Down the Hatch: Slàinte and the water of life
Tasting whisky with Balvenie’s Andrew Weir
Balvenie Doublewood in a Glencairn glass
Forty of us sat at tables at MixCo Bar for a William Grant Scotch whisky tasting, listening to Balvenie brand ambassador Andrew Weir explain in a thick Scottish accent that the traditional Gaelic “Uisge Beatha” (“oosh-ka-bay”) means “water of life.”
“Whisky is a journey,” he said as we sipped Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve 14 Year Old. “It’s about conversation. Water divides the people of the world, whisky brings them together.”
Heads around the room nodded in agreement. A few people raised their glasses.
“Make it yours,” he said, encouraging us to notice what we notice. “I could tell you that you’re tasting notes of mustard and you’ll start believing it. But I don’t want to tell you what to taste.”
In his hour-and-a-half presentation, Weir moved us through five whiskies. Early on, he reminded us of the simplicity of the spirit. “We make whisky by distilling beer the same way brandy is made from distilling wine.”
Calling scotch distilled beer certainly diminishes its intimidation factor. Common misconceptions include that one will taste Band-Aids, oil, saltwater-crusted nautical rope, and other grimy, loamy, dug-out basement flavors. And you might—if you buy the plastic bottle rotgut or an intentionally peaty product—but not in these.
The Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve 14 Year Old has been aged entirely in bourbon barrels from the U.S. Its distinguishing feature is that it is finished in a new, virgin oak American cask that hasn’t previously held anything. “This is a nod to your bourbon. That’s why it has such a sweetness.”
Weir encouraged us to add water to our whiskies. I was glad to hear it. More than once, I’ve added water to a great whisky only to be shamed by someone in the room who tells me I’m ruining an expensive drink.
To you sir, I say, take this: “There is a layer of ethanol that the water breaks through,” Weir explained. “Alcohol is a barrier to flavor. All of those honey and apple and mustard notes? You can’t get to them because alcohol is in the way.”
Next we moved on to the old friend of the single malt drinker: the Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old. This whisky is the reason I showed up to the tasting in the first place.
The Doublewood gets its name from a process called “re-racking,” which means it’s aged in bourbon barrels first, then finished, or re-racked, in sherry casks for nine months. This was the first-ever whisky in the world to be finished in barrels in which it did not begin.
Next was the Balvenie 15 Year Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask, which Weir calls the “Yo-Yo Ma of whisky.” It was exceptional. And, at 47.8 percent alcohol, pretty damn strong. Flavor notes include rich, spicy chocolate, toffee, cloves, cinnamon, and tobacco leaf. “This is truly handcrafted,” he said. “Not like your Starbucks latte this morning was handcrafted.”
Lastly, we tried the Balvenie Portwood 21 Year Old. This isn’t a bottle I can afford, which is why it’s nice MixCo offers these kinds of tastings every two to three months. Described as the Balvenie malt master’s “Sistine Chapel,” the Portwood had an extraordinarily long finish.
To further illustrate the important relationship between water and whisky, we held the traditional Glencairn glass on the palm of one hand and placed the palm of the other hand on top, then shook it. This caused the palm of the hand on top to become wet with a ring of whisky.
We then rubbed our hands together until they were sticky, meaning the alcohol was gone. Weir instructed us to cup our hands over our noses and mouths and smell with our mouths open because most taste is informed by smell. I inhaled chocolate-covered raisins—no joke—whereas before I’d only noticed straight nose-hair-burning, chest-hair-growing scotch.
The fifth whisky was the Balvenie Tun 1401, Batch 9, which cannot be sold in Oklahoma and so was given to us as a surprise and for free. A guy at my table Googled it on his phone and found it for sale at $650 a bottle. On another sight he saw it for $1500. In a bar, one dram would cost $50-60. The ticket to the event was $40.
I can’t promise you’ll get unobtainable badass whisky at every tasting, but you will get more than your money’s worth.
For more from Liz, read her interview with Hodges Bend general manager Jamie Jennings.