If there's one thing Curbed Ski loves almost as much as snow, its après ski. Imagine then, the stoke when we were invited to the exclusive, second-annual Rare Craft Collection curated The Balvenie Distillery (located in Dufftown, Scotland). The nine-stop tour hit Aspen's historic Crystal Palace December 5-7. The evening included an exhibition of 21 hand-crafted American artisan products- from hand-caned ping pong tables and bagpipes (natch) to saddles and chef's knives, as well as tastings of The Balvenie's exquisite collection of single-malt whisky and a master tasting class. Read on for deets about what monkey shoulder is, the glory that is a 21-year whisky aged in a Port cask, and what Scotsmen really wear under their kilts (it's not what you think).
The Rare Craft Collection is the brainchild of the distillery, which for 120 years has been run by founder William Grant's family. As one of four founder-family-owned Scotch whisky distilleries left in Scotland- and one of a handful that still small-batch handcraft their spirits, rather than relying on computers to do it for them- The Balvenie folks are dedicated to craftsmanship in all its forms. Hence the Collection. Each year, the tour is curated by a different representative, and features exceptional examples of textiles, interior design, leather and silversmiths, guitar makers, surfboards, etc.
This year, the Collection was curated by racing legend/native Scot Dario Franchitti (aka the former Mr. Ashley Judd). While Franchitti was unable to be in Aspen, his collection of goods was mighty impressive. Curbed Ski was most besotted with Todd McClure's smooth-as-silk, handcrafted shuffleboard table, made entirely from former bourbon barrels, and the vintage-style, all-steel framed Truss Roadster bike by Mike Flanagan. Hometown girl Emily Marshall's nubby woolen ski hats, sourced from Northern Colorado merino sheep, were also on display, as was a mod wooden end table from Denver's Rob McGowan and Ben Olson.
First things first. Scotch is Scottish whisky (the Irish and domestic producers spell it with an "e"; the word is derived from Gaelic for "water of life," which Curbed Ski likes very much). It must be produced from malted barley, although other cereal grains may be allowed. It must also be aged in oak casks for no less than three years, and must be at least 80-proof. A single-malt Scotch, like those produced from The Balvenie, refers to whisky produced from just one type of malted grain, made in a single distillery. Blends, while not necessarily of poor quality, are kind of like the ho's of whisk(e)y production, using different types of the spirit, often from different distilleries.
Two tastings were offered at the Rare Crafts exhibit: The Balvenie Doublewood 12YO, which is finished in Sherry casks for six months, and The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14YO, finished in rum casks. It was a lovely start to the evening, but the highlight by far was the master class led by The Balvenie Brand Ambassador (and hella good bagpiper) Lorne Cousin. He hails from the distinguished whisky-producing region of Campbeltown (Scotland has five; the others are Highland, Island, Islay, Lowland, and Speyside, where The Balvenie is located).
The class included a tasting for four of Balvenie's single malts; in Scotland, you drink your whisky neat or with a couple of drops of water, which helps open up the flavors (we tried each offering both ways, and the difference was palpable). Rocks, as one would imagine, dilutes the flavors too much, so only the equivalent of a gaper would dare drop ice in their drink. The Gaelic version of cheers is slàinte (which is prounounced something approximating "Slan-gee-VA"), meaning, "good health" It is said with great frequency, as the class learned.
In addition to the aforementioned Doublewood 12YO (nose of honey and vanilla, with an oaky vanilla flavor), and Caribbean Cask 14YO (rich notes of toffee, cream, and fruit, with sweet, spicy finish…divine)., there was a Doublewood 17YO (oak and vanilla, with dominant notes green apple; flavors of green apple, dried fruit, toasted almond, and toffee- delicious), and truly spectacular The Balvenie PortWood 21YO. This $200-a-bottle spirit is finished in a Port cask, which yields a captivating perfume of raisins, spice, and fruit. The resulting spirit had creamy, sticky, nutty, honey flavors and a long, soft finish that, like the rest of The Balevenie's whisky, forever changed Curbed Ski's mind about the nature of Scotch. Peaty, dirty, leathery…these are indeed characteristics of Scotch whisky from certain regions, but so much depends upon the quality of the grain and process of malting, smoking, distilling, aging, and finishing.
Speaking of malting, Cousin shared that monkey shoulder is a repetitive-motion injury suffered by malters, who spend their days bending and turning barley. The Balvenie is one of a few distilleries who still do their production (the process for which is greatly simplified here) the old-school way, from growing their own barley and malting (soaking the grain in water and letting it germinate, then turning it), smoking it in a brick kiln with peat and anthracite. The distilling is done in copper for superior heat conduction and purity of flavor. Dennis McBain has been The Balvenie's coppersmith for 55 years; David Stewart has been the Malt Master for 50 years. Clearly, this is a company that inspires devotion. There is also an on-site cooperage for the reconstruction and toasting or charring of American and European oak barrels required for whisky production.
So devoted was founder Grant to his employees, that he was known to turn a blind eye to the common practice of whisky thieving. Apparently, you work up quite a sweat making whisky, what with having to clean the kilns with heather brooms, and lugging casks around. Hence the creation of the "whiskey dog," a copper tube that could be sneakily dipped into the bung of casks and filled with the brown nectar. The whisky dog would then be concealed in the front of the trousers of the workers, where it would usually avoid detection (which, when you think about it, is a little sad). On that note, Cousin left us with a heady buzz, a far greater appreciation for Scotch whisky (and Scottish humor), and a lust for costly brown spirits, après ski. Sometimes, a PBR tallboy just doesn't cut it; that's why we have Aspen.
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