A slightly strange match up here, but then I bought a dozen bottles of whisky and only had this idea somewhat afterwards so in a way it’s rather surprising that they’ve so neatly fit into pairs by origin and style. If I’d have thought it out beforehand I’d probably have plumped for an extra Highland, but there were a few Speysides I wanted to try and hence Dalmore has ended up the one representative of the uplands, so in our final first round battle we have a Dalmore 15 pitted against yet another unsherried Speyside in the form of Balvenie Single Barrel (which also happens to be 15 years matured).
Dalmore is a well-established Highland distillery with a reputation for big, rugged flavours which have made it a favoured malt with cigar smokers, apparently. Their 15 year old is but a step up from their standard 12 but the 18 was pretty steep… Balvenie is a highly rated Speyside distillery with a family ownership (although, admittedly, they also own neighbouring commercial behemoth Glenfiddich, so thoughts of plucky independent status may be somewhat overstated) and an emphasis on tradition. They still run their own floor maltings, apparently, a phase of the process that the great majority of distillers long ago farmed out on an industrial scale. Whether traditional floor maltings really have a profound effect on the flavour of their whisky seems a little doubtful, I must admit but, I guess it’s a selling point. Their single barrel is a couple of steps up the range and it’s unusual in that it, er, comes from a single barrel. You might think all single malt does but actually the vast majority is vatted, which is to say that a malt master selects a whole set of barrels from the one distillery to blend together in order to get a kind of aggregate feel, and hopefully to ensure consistency over time, such that one year’s Glenfiddich 12, say, is very much like the next year’s. Connoisseurs, however, often like to sample the output of single barrels in that they can sometimes offer stranger, more intense, more extreme, never-to-be-repeated expressions of a malt. Such is the case with the Balvenie Single Barrel, and it means that, in theory, one bottle of it could be decidedly different from another (unless it comes from the same cask, I guess). This is bottle 115 from cask 6236, in case you were wondering.
Dalmore 15 – 40% ABV, £46.95
Balvenie Single Barrel – 47.8% ABV, £50.75
LOOK – I think it’s safe to say that Dalmore have a thing for stags. I mean, not sexually. One hopes. But from a presentation standpoint, definitely. Nice textured leafiness to the box, nicely shaped bottle too, although points docked for plastic cap, especially when you’re aiming at classic and classy, and the glued-on stag’s head is perhaps a little … over the top? The bumph focuses on, guess what? A stag! Apparently someone saved King Alexander from one in 1263. Since the distillery wasn’t established until 1839 the relevance has to be somewhat questioned, but hey. It’s an ethos. Overall I think you’d have to say they’re hitting what they’re aiming at presentationally. Stags. The Balvenie I think is wonderfully presented. All in simple white with no fuss, no pretension, classic, timeless, the bumph emphasising it’s connoiseury single-barrel-i-ness and the distillery’s stated virtues of TRADITIONS, CARE, and CRAFTSMANSHIP (their capitals). I love the bottle as well, simple, crisp white label, nice shape, good pourer, chunky wooden cap, clear glass to showcase the lovely colour of the contents. Nice contrasting colours on these two, actually. The Dalmore has spent all its time in a variety of sherry woods, I believe, and even at a 40% bottling it’s a very deep colour, tawny orange, almost brown. The Balvenie by contrast is a lovely deep gold.
SMELL – The Dalmore – Marmalade. Classic and classy, rich and fruity, a fair bit of sweet sherry, but with a slightly tarter, grittier edge than last week’s Aberlour and Glenfarclas. The Balvenie – Wow. 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. That extra strength really gives it poke – so sweet, so crisp, but plenty of attack.
TASTE – The Dalmore – very much what you’d expect from the smell, actually. Solid, tough, reliable. Lots of that marmalade. A big, firm presence, you can see why it’d go well with a cigar. There’s a kind of leathery, oaky kick on the end as well that really lingers, a whiff of heather smoke, or am I just imagining it? A slightly military vibe? Stiff upper lips, parade grounds and polished strapping. Nice, though. It’s got backbone. But perhaps a slightly stronger bottling would give it a bit more authority. This is a grizzled sergeant major rather than the colonel of the regiment. The Balvenie – Ooooh. 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. There’ve been five Speysides among the dozen and I must confess I’ve been a little disappointed overall. But this is what I was after, and then some. And it only makes it better that you know this particular cask will never be repeated…
CONCLUSION – Dalmore 15 – A solid and trustworthy marmalade classic with a leathery heathery toughness. Recommended PoV – Curnden Craw. Balvenie Single Barrel – Sublime honey sweetness with a deadly citrus sting in the tail. Recommended PoV – The Snake of Talins.
RESULT – The Dalmore is a very pleasant whiskey, don’t get me wrong, but it’s way out of its class here. A stronger bottling than the slightly limp 40% would help, but at this strength it’s still looking for its mark when it realises it’s been run through fifteen times. The single barrel is everything you’d hope for from an unsherried speyside, oh so sweet but oh so sharp and with lots of complexity. Lean and lethal, a perfect summer whisky, and not such bad value either at £50.
The Winner – by a country mile, Balvenie Single Barrel.
Coming next – six winners, six losers, we consider the field and the lessons, and pick the two best losers to give us a field of eight…