- The Balvenie, a single malt scotch whisky owned by one of Scotland’s few family-owned distilleries, can be enjoyed with tea.
- Not any tea, whisky experts say, but oolong tea that can be found at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Tea Company and a few supermarkets.
- As William Grant & Sons pushes the Balvenie whisky, considered a luxury drink, into Kenya, its aim for now is for Kenyan drinkers to understand what it tastes like, then develop a liking for it.
The Balvenie, a single malt scotch whisky owned by one of Scotland’s few family-owned distilleries, can be enjoyed with tea. Not any tea, whisky experts say, but oolong tea that can be found at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Tea Company and a few supermarkets.
As William Grant & Sons pushes the Balvenie whisky, considered a luxury drink, into Kenya, its aim for now is for Kenyan drinkers to understand what it tastes like, then develop a liking for it.
A few weeks ago, the Nairobi Chapter of Women Who Whisky in partnership with William Grant & Sons hosted Gemma Patterson, the global ambassador of Balvenie Whisky, and Kelsey McKechnie, the malt master-apprentice.
Ms McKechnie, who is 26 years old, is currently the youngest person ever to hold this role, shadowing malt master David Stewart, who created Balvenie’s unique range of single malts.
Recent bottlings that have passed through her hands include The Balvenie Peat Week aged 14 years, The Balvenie DoubleWood aged 25 years and The Balvenie Fifty: Marriage 0962.
“I associate memories with all of the senses; any time you open an ice cream or bottle of sunscreen, it could remind you of a great holiday you once had or a memorable family dinner— that is definitely how whisky speaks to me,” Ms McKechnie said.
One of the challenges she has had is nosing and tasting whisky in a pandemic. The Balvenie maturation process is intimate, involving a monthly sampling to ensure the taste is consistent with the malt master's requirements. The pandemic reduced the number of people at the distillery, but that did not compromise on the quality of the final product.
Before the pandemic, Ms McKechnie would go to the distillery every few weeks to sample the whisky. But just as the other industries have adapted to working from home, the role of the malt master has pivoted in that direction as well to protect their livelihood and the most important senses in their craft.
Covid-19 has been known to impair one’s ability to taste and smell, two senses that are crucial to the malt master''s sampling practice. “As whisky masters, we can’t see a sample go past us without sniffing it, we were keen to continue to do that and carry out all the analysis that we could before the whisky was released to the market,” she said.
It is often debated whether the unique Balvenie taste is attributed to the 12-year old DoubleWood variant or The Balvenie Single Barrel, whose taste incorporates what Ms McKechnie described as "wrapping a loaf of bread in oak" due to its sweet, doughlike aroma.
The 12-year old DoubleWood is The Balvenie's flagship whisky, matured in an ex-American Bourbon Barrel for 12 years before it is transferred into a European oak sherry cask. “We want to make sure that we have notes of that American Oak when we nose it (hints of toffee, vanilla, and honey),” she explained.
The finish takes about nine to 12 months, and to preserve the cereal sweetness, they incorporate dried currants and marzipan, synonymous with the flavours of a Christmas cake. “Every time we nose it, we want to get a tingle at the end of our nose, and we always look for that every time before we release it for bottling,"she said.
Ms Patterson created a welcome cocktail known as the Highland Dragon, which incorporates the Balvenie DoubleWood 12-year old whisky infused with oolong tea and vermouth and a dash of bitters garnished with a maraschino cherry.
The cocktail was recreated by the Revolver Bar in Nairobi. Oolong tea is the product of Taiwanese craftsmanship, popular for its floral and herbal notes for the ultimate aromatic experience.
"The way that it's made - the provenance, the history and the heritage that goes into this tea - is something that we align with at Balvenie. The way this tea is made and the craftsmanship of a Balvenie whisky makes for a nice partnership,” Ms Patterson said.
Experimenting with flavour is also at the core of The Balvenie's character, which goes far beyond their perfection of the double maturation process. Their 14-year old Caribbean Cask Whisky, for instance, is matured in traditional oak casks before it is finished in casks previously held Caribbean rum for added sweetness and warmth.
The question of sustainability arises when discussing the oak barrels amid a climate crisis spawned by mass deforestation. The Balvenie’s barrels are used time and time again to reduce the effect of deforestation.