I went to a fun event last night, a dinner at Colicchio & Sons in celebration of the release of the Balvenie 50 Year Old single malt Scotch whisky. At the same time, it was a celebration of Balvenie’s malt master David Stewart’s not-coincidental 50 years of working at the company. The guy’s a legend in the whisky world, and a lot of fun to talk to, as I had the pleasure of sitting next to him during our delicious dinner of an octopus appetizer, steak entrée, and some kind of fancy cake and sorbet dessert. As for the whisky, there are only 88 bottles released worldwide, with just 10 in the U.S. They are going for $30,000 each, which means we were not sent home with sample bottles, but that’s okay, because they did pour us a wee dram, and I drank the hell out of it.
So, what’s it like to drink 50-year-old Scotch? Well, my first thought when they set the glass in front of me was don’t be a dumbass and knock the thing over. As Stewart sagely observed, that’s a $1,000 glass of whisky, which means each mouthful was about $250. I was very careful. After Stewart gave a few words about his tenure as malt master and how the whisky was aged (it was put in a European oak sherry hogshead barrel in 1962 and essentially untouched since) we raised our glasses and said sláinte.
It was a special moment, not just because I was sipping outrageously expensive whisky, but because I was sitting next to the guy who made it, devoted his life to it, really. So I wanted to look at it, smell it, taste it, feel it. The color was deep and dark, and seemed to magnify the light, like Latvian amber. The aroma was floral and woody, like happening on a patch of wildflowers on a springtime walk through the forest after a light rain.
Finally I took a sip, closed my eyes, and held it in my mouth for a few seconds. I noticed a surprisingly spicy kick around the edges of my mouth, while flavors of citrus, honey, and oak danced on my tongue. The official tasting notes mention dried fruits, toasted almonds, cinnamon, and toffee, and I guess I agree with that, but it was difficult for me to isolate specific flavors because everything had such a long, harmonious marriage in the cask. Like a couple married for 50 years, there’s still some spice from the occasional argument, but generally there’s nothing but harmony.
Harmony and depth, that is. Depth is an overused word in spirits coverage, but it describes the Balvenie 50 perfectly. There’s so much depth to the flavors. As I held it in my mouth, I felt like I was going deeper and deeper, as if diving into the cask itself, falling, sinking, softly, slowly. It’s a heavenly whisky.
And then somebody spoke, and somebody else, and soon the whole room was yammering on about how good it was. I don’t remember exactly what they said, because I was resentful that their words pulled me out of my temporary whisky trance. I wanted to wanted to shout “Stop talking, I’m having a moment here!” but soon realized that they were as excited as I was about it, and couldn’t help themselves. The only person who remained silent was malt master Stewart himself, perhaps a kindred spirit.
In all likelihood, you’re not going to taste the Balvenie 50 Year Old. There’s so little of it, and it’s so expensive. Sure, you could win big at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas and celebrate your windfall with a 1.5 ounce pour for $3,400. But what are the odds of that? And I’m not special because I got to taste it, I’m just a guy who works at a magazine who got invited to an event. But it’s nice to know it exists, that there is a pinnacle of whisky in the world. Because that’s what it is: the best.
Fortunately, the other Balvenie expressions are also excellent. There’s the Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old ($50) with a nice warm honey note, and my personal favorite, the Balvenie DoubleWood 17 Year Old ($130), which has black cherry and vanilla flavors and tastes rich.
And keep in mind that price is more of a measure of the scarcity of a whisky than the quality. Yes, the 50 Year Old will blow your mind, but the 17 will too, in its own way. And it’s definitely not $29,870 worse, just $29,870 more affordable. If you’re a member of the 99%, knowing that you’ll still have a shot at sending your kids to college will make it all the sweeter.