A review of the Brobdingnagian Syrah 2009 and the Balvenie Peated Cask 17 year old and Caribbean Cask 14 year old Single Malt Scotch Whiskies.
By Joshua E. London and Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week July 20, 2011
Large estates in California, France, Italy, Spain, South America and Israel produce tens of thousands of cases of single varietal and blended wines. These vast operations are also great incubators for wine-making talent, providing ample opportunities to learn each aspect of the field. Many now-famous winemakers started their careers as cellar rats washing tanks and cleaning floors.
Jonathan Hadju began his wine education by working vineyards in Australia, eventually moving on to Herzog, then to Carmel before returning to the U.S. in 2007. Hadju is now the associate winemaker at California’s Covenant Winery and also makes his own kosher wines under the Brobdingnagian label, named for the giants that inhabited Gulliver’s Travels.
He only makes 25 cases (one barrel) of each, limiting their availability, but they are certainly worth the search. The first release, a 2007 Syrah, received much critical acclaim and the subsequent ones have continued to impress. Hadju’s most recent wine is the Brobdingnagian Sonoma County Syrah 2009 ($40), a prodigious, full-bodied, very fruit-forward effort with dark cherry, coffee and black pepper aromas. Red cherries accent the dark fruit flavors along with raspberries, Asian spice, cedar and pepper. Enjoy it now or after a few years in your cellar. It’s certified kosher and non-mevushal by CalKosher (a small, west-coast Orthodox kashrut agency). Note, however, that everyone involved in the production of these wines also currently work as mashgichim for the Orthodox Union.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d drift back to Scotland and consider two of the newer expressions from Balvenie, a distillery whose whiskies seem to be a constant at our Kiddush club.
One of only a handful of Scottish family-owned and -operated Scotch whisky brands, the Balvenie is one of the best known Scotch distilleries in the U.S., and ranks No. 4 in sales according to the industry’s Impact Databank figures. Owned and operated by William Grant & Sons, Balvenie was built by William Grant in 1892, right next door to the Grant family’s more famous Glenfiddich Distillery, which was built in 1886 and ranks No. 3 in sales in the U.S. (behind The Glenlivet and The Macallan, respectively).
Generally considered to have the qualitative edge over Glenfiddich, Balvenie is capable of producing more than 5.5 million liters of spirit a year and rather unusually still has both its own cooperage where the barrels are made and mended, and its own “malting floor” where a portion of its malted barley is prepared for production (the rest is brought in pre-malted according to specifications). Balvenie also has a 1,000-acre family farm (“Balvenie Mains”) that accounts for around 10 percent of its barley needs. Being one of the most traditionally made whiskies in Scotland, the Balvenie Distillery also makes for one of the best distillery tours in the Speyside region.
The two newest expressions are the experimental Balvenie Peated Cask 17 year old ($130) and the Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 year old ($60), which is a permanent addition to the distillery’s core range of single-malt expressions. Both whiskies are interesting examples of varieties that have finished their maturation by being transferred from their original casks to fresher, more volatile casks.
The Balvenie was one of the earliest distilleries to experiment with cask finishes, which it started in earnest in the 1980s, and along with Glenmorangie, probably have the most successful results. In fact, the generally excellent Balvenie DoubleWood (almost fully matured in American oak ex-Bourbon casks and then finished in European oak ex-Sherry wine casks) was originally branded as the Balvenie Classic as early as 1973. That said, the Balvenie “Peated Cask” is more of an enigmatic oddity than a straightforward finish.
Peat is a Celtic term for the compact, partially carbonized, decayed vegetation that, when dried, becomes a pungent traditional fuel source for the kilns, which malt the barley that will later be fermented and distilled into whisky. Think of peat as an earthy, smelly, poor-man’s coal. The smoke generated by peat is robustly aromatic and tarry, transferring and imbuing these compounds (phenols) to the whisky itself, as determined by the level of peat used in the kilning of the malt.
The Balvenie Peated Cask is a limited edition expression that is basically a hybrid finish – a mixture of two finishes, 17-year-old Balvenie finished in fresh or new American oak casks, and 17-year-old Balvenie that was finished in casks that had previously been used to mature an experimental, and so-far-unreleased, mature, heavily-peated Balvenie whisky.
Sounds too convoluted, right? We thought so, too. Don’t get us wrong, it is good whisky, but it is slightly confused whisky and not for all tastes. It is an intriguing one-off. The new American oak and peated casks each have distinct influences on the traditional honeyed malt Balvenie character, manifesting as overlays of smoke and lightly smoked fish along with spices like cinnamon, vanilla and nutmeg, and hints of dried fruit barely surviving through the smoke. Peat freaks, as die-hard smoky whisky enthusiasts prefer to be called, will definitely want to check this one out.
The new Balvenie “Caribbean Cask” 14-year-old whisky, by contrast, is a well-balanced success. Balvenie uses Jamaican rum casks to finish the whisky, adding fruitiness and more sweetness along with some racy, spicy notes. The Caribbean Cask is a complex, balanced, sweet and malty whisky, exhibiting lovely aromas and flavors of honey, vanilla, toffee, with fruity notes of apple, tangerine and guava, all peppered with a little spice, and followed by interesting, gripping, lingering finish. This is an entertaining joy ride for fans of the familiar Balvenie range, and a winning crossover for the rum enthusiast. L’chaim!