Earlier this week I took a trip to Raffles, London for an event with The Balvenie Scotch whisky. The venue is an outpost of the legendary Singapore hotel and is not to be confused with the notorious nightclub on King’s Road that has only 2.7 stars on Google reviews.

B sides and rarities

The occasion was the release of some unusual angle malts in the aptly-named Collection of Curious Casks. They’re part of The Balvenie Stories range which showcases the history of the distillery and the characters who work there. Malt master Kelsey McKechnie and warehouse and samples coordinator George Paterson chose these single malts. The latter commented:

“I have one of the best jobs in the world, working in our warehouses, monitoring special casks. Identifying hidden gems and bringing them to light is a true highlight, and it is from these moments shared throughout history and relentless curiosity at The Balvenie that conversations come to life and brilliant ideas are born.”

As brand ambassador Sean Fennelly explained these are single malts that don’t really fit in with the distillery’s mainstream offerings. He described them as “b-sides and rarities”. Others have described them less poetically as “mistakes”. Whatever they are, they’re well worth a closer look.  

Tasting The Balvenie Collection of Curious Casks

Pineau-aged Balvenie Collection of Curious Casks

Balvenie 18 Year Old 2005 – A Collection of Curious Casks Whisky 70cl

This is an experiment started by master blender David Stewart MBE who thought it would be a good idea to finish The Balvenie in French oak Pineau des Charentes casks.. According to Fennelly, it didn’t really work, the finishing casks did not provide sufficient contrast to the standard Balvenie profile. Stewart then sourced some different Pineau casks, transferred the whisky and then forgot all about it. After a further eight years of ageing, his successor Kelsey McKechnie discovered them and found they had turned into something quite exciting. It’s bottled at 47.9% ABV.

Pineau des Charentes is a blend of unfermented grape juice and brandy aged in oak to produce a drink not dissimilar to Port and like Port, it comes in red and white varieties. The one used here is white and adds a floral and herbaceous note to the classic Balvenie flavour profile. It functions a bit like a squeeze of lemon freshening up a mature single malt making it taste much less old. We tried it alongside another Pineau-aged Balvenie 16 Year Old French oak, and this was much more distinctive with more Pineau des Charentes character. 

Nose: Floral, lemony and herbal, lemon verbena perhaps, with honey.

Palate: Tongue-coating nutty texture, very smooth with sweet spicy notes and a perfumed floral note.

Finish: Spices and almonds

American oak Balvenie 14 Collectionof Curious Casks

Balvenie 14 Year Old 2009 – A Collection of Curious Casks Whisky 70cl

This is a fascinating Balvenie which was made just after the Week of Peat where the distillery goes over to smoky whisky production. Perhaps someone didn’t clean the distillery quite as well as they should because the first batch of unpeated malt processed had picked up a slight smoky tang. Originally this was meant to go into the 12 year old but the smoke character was too present. As Fennelly explained, “Peat is difficult to get rid of”.

The result is a whisky with a miniscule but noticeable estimated 1 ppm. It’s bottled at 47.8% ABV.  We tasted it next to the 14 Year Old Week of Peat which is really very peaty indeed and not something that I think I’d ever guess was from Balvenie. In contrast, the Curious Casks offering has just a whisper of smoke. In fact, it’s more of a hint of a whisper, there’s just something else there which is hard to put your finger on. But whatever it is, it accentuates the classic Balvenie character, providing an underlying savoury note to the classic sweetness. It is in short, a brilliant whisky, one of my favourite Balvenies, which is pretty hard to put into words but here goes:

Nose: Oranges, bready, lemony, vanilla and creme brulee with a very distant wood fire.

Palate: Spicy, cinnamon, almonds, vanilla and honey and that very distant bonfire, perhaps one that’s been extinguished but the smell still lingers.

Finish: Long and spicy.