When your beloved whisky maker puts in sixty years worth of shifts at your distillery, the obvious way to champion them would be to bottle a 60-year-old whisky in their honour. Not every distillery has the luxury of having that kind of stock, though. Rarer still, only one distillery has the pleasure of being able to celebrate a whisky maker of that stature.
We’ve already made a note of the fact that David C. Stewart MBE has spent six decades at The Balvenie distillery, making him the longest-serving malt master in Scotch whisky history. Now we have the pleasure of not only being able to report on the remarkable whisky the brand has launched as a tribute but getting to taste it in his presence.
The Balvenie Sixty Years is a single cask bottling from June 1962, making it the distillery’s oldest and rarest whisky released for sale to date. It was presented at a lunch at the lavish St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, having been laid down the same year Stewart first worked at the distillery as a whisky stocks clerk. The new make spirit was filled into a collection of traditional European oak hogshead casks where it remained for six decades. Only 71 bottles at 42.6% ABV are being released globally of the single cask, which was selected by eventual successor Kelsey McKechnie, who has been mentored by Stewart for the past four years.
There’s a tasting note at the bottom of the article, but before we got to taste it, we learned the story of The Balvenie told through Stewart’s eyes and presented in the form of a whisky lunch six courses long, one for each decade. That’s what follows here.
Six whiskies, six decades
Our host was Dave Broom (the man for the big occasion), who introduced Stewart as one of those preternaturally talented individuals who are able to transform the simple process of making whisky, and elevate a humble drink to create something special. Which is quite the commendation for a man famously modest. Broom addresses this, and says master distillers tend to be understated because they understand they are a link in the chain of a longer process that’s all about preserving the distillery’s character, not emboldening their own.
Stewart certainly had humble beginnings. He joined the company three weeks before David Grant, the oldest living Grant, on 3 September 1962 as a clerk. With no computers, he spent two years monitoring stocks and being the occasional tea boy, not considering that as his boss was master blender Hamish Robertson, a more creative path awaited him. Robertson gave fate a good Scottish nudge by inviting Stewart into the sample room and started training him daily, working on early classics like Glenfiddich 8 Year Old Pure Malt and Grant’s Standfast blend. He can recall samples from them dating as far back as the 1920’s, meaning in his head lies a whisky map almost incomparable in its scale. Back at our table, this first decade was marked with The Balvenie Founders Reserve 10 Years, which was bottled back in 1973. It’s a vatting of first-fill and refill bourbon as well as first-fill sherry casks, the same recipe as Balvenie Pure Malt, and is still vibrant and popping with classic flavours of vanilla, citrus, honey, and rich malt.
Hamish left in 1974 to become the master blender of William Lawson, just a year after Balvenie first launched as a single malt. It was then Stewart’s responsibility to man the fort, he believed on a probationary period at first. I would hazard a guess that he passed. Stewart has the rare distinction of completely defining a single malt as he’s pretty much the only person to have ever made it. This second decade is celebrated with The Balvenie DCS Compendium, Chapter Five. Vintage 1974, 44 years. It was bottled slightly over 50% ABV and shows the mastery at work, because it’s developed and delicious but still Balvenie, and it has presence without dissipating and becoming thin the way old whisky can when badly managed. The orange note becomes homemade marmalade, the vanilla melts into richer marzipan, the honey becomes coated by dark chocolate, and there’s smoke and complexity all the way.
Securing the legacy
Into the 1980s, the era of bust for many in Scotch, but for Balvenie, it was the time when Stewart was about to make his defining legacy. Tasked with creating three new whiskies and something “a bit different” Stewart did something he describes as simply seeing what it was like if he put Balvenie aged initially in bourbon casks into Spanish sherry casks. What became the Balvenie Classic (and its variants) and eventually DoubleWood was his most notable achievement, the development of a now standard technique adopted in whisky-making the world over. This is the man behind cask finishes. “Just something I played with,” he says. He changed everything.
After we enjoyed an appropriately celebratory dram of DoubleWood it was time to enter decade four. The Nineties as we know it, the one where single malt took off and The Balvenie really established itself. The distillery launched its first single barrel expression, DoubleWood, in 1993, and Portwood 21 Years in 1995. The latter is Stewart’s favourite, one he says actually gets very little flavour from the wood because it’s over three decades old, but from the Port itself. Stewart has been spotted buying it from the Balvenie distillery shop, and it’s very much him as a whisky. Understated, totally Balvenie in character but with substance and personality all the same.
For the fifth decade, we entered the terribly named Noughties, the era of Madeira and Caribbean Cask experimentation, and when Stewart’s pioneering ways had cemented him as a legend of the game. The scope and backing to make limited-edition bottlings began in this era, leading to what we tasted, batch 2 of TUN 1401. Charles Gordon had sourced 2,000 litres of Port casks, and in a Girvan warehouse Stewart began marrying whiskies in a tun rather than vatting them. Just one tun was used to create this particular marriage, in which the youngest whisky is 21 years old and some go back to the 1960s. It’s a complex beast full of dark stewed fruits, musty sherries qualities, spiced honey, and caramel.
Then onto the last decade. Stewart gave the reigns of Glenfiddich, Grants, and Monkey Shoulder over to malt master Brian Kinsman 12 years ago, and for the last few years he’s been working his 100 days. He underlines that he’s not quite hanging up his boots yet, but says if he did leave right now he would have every confidence that McKechnie would maintain the quality and consistency, as she did when Stewart was understandably barred from working during the pandemic. Her signature is also on the 60 Year Old, and he says she has officially become a malt master. An apprentice no more, McKechnie kindly provided us with a mystery future product for our last course, a European oak sherry cask whisky bottled at around 48% ABV somewhere in the late teens. We’re the first to try it and I can assure you we’re in good hands here. It’s so sherried it could be first-fill, with chewy spice, rich nuttiness, and dried fruit. And it’s lovely.
The Balvenie Sixty Years
After lunch, a lucky few snuck off to taste the rare whisky itself. We said 71 bottles before and, that’s true, but once you account for those that go into the archives and for tastings we’re closer to (an admittedly appropriate) 60ish bottles. There’s precious feck all to go around, basically, but what was bottled is presented all glass, gold, and brass, housed in a tube casing that has five layers etched with personal anecdotes from influential individuals along Stewart’s journey.
Which is lovely, but we know what you really want to hear. How it tastes. Well, it’s remarkable to see a hogshead of its age retain this kind of flavour. We don’t know much about this cask, but we can surmise it wasn’t first-fill because it’s not tannic at all, it’s fresh and juicy and filled with vibrant variety. I think that old Balvenie has this wonderful thing where the bright orange citrus element of its spirit morphs into rich vintage marmalade and that’s the standout character here too. A beautiful whisky and a piece of history to celebrate someone who maintains he just helps things along.
He started at 17 entering what he originally thought would be more of an accounting role. Then he became a whisky maker as the single malt emerged, The Balvenie first stood out under its own name, and Glenfiddich geared up to conquer the world. Since then he’s nosed over 400,000 casks, collected an MBE from the late Queen Elizabeth II, and moved the dial on cask finishing more than anyone else. And when he wants a bottle of Balvenie he goes to the distillery shop and buys his own. Slange Var, David C. Stewart, MBE.
The Balvenie Sixty Tasting Note:
Nose: There’s some dunnage earthiness and old armchair leather here as well as burnt lavender, mulch, and roasted coffee in a complex and big nose. The real star is a rich note of vintage marmalade, though, which is joined by cinnamon, white peach, and soft toffee pennies
Palate: More delightful fruit notes burst through: blackcurrants, candied orange, charred pineapple… There’s also a little salt-infused dark chocolate, some coppery elements, antique oak, and soft aromatic spice from cloves and nutmeg.
Finish: The finish lasts an age with more marmalade, aromatic baking spice, Worcestershire sauce, and lychee.