Don’t overcomplicate it — simplicity is key to the classics, writes Ross Blainey

The Balvenie ambassador Ross Blainey.

Six of Australia’s best bartenders, one malt masters’ apprentice and me. Not bad for a Thursday evening Skype session last week. Chatting whisky, cocktails, creations and innovation with a dram of Kelsey McKechnie’s (The Balvenie apprentice malt master) first creation, The Balvenie 12 The Sweet Toast of American Oak. But one point really stuck with me: everyone wanted to innovate with a cocktail — bring something new — without over-complicating it. Without losing what they loved about the whisky. It has been said before, but just a few ingredients — to bring the flavours we love out of the whisky — might not always be easy but it makes the best cocktails.

Simplifying while innovating. It bounced around my head for a few days before I noticed that maybe it’s not just creating a great cocktail that works on that model. Making our whisky at The Balvenie is just the same, and it maybe even applies to sorting out our incredibly busy lifestyles.

In the early 80’s our malt master, David Stewart, was playing around with American oak ex-bourbon barrels and Spanish oak ex-sherry butts. He was about to play a crucial role in the history of whisky, innovating what would be known as “cask finishing”. However, if you ask David what was going on in his head he will tell you he was looking at the flavours from both barrels and imagining what it would be like to layer one upon the other. And cask finishing appeared. Done. He simplified the flavours, created cask finishing, and a classic was born: The Balvenie 12 DoubleWood.

Fast forward 37 years to Kelsey and her first creation. Kelsey looked at what she loved about The Balvenie — the balance of sweet vanilla, honey, malt and citrus — and how she could use innovation to enhance that. Kelsey hunted down specially toasted virgin oak barrels from the Kelvin Cooperage, Kentucky, to draw out all that flavour from the barrel. We then finish our 12 year old Balvenie in these sweet and toasty barrels. The result? More of what Kelsey loved! The rich sweet malt, vanilla, honey, and citrus is all there, but it now has this great addition of a sweet toast. Almost like those big fluffy pink and white marshmallows just hanging over a campfire, or freshly baked bread. It’s taking the simple parts she loved and building on those.

Navigating a few changes in life myself recently I was given some great advice:  look at everything you do and find the parts that you really love. Then try and do those things more. Simplify it down to the things you love doing. Sometimes maybe we need to take a minute to look at everything and see which parts we really love the most. Then innovate a little to make those things happen more. I’m trying to do that at the moment so I’ll let you know! 

So thank you to the incredible ladies I was on that call with for putting that simplify and innovate thought out. Whether you’re making a drink, a whisky or life decisions, simplify it down — get to the heart of the matter. Find what you love and do that more.  

To find out more about The Balvenie 12 The Sweet Toast of American Oak, hit up Ross on Instagram at @thewhiskyspecialist & contact your William Grant & Sons representative.