I’ve had plenty to say about how great I think Balvenie’s Tun 1401 releases have been. Batch 6 has just been released in the US and I had my first pour this week. I don’t have a greater backdrop for this one, but wanted to pass along my impressions of it very briefly while you can still find it.
Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6 49.8% ABV Nose: Lighter and more delicate than previous batches. This has gentle hints of damp clay on a gray, slightly rainy autumn morning. A faint hint of leather, but it’s balanced upfront by the lighter and sweeter fruit notes. This batch shows some light passionfruit, a faint hint of peach, soft wood, a gentle bit of tobacco. The maltiness develops after a bit and some toffee shines through. Sherry notes emerge after even more time, giving hints of ripe red fruits. Palate: Nice mouthfeel, lightly oily. A bit of sweetness led by oranges with a hint of toffee behind it. A little light leathery quality; think of a new Coach wallet. A little lemon perks it up; there’s a hint of ripe cantaloupe adding some body. Light vanilla creaminess and some very gentle malt. A touch of tobacco and white pepper adding spice. Some wood adds a little firm body to this palate. Finish: Drier on the finish than the palate would suggest, tobacco and white pepper with oak that runs slightly bitter upfront and stays that way. Comment: Definitely one to sit with and let evolve. Tun 1401 doesn’t disappoint. The nose continues to evolve and hold surprise; the palate is a delightful mix of sweet and creamy. The finish is unfortunately off a bit with the bitter wood but it’s still really nice. Rating: B+
Bottom line? It’s still a great whisky, but it’s not at the level of Batch 3, which I still think is a world-beater. If you’re fortunate enough to find a bottle of #3, grab it. Otherwise, Batch 6 is still likely to be one of the better whiskies you’ll have this year. This will likely start hitting retailers soon so keep your eyes open. Now to wait until sometime next year for the next batch! LAWS has other perspectives on this but it’s unanimously B+ to this point (which is an impressive feat all by itself).
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 Iam 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.
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. Rating: B+
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