The influence of oak

The influence of oak

A Q&A with The Balvenie's malt master David C. Stewart

People | 31 Mar 2017 | Issue 142 | By Christopher Coates

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The Balvenie's DCS Compendium came into being as an attempt to catalogue and express, in both words and liquid, the lifetime knowledge of malt master David C Stewart MBE. Only the fifth malt master in the history of the distillery, each of the Compendium's five 'chapters' include five bottles that have been picked to shed light on a specific aspect of The Balvenie's character and David's career. Following the release of the Compendium's second chapter, I was lucky enough to sit down with the man himself.

How did you come to be malt master of The Balvenie?

"I left school with five O levels in 1962, aged 17. My parents told me I had to get a job, so I got three interviews: one at a bank, one at an insurance company and one at William Grant & Sons. I started in the company in 1962 as a whisky stocks clerk, but I was lucky to be working with the master blender, who was my boss. I thought I was just coming in to do clerical work! But after a while he started to bring me into the sample room and eventually asked me to nose everything that came through the lab. This was very little at the time as we really only had one Grant's blend and Glenfiddich to look after.

So that's how I spent the next 10 years with Hamish [Robertson], gradually doing more and more. He decided to leave the company in 1974 and I just had to keep things going once he had left. Eventually I said, 'Well look, everything seems to be going along pretty well_' Luckily the bosses agreed, so that's how I got the job!"

What is the DCS Compendium trying to achieve?

Creating the DCS Compendium was a great opportunity for me to get some of the things I've learned out of my head and into bottles, as it were! It's given me a chance to really show off Balvenie's style [Chapter One], to demonstrate the importance of the stock model [Chapter Three], to show how some whiskies can be a surprise to me [Chapter Four] and it was also a chance to be a little indulgent [Chapter Five]. And, of course, wood has always been very important to The Balvenie over the years, with the different casks we've used to finish our whisky in. So this release, Chapter Two, highlights that and shows off the different casks we've used.

How has the type of wood being used at The Balvenie changed in the time that you've been with the company?

When I first started in the company most of the wood probably came from Europe. Into the mid 1950s the whole industry started using American oak casks as well, and for the past 50-60 years now most of the wood does come from America.

The sherry casks are the more difficult ones to get now and we actually need to work with a supplier and cooperage in Spain. We used to get our sherry casks from cooperages in Scotland and they'd got them as a result of sherry coming into the UK in these casks. But we found they were a bit inconsistent; some were American oak [not European] and some had held Fino sherry, others Olosoro - so they didn't all give us exactly what we wanted.

In 1985 we actually got in with a cooperage and sherry suppliers out in Spain. They make the casks for us and put dry Oloroso sherry into them that will sit for two years. Then the sherry is emptied out and the casks are shipped over to Scotland. So they're only two-year-old casks.

We may have them in our system for 50, 60, 70 years because these casks will give us probably four good fillings of whisky - two of the 'sherry' style and two of a more kind of American oak style, once that oakiness has gone from the cask a little bit.

This chapter of the DCS Compendium is called 'The Influence of Oak'.

How does this collection demonstrate the effects of wood on The Balvenie's new-make spirit?

In this release we're giving the opportunity for comparison between whiskies filled in the same year (1990) - one into a first fill sherry cask and the other a first fill Bourbon barrel. It's great to be able to illustrate the differences between these two spirits, which are very different despite being filled within a few months of each other.

We also have a refill Oloroso sherry butt from 1972 that really shows a unique character of The Balvenie. Because the cask had lost some flavours from its previous use, it's made the spirit spicy but less 'winey' sweet, it's a more honeyed sweetness. Very few examples like this remain in our warehouses and I love it.

We've been bringing in port puncheons since 1995 to create the Portwood 21 Years Old. From time to time we'd actually fill these casks with new spirit once they've been used for this, but to be fair I think I forgot about them! I noticed this one again some years ago and I'm delighted that I kept it aside for this. Usually we only do a short port finish, so full maturation has created a very unique whisky.

Finally there's a whisky that was filled, in 2001, into a European oak sherry butt that previously held Gonzales Byass Pedro Ximénez, for several decades, before it came to our cooperage. It really shows off the sweetness of the grape and exhibits The Balvenie as a near liqueur! It also reminds me of the freedom I have been fortunate enough to enjoy in my role - I filled it without having to decide how it would be used or when!
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