Friday, July 27, 2012

Balvenie Tun 1401 Marries Bourbon & Sherry Casks. Batch 2 vs 5 Head ToHead

Tun 1401 Batch 5's cask list

Note: Tim Read of and I are simultaneously reviewing Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 5: our first coordinated reviewing effort. His review is at:

Balvenie Tun 1401 is a brilliant conception: a vatting of a number of rare old bourbon casks and sherry butts together, from different vintages for complexity. A month ago I debated the merits of bourbon versus sherry cask maturation in a post about two expressions of Springbank CS. There exists a real divide between sherried malts - which are delicious concoctions that taste of sherry with fig, prune, and dark chocolate notes - and malts aged in refill or bourbon casks which are truer to the taste of the distillate with floral and fruity esters in the fore. I became alive to the benefits of vatting these two types in a visceral and first hand way last week when I mistakenly poured a couple of glasses of unused whisky from a tasting event back into the wrong 4 oz transport bottle: I put Auchentoshan Valinch 2011 into Glenfarclas 25 at a 3 to 1 ratio. Initially horrified, I tucked it away. A few days later I took a dram and was delighted by a sweet and spirited result that was somehow more vibrant than either of its components on it's own. Lighter and more malty and floral than a sherried malt and more jammy and rich than the bourbon malt by itself. The whole in this fortuitous mix is greater than the sum of its parts. In Tun 1401, beloved Balvenie Master Distiller David Stewart is doing this with superb rare old casks of Balvenie, and decades of experience, of course. And the flavor signatures of extremely mature Balvenie in both sherry bomb and fruit bomb manifestations melded is the big story here.

I'm fascinated by this conception. I'm aware of other whiskies that age in bourbon cask and finish in sherry cask - but not whiskies that specifically vat these two dominant styles to achieve... what? A happy medium? A new flavor profile? Balvenie's web site doesn't address this question. They say the inspiration was the "magical atmosphere" of a particular warehouse where the greatest casks lay for ages:

"Tun 1401 is a very special vatting from the Balvenie’s Warehouse 24, one of the oldest areas of the distillery grounds and home to some of the most special casks in Speyside. It was conceived by the Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart, who was so inspired by the magical atmosphere inside Warehouse 24, that he created Tun 1401 to capture the essence of it in a bottle."

Because Tun 1401 holds less than 3000 bottles worth, Stewart has made a number of batches. I first began to pine for a taste of Tun 1401 back in April when Allison Patel blogged about her visit to Balvenie with Chip Tate and how David Stewart himself gave them a tour and then poured them special drams. Tun 1401 isn't explicitly named in the text but is depicted in the dead center front of the ultimate picture. (It's Batch 2- I checked the cask listing):

Among the many reviews of Tun 1401 I subsequently read, Tim Read's tale of a skeptic won over by Batch 3 (and won over utterly completely) was the most affecting: "This is one of those rare whiskies that I can’t see how I’d change or improve."

Frankly, given that, I began to believe. But would the next batch be as good as the one Tim had?

Balvenie's web site:
"The first batch was made for distillery visitors only, and was created from 6 casks – a 1973 Sherry Butt, a 1972 Sherry Hogshead and American casks from 1966, 1974, 1978 and 1988.
Batch 2 was released only in Europe, Asia, and South Africa and is made up of 10 casks, mostly from the 1970s with one from the 1960s and one from the 1980s.
Batch 3 is a similar to batch 2, but was made for US distribution only.
Batch 4 was made for travel retail..."

"When asked how he expects the batches to differ, Mr Stewart said, “…the batches do have some similarity but if one were to line the four batches up for sampling, which I haven’t done yet, we might be surprised by the differences that there are. I think that each has this citrus orangey flavour which seems consistent…”'

As for Batch 5, Balvenie states:
"Crafted from nine of the rarest and most precious casks from the distillery – 4 sherry butts distilled in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1975 and 5 American oak casks from 1966, 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1991– this drop is the culmination of years of work. Our Malt Master David Stewart says:
'Working with whiskies of this age is both a delight and a challenge as their individual characteristics are so rich and complex. Five very rare crafts and a long wait have gone into making these vintage whiskies.'"

Batch 5 is limited to 2862 bottles.

However, I'm not content simply to try Batch 5. I want to try them head to head, as Stewart speculates. So I obtained a sample of the now very out of stock Batch 2 from Master of Malt (now sold out):

Balvenie Tun 1401 batch 2 50.6%

Color: golden light amber

Nose: roses, cantaloup, honeydew, honey, bee's wax, musk, spermaceti, lanolin, chalk and gypsum mineral. Drifts of fruit like citrus and fig off in the distance... A bewitching, complex, and seductive nose that hits squarely in the middle of the Highland-Speyside profile but snakes out like an octopus into distant quadrants of the aroma gamut.

Entry, sweet and green/white fruited on the tip of the tongue and then rapidly darker with sandalwood incense, oak spice, and a sudden rapid expansion of spicy heat that lingers. The heat brings a bitter and tannic note. It also brings an august sherry flavor array into the mid-palate with rancio, figs, dates, and black raisins. This august old sherry note lingers into the looonnng finish with oak tannins, incense, fruity malt

A few drops of water adds more citrus to the nose and amps up the melon sugars in the palate, which pushes the bitterness back a notch. The palate comes close to matching the glory of the nose - only misses by the margin the bitterness.


This is a clear five star product. The twin natures of richly mature sherry bomb and superb extremely mature floral waxy Speyside fruit bomb are each distinct in various ways and yet are superbly married into a bold new flavor profile that is familiar and yet totally new in my experience. It is distinguished, rich, delicious, and richly dense in flavor, sweetness, heat, tannins, spice, and bitterness. It hits on all whisky cylinders.

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 5 50.1% abv

Tun 1401 Batch 5
Sourced from The Whisky Exchange.

Color: medium amber with gold glints

Nose: Beeswax, honey, floral honeysuckle and roses, Paraffin, warm roasted citrus, musk, some prune and fig and a complex backdrop of faint sandalwood incense

Entry: Sweet, floral, and richly honeyed but immediately complex and filigreed with oak tannins and fragrance. There is a wallop of peppery heat and cracked black pepper flavor in the midpalate expansion that rides shotgun with an emerging complex of sherry nutty vinous old Olorosso flavors of rancio, prune, fig, and dark chocolate. The sugars of the opening extend into this mid-palate pepper and sherry and give warmth and depth to the fruit and chocolate notes. At the turn to the finish the sugar fades and bitter chocolate meets rising oak tannins to produce a leather and tobacco sensation. Yet the finish isn't dominated by bitter. It is owned by sherry oak with a rich old scotch dark leather and black oak furniture vibe - like the House of Lords. I'll delight my wife, the English Professor and call it a "luxury oak" finish. The echoes in your mouth are formal and plush as if you are in the overstuffed antechamber of a rich and powerful old lawyer or politician.

This is a big big whisky, loaded with the rich mature fruit bomb and wax of Bourbon cask Speys and the big tannins and dark fruit and leather of mature sherry bombs. Of course this is exactly what this is. The genius was to marry them.

A dash of water lightens and accentuates the citrus and musk and honeysuckle melon notes and lightens and sweetens the palate. The entry becomes more honeyed and more effusively if less intensely floral. The malabar black pepper flavor and heat is unaffected while the other notes lighten. With water the flavor amplitude of this magnificent dram becomes wider and bigger. I think I prefer it with a bit of water.

Needless to say this big whisky needs s lot of time to open up. Plan on half an hour to 45 minutes before really sipping.


Another winner. Another monster. I think Batch 5 has a slight edge over Batch 2 because the bitter notes in the finish are less prominent. It's a bit smoother at the back end, but a bit more aggressive with the heat in the mid-palate expansion, which I prefer. What's striking to me having them side by side is how incredibly similar they are. These are clearly the result of the same intent on the part of the blender. They are obvious kin.

I'm very excited to read Tim Read's review on particularly because he said that there was a clear winner in the matchup between Batch 3 and Batch 5.  I wonder which it is?  Check out Tim's review at:

Update:  on repeated tasting I'm reversing my position.  Batch 2 has a more luscious nose.  Batch 5's nose is less effusive.  Batch 2 opens up and loses the bitter edge over time.  Whether Batch 5 opens more fully over time remains to be seen - but it hasn't happened yet.  Still very close.  I drank these two with a friend who has also tried Tun 1401 Batch 3 and he confirms Tim's assessment that Batch 3 is possessed of Balvenie's honeyed house style much more than either Batch 2 or Batch 5.  That's two votes for Batch 3.


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  3. Balvenie 12 Signature is also a vatting of whiskies aged in ex-bourbon (first-fill and refill) and ex-sherry casks.