The Balvenie has a fine heritage, being established by none other than William Grant in 1892 and today remains in the hands of his descended family. It is just a 5-minute walk from the other Grant owned distillery in Dufftown, namely the Glenfiddich. Arguably Balvenie has been in the shadow of its more famous neighbour, but in recent years has sought to establish its own identity and single malt presence.
The name Balvenie comes courtesy of another neighbour in the form of Balvenie Castle, which dates back to the 1200’s and was once home to the infamous Black Douglases, who were despatched in ruthless fashion by King James II. The castle is now a ruin but a popular visitor attraction. Also on these grounds once stood the Balvenie New House that was established as a more comfortable successor to the castle. By the 1720’s it was abandoned and William Grant built Balvenie distillery around it in 1892. The house no longer stands as it was demolished to make way for the expansion of Balvenie in the 1920’s. Come 1990, a very small distillery sprung up near Balvenie to produce additional whisky for William Grant & Sons and it’s called Kininvie.
When establishing Balvenie, William Grant wanted a different type of whisky to that already being produced at the flagship Glenfiddich distillery although they use the same water source. He sought a different style of still, taking examples from the existing distilleries of Glen Albyn in Inverness and Lagavulin on Islay. Production commenced the following year and the whisky was suitably different to that of Glenfiddich. The number of stills at the distillery has been increased on 3 different occasions, now resulting in a total of 8 currently in operation across 2 still rooms. Balvenie now has an annual capacity of nearly 7 million litres and following the creation of Ailsa Bay distillery in 2007 to support the Grants blends, is free to focus on its own single malt range.
Much of Balvenie’s current success can be put down to its Malt Master, David Stewart, who started work with the company in 1962 before switching from Glenfiddich in recent years to focus on its sister distillery. Under his guidance a new found confidence has been noticeable at the Balvenie and its worldwide reputation has grown. There are other key components to its recipe of success include the ability to grown its own barley on the Balvenie Mains farm nearby. This is then traditionally floor malted at the distillery, which is one of the few left in Scotland to use this crafted approach, before being dried in the kiln with the assistance of a touch of peat. Admittedly the onsite malting only accounts for 10-15% of its annual needs today, but is still seen as a vital component when it comes to the new make spirit character. The crafted ethic also continues with a coppersmith and coopers being employed on site to ensure everything is in tip-top condition.
Despite its quality and differences to Glenfiddich, Balvenie was not seen as an official single malt until 1973. Prior to this it was used to support the blends of its owners and was not made available to independent bottlers in its original form. Today, Balvenie practises teaspooning, which involves a small amount of single malt from another distillery being added to the cask i.e. Glenfiddich. The whisky cannot then be sold as Balvenie by the independent bottler; instead it is referred to as Burnside. This vatted malt is almost 100% Balvenie, but not quite and means the name remains protected by William Grant & Sons and the only true example of its whisky comes via an official bottling.
Thankfully the core range is extensive with the 12-year-old Doublewood being particularly popular and the 14-year-old Caribbean Cask showing how adaptable the Balvenie spirit is. Age statements are a common theme with the Balvenie range with the 15-year-old Single Barrel Sherry Cask displaying an elegance beyond its years. A notable experience worth the extra outlay are the vattings from its Malt Master released now as the Tun 1509 range. And for those with even more cash available for whisky, then in 2015 the first instalment of the Balvenie DCS Compendium was launched. These 5 exclusive whiskies are seen as the pinnacle of David Stewart’s career and will eventually form a biblical set of 25 whiskies from 25 hand selected casks.