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Signature craft

Ian Buxton meets the man behind Balvenie's style
By Ian Buxton
With more than 45 years in the whisky industry, remarkably with just one company, you’d expect David Stewart to think carefully before putting his signature on a bottle.And you’d be entitled to expect that bottle to be pretty special. Thankfully, though perhaps naturally for a man described by his colleagues as “modest and unassuming”, it isn’t some ritzy £1,000 bottle destined for Moscow’s nouveau riche.In fact, David Stewart’s Signature can be yours for a perfectly reasonable £30 or so, when it’s released shortly in the UK. The full title tells all. The Balvenie Signature single malt is a “limited release” from William Grant & Sons’ Speyside distillery that David, the company’s master blender, has been patiently crafting for some little while.This is a vatting of three cask types, all 12 years old: first fill bourbon barrels, refill casks and sherry butts which are then rested in Balvenie’s Dufftown marrying vats for between three to four months.So it’s a topical reminder that most single malts, apart of course from single cask bottlings, are vatted (or blended) prior to bottling.The balance of the cask selection has been judicious and subtle – there is just enough sherry wood in there to lend body and delightful fruit cake flavours, but not so much as to overwhelm the vanilla sweetness and spicy notes coming from the ex-bourbon barrels. It provides a contrast to the Balvenie DoubleWood, which is more direct and forceful in style (DoubleWood is a sherry finish, as opposed to the more traditional vatting technique employed in Signature).Trying my own hand with a mini-vatting of a few samples in the blending room, I consistently overshot the ex-sherry content.While perfectly drinkable my version lacked the delicacy and refinement of David’s Signature Balvenie.As Balvenie continues its upward march, the standard expression will evolve to a 12 Years Old style, with the 10 Years Old version being progressively phased out. The Balvenie Signature is being described as a “limited release,” as distinct from the very restricted annual limited editions, the next of which seems likely to be a 17 years old whisky, finished in rum barrels.So what exactly is a “limited release”? The answer lies in the batch nature of its production. Balvenie Signature will be produced in single batches, released one at a time, and carrying a batch number (but no individual bottle number). There will be just one batch released in 2008, first in the UK and France, different batches will almost certainly produce slight but intriguing taste differences.The intention is that Signature should form a permanent addition to The Balvenie range but it is not a replacement for the company’s Founder’s Reserve.However, as a Grants’ spokesman explains, “After careful consideration, we’ve decided to gradually retire The Balvenie Founder’s Reserve 10 Years Old from our range. Much as we’d like to, we cannot keep expanding the Balvenie range. Our stock is limited and very precious. By retiring our 10 Years Old and saving stock for older expressions, we’ll have new freedom to explore and craft new and exciting additions in the future.” It’s a fitting tribute to a distinguished master blender who, in the nicest possible way, is one of the old school. It’s impossible to spend an hour in David’s company without being impressed by his depth of experience and the gentle manner in which he’s happy to share anecdotes and insights from nearly half a century of distilling life.In that sense, the Balvenie Signature fits the man very well. It would have been easy for him to pick out just one or two sensational, very old casks and there’s no doubt his marketing colleagues could have dressed these up very handsomely as a highly-priced limited edition.But that hardly speaks to the west coast Scot in David. You just know that he’s by nature a democrat and wants to spread the message of fine Scotch whisky far and wide.Better then, by far, to select an expression that is accessible to everyman, even if the wealthy and discerning connoisseur will detect hidden depths.This Signature is thus a highly personal expression, true to the Balvenie spirit, but carrying more than a dash of David Stewart’s personality in every bottle. Asignature is easy to forge, but this is the real thing: a malt for drinking with friends and with which to acknowledge a past master of his craft.