This post originally appeared in The Pour Fool’s seattlepi.com edition, in July of 2011. In searching this Whiskey, last week, I realized it was not on this site at all, which was a shocking oversight. Here, in a slightly revised version, is that post, about a Whiskey that I believe is among the two or three best I have ever tasted…
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, July 20th, in the Year of Our Lord 2011, I received in the mail a package containing something which I have always been waaaaay too cheap to buy: a bottle of 14-year-old Speyside Scotch Whiskey, aged in Caribbean rum casks, at the hallowed Balvenie Distillery of Dufftown, Banffshire, a semi-picturesque village set on the banks of the River Spey, in the far north reaches of Scotland, a land haunted by magic, peopled by a wild collection of the Determinedly (but Unsuccessfully) Normal, chock-a-block with the Utterly Barking Mad, and colder than a well-digger’s ass for about half of every year. Scots I have questioned about it have offered that the reason Dufftown and the surrounding Speyside produce more Scotch than any other region of Scotland is because it’s about the only thing which can resolve all the fights the native whiskey instigates amongst a populace which can be charitably described as “fractious”.
The Balvenie Caribbean Cask Single Malt Scotch 14 Years Old is a bloody masterpiece. I wish I could put it in a different and more dignified way but that’s the size of it: Masterpiece. It was spawned by the success of the original rum-aged Balvenie, Balvenie Rum Cask, which debuted in 2008 to worldwide fanfare. I never got to taste it – see the “waaaaay too cheap” thing above – but a friend sent me an email about it which said, in part, “…if you can peel the moss off your wallet long enough to extract three twenties, you can go get something which I guarantee will make you pee down both legs.” Seldom have I been presented with a less appealing metaphor, so I rashly, unwisely deleted the email and got on with my life.
According to that same friend, the Caribbean Cask is a more-than-worthy successor to the Rum cask and does, indeed, offer a broader range of flavors than that 2008 release, starting with an emphatic blast of vanilla that wafts out of the glass in an almost chewy cloud, underpinned with a woodsy note that recalls the barrel without making it the whole show. The vanilla carries strongly over onto the palate and is joined by a lush, nutty character that centers around almonds and cashews, topped with a distinct overlay of honey that segues into the flavor of stone fruits and heather. Lying under that little surprise is a lovely intimation of mild citrus; like a cured orange rind glazed with lemon curd. And riding ethereally atop all this is the spice of the rum barrels; a hint of nutmeg and anise and faint allspice that whispers the rum presence, rather than shouting it. The Burn, here, is among the most civilized and ultimately satisfying of any Whiskey of any type I have ever sampled. It warms, rather than scalds and that alcohol cloud permeates the retro-nasal passage with its own lovely finish, clearly expressing the warm wood of the oak casks and carrying the caramelized sugars of the dark rums that suffuse these well-seasoned vessels. This entire panorama of flavors is subtle and refined and somehow amazingly fresh, not to mention, for old Scotch freaks like me, a little shocking.
Rum-cask aging of Scotch is nothing unprecedented, of course. The first one I tasted was the Dufftown Old Malt Cask D. Laing 13, which wasn’t all that wonderful, as I recall. But, out of the four others I’ve tasted, this is the one that seems most put-together, the most integrated, the most nuanced and, by light years, offers the most appealing texture, slipping across the tongue like slightly diluted honey. Like all Balvenies, it’s whistle-clean and betrays not a single off-note from what had to have been a fairly complex process.
I have to confess that, when I first drank it in 2011, I didn’t fully realize what would become of this relationship between a cranky, badly aging, transplanted hillbilly from Seattle and a two-pound bottle of Scotch Whiskey. As this review says, I really liked it a lot but I may, back then, have been able to set it aside and leave it alone for extended periods. I had no way of knowing that Balvenie Caribbean Cask would refuse to lay me aside. The damned stuff literally haunted me. I would taste other Whiskeys that makers or PR firms would send and, while many were delicious and almost complete, I would mentally compare them to the truly great Whiskeys I had tasted and they would be a tad…wanting. Caribbean Cask became the yardstick by which all other Whiskeys were measured, even if solely in terms of the amount of hedonistic pleasure they deliver. It required concerted effort and massive readjustment in my thinking to stop holding up every other friggin’ bottle of brown booze I taste against what is an impossibly high and very different standard. It just ain’t fair, like comparing all other TV shows to “Twin Peaks”.
The miserly thing aside…well, it actually got shoved aside. My wife, the fabulous Judye, became a Scotch fan – after an entire adult lifetime misspent swilling Bourbon – because of this very Whiskey. This stuff, here in extortionist Washington state, costs almost $80 a bottle. We’ve bought, in the intervening six years, about seven bottles, now. Because of this job and my ongoing day job as a consultant, I purchase very little booze. So, when I do go out and lay down our hard-won cabbage, I want something that will blow our familial doors off…and we usually wind up with this…On a trip to Cabo San Lucas, in late 2015, I quickly discovered that Baja California is Beer Hell. There was nothing there but one mediocre craft brewery and an ocean of bad Mexican lagers. In sheer desperation, I searched online and found a liquor store that had Balvenie Caribbean Cask in stock. My week in Cabo was passed in leisurely contentment with a wee dram of this twice a day, with a couple of restrained shards of ice, overlooking the Pacific. I could not possibly been more satisfied and, once we landed in Seattle, I immediately went in search of a bottle for home. In terms of what I, personally, want out of a bottle of Whiskey, this, along with Laphroaig “Lore” and my trusty Bowmore 15, are the pinnacle, my true desert-island pours.
Balvenie Maltmaster David Stewart, the booze world’s answer to the productive longevity of Greg Popovich and Scotland’s longest-tenured distiller, has been at this for 45 years, now, and everything that comes out of Balvenie is and has been, for his entire career, touched with an unfailingly fine hand of grace and polish without a trace of prissiness or affectation. Islay guy that I am, I have never done anything less than beam and offer a hearty “Thank You” when handed a glass of Balvenie. At one time or another, I’ve tasted nearly everything in their range and none was ever less than splendid. Add to that the undeniable dedication to their craft that’s evidenced by continuing to maintain their own malting floor, cooperage, and estate grain fields, and you have one of those increasingly rare stories of people who do things in what is certainly the hardest way but is also the best way. So, a baseline of fine quality is hardly surprising for Balvenie, but this Caribbean Cask is absolutely – even for a company which makes Port Casked, Sherry Casked, and Madeira Casked versions of their whiskey – Thinking Outside The Box. Rum and Scotch may well be spiritual cousins but, if so, they’re not from a very close family. And laying this soft and sexy patina of rum-soaked oak atop a very solid Scotch is an idea which could have just as easily been “meh” – or even ghastly. In the hands of David Stewart and his crew at Balvenie, it’s the closest thing to Jazz in a Glass that I’ve come across in a very long time.