Stewart: Balvenie ‘will not go down’ NAS route

4th December, 2015 by Becky Paskin

Under the guidance of Stewart, The Balvenie Distillery has pioneered extensive innovation in the Scotch whisky over the years

Trendsetting innovation

Cue a spate of “finished” releases from various distillers in a trend that has so far lasted over 20 years and has become the major course of innovation within the category. Nearly every type of cask imaginable has been used to add an additional level of flavour in whisky – rum, Bourbon, French oak, various expressions of Sherry like PX, oloroso and fino, and even wine. As consumer interest in Scotch grows, so too does the need for diversification and choice within brand portfolios, and the simple fact of the matter is that finishing a whisky for 6-12 months is a much faster way to innovate than any experiment performed at the distillation stage. Stewart explains: “These sorts of things take time and it could take up to 15 years before we’d maybe see a result, so it’s simpler and quicker to do things with wood, and finishes have done very well over the years.”

For Stewart, who has been “finishing” single malt since the 1980s with experiments ranging between the successful – rum, madeira, Port – and the not so great – brandy, Armagnac, some wine barrels – the scope for new cask types is coming to an end. “We’ve been finishing for 20 years now so it’s been pretty well explored, and successfully I think because it’s giving consumers something different; we’re not just working on age all the time,” he says.

Secondary maturation has allowed Balvenie to offer more horizontal choice for consumers without piling on the pennies that typically come with greater age. Currently three 12-year-old expressions are in production – Single Barrel, Double Wood and Triple Cask, all of which sit in the £35-65 price bracket. For the majority of Scotch brands, accomplishing greater variety at entry level typically entails the introduction of a no-age-statement product – a route that Stewart is adamant not to travel down.

‘Not going along’ NAS route

“Age statements make it clearer to consumers exactly what they are buying and remain important, but on occasions like with the Tun 1401 and 1509, where the whisky in those bottlings ranged from anywhere between 21- and 40-years-old, there was a compelling proposition where we really didn’t want to put an age on and for good reason,” he argues. “Balvenie is not going along that route because we’ve got stocks. For me, age makes it clear and certainly for Balvenie remains important.”

Funnily enough, during Stewart’s tenure as malt master for the group, Glenfiddich was sold without an age on the label for 20 years. “That’s really when it grew in sales from being not that well known to what it is today,” he explains. In 1999, realising its flagship single malt, which was the biggest-selling in the world, didn’t quite stand up against its blended rivals without an age statement, the William Grant family rechristened it as a 12-year-old and added three new expressions to the core range: 15-, 18- and 21-year-olds.

It was around this time that Stewart set another milestone in Scotch whisky innovation history by creating the first expression matured using a solera system for the introduction of Glenfiddich 15 Year Old. “The idea came from the family who wanted a Glenfiddich called ‘Solera’ so I had to come up with a process to match the name,” Stewart recalls. “To be fair there was a team of four of us who all helped organise the vats and troughs and bring in barrels. It took us two years to put the system together.”

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