This is the story of the spectacular things that can happen when an ancient technique meets fresh ideas. “Some would call us ‘aff our heeds’, but I suppose you’ve got to try something really different now and again,” explains Mashman Brian Webster.
The Balvenie is always thinking of new ideas, and I’m proud to be a part of that. Everyone mucks in.
At only 25, Apprentice Malt Master Kelsey McKechnie had earned her place at The Balvenie table. Valued for her fearless approach to experimentation that she marries with a genuine respect for craft. “I love trying to understand the changes to The Balvenie whisky that happen during the making process,” she explains. “It helps me appreciate how much the craft has evolved over time and how specific flavours are created.”
At a get-together with the team, the seed of an idea took root in her mind for an experiment to produce an even fruitier, sweeter-tasting Balvenie. “We’re constantly looking to try different things, this was an experiment to see what could happen,” she says. “The idea was to pull out as much of the flavour of the wood as possible.”
The seed quickly developed into an ambitious plan. Supported by the expertise of Malt Master David C Stewart, Kelsey sourced Kentucky Virgin Oak barrels from Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky. A family-run business since 1963, Kelvin use the finest quality oak for their casks, toasting each one uniquely in the open fires. Paul McLaughlin, of Kelvin Cooperage, explains: “The only wood we burn on the fire is white oak. And the smell, you’re really activating all the vanillins within the American Oak, it’s kind of a nutty, marzipany smell, like freshly baked bread.”
Once the barrels safely arrive on Scottish soil, the pre-toasted casks are given an extra deep toast in The Balvenie Cooperage to drive the heat further into the wood and bring out as much flavour as possible. As Head Cooper, Ian McDonald asserts: “We’re adding extra life and flavour into the wood. After it’s spent 6 weeks in transit from Kentucky to Dufftown, our signature Balvenie burn refreshes the wood, bringing out all the flavour, colour, vanilla.”
And then the wait begins. With a smile Kelsey explains: “In whisky nothing happens overnight.” The toasted casks are filled with whisky aged primarily in ex-bourbon casks, before being laid down to mature for a few more months, a process known as ‘cask finishing’ and pioneered by Kelsey’s mentor, David C Stewart. “In the glass this is a complex whisky with incandescent notes of caramelised fruits, delicate vanilla and oak.
The classic Balvenie flavour is enhanced by even stronger, sweeter coconut and warm honey notes. It has taken on a really amazing fruity flavour and the colour is really rich.
Every step along the journey, which spans 3,792 miles from the dusty heat of Kentucky to the verdant hills of Speyside, is finely tuned to produce the finest and sweetest whisky. A magical combination of nature, chemistry and ingenuity, and a happy ending to our story.
A story told by:
Apprentice Malt Master (3 years at The Balvenie and self-confessed whisky geek)
Head Cooper (48 years at The Balvenie and 30 years in the fire service)
Kelvin Cooperage (17 years at Kelvin Cooperage and parkour enthusiast)