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Whisky Of The Week: A Funny Story Pairs Well With A Remarkable 42 Year Old Balvenie

The Balvenie’s “The Tale Of The Dog” has a cute story attached to its name. Actually, I’ll get to that in a minute, because what’s really newsworthy here is that one of the finest whisky distilleries in all of Scotland has seen fit to blend and bottle a pair of its finest and oldest casks — laid down in 1974 and ‘78 — and unleash the results on the masses, or at least on the tiny number of single malt obsessives who can a) find a bottle and b) afford the $14,500 suggested retail price (I’ve seen it going for more than $20,000, but that’s another story). Aged entirely in ex-bourbon barrels, the whisky is non-chill filtered and bottled at a cask strength of 47% ABV.

For fans of the Balvenie, The Tale Of The Dog (a silly name, but I’m getting to the story, I promise) is a classic. It’s got the hallmark vanilla and honey notes of the younger, flagship Balvenies, but it’s richer and more concentrated, with figs and almond on the nose, dried apricot and peach on the palate, and a dry, slightly spicy finish. A Balvenie with hair on its chest, if you will, but just a dusting. The casks were laid down when malt master David C. Stewart and coppersmith Dennis McBain had already been working at the distillery for more than a decade, and remarkably, they’re both still there, each a six decade-plus veteran at this point.

Stewart has been feted and lionized in liquid form multiple times over the years, most notably in his Compendium, a personally curated series of single cask releases that’s sort of an autobiography in whisky. But McBain, while not a household name, has been a part of the Balvenie team since 1958 (!), and attending to its copper stills for almost as long (he started as a maltman). He deserves to be celebrated, and this ridiculously good whisky does his legacy justice.

Which leads us, at last, to the story. A dog, in whisky terms, is a copper tube used to take samples directly from the cask — smaller and easier to use than the traditional valinch. McBain’s first experience with one came when he was an apprentice coppersmith at the Balvenie — and he was asked to flatten one out. The dog in question, it turned out, belonged to a warehouse worker who’d hidden it in his coat and was using it to surreptitiously sample the goods. The flattened dog was placed back in the whisky thief’s pocket, the message sent without a word spoken. Later, when McBain was asked to craft a valinch for one of the warehouses, he suggested a copper dog instead. And dogs are used there to this day. It’s a good story. But it’s a better whisky.

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