The Story Behind Balvenie’s 19-Year Old Whiskey is Full of Surprises
Over the years, we have delved deep into a good dram or two, polished off our fair share of fine whisky and lived to tell the tale. If there is one thing we’ve learned through our extensive research, it is this; not all whiskies are created equal. In fact, the very essence of what makes the celebrated drink so popular is its distinctiveness. Every whisky has its unique history and for Speyside icon The Balvenie Single Malt, it’s one of prestige and pursuit.
100% Estate Grown – Every Ingredient is The Balvenie Through & Through
To explain what makes the whisky masters so unique, you need only look to The Balvenie’s latest release, The Edge of Burnhead Wood. For the first time ever, the label has crafted a whisky made entirely from distillery ground ingredients; that being barley grown on-site, grain turned by hand and casks toasted exclusively by The Balvenie coopers. It’s whisky the way it’s meant to be made, and it should come as no surprise.
A Legacy That Has Earned The Right To Innovate
For close to 130 years, The Balvenie has stood tall on the world whisky stage. A lineage of fine single malts has seen the label win countless awards for its signature spirit, but this isn’t just a story about a hand-crafted single malt, it’s a tale about the hands that made it. Calloused and weathered, they belong to a team with centuries of collective experience helming the Scottish whisky icon. As one of the last remaining distilleries to boast a full-time malting floor, The Balvenie can honestly hold the rare title of truly hand-crafted. While existing Balvenie fans will know the level of detail and traditional craftsmanship that goes into each bottle, surprisingly it’s the blend of innovation heritage that really sets the distiller apart. A feature that only comes with experience.
“Our traditional methods of whisky production are important to us at The Balvenie but we also like to use the tradition, experience and knowledge to create and innovate. The people of the distillery and their ideas are how we do that,” brand ambassador Ross Blainey explains (@thewhiskyspecialist on Instagram). “I don’t think it’s enough to know how a whisky was made, you want to know why, what were the thoughts before they began the process, what made them think of that. To understand The Balvenie, you need to know the characters of the story. It’s the human aspect that makes The Balvenie so unique. When you drink a whisky, you’re drinking this whole story; there is years’ worth of history in that bottle.”
Nineteen years specifically, if you’re talking about The Edge of Burnhead Wood, the much anticipated fourth release in The Balvenie’s famed Stories Collection.
The Edge of Burnhead Wood
Released in August in Australia, The Edge of Burnhead Wood celebrates the story of The Heather Trials, a project born from the opportunist mind of former Balvenie Estate Manager Dave Stewart. When The Balvenie veteran saw the distillery’s Conval Hills encased in purple flowers, he recognised an opportunity. Filling a sack with the cropped flower, known as heather, he returned to the malting floor with an idea. Along with former distillery manager Ian Millar and Malt Man Robbie Gormley, Stewart dampened the heather, so as not to disintegrate it entirely, placing black coals on top of red hot ones, before layered it with dry heather. The thick plume of blue/grey smoke that burst from the kiln was used to dry barley for a one-off batch of experimental whisky. Nearly two decades on from that fateful day, the time has come for The Heather Trials to make their way down under.
Through the winding trails and steep Speyside hills comes The Edge of Burnhead Wood, a lively, vibrant single malt whisky aged in first-fill bourbon casks for 19 years. “When you have a straight bourbon cask whisky, they’ve always got this bright, fresh, fruitiness, almost with a citrus taste,” Blainey says. “That differs from the Double-Wood (The Balvenie’s signature release) which is finished in European oak casks, the new 19 builds on that brightness and a little dryness from the oak for balance. But there is this other really interesting note in there that I almost can’t put my finger on, its just different!” But there’s more to this new whisky than meets the eye. Like Blainey notes, the true essence of The Balvenie is taking what they’ve learned over years and using it to craft something entirely new, and yet ultimately familiar. For The Edge of Burnhead Wood, the use of heather is extremely rare, offering a new complexity to the heritage brand’s iconic single malt. Even better, this release is the first-ever expression of The Balvenie made entirely with ingredients grown on its Dufftown estate.
With a taste that evokes flavours of honey, cloves and caramelised baked dates, the sweetness of The Edge of Burnhead Wood is cut with an oaky dry finish, creating a complex new experience for Balvenie fans. It almost seems counter-intuitive; a traditionally-run distillery that produces hand-crafted whisky taking risks on a wildflower and an estate manager’s vision. “We want that, if there is a good idea, lets run with it and give it a shot,” Blainey explains.
According to Blainey, that air of innovation is what The Balvenie lays claim to. The label’s iconic Double-Wood cask-finishing process came from the mind of Malt Master David C. Stewart, a move that revolutionised the whisky industry. More than thirty years on, Stewart and The Balvenie team are continuing to script new chapters in the Speyside distillery’s story. “You don’t have to be new to be innovative and creative,” Blainey says. “Some of the old guys are great at it because they know what’s been done, they can think of things that haven’t’; the advantage of all that experience is being able to have a really good idea of what innovations will work.”
The Edge of Burnhead Wood is the latest in a long list of exciting new releases from The Balvenie, but as we all know, you don’t start a fresh story on the final page.
The Stories Collection
Opening with The Sweet Toast of American Oak, The Balvenie’s four-edition Stories Collection is an ode to the makers behind the distillery’s most unique whiskies, many who have gone unheralded in the past. “This idea of celebrating the stories behind the whisky opens it up from being a drop of whisky in your glass to something that grows and becomes more of a journey,” Blainey says. “It’s about what those people who made it were thinking and doing at the time, where did the idea come from? Behind the word hand-crafted, there’s a real person who has spent their life honing their skills to create our whisky.”
Each bottle in the range tells the tale of a different Balvenie legend, celebrating the pioneers that have taken whisky making tradition and turned it into lifelong ambition. From the story of a mix-matched dark barley delivery that heralded a 26-year-long whisky experiment, to the emergence of a new whisky icon in Apprentice Malt Master Kelsey McKechnie, The Balvenie Stories Collection takes whisky beyond sensory experience. Inviting fans in to hear tall tales earned through lives spent toiling in the Speyside distillery, this collection celebrates the stories behind the single malts and the people that make them larger than life.
“When you think about what hand-crafted really means, to us, it’s about the people,” Blainey says. “You can learn to be a cooper and it will take you four years, but it takes the passion and love to do it for 50 years, like Ian McDonald, our head cooper. The same goes for David C. Stewart, our Malt Master; you can learn to become a Malt Master (if you’re lucky), but to do it for almost 60 years; it’s that level of commitment and passion that makes The Balvenie what it is.” Experience has truly opened the door for innovation with The Balvenie and it’s not lost on the drinker. There is a history in each glass, one that is continuously developing and maturing, pushing the boundaries of what traditional whisky-making is. “When things aren’t really written down, it’s the stories that survive,” Blainey says. “The distillery is literally built on the stories that people tell there.”
With a new release that is somehow unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and yet so unmistakably Balvenie, there may yet be stories to write. The Edge of Burnhead Wood is available in select bottle shops and bars across the country now for AUD$475.
You can follow Ross’s whisky adventures on Instagram below.