Mad about Martinis

Wheat from the chaff, men from the boys. Patrick Leclezio steps up to the major leagues.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2014 edition).

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It’s difficult to take cocktails seriously. They’re frivolous and insubstantial, and they’ve always struck me as a bit juvenile – equivalent to chocolate milk for children who won’t have it straight. Do you want a sippy cup for that Pina Colada, a squeezy bottle for that Daiquiri? Ok, I’m being harsh. Cocktails have their time and place – and, absolutely, there’s something orchestral, magical even, about marrying disparate ingredients into a harmonic and delicious whole. Most objectionably I’m painting all cocktails with the same brush and that’s just grossly unjust. There are some cocktails, few to be sure, but some nonetheless, that wear their spirituous authority like they were born to it, that lack for nothing in a measure of their gravitas (often oximoronically debauched it must be said, gleefully), and that in a contest of class concede to no other drink. First amongst these is the Martini.

The origins and originator of the Martini are a bit uncertain. The strongest claimant is probably the brand of the same name (dating to 1863), the Italian vermouth producers now forming part of the Bacardi-Martini group. The drink’s greatest proponent though, its unparalleled ambassador, is utterly without doubt: his name is Bond, James Bond. The source of Bond’s proclivities seems to have been the hard-drinking culture, as observed by Ian Fleming, which pervaded in MI6 in the period during and then after World War II: floating through the war on a river of booze was how one operative described it…or with words to that effect. The notorious double agent Kim Philby in particular was known to drink martinis in copious volume, and to serve them from a pitcher, as was the fashion in those days. Bond himself then was styled as an impressive drinker in the secret intelligence service mould – strong drinks, wide repertoire, steady legs, and cool demeanour – and one for whom the martini played an integral role.

Whilst I’m a great 007 admirer (aren’t we all), whilst I’m inclined to follow his lead in certain areas, and whilst I acknowledge his immense contribution to the Martini and its status, I hesitate to endorse his Martini preparation practices. Vodka? Really? It doesn’t make sense. Bond is nothing if not discriminating. So why would a man of such impeccable taste favour vodka over the vastly more interesting alternative – gin? In actual fact Book Bond drinks both vodka and gin martinis, almost equally, whilst Movie Bond, having clearly been forced to sacrifice his good sense to big product placement budgets, favours vodka. Or perhaps he just likes supersized vermouth. Bond’s technique is almost as questionable as his ingredients. “Shaken, not stirred” is arguably the dominant drinks related phrase in our collective consciousness. It’s a got an understated I-know-(precisely)-what-I-want cool about it. Unfortunately it’s also ill-advised. There are those who claim that shaking “bruises” the gin (and one would think the vermouth as well), but this has been disputed. And admittedly it does sound a little precious. It’s beyond argument however that shaking introduces aeration and additional ice-melt, and detracts in the presentation. So the alternative, seemingly, as Somerset Maugham was known to recommend, is that “a martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another”. This though would deprive us of the theatrical centrepiece of the Martini experience. Allow me to then to propose a remedy – neither shaken nor stirred, but swirled: languidly sophisticated (the best kind), and functionally sound. Done.

We’ve touched on the ingredients, but without really getting into the meat of it. The central requirements for a classic martini are gin (yes, movie Bond, yes), dry vermouth, and a garnish of either lemon peel (a twist) or olives, of which the most important, the bulk of what you’ll be ingesting, is the gin. I tend to favour a soft gin for a Martini. It’s strong in alcohol, like I said – serious, so you don’t want the flavour to be overpowering. I personally also want the vermouth get a shout – in contrast to Noel Coward who famously said that “a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy” (he clearly didn’t realise that the dry version used in the Martini is principally French). Something like Bombay Sapphire is ideal – velvety soft and smooth, and well-balanced with plump juniper and a slight citric edge. I can drink Bombay martinis all night without becoming bored with or tired of it. But this is a subjective choice and it may, and indeed should, change from person to person and mood to mood. We’re lucky to be living in a gin-loving era, as a result of which the marketplace is replete with many fine exponents with which to experiment and enjoy. Our ability to do the same with vermouth is unfortunately considerably more restricted, at least here in South Africa. There are no dry French vermouths commonly available, and no premium dry vermouths whatsoever. In the midst of this Martini drinker’s nightmare however, as you glimpse fleeting mirages of Noilly bottles during despairing moments, hang onto this little bit of hope. I recently learnt that Swartland winemaker Adi Badenhorst is reviving the old Caperitif brand, and will be producing a dry vermouth under its label sometime in 2015. Martini time baybee!

Book Bond, for whom I now have more respect than movie Bond, epitomises what the Martini is all about. It is utterly ruthless, unflappable, cultivatedly amusing, and effortlessly, all-encompassingly accomplished. It is the invitation to the ball, the inner circle, the reward on arriving. If you are what you drink, then I can’t think of much that’s more complimentary than a Martini.

Movie Bond on Martinis
From: Never Say Never Again
Fatima Blush: “Oh, how reckless of me. I made you all wet.”
Bond: “Yes, but my martini is still dry.”

From Die Another Day:
(At the party in the ice palace of Gustav Graves)
Bond: Vodka (Grrr…!) martini. Plenty of ice, if you can spare it.

From: Casino Royale
Bond: Vodka (sigh…) Martini.
Bartender: Shaken or stirred?
Bond: Do I look like I give a damn?

The WoW classic Martini

2 ½ tots Bombay Sapphire
½ tot dry French vermouth
Swirl over ice in a cocktail shaker
Strain into a martini glass
Twist a sliver of a lemon peel over liquid’s surface, coat the inner glass above the meniscus, and drop the peel into the glass

The headline whiskies of 2014

PATRICK LECLEZIO toasts the standouts of a quality year

First published in the December 2014 edition of Prestige Magazine.

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Whisky, amongst the many services it renders, often provides us with insight into the rampant consumerism of modern society – a view from which I take delight and despair in equal measure. This is a space in which new products are constantly clamouring for our attention, and whilst it’s exciting to discover and explore new things, there’s also a numbing futility to be repeatedly chasing after the shiny new toy. Here in South Africa we’re both unlucky to be isolated, and fortunate to be insulated, from the world’s whisky mainstream. Swings and roundabouts. We can’t get our hands on the hottest style in the market (read rye whiskey), but then again we’re shielded from a lot of the noise. I’ve started to look at the bright side. This enforced moderation gives us the opportunity for more considered appreciation. The last twelve months in particular have been relatively quiet but they’ve served up the four whiskies featured below – each different and distinctive, each exceedingly enjoyable, each memorable, and each deserving of and able to be given meaningful attention. Less is sometimes more. May the dram be with you.

Black Bottle

Black Bottle, the brand, is not new. It’s been around for a while – as evidenced by the large “Estd 1879” embossed on the bottle. I’m not going to go into its history, save to say that it has one and that it’s colourful, in obligatory whisky fashion. However, Black Bottle, the product, the one you’ll now find on the shelves of your local bottle store, is indeed new. There’s been an overhaul to the packaging and the liquid, both inspired. The bottle has returned to its roots – back in black glass for the first time since circa 1914. It was unveiled before us in a 1930’s era speakeasy (aka the basement of the Cape Town Club) – the launch taking the form of a striking piece of experiential theatre, conceived and co-ordinated by 3 Blind Mice’s Patrick Craig, with whom Black Bottle is also teaming on his legendary music events. These though – the robe, the showmanship – were distractions which pale in comparison to the monumental transformation undergone by whisky itself. Previously thin with a somewhat grating smoky dominance, it is now a rich and complex blend. Most interestingly, whilst the phenolic content is unchanged, the smoke is less apparent – being superbly counterbalanced by flavours of fennel, fruit and spice. This is a complete blended Scotch whisky that ticks all the boxes. Superb value priced in the mid R200’s

Glenfiddich 26YO

I’ve never tasted a Glenfiddich that’s disappointed me, and I don’t expect that I ever will. It’s the best-selling single malt in the world for good reason. The 12YO, my faithful long-haul flight companion (thanks Emirates), and the 15YO Solera, my anytime-anyplace companion, are personal favourites. In the malt whisky world Glenfiddich is as reliable as it gets. Reliability may not sound sexy, but when you’re shelling out R3500 odd, as you would for this whisky, it should need no persuasion that this is an attribute worth seeking. That the 26YO would be good then was a fait accompli. It was presented to us by Global Brand Ambassador Ian Millar during a fabulous launch function at the Pot Luck Club. Interestingly the whisky is exclusively matured in ex-bourbon casks. The result is a soft, sweet liquid with pleasing depth and hints of spice and sherbet. The litmus test of a great whisky though is its ability to make a connection with people. And if I’d had any doubts about Glenfiddich (I hadn’t) they would have been quickly dispelled when the whole restaurant accompanied Ian, unreservedly, in full voice, in a rendition of the Glenfiddich theme song – to the tune of “Volare”. Ignition baby! I can’t definitively say that it’s “better than all the rest” as the lyrics suggested, but it’s good, damn good.

Glenlivet Guardians Chapter: Exotic

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m suspicious of multi-vintage No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The concept – as it’s currently being applied – is an industry swindle. I’ve also not been shy however to shower praise on good NAS whiskies. This is one of those. It rates a mention not only because of its quality, but also because it’s a fascinating approach to whisky making. The brand reached out to its fans – via their Glenlivet Guardians program and at special events – and effectively invited them to participate in the blending process. I’d always thought that “ask the audience” was the best lifeline. This whisky proves it. The nose is spectacular, one of the best in recent memory, redolent of chocolate, cinnamon, zesty fruit, and moist cake. There are flashes of immaturity in the body, but not enough to detract from its thick juiciness. Well executed, and great value at approximately R1200. It’s a limited edition so don’t procrastinate. If you want it get it fast.

Single pot stills

Ok, so I misled you slightly when I alluded to four whiskies earlier. My fourth isn’t a whisky but a range of whiskeys. Much awaited, much anticipated, the Irish Distillers single pot stills headed by Redbreast, were finally made officially available in the country earlier in the year. These whiskeys come with a well-merited reputation – a cult status. I’ve enthusiastically sloshed and swigged each of the range at some point in time recently, abandoning myself to the pure pleasure of it on these occasions. When the opportunity came though for more reflective consumption I focused on the progenitors, the ground-breakers responsible for resuscitating this fine, uniquely Irish style of whiskey – these being Green Spot, Redbreast 12YO, and Redbreast 15YO. Apple flavours, progressing from ripe Granny Smiths in Green Spot (suggested by the label?…you tell me), to baked and then caramelised in the two Redbreasts, swim on a filmy, oily texture, amidst fainter appearances of cut grass, sultanas and apricot. Utterly outstanding! It’s insane that the style almost died out – a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions narrowly averted. If you’re limiting yourself to one new whisky during this festive season look no further than to the green hills of Ireland.

Whisky in the winelands

The collection at Cavalli

First published in Private Edition magazine (December 2014 edition).

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It’s said that one should never mix one’s drinks. As an unashamed practitioner of these dark arts, I reject the idea in the strongest possible terms. There’s little that’s more satisfying than enjoying a broad repertoire, preferably one after the other (deferred gratification is overrated). Nonetheless, despite these tendencies, I was surprised recently to stumble upon a bit of an oddity at Cavalli Estate: a massive stash of whisky on a wine farm. What’s more blatant than mixing the grain with the grape?

Odd but not outrageous. Located not too far away are Asara and the Devon Valley Hotel, both boasting outstanding whisky selections, an indication that even here, in a region that has wine so tightly clutched to its bosom, whisky has begun to demand its rightful share of attention. This one though was something special – the private whisky collection of Cavalli owner Jerome Smith, stretching to over 400 carefully accumulated whiskies.

Almost 15 years ago I was privileged to “tour” (that’s how it felt – such was its extent) the whisky collection of the late Leslie Zulberg, probably the finest ever put together in the country. This was during my whisky nascency, and yes, while I knew that I was in the presence of something extraordinary, looking back now I realise that it was largely wasted on the younger, greener me. We are the sum of our experiences, and that visit played its part in my journey, but being more knowledgeable now after having visited distilleries in places as close as Wellington and as far-flung as Islay, and having tasted whiskies as illustrious as the John Walker Diamond Jubilee (a 60YO blend) and as unusual as the Michel Couvreur Spirale (an 18YO finished in Jura vin de paille casks), I saw the Cavalli visit as going some way to redeem me.

Whisky collections are a source of both excitement and discomfort to me. It’s a subject on which I feel genuinely conflicted. On the one hand there’s admiration, of course. The sight of all of those bottles, lined up like an army in formation, often in their hundreds, will unfailingly quicken the collective pulse of whisky lovers everywhere. This I think is a natural reaction to an object of desire – and any collection worth its salt will invariably amass serious desire in serious volume. These collections are also a testament to discipline and persistence of the collector, civilization-building virtues to which I can’t help but doff my hat. And yet, on the other hand – it must be said – they’re an exercise in thwarted purpose. There’s a significant fraction of the world’s finest whiskies – whiskies that are the culmination of generations of incremental expertise, whiskies that in many cases have spent decades patiently maturing in a cask, and whiskies that have been made and cultivated specifically to be the best of the best – that will likely never pass the lips, but instead will spend a lifetime, if not many lifetimes, locked away in glass. So whilst a great collection is beautiful, it is somewhat sadly beautiful. Whisky is meant to be drunk.

Smith divulged to me that when he drinks whisky he tends to stick to the Balvenie 12YO. It’s a delicious dram, no doubt, but how tempting it must be to reach a little higher when the facility to do so is so evidently at one’s disposal. Did I mention discipline?

The Cavalli collection is imposingly impressive. When I asked him for his standouts Smith mentioned his 50YO’s – Glenfiddich (of which he has two) and Glen Grant. They need no introduction. Interestingly the former comes with a certificate which allows the bearer to sample the whisky when visiting the distillery. If one considers that a tot sells for R18k at the V&A’s Bascule Bar, then this is very useful indeed, an added bonus which goes some way to tempering the pain of constantly contemplating but never opening this gem of a whisky.
My slightly morose reflection on collections should be further balanced by the value of whisky as an investment – not necessarily the raison d’être for collecting, but always playing a part. I don’t have a crystal ball and I hesitate to recommend whisky in general as an area of ongoing value growth, but it’s unarguable that its performance over the last decade has been exceptional – a case of dramatically rising demand that was, completely and critically, unanticipated by the industry. Under-supplied, highly-aged stock has consequently been selling for a fortune. This is the drawback to whisky production – it’s a slow and time consuming process. Any whisky is at least three years in the making, great whisky considerably more.

As I laboriously pored over the collection, one shelf after the other, I suddenly came to an abrupt standstill. There is one particular whisky that lives largest in the dreams of all whisky investors…(cue drumroll) the 1964 Black Bowmore (cue cymbals). My itinerant preoccupation with whisky has taken me to a few memorable places, Bowmore included. Funnily enough though my opportunity to see the Black Bowmore in the flesh came not at the Islay distillery but at Auld Alliance in Singapore, which at the time accommodated a first edition in pristine condition with a near-as-damn-it original fill level. These bottles had initially retailed for some £80 when they were first released in 1993 – they now fetch upwards of £6500. You don’t need to do the maths. It’s a staggering performance, by any standard. The second and third editions, which followed in 1994 and 1995, were similarly (if marginally less) spectacular. Together they created a dynasty. The Cavalli bottle is from the final edition (bottled in 2007 from what remained of those same casks, and sold for considerably more), but regardless it retains its claim as one of the most iconic products in the history of whisky. The collection’s other highlights read like Scotch whisky’s roll of honour (not that these whiskies are dead, far from it): Macallan 1937, Highland Park 1962, Bowmore 1968, and Macallan 1969. I was inclined to bow.

The Zulberg collection, when I had encountered it, was locked away in a basement in the declining Johannesburg suburb of Orange Grove. The discordance of it has stayed with me all these years. Luckily the Cavalli collection suffers no such obscurity. It’s not as loud as it is proud – viewings are by appointment only – but it is accessible to a wider audience and, being exquisitely presented in display cabinets, it sensibly fosters a look-but-preferably-don’t-touch appreciation.

As if the whisky wasn’t enough (it was), I was awed by Cavalli in its entirety. The only thing I can reliably inform you about its eponymous horses is which are the front and back ends. I like horses but the less I say about them the better. The rest of it though was in closer vicinity to my comfort zone, so I feel I can pass comment with some measure of assurance. The food is faultless, in fact my rib-eye was literally perfect, the wine is delicious, the sommelier having recommended the Warlord (the estate’s flagship red blend) to accompany my steak, the gallery and other scattered artworks are delightful, with Pierneefs aplenty, and the view is astonishing, taking in the full broad swathe of the Helderberg. Cavalli then is a close to perfect outing for the bon vivant with a whisky bent. May the dram be with you.

Hobnobbing with the scions of Scotland

First published in Compleat Golfer magazine (November 2014 edition).

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My earliest memories of golf are of the Open. The sights and sounds of Turnberry, Carnoustie, Muirfield, and, naturally, St. Andrew’s – the infamous road hole in particular – ring clear amidst the echoes from my childhood. I seized the opportunity to visit Troon some years ago, but it was just for a quick lunch before catching a flight from nearby Prestwick (ironically home to the first ever Open); so my connection to the tournament has remained regrettably removed…until this year. Timings coincided, distances contracted, and fates converged when I was invited on a monumental tour to celebrate the launch of Glen Grant’s 50YO whisky – a tour featuring the final day’s play of golf’s foremost competition.

Golf and whisky share a common bond – a familial bond. The Irish may dispute it but history officially pronounces whisky to have first emerged in Scotland in 1494, when mention of it was recorded in the country’s Exchequer Rolls for that year. Less than 40 years earlier, the first reference to golf was noted when it was banned (in vain, clearly) by the King of the Scots. Fruits of the same loins, and not too far apart; it’s small wonder then that these veritable twins often keep the same company – in this case fifteen avid South Africans, raring to spend time with both.

Ensconced in the Champions Club, our lavish hospitality area at Hoylake, we embarked on frequent sorties – cheering Charl Schwartzel, who played well but failed to ignite a real challenge, Sergio Garcia who was looking good until he floundered at the 15th, and finally Rory McIlroy, who held his nerve to clinch the title. It was a day long in the making. And whilst I registered the absence of the links weather which had coloured my recollections – I would not get to trudge lashed and sodden in the footsteps of this era’s Tom Watson – it lived up to all expectations.

Later in the tour, as I raised a snifter of the majestic whisky that we’d travelled all this way to honour, I called to mind the image of McIlroy with Claret Jug aloft. There was no need for any kind of envy. He was tight with one sibling and I with the other. All was right with the world. May the dram be with you.

The rituals of drinking

Slamming shots, filling flasks, cradling crystal and everything in between. Patrick Leclezio considers the contexts of consumption.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2014 edition).

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On a trip to Zanzibar some time ago I brought with me two flasks, charged to their brims. The much anticipated contents, when I finally disgorged them, were undrinkable. Now I was entirely to blame – I hadn’t properly seasoned the one, and I’d left the liquor inside for far too long – but the experience left me with an aversion to these vessels. I’ve come to associate them with the potential for contamination. Yet, come rugby season every year, I bring out my flasks religiously. It’s a tradition, a custom, a ritual, a habit – call it what you will – that starts with the filling, progresses to the sneaking (past security), and culminates in the sharing and swigging (in the stands during the course of the game). I love it. It’s a routine that amplifies my pleasure, for both the drink and the game. Make no mistake – these contexts in which we drink are important. I’ve often maintained that our enjoyment (and interpretation) of flavour is psychosomatic i.e. influenced by factors external to the liquid itself. So whilst we should absolutely prioritise our picking – if we don’t get that right it’ll be a losing battle – we should also pay heed, increasingly, to the how, when and where the object of our selection will be consumed. Here are a few suggestions to heighten the appreciation of fine spirits.

Caffè corretto

I don’t drink coffee myself, but I have it on good authority – as misguided as it seems to me – that the majority of people find it delicious, so I’m going to take a leap of faith on this one. The caffè corretto is an espresso served with a shot of grappa, literally a “corrected” coffee, suggesting that this might be the best way, or at least the right way, albeit a conclusion attributed to a vague Italian terminological decree, to ingest this brew.
I’ve tasted grappa formally on several occasions, most recently during a comparative evaluation of the excellent Alexander range from Distilleria Bottega, and there’s no doubt, despite the musty-ish apparentness of the base pomace in its flavour, that it offers a distinct, varied and interesting consumption experience. I found the striking difference between variants using different varietals to be especially remarkable – considering that these are just the stems, skins, pulp and pips of those grapes, and not the fruit itself.
My intention here though is not to commend grappa, or even its pairing with coffee. We’d all surmise quite probably that this is an agreeable relationship – on the evidence of Irish coffee and coffee liqueurs. Rather, I’m laying this elaborate platform in homage to Italy’s coffee culture – borrowed from the world over – and to its influence on our engagement with the country’s signature spirit. When we drink a caffè corretto we’re not just enjoying coffee and grappa, we’re tasting a way of life, we’re imbibing a heritage, and we’re inheriting – if only for a few moments – a small measure of Italian chic.

Black tie

I don’t often drink martinis – partly because finding good vermouth in this country is a futile exercise, and partly because it’s a drink that demands (well, almost) a certain attire and consequently a certain occasion. But earlier this year I found myself appropriately suited and booted – black tuxedo, dress shirt, bow tie, pocket square…the whole nine yards – and suddenly the moment was upon me. Nothing but a martini (I’m not even going to dignify that there might be a choice of which) would do. It defies the coldest logic, but it’s simply not possible to equate the pleasure of a martini with and without black tie. The former is infinitely superior. As I sipped my Hendricks martini (go bold or go home), flashed the cuffs of my Viyella jacket, and introduced myself surname first followed by first name and surname again, I lived the realisation that this was an indisputable conclusion.

Stogie

I’m not a prolific brandy drinker but recently I’ve become increasingly inclined to partake of our local potstills. They’re generally excellent and they’re available in ever-widening variety – as I began to better appreciate at a sampling of the Mount Nelson’s brandy and tapas menu. Boutique or craft potstill brandies are the order of the day – with names such as Savingnac, Uitkyk, Tokara, and Joseph Barrie leading the charge. Whilst these and their more mainstream fellows are just fine all on their own (I remain dubious about pairing spirits with meals, little tapas snacks maybe…at a stretch), they’re propelled into the stratosphere when partnered with a good cigar. The intersection of a mild cigar (Davidoff Classic No. 2 for me, but stronger if you’re a veteran), a rich potstill (Van Ryn’s 15YO?) and a balloon glass (think swirling smoke), offers the perfect vantage point from which to contemplate life and sigh contentedly.

Out and about with whisky

The Speyside episode. Patrick Leclezio toasts the highlights from a tour to end all tours.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2014 edition).

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I remember my first trip to Scotland like it was yesterday – partly because if fell over 11 September 2001 (I heard the news at a little pub on the banks of Loch Ness), but also, more cheerfully, because it introduced me to the world’s ultimate whisky destination. The area on either side of the Spey River in the Highlands of Scotland – a span located approximately between the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness – is undoubtedly the most special place in the whisky world. Scotch whisky divides its formidable universe into five official regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and Speyside. The latter, the object of my current affections – colloquially known as Strathspey, is by a Scottish country mile the most prolific, being home to some 49 malt whisky distilleries. I was recently gifted the privilege of return visit, as part of a tour to celebrate Glen Grant Single Malt’s just-launched 50YO. It was a trip to remember. Here are a few highlights of the region for the whisky pilgrim. May the dram be with you.

The Craigellachie Hotel

Their website claims 750, their staff told us that it’s now over a thousand. That’s the number of whiskies they offer at their bar (The Quaich), and whatever the precise figure might be it’s a lot – something about shaking a stick comes to mind. The hotel, despite its renown, or maybe because of it, is completely unobtrusive – the generic “Hotel” lettering being the only signage advertising its presence. There’s a deep sense of rustic Scotland that resides here, from the copper light fittings at the front door, to the preponderance of wood: wooden bar, wooden chairs, tables, and shelves – all that was missing was a couple of casks. It’s an undeniably special place at which pause in a journey to enjoy a few drams. Ironically enough our barman was South African, more ironic still, he’s the son of one of the owners of Wild about Whisky, South Africa’s answer to the Craigellachie Hotel. It’s a small and strange world.

Loch Ness

The Monster might be a laughable concoction, but you’ve got to give it to those canny Scots – they’ve taken an ordinary, albeit picturesque, lake and transformed it into a tourist attraction of global repute. The upshot is that tour boats ply the waters regularly, transporting the gullible, the cynical and all paying customers in between over this “mystical” expanse of water. And so it was that I found myself lazily basking on a deck, sipping whisky with my fellow tour-mates in the soft Scottish sunlight, and watching castles, ruins, and other pleasant sights of little consequence as they drifted past. In short it’s a brilliant way to spend an afternoon – just for a lark. Here too, as almost everywhere else in Speyside, the connection to whisky is never far away; the loch’s waters owe their murkiness to dissolved peat, the same stuff that’s burnt to impart a distinct smoky flavour to certain whiskies.

Glen Grant

The stills, the mash tuns, the washbacks, and even the quaint stone buildings are much the same as at other distilleries in the area, but the spectacular gardens, set in a glen carved out by the Black Burn, ensure that the distillery lives in a league all of its own. We meandered through them at leisurely pace, stopping for a picnic under a pagoda, before eventually reaching the “Dram Hut”, a yonks old structure accommodating a whisky safe fixed into the rock – not some sort of decorative spirit safe mind you, an actual metal strongbox containing whisky (you can’t make up this stuff!) – where we were treated to a few drams of the Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 25YO. This whisky dates back to an earlier era, some of it being as old as 37 years, when the distillery still made a peated malt, so it seemed like quite a fitting drink to facilitate our pursuit of a deeper acquaintance with the place – and the more of it we drank, the more facilitated we felt.

Scottish cuisine

The Scots are not known for their food but it turns out that some of it is pretty damn good. Aberdeen Angus, the breed of cattle exalted in Argentina and other meat-loving locales, originates from nearby, and quality steaks of this fine beef are in ready supply all over Speyside. We did not desist in our appreciation. Likewise we filled our boots with local scallops, Scottish salmon – smoked over wood chips made from old whisky casks – and most notably, haggis, served in the traditional manner, with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), both mashed. The customary breakfasts in these parts – similar to the English version but with the addition of baked beans and black pudding – is also well worth trying. And to those apprehensive at the thought of haggis and black pudding let me say this – don’t think about it, just go for it, they’re both delicious.

A Scotch major

Patrick Leclezio focuses his big dram temperament in pursuit of the title

First published in Golf Digest (September 2014 edition).

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As it appeared – p3

“To see a world in a grain of sand”. I was reminded of Blake’s words – perhaps in a less metaphorical sense than he had intended – as I watched Sergio Garcia visit the 15th hole bunker at Hoylake during the final day of the 2014 Open Championship. It was a portentous moment. I joined the surge to the green, knowing, like everyone else in that gallery, that the fate of the title might well rest on whatever happened next. This was golf appreciation at its pinnacle – the decisive period at the game’s home major. The atmosphere was simply electric.

The rest of course is history. Garcia fluffed his trap shot and his challenge disintegrated. Instead of holding infinity in the palm of his hand, there was probably just a fist clenched in frustration. I was disappointed, but only mildly so; my horse might not have come in but it had been an epic day on a fantastic links course (luckily with distinctly unlinks-like weather – my British fellow course-goers were for the most part tinted bright red by the end). I returned to drown my sorrows, such as they were, at the Champions Club, our opulent (remember that word) hospitality area, with the rest of our major-going party – actually, let me qualify that: our double-major-going party. A group of us had flown to Britain, less for the golf than for another major – a whisky major.

In whisky the equivalent of a major, the prizes to which most patrons of the golden nectar aspire, are the old and the rare – most conventionally manifest in the form of a 50 year old. These are the “big shows” of the whisky world, eagerly awaited and widely publicised.

It might be useful this point to consider what the age of a whisky entails, and why 50 years of it might be regarded to be so special. The ageing phenomenon is called maturation and it occurs through contact with wood, in casks made from oak. A whisky can only age in maturation – once it is decanted from a cask it is in a sense frozen in time. During maturation the whisky absorbs flavour from the cask itself (vanillins and tannins naturally present in the wood), from the liquid that preceded it and that remains impregnated in the cask (most commonly Bourbon or Sherry), and, less overtly, but in many cases distinctly nonetheless, from the cask’s environment as it breathes. The whisky also reduces in alcoholic strength during this ageing process – a result of evaporation (the twee-named Angel’s Share). The broad (and very important) result is a mellowing and flavouring of the liquid. In fact it’s widely acknowledged that maturation is the single factor that makes the greatest contribution to the flavour of any whisky. So it stands to reason, on a very simplistic level, that more ageing, more mellowing and more flavouring, must be desirable…up to a point. 50 years for many whiskies is well past that point, so when a cask continues to improve as it marches onwards towards that magical milestone, it’s cause for a celebration of top tournament proportions.

Which explains (but not really) how a crew of enthusiastic South Africans came to be at Royal Liverpool for the culmination of one of golf’s greatest majors: we were on route to Scotland for one of whisky’s greatest majors – an unveiling of the Glen Grant 50YO. Sixteen men, an unlimited drinks budget, and a fierce love of whisky: all the makings of an unforgettable adventure.

Our base in Scotland was the town of Elgin (that’s with a hard-g people), the very one from which ours in the Cape takes its name. There were no apple orchards here, but this was more than compensated for by a preponderance of whisky, nowhere more so than at our lodgings. The Mansefield Hotel is an unassuming place; it is comfortable and hospitable – we were frequently, and graciously, attended to by the owner and his family – but in most respects it gives the impression of being quite middling…an impression which is dramatically arrested and turned on its head at sight of its bar. The Mansefield bar is quite simply a showstopper, boasting a selection of whiskies that would put all but a paltry few of the world’s best hotels to shame. A Glenfiddich 50YO in alliance with various 40YO’s, including a Dalmore, a Balvenie, and some 60 odd from the Glenfarclas Clans collection, holds sway over a substantial, entrancing host. Whisky porn. It was near impossible to look away. The hotel has quite rightly as a result become the accommodation of choice in the area for whisky tourists from all over the world. We shared the place, and a few drinks naturally, with a festive band of whisky “ambassadors” who’d made the long pilgrimage from Hong Kong – an impromptu coming-together of the whisky brotherhood in one of whisky’s truly special places.

The highlight of the trip, indeed the purpose for which we’d teed up at the start, was of course -and I say “of course” with some contemplation, not because I’m doubtful of its veracity, but rather because it demanded something exceptional to qualify so obviously for the accolade – our visit to the Glen Grant distillery, to crown this much anticipated champion dram. The other contenders clamouring for the honour had included a personalised tour of Old Trafford, a cruise on Loch Ness, a round of golf at Castle Stuart, clay pigeon shooting, the aforementioned attendance at the Open, and a one-after-the-other succession of exquisite meals – we’d gorged ourselves on Scottish salmon, scallops, steaks of Aberdeen Angus, and haggis with neeps and tatties, accompanied by a repeating roll-call of delicious Sancerres, Barolos and Chateauneufs du Pape with which to wash it down. Did I say opulent? These though were all about to take a back seat.

We’d prepared for the visit by topping up our Glen Grant education at the Mansefield. No-one in their right mind plays a major without substantial practice – and then a bit of loosening up on the range before the start of the round. Back home we regularly get to enjoy the Glen Grant Major’s Reserve, the 10YO and the 16YO. This is the distillery’s core range – incidentally representing some of the best value single malt drinking on the market – with which we wasted no time in reacquainting ourselves. Occasionally, it also releases a few limited editions, most recently the 170th Anniversary edition, last seen in SA some two years ago, and the Five Decades, which came and went in a blur last year. I’d lamented the latter’s brief existence. It was an outstanding whisky: rich, creamy and full-flavoured – but I’d resigned myself to its expiry. So it was with no small measure of joy – a high-five dispensing type of joy – that I noticed a few bottles behind the bar, accompanied by the 170th no less. We sipped these drams into the wee hours with a it’s-hard-work-but-someone-has-to-do-it stoicism, retiring only when we felt ready to tackle the big one.

Now, I’ll be perfectly honest with you. Once you’ve seen the inner workings of one distillery, you’ve almost seen them all. A few have their own maltings, all but a few have their own unique stills, and there’s always a bit of variation here and there, but for the most part it’s more of the same. I’ve visited a dozen odd in my time, and whilst it’s always interesting to delve into the processes, there’s a limit to how excited I can get about it. In this respect however the excursion to Glen Grant – the 50YO moments not even counted – was an absolute exception, for two reasons.

Firstly, for any whisky loving layman, a distillery is less about its industrial functioning than about the setting (and the stories). Atypically for what are essentially factories, they tend to be quaint structures located in pretty surroundings – much like a clubhouse and its golf course. In that sense Glen Grant is the Augusta National of distilleries – its charismatic beauty is nothing short of exceptional. The bubbling burn, the stone buildings, and coach-house-cum-visitors-centre paint a picture of olde worlde elegance, that is then elevated to fine art by a glen of elaborate, splendorous gardens. And even there amidst the trees, flowers and birds, the presence of whisky is never far away – we were delighted to stop for a dram at the “secret” whisky safe set into the rock in the upper reaches of the garden.

Secondly (two reasons, remember), our tour of the distillery was conducted by the man who runs the place and makes all of its important whisky decisions – Scotland’s longest-serving Master Distiller, straight-talking Glen Grant supremo Dennis Malcolm. It puts a different spin on things when the guy who pulls the strings is the one who’s showing you around.

The big moment when it came was a spiritual experience. I’m never going to raise the claret jug (or any kind of golfing trophy for that matter), but holding that precious liquid gifted me with just an inkling of how that must feel. We put mouth (and nose – never forget the nose) to glass in the dunnage warehouse, the squat, thick walls imbuing the space with a cool, reflective quiet, the stacked rows of casks with a reverent, imposing gravitas. Few would get to drink this nectar, fewer still would drink it here on such hallowed ground. The whisky when it permeated my senses was big, very big, almost overwhelming, as one would expect from something this ancient; the pool of flavour so profound that it seemed to be reaching back, drawing from each and every one of those 50 years. This was eternity in an hour. May the dram be with you.