Scotch Whisky Wednesday: Balvenie Rare Craft Roadshow Hits Nashville

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Yeah, sometimes this job of being a spirits writer doesn't exactly stink. Recently I got to spend a morning tooling around with Nicholas Pollacchi, brand ambassador for The Balvenie Scotch, in a handcrafted wooden British car known as a Morgan. Pollacchi was in town as part of The Balvenie's Rare Craft Roadshow, a program where representatives of the famous distillery crisscross the country meeting and interviewing local craftspeople who share their dedication to artisan design. After the trip is over, The Balvenie will grant fellowships to several of the craftspeople to further their work, and one lucky winner will be selected to fly to Scotland and learn how to craft scotch the Balvenie way.

On their Nashville stop, the crew visited Suite 129 of Marathon Village, where tie and hat maker Otis James and leather goods fabricator Emil Congdon of Emil Erwin have set up shop together to share their creative energy. It was fascinating to hear Pollacchi draw very apt comparisons between the craft of Scotch whisky and James and Congdon's artistic visions. The craftsmen swapped stories and took photographs of the process and products coming out of Suite 129, and even took some fun shots (photographic, not alcoholic) posing in front of the low-slung head-turner of a car.

The Balvenie is a very appropriate curator of this recognition program, since their Scotch whisky is regarded as ranking among the finest crafted liquor products in the world. Established in 1893 in Speyside, Scotland, The Balvenie is one of only two remaining single-malt scotch manufacturers still owned by the original founding family, the other being their nearby neighbor The Glenfiddich. In fact, of 103 single-malt distilleries, only five are still family-owned at all; the rest having been gobbled up by various conglomerates.

Pollacchi remarked that the best thing about being family-owned is that the board is made up of people who make decisions based on liquid, not money. WIth kin instead of accountants running the company, they realize their actions should be based on their grandkids' best interests instead of next quarter's numbers. Which is a good thing considering that some of their product won't be bottled until 40 years after it leaves the still.

The company grows its own barley on a 1,200-acre farm, and then floor-malts the barley in house. That means they literally turn the piles of grain with a fork until it reaches just the proper muskiness to flavor their liquors. They've had the same coppersmith lovingly tending to all the distillery equipment for 54 years, and also employ an in-house cooper to make their barrels. Well actually, they buy bourbon and sherry casks and then break them down so that they can choose specific staves by hand, which they then reassemble into casks. Finally, they depend on their longtime malt master, Davis Stewart, to nose every barrel in their warehouses throughout the liquid's life span to determine which product it should be used for and when it should be released. Stewart signs every bottle of The Balvenie himself.

As you can imagine with all this hands-on care and the amount of time that goes into crafting such a fine scotch, The Balvenie is not cheap stuff. But the results of their efforts are extraordinary and worth seeking out. I tasted through some of their North American portfolio and found some real winners.

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The Balvenie DoubleWood, Aged 12 Years is probably a good entry to the portfolio for casual Scotch whisky drinkers. Retailing at near the price of a single-barrel bourbon, it's not outrageously expensive, especially considering the depth of flavors and distinctive character provided by its two-step aging process. After spending at least 12 years in American oak, the scotch is finished for nine months in European oak sherry casks. The balanced flavors are nutty and spicy, with a strong degree of honey on the nose and a long full finish. At 86 proof, this was the lowest alcohol level that I tasted.

Next up the ladder is The Balvenie Single Barrel, Aged 15 Years. This is a quintessential Speyside Scotch whisky. Only about 350 bottles are produced from each selected cask, and every bottle gets Stewart's John Hancock (although I'm sure he wouldn't call it that) in fountain pen ink. As with most of their products, the fact that it has an age on the bottle doesn't necessarily mean that it spent exactly that many years in repose. Some barrels of this might actually age for 16 years, but are made in the style of a 15-year old, with a minimum of that much time in oak. The aromas of vanilla and leather are readily apparent upon sniffing. Pollacchi recommended that you introduce yourself slowly to an aged Scotch, as if you were on a first date. Don't just cram your nose down in there! Your patience will be rewarded with overtones of more vanilla and honey and a delightful mouth feel as the oils and tannins coat your tongue. If the oiliness is not to your liking, drop an ice cube in your glass to freeze the oils and force the vanilla and sweeter notes to the surface.

The third spirit I tasted was a really unique product, The Balvenie 14 Year Caribbean Rum Cask. There's "rum" in the title, but this is also a Scotch whisky. Rather than just buying rum casks from Caribbean producers, the mad scientists at The Balvenie actually contract to buy rum produced by seven or eight different island producers. They then season their own casks using a blend of all these rums, which they rotate through the casks every six months to intensify the effect on the wood. It takes three years to properly season the barrels before they add the Scotch whisky to them.

Here's the most brilliant part: After they've used this white rum concoction as a flavoring agent by running it through multiple barrels, they end up with a fine golden rum. They then sell this back to exporters for more than they paid for it. That old stereotype about Scots being cheap isn't necessarily true. They're just smart with a pound. To make the 14 Year Caribbean Rum Cask spirit, they finish the Scotch whisky for the last six months of its repose in these rummy casks.

The result is remarkable, like a liquid bananas Foster. Aromas of caramelized sugar and just a hint of the soft charred wood make for an exceedingly smooth drinking spirit. Hardly any of the peat comes through, but the sweet toffee character is truly unique. This might not be the favorite of true Scotch connoisseurs, but I think it is definitely worth the $60 price tag for something special.

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The final scotch that I tasted was The Balvenie PortWood, Aged 21 Years, the winner of the Scotch Whisky Trophy in 2010. Only a small percentage of Scotch whisky makes it more than 21 years in oak, so this is indeed a rare bird. After spending a generation in casks, it's finished for the final three months in European oak port casks. When you consider that these port barrels have probably been aging their previous contents for more than 30 years, there's a lot of history and time in this product.

That time shines through in the form of character and complexity. Pollacchi encouraged everyone at the tasting to cup our hands over our snifters and then invert them to give just a thin coating of the spirit on our palms. He then instructed us to rapidly rub our hands together to heat and dry off the alcohol, and then cup our hands and take a good sniff. "That's as close as a trip to Scotland and our distillery as I can give you today."

If the castle at The Balvenie smells like this scotch, then it must indeed be a magical place. Aromas of cedar, cocoa, cloves, black pepper and roses can each be detected as the spirit opens up. Upon first taste, the smoke, peat and coconut flavors gave way to a nutty spice that didn't finish for almost a minute. Now at $150-plus per bottle, that's a good thing, because you really want to savor this spirit. Taste it with your nose for awhile first, then sip it slowly to let it affect the different taste centers of your tongue. Then call me to share some with you.

If you'd like to try some of The Balvenie's amazing Scotch whiskies along with some from their sister distillery The Glenfiddich, Grand Cru is hosting a tasting on Wednesday, May 16, from 6:30 until 8:30 p.m. at Fly South at 115 19th Ave. S. Just $25 per person gets you the tasting, refreshments and a souvenir tasting glass, and there will also be some fine cigars available for purchase to accompany your single-malt. Advance reservations are absolutely necessary for this event, so call (615) 341-0420 to hold your spot.

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