When Ginny Lawhorn of Sticky Rice and Baltimore Style fame invited us to join the festivities of the first Baltimore Cocktail Week, we scanned through the main events—a welcome cocktail party, sessions on wellness and money management for those in the hospitality industry, a movie night with tastings offered by four different craft spirit suppliers—and our eyes fell squarely on the Balvenie Master Craft Class at Pen & Quill on Monday night. We were especially drawn in by the promise of a welcome cocktail and light hors d’oeuvres for $35.
We showed up to class early because whiskey, with notebook and pen in hand, ready to learn. We were greeted at the door with a cocktail combining Balvenie scotch, apple cider, and house-brewed ginger beer, a slice of apple floating on top. We grabbed a seat at a corner close to the food table and started sipping and chatting with our tablemates, and quickly realized that most of the attendees were in the booze industry. The part where we had to ask the difference between whiskey and scotch kept us from totally blending in.
The tasting started with the food, and man, we could eat as many buttery salted pretzel twisty things drizzled with yellow mustard and eggs filled with their own yolk twisted up out of their whites like whipped cream as they could send out. The smorgasboard only ended when Balvenie’s “brand ambassador” David Laird came out to show us how to “nose” (smell) our fine single-malt scotches (and to explain what single malt means) and then tell us what kind of person drinks scotch.
Scotch drinkers are social, Laird told us. They like to stay up late swapping stories. They aren’t there to get drunk, they’re there to taste flavors. They aren’t pretentious—Laird suggested what we might nose in our glasses, but he reminded us that “whatever you nose, you’re right.” Since we were mostly nosing yellow mustard and not vanilla notes and hints of Scottish heather, that was a relief. Laird next went on the hard Balvenie sell. Balvenie does things the old-fashioned way, malting its barley by hand, stirring it for five days on a floor the size of a basketball court. Our minds drifted to the Lady Terps’ game against Princeton, but we were pulled back to scotch and stories of the hand-coopered barrels at Balvenie, its on-site coppersmith who hand-hammers the stills, the five generations of family who keep up the traditional scotch-making ways.
By the fourth taste, this one of a 21-year-old PortWood that apparently tasted like creme brulee, we were sold, on the whiskey and on being part of the family of jolly drinkers with a nose for the good stuff. It was easy to forget this was an extended advertisement for Balvenie as Laird regaled us with one homespun story after the next in his Glasgow accent, inviting us to the Scottish burgh of Dufftown to meet the malt master who has worked there for 52 years. Sure, we might go with a Boh next time we binge on soft pretzels, but Baltimore Cocktail Week sure did bring us a nice treat.