Back To Basics: A Small Batch Worth the Price

Yesterday I reviewed Noah’s Mill and was pretty disappointed in it.

It seems like everything these days is “small batch” or “artisan distilled” or some other label-friendly term that indicates that people put a lot of thought into it. Unfortunately, there’s a problem in a lot of cases: if you’re a micro-distillery, a “small batch” may simply be a nicer face put on “our entire production run for three months”. I’m not sure that’s actually a small batch. Or, it could just be ten barrels randomly thrown together, as the Noah’s Mill bottle seemed to be.

Artisan is also woefully misapplied. As it’s been pointed out before, this term is being overused to the point of meaninglessness. After all, Domino’s has artisan pizzas – with the box signed by a store employee. Somehow I doubt the next Poilâne will come from a Domino’s. So, too, this descriptor is applied to more and more whiskey releases. Unfortunately, as I’ve tasted them, very few seem to really merit them – it’s just crap on a different scale. Maybe you can imagine the “artisan” whiskeys are made by someone sweating over every aspect of production, but in the case of a lot of American releases, that unfortunately seems to be a flop sweat of uncertainty – not the perspiration of a confident master.

This isn’t a shot across the bow of small distillers. Far from it. As I’ve said before, if I seem less than charitable towards these guys, it’s because I don’t think it’s good for people to assume “small distillery” is a stamp of quality and then get burned on a $40 of over-oaked, questionably-finished gasoline. I know I’ve been conciliatory towards larger producers, but it just seems that this stuff works best in large barrels aged in a controlled environment for a long time. The people who have the budget to pull that off happen to be, well… larger producers.

When a large producer rolls out a “small batch” product, it’s very hard to get enthusiastic. Usually this is a more intensely-flavored variety of the usual mediocrity, and certainly is more intensely priced. Some are interesting in their deviation, but rarely do they get to a point of being special.

I think the release that I’ve regarded with the most intense skepticism in a long time is Balvenie’s Tun 1401 Batch 3 release. It’s Balvenie for crying out loud – it’s the safest, most accessible, generically scotchy scotch. It’s good, sure. I’ve had many Balvenies and while they can be enjoyable, they’re usually short of the mark of greatness. After all, it’s really hard to be a crowd-pleaser to the uninitiated but also be able to wow the die-hards.

When Tun 1401 came out with the usual marketing muscle, fanfare and glowing reviews from some familiar faces, I continued to be underwhelmed. It’s Balvenie. It’s a “small batch” that’s $250. From Balvenie – which could make 500 of these batches a year if they wanted. It felt like yet another exercise in testing the market’s tolerance for expensive whisky that’s cloaked so that we might think it’s worth the price. How many whiskies really are worth $250? Not a lot.

My friends in LAWS started to rave about this one. I couldn’t believe it… the most die-hard group of malt-lovers this side of the Atlantic (aside from the underground and extremely secretive PLOWED, which for all I know holds annual get-togethers in former James Bond super-villain lairs and uses their time machine to corner the market on old whiskies in some sort of time-travelling pre-emptive FOAFing activity) were falling under the spell of the hype on this bottle. Since this was now in the LAWS sphere, I needed to try a sample

I was floored. And I didn’t really want to be.

The price was only part of the problem.

In my mind, I’ve seen Balvenie as a faux-craft distillery that was used to lend a kind of traditional legitimacy to the William Grant whisky brands (the other most notably being Glenfiddich). They still crank out a bunch of spirit, and it’s not bad, but I’d always figured it was just a market segmentation activity.

I also saw this video about the making of Tun 1401 while looking into it more.

It’s certainly a beautifully shot, rustic vision of whisky creation. But I had to admit while I drank from my glass, I couldn’t square my cynicism and prejudices against the reality of this whisky. It turns out that this is just a really good whisky.

The nose is almost the best part (but you’d be crazy to stop there). It’s an absolutely beautiful balance of wood and dried fruits. There’s dried oranges, waxy apples, figs, and some molasses. A momentary flash of marmite (very briefly) but it’s not there long. Amazing sherry influence that doesn’t overpower things. It’s just.. pleasant. I could nose this all day.

The palate enters gently, with some light sweetness and dried fruit. Waxy apples show up first, with jammy notes and plum. Faint molasses and a good dose of figs. There’s a faint dusting of white pepper. This all balances wonderfully against the oak which lends depth but not a trace of bitterness. The palate is rich and mouth-coating, without ever becoming syrupy (which I tend to feel is an unfortunately common note among Balvenies I’ve had).

The finish is gently warming, lasts delightfully with dried fruit notes in abundance. A brighter  mint note that flashes by for a second, but it’s just rich, woody and waxy.

This is one of those rare whiskies that I can’t see how I’d change or improve. It’s got a nose I could enjoy all day; it’s fruited but has some spice and oak. It’s phenomenally well balanced; sherry gives it depth but doesn’t overrun the spirit; it’s substantial but not out of balance. Honestly, there’s nothing not to like here aside from the price tag.

This, I think, is one of those rare products that really merits an artisan name. This just has experience, good judgement, and a master’s skill written all over it. Everything is perfectly balanced but it doesn’t feel calculated; it’s not ostentatiously sherried or smoked within an inch of it’s life. It just has a quiet, steady balance that can only be found by someone who really, absolutely knows what they’re doing.

Some may be put off by the marketing push, the Balvenie name, or the price. I certainly understand the latter; the price could be a bit dear to some. If it’s in your budget, I can’t recommend this one highly enough. This is not a stunt whisky, it’s a masterclass in back-to-the-basics whisky making. It’s phenomenal. Try to find a pour soon, it’s vanishing fast.

As for me, this is an object lesson in setting aside preconceptions about a distillery for a while.

At a glance:

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 3, 50.3% ABV
Nose: Beautiful balance of wood and dried fruits. Some light dried oranges, some waxy apple skin. Slightly figgy and some molasses. A little whiff of marmite but not much. Great sherry influence but not overpowering at all.
Palate:  Gentle entry into the palate, lightly sweet with dried fruit again. Waxy apples present themselves first, nice jammy notes with some plum as well. A little more faint molasses with a good dose of figs. Faint dusting of white pepper. A good balance with some nice oak that lends depth but not bitterness. The palate is rich and mouth-coating without going in the direction of syrupy.
Finish:  Gently warming, lasting, with the dried fruit notes still in abundant. A slightly brighter note – maybe a little flash of mint for a second. Nice and rich, woody and waxy.
Comment:  This is an absolutely wonderful Balvenie with a nose I could enjoy all day. I can’t think of much I’d really change on this because it’s phenomenally balanced. Sherry is there but not overwhelming, it’s substantial but not out of balance, it’s just a masterpiece. If it weren’t for the pricetag and the fact that this stuff is getting harder to find already, I’d be buying it by the case.
Rating: A

10 thoughts on “Back To Basics: A Small Batch Worth the Price”

  1. Tim, I appreciate the thoughts about your Balvenie prejudices; nice post.  I just think it’s amusing that you titled a $250 scotch review “back to basics.” ;-)

    1. Here’s the deal though. For the last year, we’ve been bombarded with exotic cask provenances… stunt finishing/enhancements… unusual aging conditions.. unusual climates for maturation… weather-based backstories.. recreations of old bottles and so on. 

      Balvenie cut all that horseshit out. They put 10 barrels together. They said, in effect, “This is a great whisky and it’s a vatting of a bunch of old casks.” No extravagant age statement to command an ultra-premium, no commemorative decanter, no ridiculous tie-in. Just a handful of casks and a great whiskey. The casks are old. It’s expensive. Fine by me. I wish it was cheaper because it’s so great, but there’s whisky in there that’s ostensibly over 40 years old. 

      It’s just, “here’s a really great whisky.” No gimmicks. No bullshit. And it absolutely succeeds. 

      Can’t get more basic than that. 

      1. Ah, I get it now.  You think on a higher plane than me, dude.  I generally take things for face value, rather than looking for the higher meaning in a statement.  Kindof like your Metallica ref. a while back; when you explained it, it made sense, I just have to think beyond the obvious when I read your blog ;-)

        I’m totally with you though – I want more whisky that’s just good whisky.  Blended right, bottled right, and not paying an extra $50 for packaging and a story about a Norse god.  I also generally dislike wine-cask-finishing of all kinds, and try to avoid any purchases with that.  I’m in the “it’s just covering up the whisky” camp.  I could easily add a drop of wine to my whisky at home if I so desired…

        I haven’t tried Tun 1401, but I worry about whisky that’s “perfectly balanced.”  I find that “perfect” can sometimes be “boring.”  It doesn’t sound like the case here, just makes me wary.

        1. It’s certainly one of the top 5 I’ve tried this year, which includes lofty company like a ’71 Glendronach, a 48 year old Strathisla and a single cask Glengoyne that I’d club baby seals to get more of. 

          I don’t pad ratings in the least, and an “A” (no minus) is but a stone’s throw from “I could probably drink just this for the rest of my life and be happy.”

          I don’t really have any other superlatives in favor of this whisky beyond “this is the best $250 you can possibly spend on a single bottle of whisky if you have $250 to spend on a single bottle”. The quality/price on this is one of the very best. 

          The ’71 Glendronach is $500. The 48y Strathisla is long gone but was over $300. The Glengoyne was likely in that range as well, but it sold out so ridiculously fast that I don’t recall its price (so you’ll definitely pay more than $250 on the secondary market). 

          Why am I screaming this one from the rooftops? Because I want Balvenie to release more like this. 

  2. Whoa! My lucky day last Saturday. Browsing in a cigar and spirits place I found a few more batch 3 – in canisters at the original price. Nice and dusty in a corner – perfect. Snapped ‘em all up quick.

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