Just a few weeks ago, I raved about Balvenie’s Tun 1401, Batch 3 release. Then, as now, I believed it’s one of the very best releases of the last year. I can’t stress enough: if you find a bottle of this stuff on the shelves, YOU NEED TO BUY IT. Even if you don’t think Balvenie does it right normally, you’d really be making a mistake to write Tun 1401 off sight unseen.
For the time being, it seems that Tun 1401 is going to remain a premium, small-batch, old whisky expression released on an occasional basis for different world markets. When The Whisky Exchange announced that they had Batch 5 in stock, I jumped on it. And, as it turned out, so did Josh over at The Coopered Tot. Naturally, as I am wont to do, I proposed to Josh that we do a simulpost on this one. In case you didn’t notice, I dig that sort of thing.
So, Batch 5: how does it differ? It’s drawn from one less bourbon cask and one more sherry cask than Batch 3. Apparently the casks in Batch 3 ranged from 1967 to 1989, whereas #5′s casks are from 1966 to 1991. Technically that’d make Batch 5 two years younger, but I really think that’s getting wrapped around the axle on a completely unimportant detail. (And seriously, when you’re over 20 years, an individual year isn’t as massive a difference).
No, I believe that Tun 1401 is both a showcase of Balvenie at its best and a series of masterworks from David Stewart, the blender at Balvenie. You could spend time analyzing cask selection and age, but that would really miss the point. This is designed to be an (attainable) premium whisky that represents the very best of Balvenie.
The nose on the 1401 leads with a little familiar earthiness at first. There’s a little wet clay leading things. Shortly thereafter, dried fruit emerges, as you’d expect with sherry casks. Tobacco hints and orange top notes show up and provide some accents to this lush, well-aged but not tired whisky. There’s a leathery quality that comes along for the ride with the earthiness, but the nose remains slightly dry – white pepper can be detected. Let this sit in the glass for a while and you’ll catch a familiar nutty sherry note as well.
As with batch 3, batch 5 is mouth-coating and full, without being syrupy or oily. It’s got a nice set of choices from the spice rack – nutmeg and cinnamon – which gives some interest but do not overpower. Oranges give a little vibrancy on the top end, and it’s almost an orange liqueur note versus an orange zest. Still, it works beautifully. The earthy and leathery qualities come through on the palate, and dark fruit gives a little body to things. The bourbon influence on the palate of batch 5 is clear (as it was with batch 3), but at no time is it overbearing or cloying. It’s got a slight sharpness to it, but it’s not an off note at all. There’s some white pepper dusted over this and some gentle heat. It’s a great whisky to drink.
The finish is nice, leading with cinnamon, and there’s a wood presence that reinforces that this is an old whisky. The earthiness from the palate continues and mixes really nicely with some more fruity notes. There’s a very fleeting impression of star anise, and then oranges, which take the lead and bring some nutmeg along with them. It settles into a gently spiced wood note – cinnamon again – and the tobacco makes itself known again. It all works beautifully with the old wood notes.
So a head-to-head asks the question immediately: which is better? I have to go with Batch 3. Batch 5 is a very good whisky, no doubt. However, there’s something about the nose and palate on Batch 3 that is just on a different level than Batch 5. This is overall a bit more spicy and sharp than #3, and as a result doesn’t have quite the lushness of #3. However, it’s really enjoyable. All of these comments should really just reinforce how freakishly good batch 3 is, and further underscore why you must buy a bottle if you see it.
As a brief closing thought, I thought I’d comment on Batch 3, which is well into the bottom half of its bottle here at Casa de Scotch y Ice Cream. I still think this is one of the best whiskies of the year and wouldn’t change my vote. I’ve noticed a slight softening of its characteristics that pushed it into my topmost tier. I’d really suggest on either of these that if you open them, you enjoy them and not reserve them for very rare special occasions.
I understand and certainly agree that it’s quite a lot to spend on a single bottle, but if you spend that type of bottle, don’t make the mistake I did and deem yourself unworthy to enjoy it. These are phenomenal whiskies that should not be confined to bottles for a long time. Enjoy them as a celebration of a personal success – however great or small – or share them with friends to mark a special (or arbitrary) occasion.
While I would say there are A-level whiskies constantly being released, independent of that evaluation the Balvenie 1401 releases are a wonderful show of what Balvenie can do at its very best.
At a glance:
Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch #5 50.1% ABV
Nose: Lightly earthy initially – slight hints of wet clay. Dried fruit emerges shortly thereafter. Light hint of tobacco; orange top notes. Lush but showing some agreeable age. A slightly dry nose with some white pepper. Over time, a slightly nutty sherry note opens up.
Palate: Mouth coating and full without being oily or syrupy. Nice notes of light cinnamon, a touch of nutmeg; oranges providing some gentle vibrancy on the top end. A nice, lightly leathery earthiness provides body where some dark fruit provides a little contrast. Bourbon influence is evident as well – a slight sharpness (which should not be interpreted at all negatively). White pepper and some gentle heat. Gently nutty.
Finish: Nice – cinnamon leads initially, gently woody. Nice earthy fruitiness again. A faint flash of star anise, the orange note then takes the lead with some nutmeg and settles onto a spicy wood note – cinnamon again. Overall there’s a light tobacco profile to the palate that mixes beautifully with some old wood.
Comment: This benefits greatly from some time in the glass. It’s really nice; the bourbon profile is stronger than batch 3 and it lacks the lushness of that batch. This has a little more spice and sharpness but as I noted, it’s not a negative. It’s a really enjoyable whisky to be sure. This should just highlight how freakishly great batch 3 is by comparison.