The newest addition to its Stories Range, The Balvenie 27 Year Old – A Rare Discovery From Distant Shores celebrates rum finishes, remarkable distilleries, and the long-term friendships this industry can foster.
Anybody who has tasted Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask will know how well the distillery does rum cask-finished whisky. Eyebrows no doubt will have been raised regardless when The Balvenie 27 Year Old – A Rare Discovery From Distant Shores was launched. It pairs Balvenie, a legendary Scotch whisky, with Caroni, a legendary rum. This is the kind of thing spirit nerds dream of.
Balvenie was able to create such a unique whisky because the distillery was trialing rum cask finishes before it was cool. Malt master David C. Stewart CBE (try saying that with a mouth full of olives) has been playing around with rum casks for nearly 20 years, and is a huge fan of the spirit. In fact, it’s often the drink he’ll have at home. No matter how much you love whisky, or how good a whisky you make, when you spend all day nosing and blending you’ll want a break.
The pioneer of interesting cask finishes, having done more for that practice than arguably anyone by creating DoubleWood, the first rum-finished whisky Stewart unveiled was the Golden Cask Rum Reserve (good luck getting your hands on this). Then came the Caribbean Cask precursor, the Cuban cask. This was the original expression, but it had to be killed off because it couldn’t be sold in the US, the brand’s largest market (three guesses as to why. Winner gets a cigar). Unfortunately, nobody realised that until it was basically ready for release, so it was all sold to France, where you still might be able to find a bottle.
Rum in the veins
Consistency was an issue too. This is a big-selling whisky and it needs to taste the same batch to batch. Fortunately, a solution was to be found thanks to a long friendship. Stewart and another long-serving giant of his category, John Barrett, owner and M.D of Bristol Spirits Ltd., had shared a passion for spirits for years. The latter was able to use his stock and expertise to blend a specific rum (now made in Holland) for exclusive Balvenie use. This allowed the Banffshire distillery to totally own the process, and ensure consistency not just in supply, but in maturation climate as it all takes place in Scotland.
Balvenie seasons its own American oak casks for six months with the rum, and once Balvenie spirit has spent at least 14 years in cask, it’s popped into these rum casks for its finish. That’s how Caribbean Cask is made to this day. It’s probably the classic example of a rum cask finish whisky. But what happens to all that Balvenie-influenced rum they take out of the cask to make room for whisky? Well, it used to be sold back to rum producers, which means for a time there were stocks of it floating around. Sadly, the rum companies would never say where the spirit went so we have no way of knowing if any remains, and this practice has also stopped. Now that rum is used in Discarded, for a little William Grant & Sons rummy reunion. It’s worth noting that Glenfiddich uses the same process for its Reserva Rum Cask Finish, and I’m unaware of any other whisky maker using this method for rum finishing.
Now there’s another rum cask finish to add to Balvenie’s portfolio, specifically to its Stories range. You might remember us covering that when it launched, but just to recap it’s essentially a series that celebrates the fact that the distillery has so many remarkable characters, like Stewart, who have worked there for decades. He’s celebrating 60 years at The Balvenie in September, by the way. “One of the things you notice about the distillery is people, there’s so many working in bottling, production, warehousing, etc. It means The Balvenie has an atmosphere,” says Alwynne Gwilt, the UK brand ambassador.
Old friends write a new story
This not only helps maintain the core crafts of Scotch, which could easily be lost with so many happy to automate, but also means you have a staff rich with stories. “We sat around with a load of the old boys and chatted about stories for ages,” Gwilt recalls. “17 minutes later they wouldn’t have answered the question, but would have told you nine great stories”. The 70ml of new make they would have straight from a tap to start the day way back when is probably a good reason they would have so many tales.
The story of The Balvenie 27 Year Old – A Rare Discovery From Distant Shores concerns Stewart and Barrett’s friendship. The latter alerted the former to some really interesting stock he had back in ‘09, bringing samples to the distillery. It was from Caroni, now an iconic unicorn distillery that’s the Port Ellen of rum (with no revival possible), but back then wouldn’t have been as widely recognised, outside of rum geek circles. Barrett was one of the few enthusiasts with enough foresight to purchase some of the remaining stocks of the distillery after it closed for good in 2003. Stewart similarly recognised the potential. That friendship must be tremendous fun.
The rum was already maturing for 10 years at this point, but William Grant & Sons didn’t just buy up the casks, but the actual rum inside them too. By the time it was over 20 years of age (with slow Scottish maturation assisting those final years) most of the stock was sold on for what must have been a tidy profit. It’s all been sold, and no doubt drunk, as far we know. A parcel of empty casks was kept, however, and Stewart popped 20-year-old Balvenie in it. “This is a whisky built on friendship, and a very good nose,” remarks Gwilt.
The Balvenie 27 Year Old – A Rare Discovery From Distant Shores
The whisky was then bottled at 27 years old at 48% ABV with no filtration or colouring. That’s right. At seven years (7!), this isn’t really a cask finish, this is a secondary maturation. Gwilt says the distillery “has never done anything like this.” This length of finish is also not likely to happen again, nor is a Caroni rum finish given stock is running very low and there will be no more. Supply of this whisky is therefore incredibly limited, with just 400 nine-litre cases, and it’s one that should get rum and whisky nerds excited alike.
What you realise first about The Balvenie 27 Year Old – A Rare Discovery From Distant Shores is how staggeringly light it is in colour. The nose is also delicate in a way you wouldn’t expect, teasingly revealing aromas of toasted brown sugar, luxurious vanilla, and this gorgeous note of banana that’s so overripe you could imagine pouring it out of the black skin.
The palate, by contrast, has a huge presence. First, there’s the texture. Mouth coating doesn’t really cover this. An oily boozy bath for the tongue is closer to the mark. Here Balvenie’s fragrant, lighter, and sweeter notes become swamped in the tarry funk of Caroni, while the distillery’s tropical fruit note soars with rummy assistance alongside old leather, crème brûlée, sparks of ginger, and charred oak, as well as thick drops of honey (from the kind of jar you left in the cupboard for way too long). The finish is long and drying, with remnants of vanilla, Lady Fingers, mango, and oily oak tannins present.
Fortunately, we’re one of the very few retailers who have any stock of this and one of the very, very few who will be getting new stock. As you can imagine, the original allocation sold out pretty quickly, but a new one is on the way and we’ll be sure to let you know as soon it arrives. I can guarantee it’s worth the wait.
The Balvenie 27 Year Old – A Rare Discovery From Distant Shores will be back soon here.