This whisky review comes care of a very generous sample from my friend Liz who still has a couple of bottles of this now defunct malt stashed away.
Founder's Reserve was a 10 year old whisky that used to be one of Balvenie's entry level single malts. In contrast to their current entry level Doublewood malt, Founder's Reserve was a blend of whiskies aged separately in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, rather than bourbon barrel matured whisky that was finished in sherry casks. Its entry level status meant that Founder's Reserve used to be quite the bargain, usually going for $40 or less.
Nose: honey, fruity sherry, floral notes, lemon, malt, light vanilla, cinnamon and baking spices. After adding a couple of drops of water, the nose becomes more sherry-forward, with some dark chocolate emerging and the honey and floral notes gaining strength.
Taste: strong honey up front, becomes malty with light vanilla, fades into sherry, pepper and pleasantly bitter burnt/caramelized sugar and coffee. After adding some water, the initial sweetness becomes more like sugarcane, with a slightly grassy note, and sherry becomes stronger mid-palate.
Finish: becomes sweet again, with light brown sugar and a bit of sherried wood. After dilution, it becomes drying, more honied, with malt and bitter oak.
This whisky reminds me favorably of Aberlour 12, though with a bit less sherry influence. This may be a result of the fact that they're both created in the same fashion, by marrying whiskies that were fully matured in either bourbon or sherry casks, rather than finishing bourbon cask whisky in sherry casks. I don't have enough data to say definitively, but I think I like that method better than cask finishing, as it lets both types of casks bring their own influences to the table, whereas cask finishing will sometimes overwhelm features developed during bourbon cask maturation.
I've got to say that I like this single malt much more than Balvenie's now standard Doublewood. While I can't do a side-by-side right now, I feel like the Founder's Reserve has much more heft, even at the same relatively weak 43% bottling strength. Most notably, the honey and floral elements are much stronger, which lift the darker sherry flavors. I don't understand why Balvenie decided to drop this expression, especially as older stocks become tighter and some distillers are choosing to drop age statements entirely. At two years younger than the Doublewood, the Founder's Reserve should give them a little more flexibility to use younger stocks. However, it may be a case where they were running out of fully sherry cask matured whisky and needed to switch to cask finishing to keep up. Nobody by Balvenie knows for sure, but I would be quite pleased if they decided to bring this one back. It's a fantastic whisky and would make a great 'in' for people who are new to the Balvenie brand.