Tucked in the Northeast corner of Scotland a small sub-region of the Highlands called Speyside boasts a rich whisky tradition, with around half of the country’s distilleries residing there. On the whole, the area’s whiskies are known as lighter and less smoky than scotches from Islay or the Highlands. That has to do with how long the distilleries expose their malts to peat. That’s evident when you try a sip of The Balvenie. The distillery limits its peat exposure during malting, keeping smoky flavors at bay, thus putting more emphasis on the wood the spirit is aged in. For Balvenie, that’s enhanced by the process its master distiller David Stewart developed in the 1980s. The distillery began “finishing” its scotch, aging the spirit in one cask, then transferring it to a cask of a different origin to impart added flavor. We tried a selection of Balvenie’s double-aged scotches and contrasted it with one of its single-barrel bottlings.
Aged 12 years in an American oak cask before being finished for six months in a sherry cask, the first cask softens the spirit, while the sherry adds more depth and flavors, creating this well-rounded single malt.
Nose: Definitely a more fruity smell. There are also hints of honey and vanilla, adding to the overall sweetness.
Taste: The sweetness of the DoubleWood combines with a cinnamon-like spiciness leading to a nice smooth finish. It’s the perfect type of scotch for someone with little experience with it, but provides nice balance that will satisfy the more hardcore fans.
14-Year Caribbean Cask
This bottling is one of the most popular expressions offered by The Balvenie. The single malt spends 14 years in an American oak barrel before finishing for six months in a rum cask. The result is a slightly darker brown than the 12-year DoubleWood and a hint of the Caribbean spirit.
Nose: Smells very rich and distinctive. Although it smells sweet, it doesn’t have the same fruitiness as the 12-year DoubleWood. The distinct scent of rum also stands out.
Taste: Goes down smoother than either of the DoubleWoods. There’s a distinctive oak flavor that complements the sweetness of the rum. A hint of fruitiness arises as well. It’s less intimidating than traditional scotch, which is good for newbies. But the whisky and rum work well together, making it worth a try for the diehard adherents.
15-Year Single Barrel Sherry Cask
This expression is slightly different than the others. The whisky spends its entire maturation in a single sherry cask, so the flavors from the cask are going to dominate the taste. The result is a darker single malt than the others. Since all scotch was aged in sherry casks 50 years ago, this bottling is almost like time machine that takes you back to what scotch tasted like a half century ago.
Nose: Dried fruit is the first scent to come to mind. There’s also a hint of toasted almonds. Doesn’t have the same woody scent as its fellow bottlings.
Taste: The single barrel’s a much dryer taste than the others, and the flavors are much stronger. The sherry cask imparts a lot of dried spice to the single malt. Despite the strong taste, it goes down smoothly and doesn’t overwhelm. Unlike the 12-year DoubleWood and the Caribbean Cask, the Single Barrel Sherry Cask is not the malt to ease into the scotch experience. But it’s got a classic taste that traditional whisky drinkers will love.
Year 17 is often when most whisky will peak in taste, although a variety of factors (such as weather or the quality of the cask) can change that. The extra five-year maturation produces a much darker color and reduces the affect of the sherry finishon the resulting taste.
Nose: Similar to the 12-year, the hints of honey and vanilla remain. However a much stronger woody scent can be detected, one of the effects of the longer maturation.
Taste: Less sweet than its younger counterpart, but the sherry does impart a little spice and fruitiness. Oak dominates the palette in the 17-year, as well as a taste of roasted nuts also leaps out. While it tastes more like a traditional wood-like whisky, the sherry cask provides enough of an impression to be noticed and give this DoubleWood a more distinctive character.
Joseph Misulonas is an intern for Playboy.com. He can be found on Twitter at @jmisulonas.