Rousing resolutions

There’s no more universally potent an impetus for change than the onset of a new year.  PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends a few adjustments to your potational proclivities.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2014 edition).

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p2.

As it appeared p2.

Another holiday bites the dust.  They call it the FESTIVE season for good and obvious reasons, a description which for many – would it be ungenerous to say most? – extends to their consumption of distilled spirits.  The period in which we now find ourselves, the calm after the storm, is a time of contemplation and reflection – hence the emblematic resolutions that are bandied about, with anything varying from iron resolve to gay abandon depending on the individual.   I’d like to add to your list for 2014…if I may be so bold.  My suggestion is in two parts.  Firstly drink quality over quantity.   Ok, I never claimed that these offerings would be rocket science, but simple as this may seem its application is not a foregone conclusion:  it’s easy to slip back into old habits, and quality tends to cost, so price can be a deterrent (or an excuse).  Fine, high-quality spirits enhance all the wonderful, positive attributes of the genre, whilst inhibiting its less savoury elements (responsible drinking shouldn’t be just a tagline).  Secondly, try new drinks.  There are a myriad of different spirits out there offering an array of different flavours – and most of them have a pleasing depth of heritage; it’s reassuring to know that something has evolved over hundreds of years, and that it’s been exhaustively tried and tested…and trusted.  Hike out of the rut.  Reach out and embrace the wonders of the spirituous world in their multitude.

Here then is a short guide to get you started on your journey, to move you from vague generalities to actionable specifics.  Carpe diem!

KWV 10YO

I recently attended a delicious lunch during which KWV showcased their core range of premium brandies.   The focus seemed to be on their new 12YO, which is admittedly very good, but my attention was drawn to the less fashionable 10YO – for various reasons: it’s a great, flavoursome brandy (I particularly enjoyed the tart apricot on the palate); it’s been selling at a ridiculously good price (good for us, not sure if it’s so good for KWV or for the standing of premium brandies – we’ll just have to trust that they know what they’re doing); and, most compellingly, it’s signalling a promising shift in the industry.   I’ve written in the past about how I believe that South African brandy is being hampered by the presence of unmatured wine spirits in its compositions – a situation, by the way, which now only applies to the blended and vintage categories.  Well done then to KWV for taking their 10YO and transforming it from vintage to potstill (100% pot distilled, matured brandy).  This is the direction in which the industry should / must / has to travel.   The vintage labelling however still remains on the bottles (and on the tasting notes provided to us at the lunch!) –  I’m told that “they have yet to effect a label change” – which I find puzzling (disquieting?); these types of product changes don’t happen overnight and I would have thought they’d want to shout this out.  Regardless, ditch your coke and take the step up.

Hennessy XO

Brandy may not have the range of a spirit like whisky, but there’s no shortage of ground to be explored – and explore it you should.  Cognac is effectively a brandy produced in a designated region (the areas surrounding the town of Cognac in France), according to certain defined processes and regulations.  The quality of South African potstill brandy bows down to no man, so to speak, but when it comes to luxury the French are still well out in front.  XO is the new cognac black, and Hennessy – a great Irish name for a quintessentially French product…somewhat bemusedly – is the iconic leader of the pack.  I can confidently attest that their XO will make an outstanding accompaniment to any fruitcake that may have survived the Christmas gorge.  With some luck, if you hurry, you’ll also still be able to pick up their gift pack featuring a high-end, complimentary flask.

Mainstay 54

The proliferation of premium vodka over the last decade (and a bit) is remarkable, especially locally where premium white spirits have traditionally been the green, wet wood of the liquor industry.  Last year witnessed the introduction of our own home-grown, big-brand premium vodka – Mainstay 54.   Made from a distillation of “sun ripened molasses through a 5 column distillation process” – the type of vodka blah-blah which in my experience matters more to the perception rather than the actual quality of the liquid – this vodka actually does have an important point of difference from most of its synonymous brotherhood: the 54 denotes the alcohol by volume (ABV), well in excess of the category norm.  The tangible benefits to you the drinker will be twofold:  if you take your vodka in shots you’ll significantly boost your consumption experience, and if you dilute your vodka with a mixer you’ll extract considerably more value.   The lower freezing temperature also makes Mainstay 54 the ideal beverage for one’s occasional Arctic expeditions – in fact I’ll write to them to suggest a change of advertising theme; clearly the tropical island settings are not doing the product full justice.

Disarronno

I’m not a frequent liqueur drinker, but I’ve selectively come to both appreciate their worth and enjoy them on an occasional basis.  Amaretto – a diminutive of the Italian word amaro (bitter) – is probably one of the oldest and proudest styles of liqueur in existence, dating its origins back to the early 16th century.  Disarronno, supposedly the original amaretto and certainly the leading purveyor, is actually more bittersweet than bitter, and, unlike many others, it contains no almonds (or any other kinds of nuts); rather its signature fruity, nutty notes are derived from an infusion of apricot kernel oil.  Look out for Disaronno’s Valentine’s Day limited edition pack – produced in association with the Italian fashion label Moschino.  It presents the ideal opportunity to introduce yourself and your significant other to this delicious gem of a spirit.  Best enjoyed neat over ice.

A year in whisky

Last year was bursting at the whisky seams.  PATRICK LECLEZIO recapitulates the major new appearances during 2013.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

The soaring popularity of whisky in the recent past (and ongoing I should add) is well documented.  We are living through a period where more whisky is being produced and consumed than at any other time in history.  I’d hesitate to describe it as a “golden age” – defined by the Oxford, specific to our purposes, as “the period when a specified art or activity is at its peak” and, more generally, as “an idyllic, often imaginary past time of peace, prosperity, and happiness” – because peaks in volume do not necessarily (and in fact often don’t) coincide with peaks in quality, and any idealisation of our whisky era by future generations may well be somewhat imaginary, but it is undoubtedly a remarkable and an interesting time, as epitomised by the action in 2013.  We experienced a glut of new releases on the South African market at a variety of price points, so there was something relevant for any and every whisky lover.  In case you missed it, here are the highlights.  May the dram be with you!

(A bit of background on the review – all the whiskies featured were evaluated by a panel of four whiskyphiles during the course of a single evening).

Glenlivet Alpha

This high-intrigue launch created considerable anticipation as the marketing machine of the world’s second-biggest single malt shifted into high gear.   I must admit that my interest was piqued.  Here was a whisky with a cask profile that is completely unique (to the best of my knowledge): the Alpha has been matured in first-fill casks seasoned with Scotch whisky, instead of the typical Bourbon or Sherry i.e. the Alpha’s casks were virgins when they were first used to age Scotch whisky.  If you’ve been around the block and you’re struggling to find something genuinely different then I reckon this is worth trying for that reason alone.  Hats off to them for a bit of sparkling innovation.  But whilst it may yet give rise to illustrious progeny this first effort was be middle-of-the-road – a touch disappointing, given the expectations, and, dare I say it, a touch immature-tasting for the price point.  I think I need to revisit it in a quieter moment.

Grant’s Sherry Cask Finish

It may be lower profile and less newsworthy than the Alpha, and whilst it may not boast the same uniqueness this whisky is nonetheless unusual.  The technique of cask finishing is predominantly reserved for malt whisky, so it’s a surprise to see it featuring in a young blend; in fact Grant’s claims to have been the first to finish a Scotch whisky blend in a sherry cask.  The finishing period is short – “up to four months” – but the result is pleasing, particularly to a sherried whisky lover like myself.  It’s an easy drinking blend with some extra stretch – well worth the premium.

Glenfiddich 15YO Distiller’s Edition and 14YO Fine Oak

I reviewed these both in September last year so I’m not going to say too much more – save that we enjoyed them tremendously.  They’re highly credible, and highly recommended – just what you’d expect from the guys who bring you the benchmark 15YO Solera.

Monkey Shoulder

Blended malts are a hugely underrated (and underappreciated) style of whisky.  There’s not much by way of functional superiority of single over blended malt.  A single malt is representative of a singular place and style, in the way that a blended malt can never be, but a blended malt can call upon a variety of malts, and, catalysed by the blender’s skill, thereby draw from a much larger flavour palette to create something that might be just right.  Monkey Shoulder is just right – a sweet, smooth, fun addition to our serious limited selection of blended malts.  You may also be interested to know that “monkey shoulder” was a condition affecting hard-grafting, shiel-wielding distillery workers back in the more manual era of malting.  What’s next I wonder: Greenstick Fracture and Third-Degree Burn?  Not sure why they’d choose to name their whisky after an injury…maybe they just needed to justify the cool monkey icon on the bottle.

Macallan 1824

I wish I didn’t have to report on this range of whiskies.  The Macallan is one of my favourite brands of whisky, so it pains me to have to say something negative about it.  But unfortunately I must.  The NAS trend has been motivated by the shortage of aged whisky stocks – as unforeseen levels of demand have progressively exceeded supply.  These products are motivated less by the desire to make good whisky than by the drive to maintain volume growth.  It’s a hard, understandable reality, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it.  Macallan has now joined this circus with 1824, its first core range of NAS whiskies.  More brutal still, they’ve discontinued their aged range, including the magnificent Sherry Oak, in a variety of “lesser” markets, South Africa being one.  Bitter tears…as I’m sure Michael Hutchence would sing if he was alive to see this.

One of my main problems with NAS whiskies is that they’re often (not always) being used to harvest excessive margins.  Flavour is subtle, and, very importantly, it’s usually only experienced post purchase, so it’s not the clearest, most reference-able indicator of value, especially for the casual whisky lover.  Big brands like the Macallan, freed from the shackles of an age statement, are able to use their marketing power to extract more profit from multi-vintage liquid than if they sold the components separately – great for them, not so good for us.  I think this is the case with 1824.  The mid-priced variant, Sienna, is some 70% more expensive than the previous 12YO Sherry Oak, but I prefer the latter (and I know many others who feel the same) and I think it’s a better, richer whisky (and probably on average older).  Or at least I think I do – I can’t get hold of a bottle to do a comparative tasting!  The 1824 whiskies themselves are good, no doubt – this is still Macallan after all! – especially the Sienna and the Ruby which retain the distillery’s trademark sherry flavours, but comparison with their predecessors is unavoidable and the taint of NAS is inescapable.

Glen Grant Five Decades

Wow!  Let me get that out the way.  This one blew us away with its delightful creaminess.  I have a lot of open bottles at my bar – it’s part and parcel of this whole whisky gig.  Some sit there for months, a few have been there for years.  Not so with this whisky.  Two bottles of Five Decades disappeared in short order despite my best efforts at restraint.  It’s that good.  Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm created this limited edition whisky to celebrate 50 years at Glen Grant, constituting it with casks from the previous five decades.  Interwoven with fruit, toffee, vanilla, and cream it’s a long, meandering, relaxing, convivial Sunday afternoon drive of a whisky; and at just over a grand a bottle it represents great value – the standout release of 2013.

Potstill pleasure

I mentioned in an earlier post about pairings that I had recently attended two lunches themed on this format.  The second of these – hosted at the fabulous Pot Luck Club by the SA Brandy Foundation and KWV – was a showcase for the latter’s core range of premium brandies.   I don’t think that they could have chosen a better venue.  The spectacular setting – the restaurant is perched at the “top” of Woodstock and enjoys wraparound views – was outdone only by the exquisite meal (and brandies of course), the highlight of which was a world-beating main course of pork belly with cured apple.  I’ve heard that this fare has become voguish – fully understandable if the general standard is within shouting distance of the Pot Luck Club’s tour de force.

The guys with whom I typically hobnob at most of the liquor events I attend were absent, this being brandy rather than whisky related, so I had the opportunity to make some new acquaintances, including Savile Row and Emily Post aficionado Neil Pendock, whom certain readers may remember fondly – I know I do – from this post, and the affable Alastair Coombe from the blog Brandy and Ginger.

The focus during the lunch seemed to be on the new 12YO, which is admittedly very good (a satisfyingly rich brandy, like its 15YO stable-mate), but my attention was drawn to the less fashionable 10YO – for various reasons: it’s a great, flavoursome brandy (I particularly enjoyed the tart apricot on the palate); it’s been selling at a ridiculously good price (good for us, not sure if it’s so good for KWV or for the standing of premium brandies – we’ll just have to trust that they know what they’re doing); and, most compellingly, it’s signalling a promising shift in the industry.

I’ve written in the past about how I believe that South African brandy is being hampered by the presence of unmatured wine spirits in its compositions.  Well done then to KWV for taking their 10YO and transforming it from vintage to potstill (100% pot distilled, matured brandy).  This is the direction in which the industry should be travelling.   The descriptor “vintage” however still remains on the bottles (and on the tasting notes provided to us at the lunch!) -  I’m told that “they have yet to effect a label change” – which I find puzzling (disquieting?); these types of changes don’t happen overnight and I would have thought KWV would want to shout this out.  Anyhow, stranger things have happened.  The selection – delicious throughout – was completed by the 20YO potstill, which I found to have a deep, layered nose that retreated to softer, more restrained flavours on the palate.

This KWV ensemble is an engaging, interesting range of potstills that demonstrates the excellence of South African brandy.  One day in the not too distant future we’ll be scratching our heads and marvelling at how it could ever have been possible in late 2013 – early 2014 to buy a 10YO and 12YO potstill brandy of such quality for under R200 and R250 respectively (despite having to bear in mind that at 38% ABV versus 43% for most other spirits they should be, simplistically, about 12% cheaper like-for-like).  Brandy might have been struggling of late but if producers can invest in the intrinsics and keep offering this calibre of liquid then the tide will surely turn.

I’ve previously remarked on the good work being done by the SA Brandy Foundation, the co-hosts and organisers of the lunch – which was another feather in their cap.  I may not agree with their emphasis on brandy cocktails (the basis for one of their promotional campaigns), but there’s no arguing with the vigour and dynamism that they’ve injected into the category.  I’d left the event impressed – as I’m sure was the intention, job deservedly done – and replete with positive sentiments, so it’s with some reluctance and discomfort (a mental indigestion – ironic because the lunch sank happily into my depths) that I’m now going to raise a few concerns; unfortunately it’s necessary if I’m to be objective and true to my observations.

I don’t pretend to be comprehensively aware of all of (or even most of) the Foundation’s activities.  I’m sure that there’s a lot of great (and vital) work being done about which I don’t have the slightest inkling – so keep this context in mind. I’ve kept an eye however on its efforts in the area of consumer education, which I had felt to be commendable.  It was sad thus to take note of a few (small, but important in my opinion) recent reversals.

Two matters in particular:

Firstly I noticed this call-out on page eight of the Summer 2013 edition of the Foundation’s magazine (called Angel’s Share).

Now, this is clearly false.  When I queried it, rather than retracting or admitting a mistake, I was told by the Foundation’s spokesperson that “Potstill brandy must be aged for a minimum of three years in casks no larger than 340 litres”.  Somehow the fact that they hadn’t mentioned the word “potstill” didn’t seem to enter the equation. Misleading? Definitely.  Deliberately misleading?  I sincerely hope not.  I think the latter, if it were the case – apart from being just plain wrong – would also be short-sighted and counter-productive in the long-run:  if I was told that a 1.6L car was a 2.5L I’d probably end up being disappointed with its performance.

Secondly I also noticed that the Foundation’s explanations of the classes of South African brandy, as stated on its website and in the magazine, had gone from being brilliantly specific (and to my mind very clear and easy-to-understand) a few months ago to vague-ish, lacking transparency, and, in one case – the definition for vintage brandy – a bit confusing.  With regards to the latter the magazine suggests that these “contain a minimum of 30% potstilled brandy, blended with matured and unmatured wine spirit” whilst the current version of website defines them as “potstill brandy blended with matured wine spirit” (I’ve since been told that the latter is accurate, following an agreement by the industry, but not yet enacted in law – so much like the improvement to potstill brandy that did away with its unmatured component). Now there’s obviously detail in these definitions that could be perceived as unflattering, however the Foundation’s purported reason for how it now portrays them, i.e. the stripping out of much of this detail (you can see this taking place even in the two excerpts I’ve just provided), was simplicity – to deal with “a crisis regarding consumer confusion and apathy”.  I disagree.  Surely the best way to tackle confusion and apathy is better not lesser education.  This is easier said than done of course – I realise that I’m shouting from the stands – but if South African brandy has aspirations to be world-class, which I think it rightfully does, then I don’t think there’s any other way.

These issues though don’t really matter when you’re sitting with a glass of the good stuff in front of you.  My message then to brandy lovers for the new year:  ditch your coke and take the step up to potstill, at least partially.  On the evidence of this showing, and others, you won’t look back.

Single casks – on the knife’s edge

I mentioned in my last post that I’d recently attended a pairing lunch laid on by Checkers LiquorShop – for the launch of Private Barrel Co., a house label of single cask whiskies.    We were introduced to four private bottlings – a Glenlossie 15YO, a Benrinnes 15YO, a Glen Grant 17YO, and a Mortlach 14YO – each of which was paired with a separate dish.  The food was sumptuous – par for the course(s…) at the Cape Grace – and whilst I remain dubious about this manner of pairing for anything but the occasional there’s little doubt that it can (and did in this case) work spectacularly well as a promotional format.

Anyhow, I’m not going to linger on the finer details of the lunch itself.  It was enjoyable for those of us attending – who can argue with fine food in the company of whisky and the whisky brotherhood? – but it’s of little further relevance for my purposes here; apologies to any food voyeurs who might be reading.

Cape Town whisky brotherhood, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Members of the Cape Town whisky brotherhood seated and ready, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Onto the whisky.

Actually, wait.  Allow me a contextualising aside before I continue.

Single malts are considered to be pure and unadulterated whisky.  They are representative of a singular terroir and style, and they are rare and limited.  Many casual whisky drinkers though aren’t explicitly aware that there are in fact three broad categories of single malts.

The typical, regular single malt is in fact blended – or vatted to be more correct about it.  A variety of casks, sometimes filled in a variety of different years, are used to maintain flavour consistency from one bottling to the next. 

Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only liquid distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings.  Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded.  The appeal of vintages is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. 

Single casks are the apex:  one source, one style, one cask…(with a qualification for the latter – single casks can be double matured or finished).  The link to the past, always important with whisky, is particularly strong here – single casks define its origins.  This is whisky at its purest and most unadulterated.

There’s a persuasive basis thus on which to recommend both single casks in general and the Checkers range specifically:

-          They epitomise the romance of whisky.

  -          They are tangibly and dramatically limited – whilst the precise volume depends (primarily) on the type of cask and the length of maturation, we know with certainty that each expression would be restricted to somewhat less than the capacity of the largest possible cask (a pipe or butt at a little under 500 litres – at cask strength).   The Checkers offerings are limited to no more than 600 bottles each at 46% ABV, so they present a golden opportunity to secure a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness.

 -          Single casks are uncommon on the South African market – our laborious liquor legislation making it cumbersome to import small batches of any one product – so these new entrants make a welcome addition to our repertoires.

-          I’d expect to pay a premium for single casks given their rarity and distinctiveness, but the pricing on these offerings – ranging from R550 to R850 – suggest that they’re great value for money…at least in theory.

Checkers deserves substantial credit for identifying this gap, and, even more so, for filling it.  These guys may be new to the whisky game – as evidenced by their tasting mats which displayed the words “whiskey” (Checkers is only offering Scotch at this stage) and “palette” – but their flair for retail is undeniable.

You’re probably thinking that at this stage that I should be brimming with untempered enthusiasm.  Unfortunately – being a bit of a cynical bastard (both a curse and a blessing) – I retain some reservations.  Single casks are the only whiskies that are not vatted (ok, the grain versions too).  Quite simply, when making this type of whisky, there is nowhere to hide.  Other whiskies may be able to get away with sub-optimal components – camouflaged in the vatting – but with single casks everything is either good or it’s not.

So, in evaluating the merits of the Checkers range, the vital issues for me – which eventually detracted from an entirely favourable impression of these whiskies – was provenance and cask profile.  I wanted extensive and specific cask and producer information.  What kind of wood?  Seasoning?  First fill or refill?   Did these casks come from the distilleries (unlikely in this age of whisky shortages), or from an independent bottler?  Which independent bottler?  If the quality of a single cask is an inherent risk – as I’m suggesting it is – then this information would mitigate that risk to an extent.  It would give someone considering purchase a certain measure of assurance and direction, and a fair means to assess pricing.  R850 may not be a lot in premium whisky terms, but for gaping uncertainty it’s still a long outlay.

It turned out that the cask information was unavailable – other than some bare bones.  The producer information was initially also unavailable, and somewhat muddled.  I was told at the function that some casks emanated from the distilleries and some from a variety of (unnamed – because Checkers wanted to keep the focus on their own brand rather than an association) independent bottlers.  Fellow blogger Bernard Gutman, who’d attended the luncheon with me, was later told that the casks had all been sourced from Hart Brothers, a relatively little-known independent bottler.

(Correction 04/01/14:  Bernard has just informed me that the casks were sourced from Meadowside Blending, which is owned by Donald Hart of Hart Brothers).

What to make of all this?  I personally don’t believe that any organisation in the business of maturing casks of whisky – whether the distilleries themselves or independent bottlers – would offer its better casks for a private bottling in the usual course of business (there are always exceptions – especially where long-standing relationships are involved).  It would stand both to make more profit and to better enhance its reputation by bottling them under its own label.  So my educated, and perhaps ungenerous, but honest guess – and I stress that it is a guess given the patchiness of the information – is that these are second-choice casks from a second-tier bottler (or bottlers).

The range

The range.

The whiskies themselves were a mixed bag.  I enjoyed the Glen Grant, especially its stewed-pear nose – and I’d have to say that this is a good bet at its R799 price-tag; the Glenlossie and Benrinnes were pleasant, if middling; and the Mortlach was a touch disappointing – even more so given the Diageo overhaul that will likely project pricing of Mortlach offspring into the stratosphere.

The balanced view is that overall this is a great initiative – but with the potential to be even better given some transparency.  We live in an era when consumers are increasingly hungry for knowledge, and knowledgeable as a result.  It’s becoming counter-productive in my opinion to withhold critical information – just generally, or in an attempt to portray products as more than what they are…and there’s too much of that happening in the marketplace already.

I look forward to lots more (whiskies and information about the whiskies) from Private Barrel Co.  May the dram be with you!

Are pairings here to stay?

The relatively nascent trend of pairing food with whisky (and now brandy) is all the rage at the moment.  I for one am delighted – a burgeoning friendship between one’s great friends, what could be better?  Moreover chocolate, sincerely one of my very dearest friends, seems to be a popular pairing partner – hooray!  But are pairings just a passing fad or do they have the legs to become a classic consumption ritual?

My two BFF's.

My two BFF’s.

The basic idea with a pairing is synergy.  The flavours of the whisky or brandy (or whatever – other spirits will surely follow if they’re not doing so already) and the food should complement and enhance each other, thus creating a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts.  Interesting, but hardly so revolutionary that I spilled my drink as I jumped up in excitement. Wine has obviously been doing the same thing for millennia.

Pairings fall into two distinct groups – at least in my view of things:  the drink is paired with a meal, and more elaborately, a separate drink is paired with each course of the meal, or food is paired with a drink.  The distinction is a reversal of the primary and subsidiary roles.

My forecast for the former is pessimistic.  Wine, as a meal-accompanying beverage, also plays a lubricating role, which spirits, with their higher alcoholic strength, can’t really hope to fulfil, at least not without a level of dilution that compromises flavour.  I suppose that one could supplement with water, but that’s unwieldy.  People gravitate towards the simple and the natural, and personally I can’t see this becoming habitual – although at the very least it offers an alternative in good company: my uncle’s tut-tutting when I’ve drunk beer instead of wine comes to mind…water off a duck’s back.   Nonetheless, these musings certainly don’t suggest that one couldn’t and shouldn’t enjoy an occasional meal pairing experience.  I recently attended two lunch functions – Checkers LiquorShop at the Bascule and KWV-Brandy Foundation at the Pot Luck Club (more on these shortly) – where the hosts used this platform, quite superbly, to exhibit their offerings.

More promising to me though, as a sustainable, long-term “ritual”, is the latter style of pairing, where the food accompanies the whisky or brandy, not the other way around.  This is effectively a jumped-up, better-thought-out version of snacks-with-drinks. It just works – no further thought required.   I’m still a pairing novice but I can recommend the following:

-          cheese and crackers (with almost any whisky depending on the cheese – other than the heavily-peated variety)

-          chocolate (also works with a broad base of whiskies)

-          oysters (roll out the island whiskies, Islays and Talisker in particular, and hold off on the Tabasco)

-          salmon sushi (light, fruity whiskies with a bit of spice – Edradour 10YO would work, as would, funnily enough, Yamazaki 12YO)

-          cake (sherry cask whiskies such as Macallan, Glendronach and Aberlour)

I would continue but I’m drooling all over my keyboard.  May the dram be with you!

Café culture classics

An exercise in acclimatisation.  Patrick Leclezio ponders the ultimate in acquired tastes.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I have this belief, a general life rule if you will – that some might interpret as masochistic, that anything worthwhile is not easy.  Perhaps this explains my fascination with acquired tastes.  The first time I ate an olive, as a child, I thought it vile, spitting it out in disgust.   My parents laughed and told to me that I’d have to eat lots of them before I started to understand them and enjoy them.  I think that’s what galvanised my resolve – the idea that I should earn this cultivated pleasure – rather than the detection of any promise in that initial experience.  Today I eat olives on a daily basis, devouring them like peanuts.  The turnaround has been complete, and pervasive; they’ve become one of my firm favourites.  It was an important lesson, I think – not life-saving, or anything quite that dramatic, but certainly life affirming.  We’re here so we may as well make the most of the varied delights on offer (within reason of course, I’m not advocating debauched hedonism), and in pursuit of such first impressions can sometimes get in the way.  But they call them that for a reason, because other, different impressions may well follow. Some spirits are burdened with this barrier – who can genuinely say that they enjoyed whisky from the very first sip, for instance? – none more so than the strange breed known as bitters.

Years ago, I enjoyed what I’d describe as an iconic Tuscan experience.  Ok, I should admit that it wasn’t actually in Tuscany, more like Lazio – a inconsequential distinction.  I had come across a small countryside town, a village really, called Sutri; built on a hill, a cobbled, hemmed-in street winding its way to the top, where it opened up onto a piazza, this was the traditional Italy of a past era.  I had wanted to soak up the scene with an appropriate aperitif – and when asked the local bartender recommended something called Crodino, which I soon discovered was a non-alcoholic version of bitters: astringent yes – to my uninitiated palate – but intriguing. It struck a chord; whilst I can’t say I’ve drunk much Crodino since, the encounter prompted me to persist with bitters, and I’ve kept a bottle in my cabinet ever since.

Ok, so hopefully I’ve convinced you now by that this is something worth some further consideration.  It’s a stretch though to refer to it as a unified drink.  Bitters are possibly the most fragmented category in classic spirits – the only common feature which they share is a broad, bitter (as the name suggests) flavour, created by either an infusion of the essences from one of or a combination of herbs, spices, roots, fruits and barks, or a distillation of these ingredients.  Since these recipes vary greatly from product to product the specific flavours can also be miles apart.  They’re also distinguished by significant variations in alcohol content and drinking formats. 

Here’s a quick run-down of the four types of bitters over which you’re most likely to trip in a local bar or bottle-store.

Jägermeister

This is one taste that I just haven’t been able to acquire.  It’s a hotchpotch concoction of an over-the-top 56 ingredients which continues to taste like cough syrup to me…but I must be in the minority.  All round the world people are chugging Jäger shots and Jäger bombs (a shot of Jägermeister depth-charged into a Red Bull), and the odd few might even be drinking it old school as a digestif.  In volume terms this stuff is the king of the bitters – some 80 million bottles are sold every year – and it packs a punch at 35% ABV, especially since it’s largely drunk neat.

Angostura

Originally intended as a stomach tonic way back at its inception in 1824, Angostura has now evolved into a pretty much unique (its imitators notwithstanding) style of spirits.  Whereas most are drunk neat or with a mixer added, this highly concentrated potion is used primarily as a drop-by-drop additive – for flavouring and / or colouring other drinks.   It is well-known for pink gin and the almost-teetotalling rock shandy, and it is easily distinguished from other seasoning bitters by its legendary, mistakenly-then-deliberately oversized label. 

Campari

The definitive Italian bitters has been given a run for its money in recent years, particularly by arch-rival Fernet Branca – which ironically counts South African aloe amongst its ingredients despite not being available here.  Synonymous with style and elegance, as epitomised by its annual (is that redundant?) calendar, the drink has garnered an anecdotal reputation (which I don’t have the data to quantitatively verify) for a distribution footprint that far outreaches its actual consumption.  If it’s true then this is good news for us aficionados – we’re unlikely to be disappointed, wherever we might be, in our quest for a Negroni, an Americano, or any other Camparied libation.

Aperol

The distinguishing feature of Campari’s little brother is its low alcohol content: it weighs in at 11% ABV, versus the former’s 25%, although I should note that it is bottled at 15% for the hard-core Germans, with whom it has become extremely popular; thanks to them its volumes have almost come to match Campari’s.  It has a similar flavour to Campari but is milder and not as bitter. So all round a moderate bitters.  It’s highly recommended in a Spritz: three parts Prosecco (a Cap Classique will do), two parts Aperol, and one part soda water.  Picture yourself in a little Mediterranean alfresco bar and let rip!

 

Whisky progeny

Riding the coat tails of their forebears.  PATRICK LECLEZIO considers the world whisky phenomenon.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).

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In the past I’ve written about “world whiskies” in nothing less than glowing terms.  I’ve always felt that whisky is distinguished from most other fine spirits by three vital attributes, the first two being complexity and variety – towering pillars that have set this drink apart and above.  The array of flavours within a single whisky – as evidenced by browsing through any arbitrary enthusiast’s tasting notes (pretentious and overcooked, I’ll admit, as some of these might be, in true anorak style) – is astounding, almost incredible to the uninitiated; and the scale of the variation amongst whiskies is unrivalled in classic liquor (would chasmic be too strong a word?).  It is thus safe to assume one would think – a foregone conclusion! – that the relatively recent proliferation of world whiskies should be regarded as an exclusively positive development, adding as these do to this lexicon. Perhaps, perhaps not.  It’s sometimes worthwhile to challenge even the most assured assumption.  I decided to take another look at this new fringe with a more critical eye; the result: a few musings about why the situation might not be as unambiguous as first impressions might suggest.

First though, what exactly are world whiskies?  I’ve always misliked the expression because it pronounces a lumping together of disparate products often with little in common – much of which should not be tarred by each other’s brushes.  Anyhow, for the sake of expediency I’m going to persist with it, and I’ll define them as whiskies emanating from regions where no whisky-making heritage exists, and where the whisky-making tradition was imported – wholesale – from elsewhere.  Japan is an oddity in this paradigm – whisky is not organic to the country but it could be argued that a heritage of sorts has now come to exist; nonetheless I’m going to include Japanese whiskies in my thinking.

I’ll kick-off with the third of my attributes – integrity.  The standards that have been laid down by the collective, established industry are generally rigorous (although I note the odd lapse here and there, and some worrying recent trends – inevitable I guess when the interests of the consumer are being served only indirectly). Scotch whisky and American whiskey, in particular, have precise and exhaustive sets of governing regulations.  Whilst these might well be self-serving (and they are – make no mistake) they nonetheless offer us whisky lovers a certain guarantee: that we can part with our hard-earned lucre with the relative security that expectations – instilled over generations – will be met, and that certain important criteria will be respected.  This is not something on which we can necessarily rely elsewhere. 

In fact new territories may be tempted to distort and exploit the acknowledged whisky-making ethic to serve their own agendas, and some do.  Take India as an example (an obvious one, forgive me) – where even the basic rules, the fundamental foundations of whisky production, have been grotesquely violated.  Whisky by evolutionary definition (and legal definition, in most places) is a spirit distilled from cereal grains, yet the bulk of Indian whisky is made from molasses, which is often subsequently blended with various proportions of malt or other grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premiumness.  “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said industry guru Bill Lumsden of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. The conclusion to which I’m drawn is that a massive swath of drinkers, the largest whisky-drinking population in the world, is being deceived, and short-changed.  How can this be good? 

I’ll admit that this is a blatant extreme – the issue is not so facile. There are conceivable instances where departures may even benefit flavour. However, as with sports, meaning derives from a set of rules.  Rugby might arguably be more exciting if one could pass the ball forward, but then it wouldn’t be rugby, would it?  Whisky’s identity, and indeed its value, comes from its link to its past and its traditions.  A drink springing from anything other than this platform, good or bad, should not have the right to call itself whisky, or to tap into its goodwill.   I wrote some time ago that whisky is only whisky because five hundred years of documented history (and several hundreds more lost in the mists of time) have told us that that’s how it should be made.  Integrity is everything.

Some sophisticated whisky drinkers might be willing to overlook such risks – their knowledge and the price points at which they engage are largely insulating.  Their sometimes-very-transitory attention tends to focus on the shiny new toy – usually malt with some sort of cachet, and with its own “brand integrity”: the Japanese, yes of course, and others such as Mackmyra (Sweden), Amorik (France), Amrut (India), and Sullivan’s Cove (Australia).  I have no doubt that these new whiskies have enriched the variety in our whisky regimens, but the real value of this added diversity is questionable – its impact owing more to novelty than to genuine uniqueness.  We can point to some distinctly individual flavours – the incense acidity evidenced by the use of Mizunara casks in the maturation of Japanese whisky for instance – but this is by no means guaranteed.  And how much variety do we really need? Surely, at some point, there has to be a diminishing return – because like-for-like (I use the term loosely), generally (our own Three Ships is an exception), these whiskies tend to be significantly more expensive than those from established regions.   

Most damningly, to my sense of things, it’s worth noting that whilst there may be product-to-product variety, there is scant by way of collective style variety.  New whiskies have emulated Scotch whisky by-and-large – with a few tweaks (be they motivated by genuine passion or by business reasons) thrown in to claim some originality: sorghum or other eccentric mashbills, scrub-wood and juniper twig fragrancing, local oak casks, and unusual stills, to quote a few – rather than build a concertedly separate identity.  These experiments are not without merit but ask yourself: is there a new whisky territory that stands significantly distinct?  Have original new whisky styles emerged?  Not really.  Even in Japan (and South Africa, and elsewhere I’m sure), the most compelling contender, blended whiskies are still synthesised using Scotch malt.  This cannot be ignored.

Now, I grant you, this is a thin line – almost contradictory given that I earlier mentioned the need for a connection to the past (which is somewhat exclusive) – perhaps impossibly thin, but those are the challenges of a late entry.  Here in South Africa there’s no meaningful legal definition, of which I’m aware, for a South African style of whisky.  Does this betray the lack of an intention to create anything unique and proprietary, or is it something that just needs to evolve organically as it did with the now established styles?  If the latter applies I think we need to concede at the very least that it doesn’t exist yet, and that potentially that it may never exist.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should moderate our consumption or exploration of world whiskies, not at all – because many of them are exceptional.  The best Japanese whiskies, often internationally lauded and awarded, easily rival those from anywhere else, Scotland included, and unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past two years you’ll know that our own whiskies have also garnered a few global gongs.   I recently had the opportunity to sample a range of Kavalan whiskies, ahead of their imminent local launch.  These whiskies hail from Taiwan, a country that is quite special to me.  I lived there in the mid-nineties, which doesn’t seem so long ago, especially in whisky terms.  It’s incredible then to think that the first Kavalan whisky was only released some twelve years thereafter in 2008, and it’s even more incredible to experience what’s been wrought with such young liquid.  They’re still a bit raw, but there’s a symphony of activity: a musical arrangement of lilting flavours – I’ll defer to their orchestral theme – against a signature background of ripe tropical fruits.  It epitomises the best of the world whisky phenomenon. 

What I am suggesting – and I have little doubt that this will be an unpopular sentiment, one that may be perceived as unsupportive (although that’s not my intention) – is that our enthusiasm should be tempered with the awareness that these whiskies are imitators; great imitators in many cases, yes, often imaginative and innovative, but imitators nonetheless.  Originality, real originality, has an irreplaceable, unsubstitutable worth.  Authentic objects should always command greater prestige than derivative objectives – especially to discriminating and critical consumers – and world whiskies are undoubtedly derivative.  They will not – cannot! – truly come into their own until and if they stake a real claim. May the dram be with you.