For a “what’s local in Speyside” experience (previewed by a “what’s local in Jalisco” experience), Dibs headed for the Blackbird Bar in San Francisco two days ago.
And no, Dibs did not arrive at the Blackbird to find Ewan McGregor eating haggis and scones while reading Robert Burns poems and dancing to the Bay City Rollers and wearing a kilt.
Speyside is part of Scotland. Dibs has a long emotional relationship with Scotland, despite never having actually been there — during this lifetime, at least, but this relationship might spring from some previous incarnation because how else to explain the storms of sobbing Dibs underwent as a very small child while watching The Three Lives of Thomasina and Ring of Bright Water, two films (one Disney, one not) involving people and animals in Scotland? Granted, animal dramas based anywhere might make small children cry, but Dibs remained dry-eyed while watching Sammy, the Way-Out Seal and The Ugly Dachshund and even Lady and the Tramp, which were set in America and Paris respectively, so Scotland has to be the emotional hook. It just must.
Plus Scotland is one of two countries on earth that Dibs — a world traveler from way back — has persistently refused to visit until an absolutely consummately perfect reason to visit there emerges: a knightship, perhaps, or the gift of a free castle, cathedral, islet or croft. Japan is the other country. Dibs is still waiting.
While waiting — this amounts to a lifetime, thus far — Dibs experiences these magical unvisited countries vicariously, through books and movies (sob) and of course things that can be swallowed. The Blackbird was offering an “extremely exclusive” (that’s what the invitation said, which made it extra-impossible to resist) one-night-only tasting event spotlighting Balvenie single-malt scotch. Guests were offered several choices, including the rarest of the rare: As the invitation explained it, “The Balvenie Tun 1401 is the first un-aged expression from The Balvenie, whose ages span a number of decades. The whisky was rested for several months in Tun 1401, the Balvenie’s traditional oak marrying vessel, creating a synergistic single malt characterized by a deep, complex oakiness.”
Based in eastern Scotland, the Balvenie distillery includes a traditional malting floor, the last of its kind in the Scottish Highlands. Balvenie’s coopers, coppersmith and other craftspersons including the renowned David Stewart, who has been honing his expertise for fifty years, draw upon the heritage of more than three centuries of Scottish scotch-making to produce elegant whiskies such as The Balvenie Fifty, made of newly distilled spirit which was poured into an oak sherry hogshead in 1962 and permitted to mature slowly for fifty years.
OK, so Dibs doubled up on local-ness that night by sampling Suerte tequilas at the Blackbird before the Balvenie event. Founded just last year by two Coloradans, Suerte — whose name is Spanish for “luck,” a fact which Dibs has known since high school, when Dibs and Dibs’ best friend used to wish each other buena suerte before dates — is derived from 100 percent blue Weber agave that grows in Highlands (that is: the OTHER, non-Scottish highlands) of Atotonilco El Alto in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. After being slow-cooked in a traditional brick over for 52 hours — more than quadruple the minimum required industry standard — the agave hearts then spend an astounding sixteen hours being crushed in a traditional tahona, the stone wheel-and-channel device seldom seen in tequila-making today. The resulting mosto (must) is then fermented and double-distilled. The latter process takes seventeen hours; the industry standard is three and a half. The portion that is destined to become Suerte Blanco rests in steel vessels for two months; the portions destined to become Reposado and Añejo are aged in oak barrels for seven-to-eleven months and two years respectively.
You could really taste the quality — especially if you grew up, as Dibs did, quaffing Cuervo. Sampling all three Suertes, Dibs veered back and forth every micro-second over which one to dub “my favorite.” The Blanco tasted brilliantly bright. The Reposado tasted slyly smoky, with a hint of honey. The Añejo evoked flowers and caramel, borne on a hot desert wind. Bar manager Gina Schuarte mixed them into lush cocktails that blazed gently on the tongue like sweet spicy fire.
But Dibs had to leave room for the whisky, and wandered to the back of the bar where the Balvenie was beautifully arranged and an eager crowd jostled for drams.
Dibs chose a dram of the Caribbean Cask, aged fourteen years. Admittedly, Dibs is no expert. Dibs is new to the whiskiverse, albeit having inherited the late parents’ entire liquor collection, which includes numerous still-sealed bottles of cheap Canadian whisky. But you have to start somewhere, right? So Dibs sipped….
And Oh. My. Scottish. God.
Smooth, not like cream or even ice cream but like warm toffee-flavored satin that is not merely swallowed but pulled osmotically through the entire head.
Complex, not like cartoons or card games but like long algebraic equations that prod you gently at first and then, as you understand them, glow like a thousand stars.
Rich, not like quiche crust but like mellow chocolate and classical music and civilization itself. just in one tiny sip. Then another. Then another. Warm. Open, like a summer dawn or a friend to whom you could tell anything.
And then this buzz. This transformation that feels like a cross between comfort and flying. Maybe all scotch whisky does this to everyone who drinks it. In which case Dibs has been missing out. But Dibs suspects that this Balvenie (which the Blackbird will serve for the next month) is very special stuff, made with the help of malty angels.