At a dinner celebrating the 50-year career of The Balvenie's Malt Master David Stewart, highlights of the night included the opportunity to taste the company's most recent bottling of their extremely rare 50 year old whiskey. Cased in hand-blown glass and housed in an astonishing hand-crafted wood box made by Sam Chinnery, the single malt Scotch whiskey inside was distilled in 1962 and matured in an European oak sherry hogshead the same year Stewart began to work at The Balvenie. For this bottling, Chinnery created a cylindrical box made from 49 rings of seven beautiful Scottish-grown woods: Galloway Ash, Borders Oak, Lothian Walnut, Cherry, Yew, Fife Beech and Banffshire Elm from The Balvenie Distillery site. The box is finished with a layer of brass, echoing the fittings of the distillery's stills and spirit safes.
Stewart started as an apprentice at the Balvenie Distillery when he was 17 years old. Over the years he has become known as one of the most highly regarded figures in the whiskey world. Over dinner chatting with Stewart, we sipped whiskey with the man who has supervised the aging and bottling of some of the best whiskies to ever come out of Scotland. Stewart is credited with being an innovator in the industry, inspiring other companies to follow his lead and experiment with aging process techniques and types of casks.
Stewart tells us it was in his mid-20s that he realized his job would become his career. "I realized no one else in the company was getting this nosing training," he says. "I realized I would have a unique role." Stewart works to create innovative new whiskies, putting them into different casks and meeting with the brand team when it turns out well. At that point in the process Stewart gets feedback from the Balvenie team and advises them on what he thinks should be bottled.
When Stewart and The Balevenie's Global Ambassador Samuel Simmons did a barrel tasting of this cask on 3 September 2012, exactly 50 years from the date when the cask was originally filled, he described the whiskey as "darker than gold, not overly oaky, citrus, orange, fragrant, quite floral and complex. Lovely and lingering with richness and complexity... full of flavor in the mouth." Says Simmons: "The opportunity to taste such a landmark whiskey with an industry legend celebrating his career landmark was an incredible honor. Just remembering the sight of David's genuine child-like smile when he dropped the dog into the cask... oh, and the aroma that spilled from my glass... it all still gives me shivers."
Made in a batch of just 88 bottles, the Balvenie 50 is valued at a hefty $35,000. "Everyone thinks I get bottles," says Stewart. It's not the case. I am the same as everyone else. When I finally hang up my boots as it were and leave the company, maybe they will have squirreled one away for me then."