It’s Tuesday night and I wander into Silver Street Studios for The Balvenie 2015 Rare Craft Collection. The Balvenie, a Scottish whisky distillery known for its natural alchemy and centuries old craftsmanship, is providing tasting sessions of their malty finery, in addition to showcasing the talents of American craftsmen. While free samples of aged whisky are tempting on any night, this event has a special draw. Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, is the collection's curator and has personally selected the five craftsmen who, in his educated opinion, represent some of the ‘finest around today’.
As I look around for signs of Mr. B, I began to question what is true craft. What denotes quality? What denotes class? Perhaps it's the way one carries themselves in response to the perceived bourgeois delicacies of life? This cheese, goes with that wine. That must be eaten at this temperature. “Look at him. He can’t even hold his nosing glass properly. Ha!”
No. That can’t be right.
I polish off the rest of a formidable 12 year sample and shuffle effervescently into the craftsmen sector. Bourdain’s allure combined with Balvenie was enough to get me in the door without having any idea of who these craftsmen were, but as I make my rounds to their stations I become acquainted quite fast.
Sebastian Martorana of Sebastian Works sits shaping stones with his chisel and smile, inviting us to try our hand at the craft.
Megan O’Connell of Salt & Cedar operates a cast iron press, which more or less is the same type used since the Renaissance. Across the room is Elizabeth Brim, blacksmith and teacher. She wears pearls while showcasing her metalwork.
I can’t stop staring at Roland Murphy and the folks at RGM Watch Company as they use a centuries old technique called guilloché to etch intricate designs into metals, which will become the faces handcrafted watches. Finally, I arrive to Ian McDonald of the Balvenie Cooperage. He began beating on distillery barrels when he was 15 years old, and from the looks, and certainly sound of it, he is not stopping anytime soon. It’s at this moment, during the clanging of metals and murmurs of people turned cattle being herded into a tasting session, when I overhear Bourdain’s voice coming from a speaker saying, “It’s about people who care about things enough to make them better than they need to.”
Quality. Class. Craft. Yeah. I think that’s it.
Very satisfied with this as the answer to my true craft question, I take my seat during a tasting session led by Jonathan Wingo, The Balvenie Ambassador to the Central and Southern United States. He prowls around the center of the room hoisting his nosing glass and explaining how to taste, and how the three samples, aged 14,17 and 21 years, were formed.
Someone at my table jokes that two of the whiskies are aged to young to drink alcohol. I conclude that they can’t handle their Balvenie, and refocus on Wingo’s instructions. The flavors, textures and tone are distinct, indicative of the methods and barrels which conceived them. As I savor the last drop of the only whisky old enough to drink itself, my palate is educated anew. The Balvenie hosts craftsmen, because they’re craftsmen in their own right.
We are herded once more into the final segment. We are jubilant cattle, content with our official Balvenie glasses, notebooks and pens as mementos, along with the adequate amount of whisky we’ve had in the last hour.
Waiters hustle about with savory hors d'oeuvres, and I stand, another Balvenie in hand, laughing at the sight of suited gents and dolled up dames rushing to take the bites. I look around for signs of Bourdain. It seems that I won’t be meeting the hero tonight. However, his image is blazoned on the wall, and I lift my glass while reading his quote;
“Let’s raise a dram to giving a damn about what we create.”
A dram indeed, Tony.