The Sweet Toast of American Oak. That sounds nice. Or does it? Upon closer inspection the skeptic in me awoke—The Balvenie 12 Years ‘Sweet Toast of American Oak’ was actually finished in virgin oak casks.
I find virgin oak dangerous. There’s not many distilleries that can pull virgin oak maturation off successfully. The risk of course, is that the oak starts to dominate all aspects of the spirit. And I don’t necessarily mean in that astringent, tannic way you sometimes get with long-matured whisky.
Virgin oak is often used by the young, upstart distilleries to infuse as much flavour as possible in an effort to have a ‘finished’ product after three years. Sometimes it is even used in combination with small casks, which can be disastrous. It can lead to whisky that tastes as if you’re chewing on raw oak. While that might be attractive to beavers, I try to avoid having to pick splinters out from between my teeth.
However, there are plenty of established distilleries experimenting with virgin oak too. In the case of the Benromach Organic it is a requirement to meet certain regulations, but in other cases it’s sometimes used to awaken a spirit that had matured in tired casks up until that point.
I don’t necessarily believe that is what happened with this Balvenie. Fact is though that it first aged in ex-bourbon barrels for 12 years, before being transferred into virgin American oak casks for three months. These casks were made at the Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky, where they received a long, slow toast for 20 minutes. Once in Scotland an additional toast was applied at the distillery to “bring out as much flavour as possibly”.
Balvenie 12 Years ‘Sweet Toast of American Oak’ (43%, OB, 2019)
Nose: Sure, there’s a lot of sweet vanilla notes in here, but there’s cloves and cinnamon too, as well as French toast, and even a light raspberry note. Finally a touch of tinned pineapple as well as a fair amount of charred oak. Taste: Creamy and spicy with lots of oak influence, resulting in a little too much clove and coconut. There’s toffee, butterscotch and a touch of pickled orange peel as well. Finish: Lingering oak spices and a whisper of smoke with a tinge of burnt honey.
I suspect I would’ve liked this Balvenie better without the finish in these deeply toasted virgin oak barrels.
To me this shows why you have to be very careful with virgin oak. It has so much influence in so little time. The oak is overpowering. In a way the Sweet Toast of American Oak has much in common with young (and I mean a maximum of 5 year old) virgin oak matured whiskies. That can’t have been the goal.