If you love Scotch and single malts, then you’ll know the name David Stewart. He’s like the Roger Federer of whisky, having begun his career at The Balvenie as a 17-year-old in 1962 as a whisky stocks clerk.
Just eight years later, he became master blender at the William Grant & Sons-owned Speyside distillery. A remarkable 54 years later, Stewart’s still there, the world’s longest-serving malt master and an industry legend recognised by the Queen — someone who knows a thing or two about long careers — with an MBE this year for his contribution to the whisky industry.
A few years ago, Stewart, now a sprightly 71, began to grapple with his legacy and how to pass on the amazing knowledge he’d accumulated over more than half a century in an industry that’s gone through its own boom-bust cycles. It’s worth remembering that the single malt expressions now considered the cornerstone of Scotch didn’t begin to emerge until the late 1980s – it was all about blends — after multiple distilleries had closed in that decade.
The result is the Balvenie’s DCS Compendium, named in honour of the man himself, in five chapters that represent both the five pillars of Stewart’s thinking as well as each decade of his career. Stewart wrote the compendium with his American colleague and The Balvenie ambassador Dr Sam Simmons.
And to bring the book to life, Stewart spent nine months tasting hundreds of casks in The Balvenie’s Dufftown warehouses to find the right ones for this masterclass in his efforts. The end result is 25 single casks that represent parts of his style.
The malt master, who admits he has the best job in the world, said selecting the compendium casks “was never really work”.
“I had a good idea which ones were destined to be part of this collection, even if it took some work and time to track them down. I had to leaf through ledgers, search computer records, and had to hop, quite literally, barrel over barrel to seek them out in the various warehouses,” he said.
From those casks, The Balvenie has produced 50 five-bottle sets for each chapter, which come in walnut and brass frames, along with a signed copy of the book that details each bottling and release.
A few individual bottles have/will also hit the market.
The first chapter, titled Distillery Style, came out in July, and Chapter Two, Influence of Oak, has just been released.
Chapter One’s Distillery style features casks from each decade of Stewart’s career: a 1968, aged 46 years, 1978 aged 37 years, 1985, aged 30 years, 1997, aged 17 years and 2005, aged nine years. They were all matured in American oak and bottled at cask strength, which goes all the way up to 60.7% for the 1997.
If you’re looking for the ultimate Christmas present for a whisky geek, Dan Murphy’s has Australia’s only Chapter 1 set. The price? $57,000. It’s sounds hefty, but if you can find can individual bottle of the ’68 – just 68 were bottled – expect to pay north of $26,000 for it. You could argue it’s an investment, but really, it would be a crying shame not to open it and share it with friends.
And to answer the all important question, “what’s it like?”, Business Insider was lucky enough to taste the ’68, as well as the other Chapter One whiskies, with Stewart.
Surprisingly, the oak is restrained for a 46-year-old single malt, and the fruit flavours incredibly lively. There’s an overaching caramelised note to tropical fruits, especially apricot and pineapple, and Christmas pudding spices such as cinnamon and ginger on the nose. You’ll find smokiness and coconut and even a hint of eucalypt is in there. The oak emerges in vanilla on the palate, along with an elegant honey note that’s signature Balvenie. There’s a touch of dark chocolate and maltiness. Even at 45.9% it’s incredibly smooth, yet a whisky that’s remarkably vigorous for its age.
Stewart was a pioneer of finishing and the double cask style — The Balvenie 12yo DoubleWood is affordable proof of his brilliance — so Chapter Two is all about showing the different styles of wood on the whisky and includes a ’72 cask European oak oloroso sherry butt, a ’90 European oak oloroso sherry butt, a ’90 first fill American oak bourbon barrel, a ’97 European oak port puncheon and a 2001 Aged 15 Years European oak pedro ximénez sherry butt.
Chapter three — the rest will roll out annually — will be titled ‘Malt Master’s Indulgence’, which is all about Stewart picking favourites. The way he explains it, he earmarked several casks over the years to keep an eye on and the way they turned out surprised him, so that the next chapter will explore that magic.
As an aside, when Stewart and Simmons first sat down to figure out how to celebrate the malt master’s career, the initially thought about choosing 54 whiskies but considered the prospect “insane”.
(Incidentally, to mark his half century at the distillery, the company produced 88 bottles of The Balvenie Fifty, matured European oak sherry hogshead, using 1962 spirit. You can pick up a bottle at Dan Murphy’s for $30,000.)
When the duo hit upon the concept for the Compendium, Stewart, a man who’d devoted his life to producing whiskies with incredible structure, realised that’s precisely what he was looking for.
“I needed some structure to know what I was looking for,” he said.
Tasting The Balvenie whiskies, you’re left with no doubt he found it.
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