Bringing together whisky and good friends

Balvenie 50 – A Tribute To Craftmanship

Just when I thought I couldn’t top tasting a recreation of a 100 year old blend along came the opportunity to taste the magnificent The Balvenie 50. 88 bottles of precious whisky were filled from Cask #5576 at Balvenie after having spent 50 years quietly minding its own business in the warehouse. It did have a constant companion over the years though in the form of Balvenie’s Malt Master, David Stewart, who has spent half a century in the employ of Balvenie’s owner, William Grant & Sons.

The core range of Balvenie whisky available in South Africa David Stewart speaking to us live via video from Cannes, France

As if tasting the 50 year old wasn’t enough of an incentive to attend this media event, two more carrots were dangled in front of me and my fellow attendees – a multi-course meal at the Chef’s Table in the Sandton Sun Hotel and a live video link-up to David Stewart himself for a Q & A session! While I was very eager to taste the 50 I was even more keen to have the opportunity to have a few words with David and hear him share his story.

After applying for three positions – in a bank, an insurance company and a whisky distillery – David joined William Grant & Sons as a stock clerk. After a couple of years his real training began with Hamish Robertson, the then Master Blender. Fast forward 10 years to 1974 and Hamish has now moved on and Balvenie are in need of a replacement. After scouting around William Grant & Sons made the call to give the position to David, now 29, assuming he passed a 6 month probation period. He did, and served as Master Blender up until the end of 2009 when he handed the role over to Brian Kinsman and became The Balvenie’s Malt Master. It’s scary to think that David has been crafting whisky for as long as I have been on the planet.

He’s not the only long-standing employee at the company though – resident coppersmith Dennis McBain has been with Blavenie since 1958. That highlights one of the things I really like about Balvenie: it retains its own team of craftsmen in the form of coopers, maltmen and, of course, a coppersmith. Where possible Balvenie like to employ people and train them up inside the company through apprenticeships. For example Balvenie have just brought on two youngsters who will be trained up as coopers over the next 4 to 5 years, growing the ranks of coopers from 8 to 10. As Stewart said “You need good casks to make good whisky”. Balvenie is proud of their preservation of these age old crafts and the continued skilling up of new generations of craftsmen and rightly so I feel. In an age where many distilleries have outsourced these skills it’s nice to know that there are still folks out there that are committed to keeping the traditions alive in-house.

David fielded questions from the media representatives around the table and I threw in a question or two and got some inside information on Batch #7 of the Balvenie Tun 1401 due out later this year. All to soon though the video conference was over and it was time to head over to the Chef’s Table in the kitchens for lunch.

Chef's table in the kitchen at the Sandton Sun Hotel Sandton Sun staff displaying the Balvenie range

Sandton Sun’s Executive Chef Garth Shnier was on hand to welcome us into his inner sanctum, overlooking the kitchens where his apprentice chefs where cooking up a veritable feast! His easy-going nature and affable nature belie to an extent the sharp focus he obviously has in the kitchen as well as his teaching skills.

Executive Chef Garth Shnier briefs us on the feast that awaits Balvenie 12 year old DoubleWood

While I may not be a professional food and drinks writer like several of the folk at the table around me, I do know good food when it’s put in front of me. Shnier’s team did not disappoint! One stunning course followed another, interspersed with sips of The Balvenie 12 year old. So this is how the other half live is it? 🙂

Great food and great whisky Is it art or is it food?

It would be amiss of me not to mention our host and guide for the tasting – Jonathan Miles of the Whisky Academy. With his vast whisky knowledge and experience, Jonathan was ideally suited to lead us through the core range available in South Africa – the 12 year old DoubleWood, 15 year old Single Barrel and 21 year old PortWood – before the focus of the day: The Balvenie 50 year old.

Balvenie 12 and 15 year olds Jonathan Miles - our host - guiding us through the tasting

Back to the glorious food for a second though. Course after course of carefully crafted works of what I can simply call food art were served up by the young chefs. Each having to present their dish as part of their training with some being more bashful than others. Chef Shnier’s young recruits have an impressive career ahead of them if they are already turning out masterpieces like this under his tutelage. Fiona MacDonald (Editor of Whisky Magazine SA) and Neil Pendock (wine writer and Sunday Times Columnist) both expressed their compliments to Shnier and his team by saying that, based on this meal, the notion that Joburg cuisine is not up to a par with Cape Town is pretty much a load of bollocks (I’m paraphrasing here :)).

Another amazing course at the Chef's table Springbok and fresh veg - a winning combo!

With the meal nearing completion, the task of carefully dividing the sample of The Balvenie 50 flown in specifically for this tasting was placed on the shoulders (and steady hand) of Miguel Chan – Tsogo Sun’s Group Sommelier. After interruptions from the assembled journalists for Miguel to pose mid-pour, I’m happy to report that not a drop was spilled. Good job Miguel!

A steady hand is required pouring the Balvenie 50 Balvenie 50 year old sample being poured (carefully)

Anticipation building, Jonathan took centre stage with the remaining bottle of the fifty year old allocated to South Africa. The first bottle was sold before it touched down in the country. A lot of attention has focussed on this whisky’s price tag. £20,000 is no small sum of money. Hell, I could pay off a large portion of my home loan if I had that much cash lying around. Is any whisky worth that much money? No, not really.

R8000 a dram Balvenie 50 year old Jonathan Miles and The Balvenie 50

But when you start factoring in its story – the years spent maturing quietly in the warehouse as the world carried on around it, blissfully unaware just how vastly different it would be when it emerged again – and the dedication and service of the craftsmen that led to its creation, for me it transforms into something more symbolic than just a bottle of whisky, something more valuable. Then again, I may just be romanticising the whole thing :).

There can be no doubt though that it’s a thing of beauty – just look at it. A hand-blown glass bottle and a beautifully crafted wooden case made by Sam Chinnery, a Scottish craftsman, comprised of 49 rings of Scottish grown timber and a closing layer made of brass. The price tag of R230,000 in South Africa essentially means you’re getting a discount of R50,000 on the bottle (working on a 14:1 exchange rate with the Pound) AND it’s a 75cl bottle which translates an extra 5cl or R16,000’s worth of whisky. So for the spendthrift millionaires out there looking to snap up a bargain, head over to SA to buy your bottle and plough the money saved into our economy while touring around our beautiful country.

Balvenie 50 - a classic example of beautiful craftsmanship

I must admit, I didn’t take the most detailed of tasting notes while I sipped the 50. My impressions did echo the official tasting notes though: the oak was there (as to be expected), but balanced with the lovely citrus peel, honey, vanilla and warm spices. I wish I could have taken a sample home to taste in a quieter setting, over a longer period of time.

Instead of comprising detailed notes my thoughts turned instead to the journey that David and Cask #5567 have taken together over the last 50 years. Both starting out at Balvenie in 1962 wide-eyed and lacking experience, then settling into life at the distillery, all the while maturing and deepening in character with David checking in on his old friend on occassion, sharing an unspoken conversation as he sipped on the pour from his valinch. 50 years on and Cask #5576’s liquid gold has moved on from the distillery into the big, wide world where it has made quite an impact and set tongues wagging. David may still be at Balvenie but there can be no doubt as to his far reaching and positive impact around the globe. As I finished the dram I silently toasted David – a whisky legend.

Only bottle of Balvenie 50 still available in SA Bottle #60 of 88 of The Balvenie 50 year old

The sentimental sap in me wishes that the story of David and Cask #5576 wouldn’t end here. I’m sure it would it be possible for William Grant & Sons to enlist the services of another craftsman to convert the cask into an Adirondack chair that David could relax in during his retirement. Assuming he ever slows down of course!

For all your years of tireless service to Balvenie and whisky lovers the world over I would like to salute David Stewart and the often unsung heroes of the whisky industry – it’s craftsmen …


1 Comment

  1. Kim Barty Kim Barty
    November 2, 2012    

    Mark, your story captures what was a wonderful and very special food and whisky experience.
    The emotion and soul of Garth and his staff in the Sandton Sun kitchens reflected the heart and soul invested in The Balvenie Fifty.

    Thank you.

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