can be found at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills (a dram goes for around $4000, by the way).
Clearly The Balvenie is not big on change: they remain the last Scotch Whisky distillery to grow their own malt ingredients and toast the old fashioned way, by hand. In fact, they do nearly everything by hand.
As we adjourned to Vera’s barroom, I peppered Stewart with questions that only his perspective could answer. He remains humble about his natural talents, though, asserting that “Anyone could do my job with the training I’ve had.”
Stewart actually started in the blending division in 1975, but even then, he noted, there wasn’t much thought to aging anything past eight years. The company kept a few casks of older vintages “just to see what would happen.” Even the 12 year bottlings didn’t begin until 1999. Now of course there seems to be an endless fascination with aging, though as both Stewart and Simmons noted, age alone is not necessary an indicator of quality.
As we began with the 12 year Doublewood (finished for a few months in Sherry casks), the Malt Master admitted that not every experiment aging in different casks is successful. “We’ve tried whisky in cognac casks, brandy casks, armanac, wine…they don’t all work.”
However, the 12 year Doublewood (one of the prides of my home bar already) is lovely, with The Balvenie’s expected vanilla, honey, apple and cherry notes (from its aging in ex-bourbon American oak casks) augmented by a richness and nutmeg-clove spiciness from 8-10 months in European oak sherry casks.
The new 17 year Doublewood is distinctly different, despite being the same blend, both smoother and more oaky from the additional age, but also with a cinnamon-dominant spicier finish from the second casking.
As we tried the new 30 year release, Stewart explained that his aging tools include both first-fill bourbon casks and refill casks (ones that have already aged whisky). Thus the 30 is a result of blending some from both caskings, as well a a bit of sherry cask-finished whisky. Released at cask strength (47,3% alcohol, so you know), it is remarkably light on the palate, drier naturally, but also distinctly more salt/iodine.
Lastly, we sampled—no, not the 50 unfortunately, we weren’t that VIP—but the very limited Tun 1401, of which each batch produces only 200 cases (a Tun is a large “marrying” cask in which a blend rests for three months). “I try to make each Tun different,” Stewart explained, noting this was the sixth batch, taken from casks dating between 1966-1975 and bottled at 49.5% abv. The result is really impressive, with an almost floral nose, fig, raisins and mature cherries yielding to orange blossom, ginger, oak and spice with a white peppery finish. And with all that going on, still quite smooth and light.
By the way, Stewart reminds that when adding water to whisky, he recommends it should be room temp. Colder water (or ice) will dull the flavors. It’s not forbidden, just something to keep in mind.