The folks at Balvenie have been a bit busy recently. In fact, that seems to be the way I start off most posts about them, so I suspect the ‘recently’ is more of a ‘for the last couple of years’. Their latest bit of busy-ness to cross my path is a new bottling that we’ve just got in – the new batch of their increasingly sought after Tun 1401.
The series kicked off a few years back with a distillery-only bottling named after long serving Balvenie malt master David Stewart’s favourite marrying vat – Tun 1401. It sits in their famed Warehouse 24 and is used to mix together various casks of whisky for a number of their bottlings, and in honour of its favoured status the special bottling for distillery visitors took its name. The whisky went down rather well…
With the distillery bottling sold out and favourable reports on Tun 1401 spreading, the distillery decided to make more, this time giving it a bit of a wider release than Dufftown: Batch 2 was released for the UK and Europe, and promptly won its category at the 2012 World Whisky Awards. Batch 3 was then bottled for the USA and Batch 4 was recently launched into travel retail. All sold rather well, with batches 2 and 3 now pretty much sold out (although we still have the occasional bottle of Batch 2 popping up) and further batches were inevitable.
Enter Tun 1401 Batch 5.
As with the previous batches, number 5 is a marrying of a small number of casks that David Stewart has found in the depths of the Balvenie warehouses – casks without a specifically assigned destiny that he rather liked the look of. Batch 5 uses nine casks (the capacity of the eponymous marrying vat) – 4 sherry butts from 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1975; 3 bourbon hogsheads from 1966 (the oldest cask in the mix, filled just 4 years after David started working at the distillery), 1972 and 1973; and 2 bourbon barrels from 1974 and 1991.
The casks yielded a total of 2862 bottles, released at cask strength, of which 800 are destined for the UK, with the other 2000 going to selected markets in Europe (for those further afield – Batch 6 is marrying as I type).
[Update: It’s now available on the website]
Tim and I recently did some baton passing at a day of events that Balvenie ran at The Savoy in London, pairing up their ‘hand-crafted whisky’ with the recently refurbished ‘hand-crafted hotel’. I kicked off the TWE presence at the launch of the Tun 1401 batch 5 before Tim took over at the evening’s Masters of Craft dinner. Fortunately they had a few bottles of the Tun 1401 to hand and we both got to have a taste:
Nose: Beeswax, runny honey, dried orange peel, sweet spice, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, mango and tropical fruit juice all up front. Hiding underneath all that was some dark sherry notes with dark chocolate, raisins and less sweet spice – cloves, liquorice root and cinnamon.
Palate: A smack of rich and spicy sherried fruit up front, with raisins and cinnamon backed up by old polished wood, leather, dried cherries and cloves. However, given a bit of time in the glass and on the tongue there’s a waxiness that appears, along with floral honey and a touch more of the Juicy Fruit gum sweetness.
Finish: Dark chocolate raisins, squishy currants, pine resin, unchopped tobacco leaves and lingering old wood.
Comments: Not what I expected at all. It takes the regular honeyed Balvenie profile and then twists it with some excellent old sherried whisky and some waxy and fruity bourbon matured spirit. I really enjoyed it.
[...and over to Tim for part two of the day]
Nose: Pretty entrancing. Big, rich sherry and varnished oaky notes, with bark, old leaves (in a good way), then some darker treacle and black cherry notes.
Palate: Doesn’t disappoint. Intensely richly-flavoured without being cloying or overpowering. As with the nose, the emphasis is very much on the sherry, something I hadn’t previously associated with Balvenie until the show-stopping Craftsmen’s Reserve: The Cooper a few months back. Great concentration of rich dried fruit, then becomes pleasingly dry mid-palate - poss one or two Oloroso casks? A developing chocolatey note with water.
Finish: Long, multi-faceted and pleasingly drying - very moreish.
Comments: Absolutely terrific stuff, another wonderful surprise from the Balvenie.
So, I’d rocked up for the evening Balvenie do – the awards ceremony for the Balvenie Masters of Craft competition.
I’ll confess that I have a love/hate relationship with my suit. On one hand, and to its immense credit, in combination with a shave and a recently-ironed shirt it makes me look as presentable as I can be, while managing to both accomodate and disguise my expanding girth. On the other hand, in hot weather it’s like being in a neck-high sarcophagus. In London, of course, this is not normally a problem. However, on both of the occasions I’ve had to wear my suit in 2012 it has turned out to be the hottest day of the year.
As a result, I must confess that the notes above were taken very much off the cuff while I was standing in front of an air-conditioning unit on full blast in an attempt to prevent myself dissolving into a puddle of damp, sweaty cloth. As such, I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface with this whisky, but what I found was more than enough to convince me to shell out for it when it turns up. It may be expensive, and my already heavily-laden credit card is quietly weeping in the corner, but quality of this kind is unusual and given that the youngest whisky in the mix is 21 years old I don’t think the pricetag is OTT.
However, regular readers of the blog will perhaps already have worked out that all of this was entirely beside the point. The evening do, thankfully, was not about sweaty overweight men in their late thirties (although I certainly wasn’t the only one of that species in attendance), nor even about the new Tun 1401 - that was just a very welcome extra treat - it was about celebrating the fine work of the nominees for the Balvenie Masters of Craft Awards.
These awards are only in their second year, but it’s clear that they are already both very prestigious and highly prized by the craft community – as evidenced by the presence of Grand Designs head honcho Kevin McCloud on the judging panel, the involvement of the Sunday Telegraph as official media partner, the impassioned, moving speech given by Patricia Lovett, the Vice Chair of the Heritage Craft Association and the fact that this year’s awards received three times the number of entries as last year’s inaugural event.
The dinner was held in the Abraham Lincoln room downstairs at the Savoy, a beautiful space that was further illuminated by a speech from the hotel’s in-house archivist Susan Scott, who gave us an insight into the extraordinarily extensive restoration of the hotel, which began at the end of 2007 and ended up taking three years and costing over £200 million.
Over the course of the meal prizes were awarded in seven material-based categories including Metal, Glass & Ceramics, Food, Leather, Textiles, Stone and Wood with each category being introduced by one of the judges, who gave further insights into the importance of both the crafts and the awards that honour them. There were also awards for the Young Master of Craft and a Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Robert George Armstrong, a thatcher from Salisbury with decades of devotion to practicing his craft under his belt.
Each of the finalists from the materials awards was considered for the overall title of the Balvenie Master of Craft 2012, with Heather Gillespie - a copper wheel glass engraver who had earlier triumphed in the Glass & Ceramics category - walking away with the gong.
I have to say that the whole event was an eye-opener for me – I had no idea that the craft scene in the UK was in such rude health, but judging by the youth of many of the finalists and the outstanding quality of all the work on display these are exciting times for British crafts. There’s no doubt that the mental demarcation line between ‘Arts’ and ‘Crafts’ in my head has been permanently blurred, and there’s no doubt that many of the works we saw in Nick Hand’s superb photographs of the finalists would grace any gallery they found themselves in. Nick was also one of the judges and spoke eloquently about his affection and respect for the participating competitors. I was particularly taken with the shots he’d taken of Stone category-winner Callum Gray’s dry stone-walled firepit.
I suppose I have frequently been guilty of thinking of craft as something mostly built for a functional purpose, with occasional stylistic flourishes. Not any more – there’s no question for me now that the best in craft is far more than that – it’s a group term for a multitude of traditions of art and sculpture with additional functional or practical purposes, and everyone who practices it, whatever level of skill or artistry they achieve, performs a valuable role in the preservation of those traditions, many of which go back centuries or even milennia.
It was therefore both heartening and humbling to witness the effort, dedication, talent and commitment poured into their work by the craftspeople at the event – and a privilege for a talentless no-mark such as myself, who can’t draw a straight line with a ruler or put up a set of shelves, to be in the same room as these artists.
Which brings us to the Chair of the Judges: David Stewart, The Balvenie’s Malt Master, now in his 50th year of service to William Grant & Sons, the owners of Balvenie and Glenfiddich (as well as Kininvie, Monkey Shoulder, Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, Hendrick’s Gin and Reyka Vodka, in case you weren’t aware).
David has been Malt Master at Balvenie since 1974 – the year your correspondent here was born – and his decades of loyal service and enduring talent for producing and assembling the finest single malts most certainly qualify him as a Master Crafstman, and have led to him receiving several Lifetime Achievement Awards himself. The spectacular Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 5 reviewed above is just the latest of his remarkable creations, and I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that David continues to practice his craft in his own inimitable way for many years to come.
Many thanks to Balvenie for putting on a really fantastic event, and I hope that all of the extremely talented craftspeople at the ceremony continue to get the recognition and respect that their hard work and commitment deserve.