The last of our Quarter Finals is a highly appealing contest between two very different whiskies…
Balvenie Single Barrel – 47.8% ABV, £50.75
Bruichladdich Infinity – 50% ABV, £44.95
Balvenie Single Barrel destroyed Dalmore 15 in our first round. I thought it smelled “Sweet and sour, crisp and sharp, sweetness with zingy lemon, a sherbet-ish tingle. Oh, man, I could smell this all day. Really, I may have to walk around with a glass of it gaffer taped under my nose.” And tasted, “Even better than you’d expect from the smell. Sweet and strong, clean and clear, with lots of citrusy fruit. Graceful, elegant, beautifully balanced, but with a razor edge, and a finish that runs, and runs, then delivers a final spicy sting. Awesome.” And concluded it was, “Sublime honey sweetness with a deadly citrus sting in the tail.”
Bruichladdich Infinity was unlucky to cross swords with the diabolical powers of Ardbeg Corryvreckan in the first round, and went through as one of our best losers. I found it to be an excellent all-rounder – “Firm in the mouth, sweet and fruity but tough and smoky at the same time. A hint of metallic saltiness. Simultaneously very drinkable and very interesting. Strong but not overpowering. Don’t push it around because it’ll push back, bottled at 50% and meaning business. A tough friend to make, but a good friend to have. A reassuring presence in a tight corner … A tough and loyal balance of the sweet and the smoky.”
Ooh, a mouthwatering clash in prospect here between two excellent whiskies closely matched in strength and price but with two very different styles. Bruichladdich from rugged Islay where things are traditionally smokey and peaty (though Bruichladdich not always, I’ll admit), Balvenie a classic Speyside where things tend toward the smooth, sweet, and mellow. The Balvenie is (obviously) a single barrel, which is to say it’s the output of one individual cask selected for its class and character, no more no less, in the classic connoisseur manner. The Bruichladdich is a multi-vintage vatting, which is to say it’s been blended together from many casks of various types and ages to create a given effect, ‘a sophisticated flavour profile elevated to a stellar level,’ as the marketing bumph has it, although since they’re all Bruichladdich it’s still a single malt. I also happen to think these are two of the best presented whiskies in the dozen, with diametrically opposite approaches. The Bruichladdich has gone for an ultra-modern smoked glass techno look, emphasising their credentials as a progressive, experimental outfit. Balvenie is all classic shape, wooden stopper and handwritten white label with clear glass allowing the sublime honey yellow colour of the spirit to do the talking, emphasising their credentials as an authentic, traditional outfit. But what about the contents?
On a second tasting, I’d say my opinion of these two pretty much holds. The Bruichladdich really is an excellent all rounder. It’s strong but not too strong, it’s good value, it’s beautifully presented, it has sweetness, it has smoke, it has body, it has drinkability, it has personality. I’ve become greatly partial to it, and can imagine reaching for it happily on pretty much any occasion. An easygoing charmer. A jack of all trades.
But that Balvenie Single Barrel is something else. Presentation, scent, taste, it all reeks of class. There were three unsherried Speysides in my dozen and this absolutely blows the other two (Longmorn 16 and AnCnoc 16) out of the water. So sweet yet so sharp, so silky yet so edgy, so beautiful and yet so deadly, and all capped off with that wonderful zingy sherbet spice. Awesome.
So the Bruichladdich has definitely made its way into my affections, and I look forward to tasting more from the ever-expanding range of this exciting distillery. But, for this week at least, my heart belongs to Balvenie.
The Winner – BALVENIE SINGLE BARREL