The name of the road show comes from what The Balvenie calls its “rare crafts”: It claims that no other distillery still grows its own barley, malts in its own traditional floor maltings and employs a team of coopers to tend all the casks and a coppersmith to maintain the stills.
Built in 1892,The Balvenie distillery has always been owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own neighboring Speyside distilleries Glenfiddich and Kininvie. David Stewart has been The Balvenie’s Malt Master for more than 30 years, making him the longest-tenured malt master for a single Scotch brand in history.
On the Road Again
The Balvenie’s Rare Craft Roadshow is a nationwide journey to highlight the skills of local artisans of all manner of goods – from golf bags to beer to sailboats – as well as offer America a chance to taste The Balvenie. The Balvenie’s two “ambassadors,” Andrew Weir (Eastern USA) and Nicholas Pollacchi (Western USA) lead the journey in a handcrafted (of course) Morgan Plus 8 roadster. The show began in March, has just wrapped up for a summer hiatus and will resume in September and continue through late November.
Do they really drive the car the whole way? The majority of the time, yes, Pollacchi said, although there is a trailer available for occasional driving breaks and for storing the Morgan at night. And the Morgan gets plenty of its own attention. Pollacchi related an incident where a driver blocked him off in traffic and got out of the car to tell him that The Balvenie was his favorite single malt whisky. Pollacchi eventually had photos taken with the man (after getting out of traffic) and invited him to a tasting, where the Balvenie fan connected with one of the featured craftspeople of the tour, a furniture maker, with an interest in having him produce some work for him.
The Balvenie clearly wants to emphasize that its tour is not so much about promoting its whisky as it is about promoting craftsmanship, but there’s certainly plenty of both going on. Pollacchi said he relishes the chance to talk whisky with both experts and beginners alike.
“It’s a mixture of passion and the ability to educate and share that love and that passion in a fun and exciting way without it being boring … you need to make sure you don’t sound like a smartypants, like ‘I know it and you don’t. I want to make sure that people feel comfortable at every tasting to ask the silliest questions without making them feel silly. And with them leaving feeling like they got their question answered.”
The Balvenie is no stranger to the mission of educating the masses; it offers an online “Whisky Academy” featuring 35 short films starring industry experts talking about all aspects of whisky making and appreciation.
Crafting a Connection
Pollacchi said the highlight of his American road trip has been “making the most of the journey and the people that we meet when we get there.”
He tells of meeting Dave Wheeler, a Western bootmaker in Houston. Pollacchi and Wheeler got to talking about their interest in playing music, which eventually resulted in an impromptu jam session in Wheeler’s home studio after the day’s work was done, with Pollacchi on drums and Wheeler on guitar.
It’s just this kind of intimate, admiring connection that The Balvenie is looking for in putting its American road show together. Along with the face-to-face meetings with craftspeople and public tastings, the Balvenie ambassadors are connecting virtually by blogging and tweeting about their experiences. Some of those experiences are also being filmed and this footage will be used to produce a 30-minute internet documentary and shorter webisodes about the road show to air on The Balvenie’s website.
The website itself reflects The Balvenie’s emphasis on quality craftsmanship, with a parchment-like background, quaint, old-fashioned type and elegant, textured images of barrels, grain, the distillery’s historic buildings, and, of course, the whisky bottles themselves.
As the road show has evolved, Pollacchi says the craftspeople that he is meeting along the way are getting more involved in the Balvenie whisky tasting events, bringing the various elements of the road show closer together.
It’s a direction he said he wants to explore further when the road show resumes in the fall, with the artisans more often actually demonstrating what they do during the Balvenie tastings.
It’s about “giving the craftspeople from all walks of life a platform to talk to us about what they do, to share their handmade passion,” he said.