The Balvenie Stories: ‘The Edge of Burnhead Wood’ 19-Year-Old – a legendary new single malt to savour this summer
The story starts with a sprig of heather …
Actually, it starts, like all stories, with inspiration. “Stories are the lifeblood of The Balvenie Distillery and are deeply embedded in all the work we do” says The Balvenie Malt Master, David C Stewart MBE.
This particular chapter in the history of the distillery is marked by release of The Edge of Burnhead Wood 19-Year-Old, the latest expression to join its celebrated The Balvenie Stories range.
It’s a story that “captures the majestic Speyside landscape and the inventive essence of The Balvenie’s loyal and determined craftspeople.”
The history of whisky making in Dufftown, in the ancient parish of Mortlach, Moray is long and celebrated. Situated on the river Fiddich and with relatively mild, damp winters and cool, cloudy summers the town would go on to produce more malt than any other in Scotland and become “The Whisky Capital of the World”.
The town was founded in 1817 by James Duff, 4th Earl of Fife to give employment to soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars.
The Clan family of William Grant had been in the area even longer, and he had over 20 years’ experience in the whisky industry before establishing the Glenfiddich Distillery there in 1887. Success would see him develop The Balvenie Distillery in a nearby converted mansion in May of 1893 using second-hand “seasoned” stills, known to be capable of producing good whisky.
Balvenie would be a sister to Glenfiddich but came to be known as more “craft” and esoteric, experimenting and producing limited editions, but all of undisputed quality: rich, luxuriously smooth and underpinned by the distinctively honeyed character.
The distillery is only one of a handful with its own malting floor and the only to carry out all the “Five Rare Crafts” on-site. It still grows its own barley, uses traditional floor maltings and keeps both coppersmiths and coppers on site, making The Balvenie the most handcrafted of single malts.
The distillery “remains true to the techniques and stories passed down by its craftsmen from generation to generation, while also looking forward by exploring new techniques, flavours and marriages to develop unique and original Balvenie expressions.”
And that is what these stories are all about. The Four “chapters” created since May 2019 are a collection of single malt whiskies representing tales of character, endeavour and generational knowledge gathered at the Balvenie Distillery. These are narratives peopled by the crafts people sowing the barley, firing the kiln, watching and mending the coppers, making casks. The whisky tells its own story, the taste holding memoirs of its making from the origin of the casks and barley to notes on perhaps a little added peat or heather or the toasting of the barrel.
The Sweet Toast of American Oak 12-Year-Old tells the story of the things that can happen when an ancient technique meets fresh ideas with the use of cask finishing in Virgin Oak barrels from Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky.
A Week of Peat 14-Year-Old is a tale of a return to the way The Balvenie used to be made, and of an experimentation with extra peatiness.
A Day of Dark Barley 26-Year-Old tells of experimentation with oven-roasted barley to make changes at the point of distillation.
The latest story, The Edge of Burnhead Wood 19-Year-Old, launched in May 2020, is one of exploration and craft. It is the first ever expression of The Balvenie to be made entirely from ingredients grown on the estate. Inspiration comes from the winding paths through the steep Speyside hills surrounding the distillery leading to a moor of heather, the “wee modest crimson-tipped flower.”
Heather in its various forms cloaks some 4 to 5 million acres of the Scottish landscape and peat contains centuries of it in compressed form, but this story retraces that search for a local ingredient. The answer, of course, came from local knowledge and the distillery worker who knew where it lay. The journey up the rolling hills reveals views of Dufftown below, before passing through the barley field and towards the tree line. It’s a path that would have been well known to William Grant and perhaps smugglers and bootleggers. The acidic ground underfoot becomes wetter, the snow melt feeding the heather and the same spring water used to produce the whisky.
The process of discovery and experimentation at the point of distillation back in 2000 would fondly come to be known as “The Heather Trials”. With a twist to the tale the hopes nearly went up in smoke. Concern that the sap within the herbal, earthy newly cut heather might introduce a bitter edge led to it being left to dry before use, but when added to the kiln – whoosh, and it was gone! Luckily experience would win out and dampened and laid on top of dark coals over glowing red-hot it gives off a blue grey plume of smoke.
There are back stories of worries of low supplies of malt and water, that there might be “no more turning the floor”. The main theme is one of tradition but with a lot of experimentation as well. And time, always time. Things happen at a slower pace at The Balvenie. The people who were featured at the beginning of the adventure are only now seeing the end, some twenty years on.
The end? Well the conclusion is the whisky itself.
The outcome produced something different, as intended with the typical honey sweetness but tempered down. Not fruity on the nose, it’s rather fresher and slightly herbal. The flavour softens in the mouth, oak dryness and warmth opening up into richer dried fruit and a hint of spice. The finish is very long and lingering, slightly sweet and floral.
As a prologue, the story telling is also carried through to the packaging with a bespoke illustration by Andy Lovell, evoking the light and atmosphere of the distillery’s landscape.
And as an epilogue for those similarly fascinated with the parallels between storytelling and whisky- making, The Balvenie has produced a book exploring the themes of endeavour, endurance, determination and resolve. Pursuit: The Balvenie Stories Collection, contains seventeen stories taking us from the Australian outback to a Hong Kong cafe, from the writing desk of F. Scott Fitzgerald to the vast emptiness of the Antarctic.
Pour a dram and immerse yourself in this traveller’s tale across moorland heather, its scent distilled in this new single malt.
The Edge of Burnhead Wood 19-Year-Old was launched globally on 1st May 2020 and available from select whisky retailers, RRP £260.00
The entire Balvenie Stories collection is currently available in select whisky retailers, at the following prices; The Sweet Toast of American Oak 12-Year-Old (RRP £45.00), The Week of Peat 14-Year-Old (RRP £65.00) and A Day of Dark Barley 26-Year-Old (RRP £600.00).