It’s impossible to bring all the whisky lovers of the world to Scotland to visit The Balvenie distillery, located in a quiet part of Dufftown by the River Spey. But The Balvenie has done the next best thing: It’s bringing the distillery and its Malt Masters’ stories to the world, via global travel retail. The Balvenie Sixty installation at the Incheon airport in South Korea marks the debut of an immersive experience that gives you a taste of its heritage with a selection of rare whiskies; an audio tour narrated by Global Brand Ambassador Charles Metcalfe and Korean ambassador Mijung Kim, highlighting the last six decades of The Balvenie’s journey; and even a soundscape of actual audio from the distillery. With global travel recovering strongly from the fallout of the global pandemic, The Balvenie is finding new and innovative ways to make travel both novel and enjoyable.
At the center of The Balvenie Sixty installation is a single whisky, and a single man: David C. Stewart, MBE, the Honorary Ambassador and former Malt Master of The Balvenie, who in 2022 celebrated six decades with the venerable brand. The whisky is The Balvenie Sixty, bottled from a single cask that was laid down the year Stewart started working at the distillery and selected by both Stewart and his successor, Malt Master Kelsey McKechnie. A mere 71 bottles of this precious and historic spirit have been released, and the Incheon installment is one of the few places where one of them can be seen in person.
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130 Years, Only 5 Malt Masters
The Balvenie’s history stretches back more than 130 years. In 1892, William S. Grant—whose first distillery, Glenfiddich, had been operating on an adjoining plot of land for several years—built The Balvenie, named for the crumbling castle adjacent to it. Grant didn’t want the whisky to be a clone of what he was making at the Glenfiddich, so he outfitted The Balvenie with different shaped stills and its own malting floor, giving the whisky its distinctive sweet, honeyed flavor that remains the same today.
From 1892 to 2022, only five people occupied the position of Malt Master in The Balvenie distillery’s history, going back to Grant himself. It’s the fifth malt master, Stewart, who is arguably more identified with The Balvenie brand and range than any other individual. Stewart ascended to the position in 1974 after joining the distillery as a whisky stocks clerk a dozen years earlier. “I feel very proud,” he says, “to be part of the lineage of Master Blenders that goes from Hamish Robertson to Gordon Ross, all the way back to John Grant and William Grant.” It was Stewart’s responsibility to maintain the traditions and standards that The Balvenie had embodied since 1892, while at the same time leaving his own mark. And the mark he left just happened to change the course of whisky history.
“Something Would Happen, Something Different”
In the world of whisky, Stewart’s importance can’t be overestimated. Today, the art of double maturation—aging a whisky in one type of cask before transferring it to another type of cask for “finishing”—is so common that it’s unremarkable. But of course, someone had to come up with the idea first, and that someone was Stewart, who in 1983 created The Balvenie Classic. At the time, he recalls, “I had no idea if it was going to work. I just knew if we moved whisky from American oak barrels into Spanish oak sherry casks, something would happen, something different.” Indeed, it can be argued that it’s the most influential and important whisky of the last 50 years—a neat dividing line between before and after.
Of course, Stewart’s six decades and counting with The Balvenie have produced many other landmark single malts. Some of them can be found at the Incheon airport installation, including an 18-year-old Pedro Ximenez sherry cask–finished expression available only at travel retail, aged bottlings ranging from 25 to 50 years old, and the legendary Balvenie Sixty.
Passing the Torch to The Balvenie’s Sixth Malt Master
In whisky, as with many other disciplines, a lifetime’s worth of devotion means not working in a vacuum, but taking the knowledge and skills inherited from previous generations and passing them like a baton to the next. Stewart spent much of his career as a malt master, shepherding to maturity whiskies laid down by his predecessor, Hamish Robertson. And Stewart, in turn, has laid down casks that won’t be bottled for many years and decades. His handpicked successor, McKechnie, was only 26 years old when she started working alongside Stewart as his apprentice in 2018. In 2022, she took her place as The Balvenie’s new malt master. Her job involves everything from nosing whiskies (to build up her knowledge for creating both classic and new blends) to helping select casks for some of The Balvenie’s oldest and rarest bottlings. As McKechnie says, “We also have a few innovations up our sleeve that are coming to light and I’m looking forward to releasing those in a few years’ time.”
A Capstone To A Singular Legacy
If six decades of honing Stewart’s craft and pursuing excellence could be distilled and bottled, it would be The Balvenie Sixty, a whisky laid down in 1962—his first year with The Balvenie. The 71 bottles of this extraordinary whisky come from a single European hogshead cask, selected together by Stewart and McKechnie. Six decades of aging has imparted an intense oak and leather nose, balanced out by sweet floral aromas, layered with oak and rich toffee on the palate. The packaging does the liquid justice, with a five-layered tube casing emblazoned with quotations from Stewart on each layer. The sixth layer is the bottle itself, with a quote from McKechnie representing future generations of The Balvenie. But much as Stewart has a right to look back on his long and fruitful career, he’d rather practice his craft than be celebrated for it. “I don’t really, honestly, think about that sort of thing too much,” he says. “Some people say, ‘Oh David did this, and David did that,’ but I find it a little bit embarrassing.”
It’s one thing to read about The Balvenie’s storied history, but it’s another thing to see it in person. The Balvenie Sixty pop-up location at the Incheon airport, which will be open through January 18, 2024, is part repository of the brand’s history and part luxury whisky boutique. In addition to the virtual multimedia tour of the brand’s history, you’ll find the whisky itself—rare and limited-edition Balvenie bottlings, many exclusive to global travel retail, along with detailed information about each one. The visually stunning gallery/shop shows that the ethos and atmosphere of this legendary distillery can be transplanted from Speyside to far-flung locales around the world. To learn more about The Balvenie Sixty, as well as David Stewart, Kelsey McKechnie, and the 130-year history of The Balvenie, visit the brand’s website: thebalvenie.com. And to get a taste of what you’ll experience at the Balvenie Sixty Incheon installation, click here.