GlenDronach 21-year-old vs Balvenie 21-year-old

In my tasting of Glengoyne 21-year-old vs GlenDronach 21-year-old, I was shocked to find the latter left a pretty undesired sulfuric aftertaste on my palate, especially after adding some water to this single malt. I’m also beginning to wonder about oxidization in this bottle, which, if I had to admit, has been open on my shelves for a few years now. I know, I know – I really should be drinking all this whisky. With that in mind, here I am, putting another dent into the bottle, albeit it’s still about two-thirds full. Plus, this is another chance for a GlenDronach to redeem itself, although, I’ll admit, it’s here next to one of my favourites, the Balvenie 21-year-old, a go-to for many celebratory occasions or when I simply have a sweeter tooth. Well, let’s find out, shall we? But first, we need music! Now playing: ClarkBody Riddle.

I pour myself both drams and let them stand for just a little. The rule of thumb here is “a year in the glass for each year in the cask” – so 20 minutes or so while I write this intro and build up my anticipation. I’ll take this opportunity to revisit the background on these two whiskies. The GlenDronach (which, for some reason, I haven’t been able to understand yet, is written in camelcase) is a Highland distillery in the valley of Forgue, near Aberdeenshire. It prides itself on its robust spirit matured in sherry casks, both used to host Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. This 21-year-old is subtitled Parliament, named after the colony of rooks that have been nesting in the trees that overlook the distillery’s warehouses. “The distillery folk believe as long as the rooks remain at the distillery, it will be good for the whisky.” This single malt is part of GlenDronach’s core range. It is uncoloured and un-chill filtered, bottled at 48% ABV and sold for about £150 on a good day. I did a quick search, and there are not many of these bottles still available – so keep that in mind. This is a vatting of both ex-Oloroso and ex-PX aged whiskies at unknown proportions. Since the distillery was closed between 1996 and 2002, the whisky here may actually be older than its stated age of 21 (I’ve worked this out in the past, it’s probably something like a 24-year-old). It’s dark in colour, and pretty sherried on the nose, with sweet cherries, chocolate, and undisputed flavours of PX. I’ll leave it for another 10 minutes or so in the glass, cover the Balvenie, and return to both for the taste.

Right, the Balvenie. Albeit stated as a 21-year-old, it also may contain some older whiskies. Unlike the vatting of Oloroso and PX, this whisky first spent its life in the traditional American oak ex-bourbon barrels, and then it was “finished” in [30-year-old] port pipes “for a further few months of maturation”. So the flavour profile should indeed be slightly different from GlenDronach. The colour and the nose already hint at flavours around vanilla, peaches, and caramel. This is a “flagship” single malt from this Speyside distillery in Dufftown, independently owned by William Grant & Sons. They also own Glenfiddich, Tullamore, Kininvie, Girvan, and Ailsa Bay, among many others. For example, their brand and product Monkey Shoulder is a marriage of Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Kininvie to create a blended malt. It’s a bit higher in price these days, at about £190-200, and it’s bottled at a lower percentage of [only] 40% ABV, but it’s an easy and indulgent drink, with which, at least from my experience, you can’t go wrong. Also, and I only just learned this on their website, apparently at duty-free, the very same Portwood 21 is non-chill filtered and is bottled at a higher strength of 47.6% ABV – wait, what?? So this bottle is sub-par, but I will not complain and drink it. And although I don’t believe it needed colouring, it s indeed been added to this malt – again to market to the masses. I’ll turn a blind eye and finally will taste!

Yep, there’s Glengoyne 21 there as a baseline

A sip of water, then GlenDronach! It’s sweet and lovely with stewed plums, and suddenly I am in love again, with everything I said forgotten. There is indeed some sulphur at the end, but somehow it forgives from the first taste. It’s viscous and a little dry now, with hints of wood and leather on the palate, while alcohol is carrying it all along into a long finish. Let’s see what the Balvenie has to say. Aha, it’s not so stringent on the taste, even with lower alcohol by volume. It’s also very silky and smooth but less meaty than the GlenDronach, opening up with flatter satin notes into the sweetness of port finish, bringing with it a honeyed, nutty character with spices. Back to GlenDronach. Ooh, it comes back just fine and strong after Balvenie, with ripened fruit, more fruit, and deeper flavours. And what a finish, it goes and on, with remnants of the flavours still abound! The Portwood now again. It’s mellow and silky on arrival. Did I say satin? It’s almost like a pastel painting with its muted colours. These are pronounced, wonderful but short. It’s quickly gone, and I feel like another. GlenDronach – vibrant, punchy, strong. Yes, there is sulphur, but forgiven. It comes in waves throughout the finish, but it’s the richness that triumphs. The Portwood – a decadent and understated dram. But never have I felt such contrast in the finish. The Balvenie is like a glimpse of real beauty which quickly disappears in the crowd, while with GlenDronach, even with its faults, it holds the gaze, inviting closeness.

What can I say? I think it’s clear. GlenDronach finally returned [shall I repeat the tasting where it perished?]. The Balvenie – an absolute favourite of mine, so gentle and so lovely, but so short and low-key dram – I wonder now if I must grab that duty-free bottle! [Side note: I was indeed in a duty-free shop about three weeks ago, and I did gravitate towards the Balvenie section, and I did purchase a Balvenie bottle – a PX finished 18-year-old bottled at 48.7% – so I’m not really kicking myself for not grabbing that 21-year-old, but still – another thing to look into next time.] But for this round, alas, I must proclaim, the GlenDronach claims the prize, and I am happy.

p.s. I just topped off myself with another 10ml of GlenDronach, and it tastes VERY different. This thing needs to sit in the glass for at least another 20 minutes!!! 100%

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