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The Balvenie 12 Year Old Single Barrel

Review: The Balvenie 12 Year Old Single Barrel  91.5/100
a review by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)
Published April 10, 2014

The Balvenie Distillery is located at Dufftown which is of course, pretty much situated in the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland. This is a Single Malt Distillery; but one which holds the distinction of being the only such distillery where every part of the process of making whisky takes place right at the distillery. The distillery grows and malts its own barley (about 10 % of its total requirement); it has its own cooperage; and it has its own copper-smith. Owned by William Grant and Sons, the distillery is one of the top 10 producers (by volume) of Scottish Single Malt Whisky.

The Balvenie 12 Year Old Single Barrel is one of the company’s most recent offerings to arrive in Canada, and it replaces The Balvenie 15 Year Old Single Barrel whose stocks have been dwindling such that this expression is now quite hard to find (at least where I live). The 12 Year Old (like the 15 Year Old before it) is a true Single Barrel Whisky as each bottle is drawn from a single first-fill Bourbon cask selected by The Balvenie Malt Master, David Stewart. These casks were chosen to represent a consistent Balvenie character; however, each barrel will have its own unique character, and therefore each bottling from each unique barrel will be slightly different from each other. (And yes, this whisky spent its entire 12 year aging life in one single first-fill barrel.)

For those who do not know, a first fill Bourbon cask is an oak cask which has been used only once previously, and that one time was for the maturation of American Bourbon Whiskey. As Bourbon rarely matures for longer than 7 years, these first-fill casks will not only have their fibers saturated with the flavour of American Bourbon, they also will have the ability to impart a strong oak character to the next spirit which is set within them for maturing. First-fill barrels are highly prized by distillers, and represent the most expensive aging barrels in the distillery’s warehouse.

Note: Only 300 cases of this limited edition single malt are available for purchase at LCBO stores across Ontario starting February 2014. There were previously 300 cases released for purchase in Alberta in December 2013.

Balvenie 12 SAM_1113In the Bottle 4.5/5

As you can see from the picture to the left, The bottle presentation for this whisky is quite nice. The beige sleeve which houses the whisky is unique and contains a good description of Single Barrel aging regimen which was used to mature the whisky (and some preliminary tasting notes as well). The bottle itself provides more information about the whisky as the cask number from which the whisky was drawn is printed on the label (in my case Cask Number 12803) as well as the bottle number (in my case Bottle Number 184). The label also tells me the whisky was bottled at 47.8 % alcohol by volume (not cask strength) and that no more than 300 bottles were drawn from a single cask.

In the Glass 9/10

The whisky displays a pale straw colour in the glass, and when I tilt and twirl that glass I see many small leglets forming at the crest which drop long slender legs back down into the whisky. The breezes above the glass indicate that the whisky has a firm oak character as those breezes are filled with a firm presence of clean oak spice. This woody spiciness is accented (quite nicely) with vanilla, sawgrass and almond scents.

As the glass breathes, the whisky breezes become more complex bringing forward additional hints of butterscotch, honey and some sweet beer-like malt. I also notice autumn-like smells of fresh grain heaped in piles in front of the granaries as well as spring-like aromas of freshly budding willow and poplar trees. Within all of this is a firm fruit-like scent of gooseberries, and an herbal grassy note which is reminiscent of sweet-grass and heather. It is quite easy to enjoy the scents and smells the whisky brings forward, and the firm oak character seems to promise even more as I go forward.

In the Mouth 55.5/60

As one would expect from nosing the glass, the whisky has a peppery delivery with clean oak spices and hints of orange peel heating up the mouth. Tempering this heat is a touch of honey and a light beer-like maltiness. As I sip from my glass, the flavours of gooseberry and fruit pith (that white stuff behind an orange peel) begin to build a sense of bitterness upon the palate; however, there is also a firm presence of vanilla and an undercurrent of sweet corn whisky which provides the correct counter balance to the bitterness making the experience very enjoyable. The backbone of the whisky remains the clean oak spice, and I am very impressed by the overall complexity and the balance of flavour which I have encountered.

In the Throat 13.5/15

The whisky has a crisp short to medium length peppery finish. Flavours of wood spice and gooseberry pucker the palate and ebbing flavours of vanilla and almond provide soothing relief. It is quite wonderful actually!

The Afterburn 9/10

Age statements are misleading without corresponding knowledge of the not just the type of oak barrels used to mature the whisky, but also the age of those oak barrels and how they were previously used. In the case of this particular Balvenie whisky, the 12 years of maturation in first-fill American oak has resulted in a vibrant whisky with a rich spicy oak character, and I prefer that over a whisky matured for much longer in a washed out much older refill cask anytime. (And so should you!)

The Balvenie 12 Year Old Single Barrel is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when the oak that housed the whisky during maturation is fresh and vibrant, and my score of 91.5/100 reflects my enthusiasm for this approach!

You may read some of my other Whisky Reviews (click the link) if you wish to have some comparative reviews.


As always you may interpret the scores I provide as follows.

0-25 A spirit with a rating this low would actually kill you.
26-49 Depending upon your fortitude you might actually survive this.
50 -59 You are safe to drink this…but you shouldn’t.
60-69 Substandard swill which you may offer to people you do not want to see again.
70-74 Now we have a fair mixing rum or whisky.  Accept this but make sure it is mixed into a cocktail.
75-79 You may begin to serve this to friends, again probably still cocktail territory.
80-84 We begin to enjoy this spirit neat or on the rocks. (I will still primarily mix cocktails)
85-89 Excellent for sipping or for mixing!
90-94 Definitely a primary sipping spirit, in fact you may want to hoard this for yourself.
95-97.5 The Cream of the Crop
98+ I haven’t met this bottle yet…but I want to.

Very loosely we may put my scores into terms that you may be more familiar with on a Gold, Silver, and  Bronze medal  scale as follows:

70 – 79.5    Bronze Medal (Recommended only as a mixer)
80 – 89.5     Silver Medal (Recommended for sipping and or a high quality mixer)
90 – 95         Gold Medal (Highly recommended for sipping and for sublime cocktails.)
95.5+            Platinum Award (Highest Recommendation)





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