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Balvenie and bagpipes: Whiskey heaven

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If you’ve got the coin, Balvenie is a world well worth visiting.
Photo: Erin Cooper

One great thing about whiskey fests: All the great offshoot events they inspire.

Last Friday’s Nth Universal Whisky Experience at Encore attracted the world’s premiere whiskey distillers in one location, and Lorne Cousin, the brand ambassador for Balvenie, took advantage of the visit to host a private get-together of his Las Vegas friends at Mandalay Bay’s Foundation Room on Saturday night.

To say this was a Scottish-themed night is something of an understatement. Kilts were in ample supply, and the event produced not one but two bagpipe performances.

We started the night off with Balvenie’s DoubleWood 17, a “sequel” to the DoubleWood 12, which, Cousin explained, is the first whiskey Balvenie Malt Master David Stewart ever made. It’s stored in a bourbon cask for 17 years, after which it’s transferred to a sherry cask for three to six months. Its toffee, vanilla and honey flavors were balanced nicely by a light, subtle sherry finish.

Next up was the Balvenie 30 Year, a “marriage” of three different whiskeys—one that’s been in a sherry cask all its life, one which has been in a bourbon cask, and one that’s been in a bourbon refill cask (one that’s been used twice). As we let the magnificent smell of this dram wash over us, Cousin explained that the Scotch whiskey industry benefited greatly from a 1964 law that states bourbon barrels can only be used once in the United States. “Forty years ago we used mostly sherry casks or port casks but since then we started using bourbon casks.”

Lorne Cousin, brand ambassador for Balvenie, shows off his bagpipe skills.

Lorne Cousin, brand ambassador for Balvenie, shows off his bagpipe skills.

The true hit of the evening was the Tun 1401. A “tun” is big marrying vessel, and Tun 1401 is the result of marrying seven different whiskeys, the youngest being 37 years and the oldest being 47 years. Wow! What a whiskey. The nose included notes of fruitcake, chocolate toffee, dried fruits spices, tobacco … Just a monster pour. Cousin says if you see this one on the shelf, snap it up—it’s easily his favorite whiskey in the Balvenie line.

Whiskies this great are only magnified by great company and entertainment, and that came courtesy of Andrew Fusco, a pipe major with the Desert Skye Pipes & Drums, who regaled the small but boisterous crowd. After he was done, he asked if anyone would like to give it a try. Up stepped Cousin, who was more than up to the task. Turns out that before becoming a brand ambassador, Cousin was a bagpipe player—one year, he toured with Madonna!

Cousin was also quite the narrator, taking us through the history of Balvenie— It was created when William Grant, who built Glenfiddich in 1887, bought the Balvenie farm to protect the water supply. The first Balvenie whiskey was produced in 1893, making 2013 the distillery’s 120-year anniversary. Cousin calls Balvenie “the most handcrafted single malt Scotch whiskey in the world,” adding the company still grows its own barley on 1,000 acres.

He certainly had a receptive audience, many of whom sported kilts. Guy Parker, who called kilts great chick magnets, explained that his 16-ounce kilt is made with nine yards of fabric, adding, “That’s where the saying ‘The whole nine yards’ comes from.” Oh, and they aren’t cheap—his cost $625.

As Saturday’s event proved, Scotch whiskey is more than just a drink—it’s a lifestyle, one filled with music, raunchy jokes and camaraderie. I’ll drink to that.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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