I know how to drink whiskey. I’m a cigar smoking post-middle-aged bookish guy and so are my friends so believe me: I’ve had white-whiskered Scotch nerds stop me in mid-sip to explain why I was doing it wrong. And this matters. Scotch is a spirit with considerable lore. It’s older than Gin and Whiskey with an e. It’s been through wars and upheaval. You don’t just knock back a Solo cup of Single Malt. That’s not how you drink Scotch. There is ritual. There is ceremony. Over years of having the various isms of Scotch libation drilled into me, I’ve come to the conclusion the only way to properly consume a glass of Scotch is to be seated in a leather armchair sporting a walrus mustache and a monocle by a fire with a dog and a disaffected British manservant named Milford.
Which is bullshit. Which is why Jonathan Wingo, Balvenie’s Brand Ambassador in Chicago, is so good at his job. Wingo’s passion is not directed at the accouterments of whisky drinking, but to how it tastes and how it’s made.
Don’t get me wrong, Wingo is a whisky professional who can throw down if anyone wants to get their whisky nerd card punched. But he doesn’t focus on that. His events aren’t academic. They’re fun.
At a recent tasting, Wingo addressed an assemblage of Balvenie’s exclusive Warehouse 24 club from the staircase in the middle of a meeting room at the Conrad. He talked passionately about the flavors of the whisky. He told jokes and made a toast and everyone in the room compared the 12-year-old Doublewood cask Balvenie to the 14-year-old Carribean cask whisky. Then he went table to table until he made his way back to the four-top of Journalists.
This is the point in the evening where Wingo had an opportunity–and indeed every right–to stab your humble reporter in the face with a broken whiskey glass because my stupidity and gall raised its idiot head to ask the following: Hey, man, is this supposed to smell like an over-chlorinated pool at the YMCA?
“No,” Wingo explained.
To be fair, the whisky did not smell like a pool. My nose had simply gone off the rails because I’d been shoving it into the bottom of a tiny goblet of powerful alcohol and essentially performed chemical warfare on my own nostrils.
There are phrases Mr. Wingo could have employed at this juncture. He could have addressed me as an uncultured baboon, he could have snapped his fingers for security to drag my basic carcass out of the Conrad, or he could have simply leaned forward a little and asked me carefully and with measured syllables WHERE. IS. YOUR. HANDLER? Instead, Wingo showed me to approach a whisky more carefully.
“Just start out here,” Wingo demonstrated, inhaling at least a foot away from his glass. “Then move in until you really get the flavor of it.”
I held my tumbler away from my beak and breathed and there it was, the terroir of Speyside, like I’d snorted a Dalwhinnie fireplace.
You can nerd out on the nose of Single Malts. You can. I do. But you don’t have to. You can enjoy them perfectly well knowing this one smells good, that one smells really good, and this other one makes you want to wear a kilt and play the pipes. You shouldn't feel like you have to go to school before ordering a Scotch and soda.
Wingo's tasting started with a Scotch old-fashioned made with the 12-year-old and here’s where I messed up. Chicago had been enjoying a little bit of a heat wave in late September so it was hot as balls when I walked over to the Conrad in my sports coat and slacks. I was sweating buckets and hangry so when they filled my hand with an ice cold beverage upon arrival I murdered that beverage like a dehydrated desert savage and growled for another which they happily provided. Remembering I was on the clock, I stepped out onto the balcony for a good picture of the drink and once again was baked alive, exploded in sweat, quickly refreshed myself with the cocktail I was trying to shoot and had to get another.
So by the time Wingo took the floor, I was already three cocktails into a poor decision to drink on the job. Wingo encouraged us to double fist the double-wood cask Scotches lined up on the bar. We compared their nose. I mentioned the YMCA. Wingo did not stab me.
They broke out the 17-year-old. I buried my beak in the glass. It was delicious. Complex. Revelatory, even. The nose was smoky but not with the medicinal quality of some peats. It smelled like freshly turned earth, like smoke from a distant fire, like a very old sepia photograph of a serious bagpiper.
The tasting concluded and Wingo invited the lingerers upstairs for, what else, more Scotch. We started with a Balvenie and soda tall boy. I was no longer sweating my balls off but I could still remember it and a cooler was exactly what I wanted.
By this time, we were all old friends and our smiles were permanent fixtures and toasts were in order. We toasted Wingo, we toasted Scotch. We toasted Balvenie. I toasted my dog but nobody noticed because my dog’s name is Whisky and I think they thought I was just some hammered geezer rando. Which I was.
Two more tastings, the 17-year-old and something else. I don’t know what because we’d moved from toasts to philosophy and I was deep into a spirited argument about the role of whisky in developing civilized culture with an attorney from Denver and I wasn’t about to back down just to figure out what Scotch I’d just inhaled. This guy was dead wrong about how growing barley contributed to the emergence of city-states. Dead wrong.
On my eighth serving of Balvenie, I felt like it was the proper time to deliver a passionate sermon on bagpipes and why I hate them but I remembered I’m very old and it was late so I pulled an Irish fade from this Scotch tasting and disappeared into a warm comfortable Uber home.
Today, Balvenie is debuting Tun 1509 Batch 4 from the brilliantly creative mind of their Master Brewer for the last 54 years, David Stewart, MBE. Stewart hand-selected whisky from 23 barrels, put it all into a special marrying vessel where the myriad complexities of each batch got to know one another for a few months. The result?
In Stewart's own words:
“Using both traditional casks and Sherry butts, we’ve been able to craft a complex and rich expression of The Balvenie – combining malty sweet vanilla and honeycomb on the nose, followed by concentrated honey, rich dried fruits and cinnamon and ginger spiciness. I’ve been delighted by the response of the whisky community to previous batches and I’m sure Batch 4 will be as highly regarded.”
If that doesn't make your Scotch nerd palms sweaty, you may want to check your pulse or breathe onto a mirror cause you might be dead.
If you want to keep up with Balvenie and Jonathan Wingo, you can join their Warehouse 24 club here.