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.