You don't always get to choose your assignments in this business. Sometimes instructions come from on high. So when the boss suggested I spend Friday afternoon at a special whisky tasting and learn all I could about single malt scotch, I grabbed my notebook, gritted my teeth and did what I had to.

The event was part of the American Craft Council show at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, and the first thing I learned is it's a fool's mission to drive into the city on a Friday afternoon. I suddenly realized why I was chosen for the job.

Westbound traffic on Highway 24 was backed up a half-mile before the Caldecott Tunnel, at least for those of us in the two right-hand lanes. (The left lanes are reserved for people whose time is more precious and prefer to butt in farther downstream.)

I felt safe in allowing 70 minutes to make the trip from Walnut Creek to the 1:15 p.m. tasting, but the minutes passed rapidly as we crept along. Then came the MacArthur Maze, where Interstate 80 splashes into I-580 and reminds everyone that mischievous children have nothing on highway engineers when it comes to pranks. My eyes drifted to my watch.

I arrived at my destination with no time to spare, raced into the exhibition hall and learned that the "Balvenie Handcrafted Scotch Whisky Experience" was located 50 yards away, past 80 vendor booths at the end of a cavernous building. Hurriedly darting and weaving through a room full of shoppers so you're not late for happy hour might give a person pause about his priorities. But then I remembered readers were counting on me.

Lorne Cousin, the Balvenie ambassador and whisky expert (Scots don't think "whisky" needs an "e"), waved me to a seat and kept on with his presentation.

Balvenie single malt scotch is made purely from malted barley, he explained, not the corn or wheat used in American whiskeys, and is colorless when distilled. It absorbs coloring and flavor as it ages in charred American oak barrels. Subtle distinctions are added when it "finishes" for six months in casks previously used for other spirits.

The 12-year-old and 17-year-old Doublewood labels ($45 and $125, respectively) are finished in sherry casks; the 14-year-old Caribbean ($65) in rum; the 21-year-old Portwood ($180) in port wine.

My fellow tasters and I were offered a dram (1/8 ounce) of each label in tulip-shaped snifters, with meticulous tasting instructions. First, we swirled the contents and "nosed" the aroma. Then, we held each aloft to examine its color and legs. Finally, we savored the tiniest sip and enjoyed the finish.

The educated palate can pick up hints of honey, vanilla, toffee and green apples, depending on the label. To my palate, all four tasted like scotch.

Cousin said the shape of the stills gives the spirit its unique characteristics. (They're always made of copper, in case you want to try this at home.) The oak both flavors and filters the whisky, and the malt master determines when it is properly aged.

"Older is not always better," Cousin said. "Most whisky peaks at 18 years."

What a coincidence. It was the same with me.

Afterward, our whisky ambassador asked which of the labels we liked best. I told him they each had something to offer. I thought it best to be noncommittal.

What I really could have gone for was a cold beer.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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