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Bourdain on Craftsmanship, Whisky and Plans for Houston

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Anthony Bourdain is in Houston for a brief series of events called The Balvenie Rare Craft Collection. About 800 lucky Houstonians were able to score a spot to hear Bourdain speak and taste some of The Balvenie's whiskys. 

It’s not his first time in Houston, nor will it be his last. The author and former chef will be returning soon to film an episode of his CNN series Parts Unknown. Bourdain warns that it’s likely that the episode won’t please everyone. “Every time I do something in Houston, people say, ‘That’s not my Houston.’ Well, that’s not what we do. We don’t do Top 10 lists.”

Besides a relatively newfound appreciation of the more nuanced aspects of whisky, what attracted Bourdain to the events is the theme of showcasing detailed, time-consuming craftsmanship. It’s not just about The Balvenie’s work, but that of craftspeople who produce other products with a great deal of care. These people have preserved the old way of making things without concessions for efficiency or mass production. Bourdain selected each person who is showcased as part of the Rare Craft Collection. 

About the selection process, he said, “I was presented with files and materials to choose from and look at. I met a lot of people. Of many — all of whom were deserving — some were chosen. I think you can see my personal prejudices, enthusiasms, passions, likes and dislikes are reflected in who is in this collection. I like people who work with their hands. I like people who work with iron and metal. I have a passion for bookmakers and the printed word. I consider myself a patriot, so I like to see a watchmaker who makes watches in America and not Switzerland. All of these people deserve to be celebrated.”

That includes The Balvenie’s own cooper, Ian McDonald, who demonstrated the precision needed to construct a watertight barrel with metal rings, staves and nothing but reeds to fill in minute gaps undetectable by normal people. He’s been with the company for 46 years. “I didn’t expect to be traveling the world promoting the craft,” said McDonald. “It lets people see how important the barrel is to Balvenie’s products. When whisky goes in at the start, it’s clear, like water. Eighty percent of the flavor comes from the wood — also the color — so it shows how important the cooper’s part is in whiskey."

That’s not the only time-consuming, skill-driven aspect of The Balvenie’s whisky. Bourdain says he’s visited the distillery in Scotland and it reflects a stubborn fierceness that characterizes the land and its people. “There’s an obstinacy to the way Balvenie makes its whisky,” explained Bourdain. “You go to the distillery and it’s ridiculously antiquated. It’s a much longer, more expensive process than the market would seem to require. They have chosen to do things in a certain old, traditional way with the same old, traditional people. I’ve met all the people who physically make the whisky from the earliest steps. They’ve been with the company forever — often second or third generation!”

Bourdain has only recently come to appreciate the pleasurable and intellectual aspects of sipping craft whisky. Before, he said, “I was only drinking whisky when I was feeling sentimental, when I was not particularly well. It was more of a special-occasion beverage. When I was feeling bad about myself, or sentimental, or nostalgic or coming down with a cold, I’d drink whisky and it would always make me feel better. I’d sit in a bar at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, put Tom Waits on the jukebox and drink whisky. It seemed appropriate.”

Bourdain likes The Balvenie's Carribean Cask, which is aged for 14 years in oak and finished in rum barrels, and the 21 Year Old PortWood Finish. Regarding the aging and port barrel finish on the latter, he said, “It was sort of a mad gamble — a bold stroke. It characterizes a lot of the things [about the Scottish people] we’ve talked about here. It was unnecessary. It was counterintuitive. It was risky. It came from a man who tried something that didn’t need to be done but he wanted to do it anyway and he created something extraordinary.”

Of course, the whisky wasn't the only extraordinary thing on display. The artisans had booths at the event with their own tools and examples of their work. Sebastian Martorana of Baltimore makes sculptures and architectural features, like carved lettering, of marble reclaimed from demolished buildings. His artistic works have a dose of humor about them, like the Super Mario statue that was on display at The Balvenie Rare Craft Collection event.

In the next booth was Elizabeth Brim, a woman from North Carolina who’s helped ensure that education needed to learn blacksmithing hasn’t disappeared. In 1989, she hosted the first symposium of artistic smiths at Penland School of Crafts, where she still teaches. Many people believe ironworking is historically a male-dominated profession, but Brim says, “There are women blacksmiths throughout history. A lot of them helped their husbands, and there are some whose husbands died. They had to take over the business.” She enjoys the physicality of the work, and yet some of her art reflects feminine themes, incorporating skirts and ruffles made of metal inspired by her mother’s and sister’s sewing.

Roland G. Murphy is a watchmaker. His company, RGM Watches in Pennsylvania, employs ten craftsmen who make the internal movements by hand. Tiny teeth are notched into individual gears, and even the faces are marked by hand. It takes about five months for RGM to fulfill a custom watch order owing to the intensely detailed nature of the work.

Megan O’Connell’s craft is that of the printed word, a topic near and dear to Bourdain’s heart. Her letterpress company is in Michigan. Called Salt & Cedar, the company even receives orders from outside the country and has created handcrafted works for celebrities like Beyoncé. At the Balvenie events, she demonstrated rolling a printing press by hand, applying one careful layer at a time.

Bourdain believes that the tactile nature of the printed word will endure, even as electronic publishing grows more ubiquitous. "Look, I buy a lot of e-books. I have a Kindle. What it's done for me is that I buy a lot more books than I used to in the old days. There's a lot of books that are worth buying electronically, but I don't know if I want to spring for the $25 hard copy. But there are others that demand the thing itself. I think in many cases, that's irreplaceable. There are certain books that — maybe it's just old-school thinking — you shouldn't read any other way. Don Quixote. Ulysses. Lolita. The Great Gatsby. There are certain books that you need to hold in your hand. I think there's magic in there and that magic is enhanced by having them contained between the covers of a physical object. There's a smell and a feel to books. There's a generational sense. 'Who read this before me?' You can pass a book along to someone you love — a child or a grandchild." 

Regarding The Balvenie whisky that has brought all of these artists together, Bourdain says it hasn’t suddenly turned him into some sort of snob. “I’m not a whiskey nerd just like I’m not a wine snob or a wine nerd. I like good whiskey. It makes me feel good. It tastes delicious. It’s like when you slide into a well-made pair of shoes or a well-crafted suit of clothes. You know when somebody’s put the work in, when somebody cares, that somebody is talking to you, in a sense. They put their name on it, and they meant it.”

Creating handcrafted products of exquisite quality, no matter what the medium, is extremely important to Bourdain. “There are these people out there doing this heroically difficult thing for no other reason than passion and a firm belief in the virtue of doing things right. We should all aspire to that. To know there are people out there for whom mediocrity is not enough and will never be enough, it’s vital. These people are vital. We need more of them.”

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