The Balvenie (21 year) PortWood

I generally don’t review single malts in excess of $150 a bottle. I made that decision back in 2011 (when my limit was actually $100) because I didn’t want this blog to devolve into a collection of reviews of high-end and out-of-reach bottles. I figured that went against the grain of the “Scotch for the Noob” ethos of this site. Still, sometimes a Noob’s gotta splurge.

About a year ago I decided I wanted to pick a nice bottle for myself to celebrate (or bemoan) my upcoming 40th birthday. It was an easy decision: The Balvenie has always been one of my favorite distilleries – possibly my favorite Speysider – and I never got a chance to sample their 21 year expression, which is finished in port barrels to boot. It was $220 then, and it’s more like $260 now. That’s not just a splurge bottle, for me, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of purchase. I just don’t drop that much money on single bottles. My logic has always been that I’d rather drink 5 bottles of GlenDronach 12 or any of the other excellent malts available in the $50-$70 range than one bottle that’s only slightly better. Anyway, you only turn 40 once and I wanted a bottle of the PortWood.

The Balvenie PortWood is a marriage of casks of The Balvenie aged for 21 years in ex-bourbon barrels, which have been finished for an additional period – likely a few months – in port pipes. The bottling strength depends on where you buy it. In the UK, it’s 40% ABV. In the US market (at 750ml size), it’s 43%. In Duty Free aka Travel Retail, it’s 47.6% and non-chill-filtered. It’s probably safe to say that Balvenie is using fairly inactive refill ex-bourbon casks, given the lightness of the resulting spirit and the fact that 21 years in active oak would likely render the whisky pretty bitter and resinous. The length of the port finish is undisclosed – essentially it’s “until it’s done” – but the goal is to add a layer of fruit without marring the “light and floral” house characteristic. A 21 year-old “port bomb” would not be Balvenie’s style.

My bottle is 43% ABV.

Nose: Crisp, juicy berries threaded with aniseed. Sticky raisins, soft butterscotch, and golden brown cookies. Soft, clean, unctuous, and rich.

Palate: Medium bodied. Lovely resinous port reduction up front, with notes of balsamic, raisins, and cherry cola. Lightly tannic oak, gentle toasted grains, and a suggestion of baked goods. Nonexistent tongue burn (aka “smooth”). Simple and sweet but perfectly executed.

Finish: Medium-long. The thread of berries (fresh and dried) runs through the finish, balanced with a few twinges of bitter herbs, and a light but persistent tannic oakiness. This is stable and consistent throughout the finish, which fades without evolving.

With Water: A few drops of water wake up more nose tickle (alcohol fumes), and increase the aniseed – black licorice – notes. The palate seems softer but less coherent. The finish is livelier, with an extra note of cinnamon. I prefer this without water, but it does offer a slightly different experience if you want to experiment.

Overall: Just lovely. One should not expect a “port bomb” nor highly concentrated chewy oak. Instead, this is elegant in all the ways that The Balvenie is usually elegant, plus a decadent layer of fruit, wine-adjacent notes, and a light touch with the oak.

“Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.” -Thanos

I’ve given this a “Recommended” rating because I can’t bring myself to tell you that you “Must Try” a $250 bottle. If you get the opportunity, though, you shouldn’t pass it up. For me, this is an extreme splurge and I’m happy that I made it.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Built by the Grant family in 1892 as a sister distillery to next-door Glenfiddich, The Balvenie still remains in the ownership of the family. Unusual for a distillery of this size, Balvenie still operates its small floor maltings, grows some of its own barley, and has an on-site cooperage. It now has eight stills, which some think are the key to its nutty, honeyed style – they are fat and have short necks.
The Balvenie (21 year) PortWood
43% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $240 - $290
Acquired: (750ml bottle) Mission Wines and Spirits, Pasadena, CA $220

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  • I love your approach and how you kept this blog true to its root over the years! This sounds like a delicious splurge though!

  • Good for you and Happy Birthday. When I turned 40 (5 years ago) I wanted to get myself a bottle of GlenDronach 21 which was about $240 at the time. I passed on it and the bottle sat there for another 6 months and if it comes back in now I can only imagine what it would cost. I think I made a couple of splurge purchases (usually $125-$150 for me) instead. I still regret not grabbing that GD 21 when I had the chance. You do only turn 40 (or 50) once, so hopefully I won’t repeat that mistake 5 years from now. Cheers!

  • I have a client who LOVES Bal21. I’m always trying to convince him there are many drams that are better at this price point (and well below). I took him to Keene’s NY and we lined up next to Bal21: GFarclas21, GGoyne21, GDronach21, AnCnoc 22. My stubborn client finally conceded that Bal21 had a hard time standing out against this stiff competition. I personally find Bal21 to be devoid of any unique character and it lacks complexity. Give me the Bal 15yr sherry cask any day. Even the 12yr single barrel (not DW) stands out in its class. I’ll leave the 21 on the shelf.

    • Funny you mention that. The one time I got to try it was part of a flight of 21s. That was a mistake–as it was third on the list, I barely picked out anything … I think it was overpowered by everything else. I wonder if it’s similar to how I experience Green Spot: tasty on its own but wan in any lineup. So if the clouds part again and I get another chance at Balvenie 21, I’ll try it on its own.