Tasting the Balvenie’s $50,000 Compendium of Ultra-Rare Whiskies
Malt master David Stewart is standing in a small tasting room at the Balvenie’s Dufftown distillery in Speyside, Scotland, holding a few crumpled pieces of paper. Those foolscaps are probably the most labor intensive, top-secret documents he has ever compiled: spreadsheets listing the final 25 whiskies he has created to cap off his 53-year career. With some laid out in several snifters in front to him, he is allowing a few visitors a chance to sample.
“I got quite a surprise, nosing and tasting this one,” Stewart explains, a lowland burr rolling his Rs, upon first finding this rarified, single-cask spirit in the Balvenie archives. “You’re keeping your fingers crossed you might find one worth bottling for the compendium.”
That DCS Compendium is the official name the Balvenie has given to Stewart's final 25 selections, each in its own way an exemplar of the malt master’s craft. The distillery plans to release them slowly—five bottles each year for the next five years—in groups it has christened "chapters." Each grouping of five bottles will provide a distinct perspective on the Balvenie, the Speyside whisky known for its honeyed sweetness. The first chapter, released this year and dubbed "Chapter One: Distillery Style," aims to act as a primer for the brand, using whiskies from 1968 through 2005. Limited to just 50 sets worldwide, it will cost a cool $50,000 or £27,000.
It won’t include the surprising liquid Stewart holds in his hands, though. That whisky—a dry, citrus-y batch from 2001, matured in a fino sherry cask—will hit shelves in four years as part of the final chapter, "The Malt Master’s Indulgence." This set will allow Stewart to please his whims. (Price is to be announced; expect it to cost at least $50,000.) In the interim, he’ll unveil several quintets of whisky, each with its own different theme."Chapter Two: Influence of Oak," is to be followed by "Chapter Three: Secrets of the Stock Model"and "Chapter Four: Expect the Unexpected."
Each of these ultra-premium compendia will form part of the final tasting statement from the industry’s longest-serving malt master. As one of its most respected figures, Stewart spent the week jetting around the U.K. to promote it. He made a rare podium speech during the DCS Compendium’s splashy launch party at the Wallace Collection in central London before taking a private jet back to the distillery to glad-hand a series of VIPs, including Atlanta-based collector Mahesh Patel, who were invited to learn the story behind Stewart’s five-figure farewell.
Which brings us back to Dufftown, where Stewart continues his preview. Steering the tasting with a few gentle, nudging words and a small jug passing around to cut the spirit (Stewart is a firm believer in opening up flavor with a drop or two of tepid water), he has moved on from that citrus-y whisky from "Chapter Five" and is eying another glass. It forms part of "Expect the Unexpected"(The only thing inauthentic about these groupings is the surfeit of marketing-speak that muddles their titles.)
“Chapter Four, now that was the most difficult,” he says, explaining how he built the collection by exploring the forgotten recesses of the Balvenie’s vaults. Poring over records, he would look for an experimental barrel or two from years past, perhaps one in which he finished some liquid in a different way. Such is the case with the whisky he is eyeballing now in that new snifter. “We’d done an end treatment—something we rarely do—but it gave us a coconut style of Balvenie. But that was just one cask.” He pauses. “To pull together five casks, we probably sample hundreds.”
Attention to Craft
Picture, then, the painstaking process of building that 25-strong assortment, as Stewart sifted through the vast archive of barrels that the Balvenie holds in its vaults. He tasted and tested hundreds, even thousands, to whittle down the selection to barely two dozen, each a single-cask single malt. In other words, each bottle contains whisky that is unblended and taken from a unique barrel.
Few distilleries or malt masters could credibly produce such a selection. The Balvenie is one of few distilleries to maintain its processes largely unchanged since it first eked out some distillate in spring 1893. The Balvenie still grows its own barley—even in October, a field has yet to be harvested—and it’s one of barely half a dozen in the industry that employs the floor-malting process (a hands-on drying process to ready barley for fermentation), rather than simply buying ready, prepped barley from commercial malters.
The Balvenie is an outlier in other ways, too: It has a full-time coppersmith to mend and tend the stills (Dennis McBain, who started here as an apprentice in 1959) and an onsite, wholly owned cooperage, at which pallets of barrels await inspection by the workshop’s head. (Stewart says head cooper Ian McDonald has been working onsite for less than 46 years, making McDonald a comparative whippersnapper.)
The most compelling ingredient in the DCS, though, is Stewart himself, at least according to Becky Paskin, who edits ScotchWhisky.com, an industry site.
“[Stewart] has dedicated his life to making whisky with this one company,” she raves, citing him as one of the industry’s landmark innovators. It was Stewart, Paskin explains, who first marketed a cask-finished single malt in the early 1990s, the Double Wood brand; it has become an industry-wide expression and one of the Balvenie’s own top-sellers. (When pressed, Stewart admits to some pride over the idea: “Now, that’s what I’m proudest of at Balvenie, the idea I had of transferring whisky from American to European oak to see what would happen.”)
More Than Marketing
Other companies have tried super-premium launches, too. Two years ago, Dalmore’s master distiller, Richard Paterson, created a one-off, dozen-bottle collection in partnership with London’s Harrods. It included a 1926 vintage dedicated to Dalmore founder, Alexander Matheson, with a price tag of £987,500 ($1.5 million). Likewise, Gordon & MacPhail just began offering a limited-edition of 100 teardrop-shaped decanters filled with a 75-year-old Mortlach, plus a book co-written by No.1 Ladies Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith, for £20,000 apiece ($31,000).
Those showy launches risk being dismissed as headline-grabbing gimmickry; even whiskies begin to show their age in all the wrong ways, eventually. But Becky Paskin doesn’t discount Stewart’s $50,000 Compendium. She calls it a smart buy. The Balvenie is “the most-liked geek in the school,” the easily overlooked over-performer among the major whisky brands, she says. “And the liquid itself is spectacular—every single individual bottle has merits of its own, and the set really conveys the distillery characteristics: That fruity, green Speyside character even comes through in the 46-year-old, where the barrel would normally have taken over the flavor.”
Paskin points out that a rare bottle of whisky from the 1960s can easily fetch around £19,000 ($30,000). Since the first Compendium chapter includes a 1968 cask packaged as a collectible, with four other handpicked barrels (1978, 1985, 1997, and 2005), it’s a relative bargain.
The DCS quintet is also a smart investment, given how rapidly speculation on the water of life has increased since the first stand-alone auctions were held in Glasgow 15 years ago. A newly launched online platform, WhiskyInvestDirect, even allows collectors to trade. Thanks to its rarity and romantic provenance as Stewart’s final collection, the DCS Compendium is likely to quickly skyrocket in value among whisky traders.
Much of that value derives from the self-effacing Stewart. He says that working for five decades on whisky has taught him a major lesson: “Patience. I can’t honestly say I’m a very patient person in other things, but you can’t rush a whisky experiment.”
The DCS Compendium will be available later this month via select wine and liquor outlets across the country. Six sets have been allocated for sale stateside, priced at $50,000. Limited numbers of individual bottles will also be available.