Weekly Train Wreck

By Esteban

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It takes a lot of things to keep a company in business for 120 years. A solid business model and plan, economic climate savvy owners, the patience to expand slowly, and, of course, a quality product that keeps customers coming back for more. Balvenie Scotch meets all of these prerequisites, and to celebrate the 120th anniversary of their hand crafted scotch whiskey they are putting on a traveling craft food show.

Since Balvenie has a reputation as the most hand-crafted whiskey, they are taking the Balvenie roadster all across America, and celebrating all of the hard work of men and women who use their hands and articulate expertise to make all manner of things – from constructing copper stills to the flame-retardant ladders used for firefighting and made exclusively from Douglas Fir, hand crafting is a vital part of both Scottish and American culture.

On a sunny September afternoon at Chateau Marmont, I meet with Balvenie ambassador, Lorne Cousin. A table crowded with scotch specific drinking glasses and several bottles of the golden liquid sit before us. Lorne explains the fine nuances of their hand crafted beverage and its origin, “Balvenie is made in a small city in Scottland called Dufftown. The saying goes, Rome was built on 7 hills, and Dufftown was built on 7 stills.” Lorne goes on to point out that scotch whiskey is Scotland’s main export, and the only item named after the country. “What other drinks are named after their country of origin? You can’t ask a bartender for a Russian and expect vodka or a Jamaican and expect rum, but if you say scotch, he knows exactly what you mean.” Lorne says with a prideful beam.

Hailing straight from the heart of Scotland, Balvenie is one of the handfuls of true traditional single malt scotch whiskeys around, adhering to a very strict distilling recipe that has been used for over a century. First, only natural spring water from a specific Scottish source is used. The yeasted used in Balvenie is the only variable, although a negligible factor in the beverages rich and complex taste, and is imported from whoever currently has the best yeast on the market. Charred bourbon casks of oak are used to age the scotch, which can be re-used up to four times to marinade the smoky flavors before being discarded. The barley used in the brew is the crown jewel; always handpicked from Scottish fields where the soil is dissimilar from that of any other field in the world. Every part of the distilling process is meticulously performed with a passionate expertise; even the copper stills used to cook the scotch are handcrafted, and it is this hand craftsmanship which Balvenie celebrates the world over.

As we get down to brass tacks, Lorne pours a glass of 14 year old Balvenie first. The thick beverage spends the last three months of its life in a rum cask, giving it sweet, vanilla notes. It is notably smooth and almost oily with complex floral features.

The 17 year old is next in queue, which adopts a similar procedure; it is taken from its bourbon oak cask and placed in a cherry cask for 3 months before it is bottled, leaving it with a similarly oily, sweet flavor with fruity and nutty notes.

The 30 year old Balvenie is visibly darker, more viscous, and tastes smoother than its younger relatives. I am surprised to learn that this scotch is a blend of two single malts, a 30 year old whiskey aged in a bourbon cask and a 30 year old aged in a cherry cask, giving it a much more complex palette of flavors.

Finally, the 40 year old scotch is brought before us on a silver platter, emanating a robust complexity of flavors. Aged entirely in cherry oak casks, this particular scotch is so smooth, oily, and subtly sweet, that one wouldn’t even know it was alcohol if one didn’t know any better. While a single ice cube is sometimes used to lower the temperature beverage, allowing the cool liquid to sooth the drinker’s throat, this also tends to lock up the flavors. A traditional scotch drinking glass allows for one’s hand to warp entirely around the glass and slightly warm it, thus unlocking the dormant flavors within. An equal amount of water may also be added to delude the burning of the alcohol so that flavors are more prominent. Follow these techniques to enjoy your scotch whiskey to its maximum potential.

There are only 150 bottles of the 40 year old Balvenie and a mere 88 bottle of the elusive 50 year old scotch. Dave Stewart, the Balvenie malt master for over 50 years, personally signs and comments on every batch of scotch. It’s clear that Balvenie not only appreciates, but celebrates the craftsmanship and labor poured into each bottle. For the scotch connoisseur at any level, Balvenie is a valuable component of your collection.