Born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, Neil Strachan started in the hospitality industry in the kitchen at the age of 16, eventually traveling to work in the kitchens of hotels in Austria and France. Upon his return to Scotland, work at a cocktail bar sparked newfound interest for the trade. He set about diving deeper into the science and art of whisky making. Now based on the West Coast, Neil took a few minutes to share some Balvenie basics with Wine and Whiskey Globe.
What is the house style of The Balvenie?
The Balvenie is a single malt known for its honey and vanilla notes, with a delicate alcohol. I mention delicate alcohol, as some scotches feel like a punch in the face in terms of alcohol, especially the cask strength ones. But ours is softer and with the use of the finest oak casks from around the world we are not short on flavor.
What is it best known for?
Our whisky is best known for an aging process called double cask maturation or more commonly as cask finishing. The whiskies in our core range—12, 17 Doublewood, 14 Caribbean Cask, and 21 Portwood—all use this technique. Our Malt Master David Stewart, the longest serving in the industry, pioneered this style in 1983 with the release of The Balvenie Classic.
How does its aging process yield its particular flavor profile?
Firstly, before aging, fermentation and distillation really set the foundations for your whisky. The style of liquid coming off the stills will shape how that whisky looks in different cask types. However, we say that about 70 percent of the flavor of our whisky comes from our casks. Our core range before finishing starts off its life in ex-Bourbon barrels, which will give us vanilla, and shapes the sweet, malty, newly made spirit into a liquid with a honeyed sweetness. Then the use of different casks for finishes, no longer than 9 months for us, tweaks and adds to the hard work done in the ex-Bourbon cask. Spanish oak Sherry casks used in the finishing process of the Doublewoods gives us the classic, almost serious Scotch notes of rich spice and dried fruit. When we use rum barrels, which we season on site in Dufftown, it gives the whisky a playful side, with tropical fruit notes, turning that honeyed character into something richer like caramels and toffees.
How many different bottlings do you produce right now?
We are fortunate to be under family ownership and to have David Stewart managing an interesting stock model. We have some of the most mature stocks in the industry aging away in our warehouses in Speyside. This means that we have a lot to offer, from the accessible 12 Doublewood all the way up to the rare 50 years old’s.
Without mentioning every bottle, two ranges that are worth looking into are the single barrel, which is the longest running of its type in Scotch which started in our centenary year. These three bottles at the ages of 12, 15, and 25 give the drinker a more raw, higher strength whisky that the purist will enjoy.
Then we recently released The Stories range as a way of sharing some of the goings-on at the distillery, and introducing the people who make our whisky. We really feel that the difference between good and great whisky is the human hand and eye. Making whisky in this way allows for mistakes that might turn into something beautiful or for small experiments that happened over 25 years ago to come to life. Each bottling comes with the story behind the liquid, in the form of a podcast where you meet the people who were involved in making the liquid. These are ideal for anyone interested in learning more about what we do at the distillery. These can be found on Spotify or our website.
What is your preferred serving method? Any tips?
In a glass with a beer on the side but there are so many. I enjoy drinking our liquid. If you are feeling flash, single malt cocktails can be amazing, if the spirit is allowed to shine through. Or maybe in a Scotch and Soda if you are looking for a lighter, longer drink. One thing I would advise with any single malt is from time to time, even if it’s your day-to-day drink, is to make time to get to know it, appreciate the long years maturing in our warehouses back in Scotland by nosing and sipping the spirit neat or with a splash of water. A nosing glass definitely helps this process.
Follow Neil on Instagram: @nstrach87