The Balvenie brand ambassador, Alwynne Gwilt

The Balvenie: One Scotch brand's love affair with rum

04 August, 2022

On 1 July The Balvenie launched the latest in its Stories range, a 27-year-old single malt finished in Caroni rum casks, Drinks International caught up with brand ambassador Alwynne Gwilt to talk about the distillery's unique relationship with rum.

A Rare Discovery from Distant Shores, as the release has been named, is also a uniquely personal release for master blender David Stewart with the expression born out of a friendship with John Barrett, the owner of Bristol Spirits Company.

“So much of the whisky industry is built on friendships,” says Gwilt. “This release happened because of David’s love of rum but also his friendship with John.”

The story goes that Barrett came to Stewart with samples from a few casks of Caroni rum that he’d come across.

“John has a parcel of rum that had been already maturing in cask for ten years and when David tasted the samples, he realised that it was really good stuff that he could do something with,” says Gwilt.

“Caroni has since gone on to become an iconic, unicorn distillery. If you see bottlings, they’re extremely expensive to buy. The distillery closed in 2002 but when they were producing, only the geeky rum people really knew about it, but they knew the rum was amazing.”

The mention of Caroni is sure to grab the attention of rum aficionados. Since the now semi-mythical Trinidadian distillery closed its doors it’s become the darling of rum blogs and among the category’s most sought after collectibles.

“We didn’t just buy the casks, we bought all the rum as well,” says Gwilt. “Then we brought the casks containing rum up to the distillery where it matured for another ten years or so before being bottled and sold off. David then took 20-year-old Balvenie that had been maturing in American oak and put it into the now emptied out Caroni rum casks for the next seven years.”

The result is A Rare Discovery from Distant Shores, a release that limited to just 400 nine-litre cases and given the distillery’s standing and the lengthy Caroni maturation it’s hard to imagine stocks hanging around for long.

But this launch is by no means the distillery’s first entanglement with rum.

“David enjoys rum as a consumer first,” says Gwilt. “And The Balvenie has a sweetness that we think works with rum.”

The Balvenie 14-year-old Caribbean Cask has become an icon of the brand’s core range but at its inception nearly 20 years ago a lack of consistency lead to the distillery producing its own rum blend.

“We wanted to create something for the core range, and it was just too difficult to find any consistency with casks coming from the Caribbean. The heat and the journey meant they’d be in all sorts of conditions. So, we decided to use our own American oak casks from our cooperage and season them ourselves.

“[To season the casks] we wanted to create a rum which blended perfectly with the Balvenie flavour profile, and John helped us with that. That bespoke blend of rums, that’s now produced in the Netherlands, is sent up to Scotland and put into casks that are really high quality.

“We season our own American oak casks for six months with the rum and after that period we take the rum out and put our own 14-year-old whisky into it for a six-month finish.”

After being used for a couple of years, that seasoning rum now goes to another brand in the William Grant & Sons stable, the zero-waste Discarded Spirits for use in the Banana Peel Rum.

Even before Caribbean Cask there were all sorts of rum experimentations that Gwilt assures “still turn up sometimes in the secondary market.” There was even a Cuban Cask expression that went all the way to being packaged until the brand realised that it couldn’t go to the US. That release ended up all going to France where it’s still possible to find today. It’s a cross-category relationship that’s testament to the distillery’s willingness to experiment and collaborate.

A Rare Discovery from Distant Shores is available now from selected retailers for £1,120 rrp. It joins other The Balvenie Stories expressions including the 12-year-old The Sweet Toast of American Oak, 19-year-old The Edge of Burnhead Wood, and 42-year-old The Tale of the Dog.

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