It’s 95 degrees outside, and the young imbiber’s fancies have not necessarily turned to thoughts of single-malt Scotch. The older imbiber’s fantasies are also elsewhere — especially given that single malts are normally tasted neat with perhaps only a drop or two of chilled water to release aromas and tame the alcohol.
But crank up the AC, and put together a tasting of superlative Scotches, as Sam Miller at Kirby’s Steakhouse (kirbyssteakhouse.com) does the first Tuesday of every month, and a quite congenial crowd can be coaxed into a room adjacent to the bar. The cost? $25. The experience? Priceless. Or at least well worth the money, as there are also appetizers a cut above knee-jerk cheese and underripe fruit.
I learn that Miller has been doing this since October 2008 from a regular who has been to every one of the sessions. Seasonality is obviously not an issue for this guy, or for any of the other frequent frequenters. “Some come to quiz the presenter, some to drink and run `I’m paraphrasing here`, and others to stick around and have a good time,” says Miller. And some, such as myself, show up to check out the scene. On this occasion, the Speyside Scotches on parade were those of The Balvenie. The Scotch may be parsimonious, spelling of whisky without an e, but you gotta love the superfluous “The” in front of Balvenie.
The tasting began with The Balvenie’s Doublewood single malt. It’s aged for 12 years, first in traditional oak casks, then in “first-fill” casks that have been previously used for Sherry. (First-fill means that this is the first time said Sherry cask has been used to mature whisky.) The power of suggestion may be at work here, but subtle scents of Sherry do emerge in the nose, along with hints of heather and honey. There’s a little heat on the palate that can be tamed with a tiny hit of water (I also found myself thinking, no doubt heretically, that a splash of soda wouldn’t be a bad thing either), the sweet and flowery profile continues, and caramel and spice follow at the finish. It’s altogether a charming and light introduction to the world of single malts.
The 15-year single-barrel bottling came next, and it substantially upped the olfactory ante. What a difference three years makes: Everything was deepened and intensified — the honey, the spice, the heather … and the alcohol. (This one tests out at a hefty 47.8 percent; once again, add a touch of water.) The tasting notes suggest that there’s a hint of licorice on the lingering finish, and I admit to not finding it. But I was impressed regardless.
Like the 15-year single-barrel, the Madeira Cask 15 Years starts out in American oak but is then transferred to used Madeira barrels for the finish. The power of Madeira past is unmistakable, adding bigger, spicier, peppery aspects to The Balvenie’s classic honey and vanilla heart. A little smoky malt emerged as well, along with a trace of salinity. But for all of its big-boy braggadocio, it wasn’t my favorite.
I’m normally not a huge fan of substantially aged single malts, either. There may be a cost-benefit thing going on here, but it has been my opinion in the past that beyond a certain point everything, even super-añejo tequila, loses its defining character and starts to taste like brandy. Not so with The Balvenie Portwood 21. Having been primed with Sherry and Madeira, you will now realize that this two-score-plus product spends its final years in Port casks or “pipes,” and the stay can only be considered a happy one. The nose was gorgeous, voluptuous, and deep — not at all hot (though try it first without water, then add a drop or two to witness the change), and redolent of dried fruits. Honey continues on the palate, and nuts (take your pick) add their notes to the extended finish. This bottle retails for anywhere from about $160 to near $200, but little sips’ll do ya. The Balvenie, you’re the Berries. Or is it the The Berries? •