Anthony Bourdain Talks Scotch

Courtesy of The Balvenie

Anthony Bourdain loves trepanning tools. For the uninitiated, trepanning is the ancient and dubious art of drilling a hole in someone’s forehead to combat anything from migraines to seizures to depression. The notorious chef/TV host/author owns enough of these antique tools to be called a collection, which we find both disturbing and perfect. When queried as to why he loves these items, he replies that it’s the same reason he loves scotch: both are handmade. Which also happens to be the theme of Raw Craft, Bourdain’s web series (which is sponsored by The Balvenie). Supercall recently got the chance to screen an episode from the show’s just-released second season, before sitting down with Bourdain over scotch (specifically The Balvenie’s 14-year Caribbean Cask) to talk about deep-fried haggis, whisky nerds, multi-day hangovers and more.

Supercall: What makes a great scotch?

Anthony Bourdain: The older I get, the less complexity I want. I don’t want to be forced out of that magic moment of experiencing something emotionally. I am moving away from big Bordeaux because when I feel “Wow, I’m never going to drink a wine this good again,” then I think, “Goddamnit now I’m thinking about it!”

SC: How do you take your whisky?

AB: In my view, some higher-proof whiskies benefit from a tiny little splash of water just to open them up. But, generally speaking, I prefer to drink my whisky neat—unless i’m just tucking in for the afternoon. If I’m planning on drinking for three hours, then yeah, I think maybe some ice. But maybe just with your lower end whiskies.

SC: What are your thoughts on using single malt scotch in cocktails?

AB: I wouldn’t. It’s like using a top-end tequila in a Margarita. What’s the point? Other than high-fiving your bros. It gets lost in the sauce. I think a quality whisky you drink neat or maybe, arguably, in certain circumstances with a tiny, tiny, tiny bit of water or maybe a single rock—I get it. But once you start making mixed drinks with a high-end scotch, it just seems like a terrible waste. You wouldn’t pour a Château Pétrus into a punch or cook with it. It’s utterly pointless. I think that if you’re making really complex, old-school classic whisky cocktails, then you want a good whisky—you don’t want some rotgut in there. But there’s a point of diminishing returns.

SC: Do you have any favorite foods to pair with scotch?

AB: Scottish food. I’m a believer in the notion of terroir. Some Scottish game, perhaps, deep-fried haggis—that’s f***ing awesome. Some good Scottish cheese. Though, in general, I would drink scotch before dinner and then maybe after dinner. In a perfect world, I’d have a single malt before dinner by the fireplace, sit down to a nice meal, drink some wine with that, and then finish off with another scotch.

SC: You went to Scotland to visit the distillery for the show. Did you notice any differences between drinking scotch there and drinking it in the U.S.?

AB: They know a lot more about it. They drink it a lot more responsibly and sensibly and in ways that highlight its qualities. It occupies a more graceful position in the culture as part of a larger picture rather than the focus. In Japan, whisky culture is like a mania. A whisky bar is not a whisky bar unless there’s 900 different whiskies. There’s that same nerdism or over-enthusiasm [in the U.S.] as well. That feels a little silly when you’re in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s just like eating pasta in Italy. They see it as a birthright. And yes, they will argue about it, but they’re not taking pictures of their pasta when it arrives at the table and Instagramming it.

SC: Right. Scottish scotch nerds aren’t a thing.

AB: There are certainly people there who are incredibly knowledgeable, but they are far less likely to bludgeon you with it in a social situation.

SC: Is there any sort of reversal? Did you encounter bourbon geeks in Scotland?

AB: I didn’t. But they’re out there. Last year I was at a clandestine little dinner with chefs and serious wine people that a friend throws every year. We all get together and eat Lièvre à la Royale, an old-school french dish. People bring their own wines and they’re generally pretty goddamn titanic—I mean unbelievable. Everyone there is French and super wine nerds. I think last year people were comparing 90-year-old bottles of Pétrus. Then, at the end of the meal, the chef brings out a hip flask―and I mean like a supermarket liquor store-sized bottle―of very, very old Old Fitzgerald bourbon and poured it around. And even the French guys were like, “Oh my god! What is that? It’s unbelievable!” It was interesting to see that. The French are typically not too quick to admit that anyone can make anything worth drinking outside of France.

SC: Any other favorite drinking stories?

AB: I was invited to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons years ago by Raymond Blanc, the chef. We had never met. When I arrived it was the end of service. We were eating and drinking a lot of good wine. The staff closes up and leaves. The sommelier leaves behind his assistant sommelier. Blanc calls him over and says, “Get me the Napoléon.” And the kid starts trembling, his eyes literally fill with tears. Apparently he’s been told by the sommelier specifically, “I don’t care how much he’s had to drink, do not, whatever you do, get that bottle.”

“Get me the bottle!” So the kid goes down and comes up with this thing in a sarcophagus, a coffin surrounded by satin, and it’s this dusty bottle, and Blanc picks it up and clonks it onto the table and the kid jumps out of his skin, and Blanc starts sloshing it into my glass. “Napoléon was alive when this went in the bottle,” he says. This poor kid, he thought he was going to be beaten the next day.

SC: Do you remember your first whiskey experiences?

AB: My first whiskey-related experience was in college. I had gotten my heart broken and I was miserable—at my wits end. I got a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and polished the whole thing off. Then I spent the next two days in the bathroom with my feet sticking out of the stall, blacking out and waking up and blacking out again. It wasn’t pretty. I did not endear myself to my dorm mates, I can tell you that. I learned a valuable life lesson that day, though.

SC: Don’t drink an entire bottle of whiskey in one sitting?

AB: Yeah. Never again. Never have I ever done anything like that ever again.