The New Nobility
I was having a conversation this week with one of the more entrenched brand ambassadors in the Scotch business about the rise of a nobility class in the world of single malt. "Macallan has become something beyond other distilleries at this point," I said while sipping on a sample of the upcoming Edition No. 3 release; "It's like Château Latour or Prada," with a gigantic following outside of the enthusiast world that dwarfs the customer base responsible for its initial success. When you reach those lofty heights as a brand, price no longer becomes a barrier. Luxury brands aren't here to provide value. They exist to provide both inspiration and aspiration. If you told me Prada shoes aren't worth the money, I'd probably respond by saying there are a number of less expensive brands that also provide style and comfort. But...they're not Prada. Just like there are many single malt whiskies out there in the world today, there is only one Macallan.
"I think Balvenie is well on its way into that group," my ambassador friend said.
"Very good point," I answered, thinking more about the Speyside producer. Balvenie has definitely grown into something of a darling with both staunch enthusiasts who drool over the distillery's Tun series, as well as the general public that endlessly thirsts for the 14 year old Caribbean rum release, as well as the 21 year old Port Wood expression. Both whiskies are big sellers at K&L and for good reason: they're soft, supple, rich, smooth, enticing, unique, and memorable. They're exactly the type of malts that impact casual drinkers, who later ask their friends to remind them, "What was that whisky we had after dinner last weekend?" Balvenie's adherence to both age-stated malts and transparent production details, along with what is clearly a crowd-pleasing style, has put the brand into a unique position: it's equally popular with those in-the-know and those who really don't care about knowing. That's definitely a great place to be in today's market. Plus, they've got Anthony Bourdain on board with the marketing!
That being said, I'm curious to see how the distillery's latest limited release does in the netherworld between hardcore fans and general enthusiasts. The 2002 Balvenie 14 Year Old "Peat Week" is the kind of whisky that really excites me personally, but I can see where it might fall between the cracks of these two expanding poles. Do Balvenie fans want peat? I'm not sure. Do peat fans want Balvenie? Again, I don't know. While the whisky is described by Balvenie as "heavily peated," I can assure you after numerous tastes that it is not all that smoky. For Balvenie—yes—it's quite potent, but Islay fans will hardly bat an eye at these peat levels. To make an overtly peaty whisky would be out of character for the brand, so I'm relieved they didn't go that route. Staying true to oneself is more important than ever today. What David Stewart and the gang have produced, however, is a vintage-dated whisky entirely from the initial week of peated whisky distillation at Balvenie back in 2002 (the first peated run in more than fifty years at the distillery) that perfectly expresses the ease, grace, and utter drinkability of the Balvenie house style. After spending more than an hour with my sample, I'm pretty smitten.
Personally, I'm long over big, bold, full proof, heavy sherry, heavy peat, massive intensity and gung-ho bravado when it comes to Scotch. Maybe it's my age, but I don't drink whiskies like that very often anymore. What attracted me immediately to the 2002 Balvenie was the subtle and haunting nose. Aged entirely in American oak barrels, there's no sherry to be had here. Instead you get a noseful of lush golden grains, honey with sweet barley, peaches in syrup, and vanilla extract. Faintly, underneath all those lovely aromas, is just the tiniest hint of peat.
The second thing that I loved about the whisky is that it's all finish. The mid-palate flavors are where the peat picks up (30 ppm) and remember we're dealing with Highland peat here, not Islay peat. There's a compositional difference between the two and the resulting flavors are profoundly different (if you remember the old Glenmorangie Finealta). There's no brine or medicinal character here, just soft brush and faint campfire smoke in low levels, hanging onto the underbelly of the malty core. Everything about the drinking experience is understated until you get to the end, and then: whoooooosh! A wave of rich vanilla and sweet smoke comes racing through your nostrils and over the roof of your mouth, lingering for a solid five minutes after lapping up onto the shore of your lips. With the 2002 Peat Week, Balvenie has proven to me yet again that it can excite experienced drinkers while still maintaining a big tent approach. Nothing about this whisky is difficult to understand, but there's so much to unlock for those who enjoy the analysis.
Even ten minutes after finishing my last sip I'm still getting new readings from my taste buds. I can smell and taste fresh peated barley, hints of smoky earth, toasted vanilla, and more. If Balvenie is ready to take its seat in the Pantheon of single malt first growths, this is yet another step on that journey. But will others feel the same way? It's not overtly creamy, or mouthcoating, or sweet and supple like many of the distillery's most popular expressions. Will that still attract the Balvenie masses?
I hope so. Because to miss out on the beauty and nuance of the new 2002 Peat Week would be tragic. We're witnessing the ascension of a great distillery in peak form.
2002 Balvenie 14 Year Old "Peat Week" Vintage Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Non-chillfiltered and bottled at 48.3%