Right, an awful lot has happened in the last couple of days for Speyside distillery The Balvenie, so let’s rattle off the headlines:
Right, let’s start at the beginning. Now in his sixth decade at The Balvenie, industry legend David C. Stewart MBE is moving on from his role as malt master. Thankfully he’s not hanging up his Glencairn glass entirely, instead, the distillery can count on his experience and expertise as an ambassador. This news also welcomes an exciting new chapter for the distillery, as taking on sole responsibility for the creation of future Balvenie whiskies and maintaining the standard of the current portfolio is Kelsey McKechnie.
“Craftsmanship lies at the core of The Balvenie, and we rely on the passing of skills, processes, knowledge, and experience from generation to generation, to maintain our tradition and distinctive character,” Stewart said in a statement. “Over my time working alongside Kelsey, she has shown a remarkable talent for creating exceptional whiskies and the ultimate dedication to mastering her craft. I leave the responsibility of future whisky releases in her trusted hands as I move into my new role sharing my passion with the world of The Balvenie.”
Following a six-year apprenticeship, McKechnie has worked her way up from technical graduate to apprentice malt master, and finally joint malt master. Her taking on the latter position was announced at the end of last year as The Balvenie saluted 60 years of Stewart, so the big news isn’t much of a shock. It’s also safe to say that Speyside whisky maker is in safe hands given Stewart was not only her teacher, but also a passionate advocate for her capability.
“Not many people can say they have had the opportunity to learn directly from someone within the same caliber as David C. Stewart,” McKechnie says. “As his rich legacy within the whisky industry lives on for generations to come, within this new chapter of direction, I will continue to use and build upon his innovation and techniques, whilst putting my stamp on future whisky innovation at The Balvenie.”
In the same week as she celebrates taking over from Stewart, McKechnie also has the distinction of launching her first solo Balvenie release. “Not only does this liquid tell the story of the cooper, but it is the first expression designed solely by Kelsey, in which she has mastered the understanding of not just whisky, but of wood, and its impact on the maturation process,” says Stewart.
A Revelation of Cask is a 19 Year Old, limited-edition single malt that was aged entirely in European oak oloroso sherry casks. It’s the first whisky from the series matured entirely in sherry casks, and we’re told this particular maturation is the result of “years of honing of technique”.
The release joins other Balvenie Stories expressions such as Balvenie 12 Year Old – The Sweet Toast of American Oak, Balvenie 14 Year Old – The Week of Peat, and Balvenie 27 Year Old – A Rare Discovery From Distant Shores. The packaging is from British artist Andy Lovell, who depicts the cooperage at The Balvenie Distillery, and we’re told its limited quantity means the liquid will only be available for two years.
As part of the Stories Collection, this whisky obviously needs a tale. And it has one. A story of cooperages in Speyside and Jerez and the coopers within them. At the launch event at Pizarro on Bermondsey Street last night we met head cooper Ian McDonald. He started as an apprentice at The Balvenie back in 1969 and then spent the next 50 years making 20-30 casks a day. When the Spirit of Speyside festival used to run cask-making races, he won it all three years on the trot.
He’s also taken a step back in recent years to assume more of an ambassadorial capacity, demonstrating the craft of the cooper around the world. For us, he assembled a barrel in the restaurant, talking about the changing nature of coopering as he does. When he started back in 1969, barrels would be broken down into staves that needed to be reassembled. Now most are shipped complete and the bread and butter of the job is mostly about repairing. There’s also more automation now, but he still sees a barrel as a piece of art.
The Balvenie is one of the few whisky distilleries that boast so much control over every stage of the process. Its own supply of local barley is floor malted at the distillery and it has its own on-site cooperage. The coopering team is now twenty people, including 11 fully-qualified coopers (newly qualified coopers Jack Lomas and Liam Henderson are noted in the story of the new release too), four new apprentice coopers, and five support team members.
McDonald describes coopering as the original form of recycling; citing the repair of old casks which adds to the rich flavours of the spirits. “Our coopers work their way up through a four-year apprenticeship scheme with skills passed from generation to generation, contributing to the whisky creation through cask repair, as exemplified with the Spanish Sherry casks used for A Revelation of Cask and Character,” he says.
“Not many distillers have a cooperage on-site and it is so important to the development of our exceptional whiskies. We have a collaborative process with our coopers, which offers flexibility in ideas and innovation, allowing us to experiment with different casks to explore new flavours,” says McKechnie. “By maturing the whisky entirely in European oloroso sherry casks, drinkers experience new depths of spice, rich toffee and honey that are soon met with toasted oak, providing an overflowing heat.”
The new whisky serves as a welcome reminder of how many people we have to thank for each bottle we enjoy. No matter how much advancement takes place in the future, it’s hard to imagine it’s possible for us to evolve past the art of coopering. We were fortunate enough to get a taste of The Balvenie A Revelation of Cask during the event last night and salute McDonald and those who helped inspire and create it. Here’s what we thought:
Nose: Spiced blackcurrant chutney, seedless raisins, orange zest, and pungent stone fruit lead, with manuka honey, cured meat, a little lavender, and ginger snaps underneath.
Palate: The palate is elegant and vibrant with more dried fruit, marzipan, black tea, and white pepper, as well as orange boiled sweets, stewed black fruits, and winter spice.
Finish: Aromatic spice, honeyed fruit, creamy nuttiness, and more figs.
The Balvenie A Revelation of Cask will be available from Master of Malt soon.
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