Looking At Rare Scotch Through Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart's Eyes - The Whiskey Wash

Looking At Rare Scotch Through Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart’s Eyes

By Charles MacLean / December 6, 2016

In October last year, William Grant & Sons, owners of The Balvenie Distillery, released the first in a series of five annual bottlings, named The DCS Compendium Chapter One. In October this year, it has been joined by Chapter Two.

‘DCS’ stands for David Charles Stewart, The Balvenie’s Malt Master, whose 54 years with William Grant’s was recognized by H.M. The Queen by the award of an MBE in 2015.

David joined the company, aged 17, as a ‘Whisky Stocks Clerk’ – a note from his interview in 1962 reads “Good appearance. Appears to be the solid type. Would do”! – but after two years filling in ledgers he began to assist the Whisky Stocks Manager (now referred to as Master Blender), Hamish Robertson.

“We would spend time nosing the mew-make whiskies being filled into casks, and I learned which characteristics to expect from each of the individual distilleries.

Hamish taught me what to look for, what should and shouldn’t be there, the style of our own distillery… Quite quickly I saw that if I could master the nosing aspect I would be one of the very few people in the company who could do it.”

With typical modesty, he concludes: “It took me 12 years to master it to the point where I could prepare blends. It was quite difficult.”

Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart

David Stewart of Balvenie (image via Balvenie)

There have only been five Master Blenders in Balvenie’s 120 year history; David succeeded Hamish on the latter’s retirement in 1974. Since the malt is ranked ‘First Class’ by blenders – and since its owners also produced their own, highly successful blend, Grant’s Standfast, now named Grant’s Family Reserve – The Balvenie was only released as a single malt in small quantities during the early 1970s, presented in the same triangular bottle used by its famous sister Glenfiddich.

In 1982, Grants renamed and repackaged Balvenie as Founder’s Reserve in a striking ‘vintage champagne’ style of bottle, the likes of which had never been used before by the whisky industry, and at the same time released a deluxe expression, The Balvenie Classic, in an equally unique and stylish ‘vintage cognac’ flask. Both were very well received: the late great whisky writer, Michael Jackson, described them as ‘super premium’ and awarded them among the highest scores in his Malt Whisky Companion (1989).

David Stewart was responsible for the liquids in each, of course, and for Balvenie Classic he used whisky that had been ‘finished’ in Oloroso sherry butts for at least a year.

‘Wood finishing’ – the re-racking of mature whisky into fresh casks which have formerly contained another liquid, typically sherry or port – is now commonplace, but this was the first time it had been applied commercially, although it was not stated on the bottles’ label. David can rightly claim to be the pioneer of wood finishing. He went on to create The Balvenie Doublewood in 1993, The Balvenie Port Wood in 1996, and from 2001 a series of limited edition expressions, all at 17 years old: Islay Cask, New Oak, Sherry Oak, Rum Cask and Madeira Cask.

In short, his knowledge of wood maturation is unrivaled.

The five single casks which comprise the annual release of The Balvenie DCS Compendium series have been chosen by David to highlight fundamental aspects of his life experience as a Master Blender. Thus, Chapter One showcases ‘Distillery Style’, Chapter Two explores ‘The Influence of Oak,’ and future releases will celebrate other aspects of David’s long career.

The whiskies he has selected for The DCS Compendium Chapter Two range in age from 15 years to 43 years and were taken from different cask types: two European oak Oloroso sherry butts, a first fill American oak bourbon barrels, a European oak port puncheon and a European oak Pedro Ximénez sherry butt – with each cask imparting its own distinct flavor profile to the final expression.

At the launch of the series, David said:

“As a Malt Master, I’m very lucky to have been trusted to experiment with different cask finishes and even to try out my own techniques to see how they effect the distinctive honeyed characteristics of The Balvenie. Understanding how the oak and the previous spirit, or fortified wine held by the cask influences the whisky is a very important part of my job.

Chapter Two highlights the complexity of flavors each expression takes from wood. I love the results from the older Oloroso sherry butt, which has produced a whisky with a fantastic floral and fruity nose, followed by a wonderful honeyed sweetness. The whisky taken from the 2001 Pedro Ximénez sherry butt is unusual: it shows The Balvenie as a near liqueur with toffee sweetness and a touch of spicy ginger.”

My own tasting notes follow. A glance at the ages and wood-types invites comparing one expression with another. The notes demonstrate how The Balvenie DNA runs through them all:

The Balvenie 1972 aged 43 years in a European oak Oloroso sherry butt, @ 52.4%Vol 

Marzipan, almonds, pineapple, pine sap. Sweet to taste, with honeycomb and butterscotch; ginger in the aftertaste and lingering beeswax. Scented handsoap in the development.

The Balvenie 1990 aged 25 years in a European oak Oloroso sherry butt, @ 59.6%Vol 

Dried fruits, Xmas cake (with a trace of waxed wrapper), autumnal, polished leather. A rich taste with dried fruits (including cherries), nuts and dry marzipan.

A tannic finish, with dark chocolate in the aftertaste.

The Balvenie 1990 aged 26 years in a first fill American oak bourbon barrel, @ 52.9%

Fresh and more citric, with dry orange peel, vanilla, coconut and honey. A creamy texture and a sweet taste, with vanilla, cooking spice and fresh oak. Scented face cream in the development.

The Balvenie 1997 aged 19 years in a European oak port pipe, @ 61.8%Vol

Crimson lights, but no trace of wine on the nose. Christmas cake and glace cherries, crystalline brown sugar, crème brulee, beeswax. Sweet wine in the taste, finishing dry and spicy.

The Balvenie 2001 aged 15 Years in a European oak Pedro Ximénez sherry butt, @ 62.3% ABV

Strawberry jam, peaches and clotted cream, lightly spicy. With water becomes more bosky and nose-drying. The taste is very sweet and reminiscent of dark cherry liqueur chocolates, a trace of ginger, warming.