The boys are back in town

First published in MUDL Magazine (September 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I find it difficult to believe, in moments when I reflect on it, that until this year we did not have access locally to one of the most prominent whiskey styles in the history of the drink. It was a sad reality – at the risk of being melodramatic – which we’ll hopefully never have to face again. It’s sadder still that there were many long bleak years during which its very existence hung in the balance. This dismal state of affairs is luckily now a thing of the past. Redbreast and Green Spot, previously just names wishfully, wistfully spoken by this country’s whiskey lovers, are now beautifully tangible, bottles of the stuff being firmly ensconced in our bars and liquor cabinets.

You’ll have realised by now that I’m referring to that most uniquely Irish of whiskeys known as the Single Pot Still, whiskey made in a pot-still (obviously) from a combination of malted and unmalted barley, a range of which was launched in South Africa by Pernod Ricard in January during a would-be-elegant (if not for certain of my table-mates) dinner hosted by their global whiskey ambassador – and epic Irish toast master – John Ryan. If ever there was a whisky moment worth celebrating this was it.

The last time that a Single Pot Still was brought to our shores by an official importer is lost to the record – but needless to say it was a long time ago, and a diminishing hiatus at that. In many ways the story of Irish whiskey reflects that of Ireland itself: tragic, principled, enduring, resurgent, and throughout it all, ebullient, lyrical and embracing. It is a bittersweet story, having travelled a course of buoyant victories and bitter setbacks. It led the charge of whisky in the nineteenth century, dominating the market with its rich, full-flavoured pot stills – it was during this time that their industry changed the spelling of their product from whisky to whiskey, to distinguish it from Scotch, which they perceived to be inferior – but then it passed on the trend to blend, much to its commercial detriment. Independence and secession from the Empire deprived it of vast markets. Scottish corporate interference later stunted the industry’s capacity to produce grain whiskey. One hindrance followed another. They shunned bootleggers and then were insufficiently prepared for the revocation of Prohibition, leading to severe reversals in one of their most successful markets. Post-war government policies further limited development, reducing the once flourishing industry to a ravaged state, limping along with, until recently, only two operational distilleries.

The Irish though are survivors, and so is their single pot still whiskey. These boys hung about in blends, notably Jameson, for much of the dark times, but they’ve re-emerged to claim their rightful place in the whisky pantheon – which is important, not only because Ireland is the birthplace of whisky (or so the Irish claim) and because single pot stills are the truest of Irish, the very heart of its tradition, but more so because they offer us whisky lovers an astonishingly good, meaningfully distinct style of whiskey. There’s whiskey in the jar again people – may the dram be with you!

The single pot stills available to us here in SA are the following: Green Spot, Redbreast (12YO, 12YO Cask Strength, and 15YO), Midleton Barry Crockett, and Powers John Lane (my personal favourite).  Watch this space for a more detailed evaluation of these fine whiskeys.

The king of white spirits

It’s gin of course, but who will win its crown? Patrick Leclezio casts an eye over the claimants.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I ascribe no small measure of my attraction to gin to its ability to hold my interest. Whisky stands tall amongst spirits for the variety and complexity encompassed within its broach reach – and whilst gin could never hope to match this scale, being largely unmatured, in a sense it can be considered to be the whisky, and consequently the king, of white spirits. Gin is gin because of its botanicals – ingredients or infusions, potentially limitless in number (virtually), which give individual gins their complex flavour, and which very distinctly differentiate one gin from another. I recently gathered up some of the more prominent gins available on the local market and invited a panel of hard tack luminaries to review them with me – a serious analysis, sure, but also, admittedly, an opportunity to indulge. And indulge we did. I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or misrepresentations – rather I blame them on some large measures of unstoppable deliciousness. As a friend once memorably responded when I offered him a g & t: “ooh, talk dirty to me”. It’s that exciting.

The gin repertoire is fairly extensive: it’s drunk neat, with a citrus garnish of some sort, in cocktails (in fact it’s the original cocktail base), with a mixer, and in martinis (I feel I need to separately mention and emphasise this particularly legendary gin cocktail). Most commonly though, it’s drunk with Indian tonic: a quinine-laced carbonated beverage that was conceived, as the name suggests, and as is the case with the evolution of many other popular drinks, for purposes other than epicurean titillation. This mosquito neutraliser struck a chord, and became entrenched for its flavour rather than its original function. So any gin review would not be complete without evaluation in combination with its running mate. Of course there are tonics and there are tonics. Schweppes is passable, but why settle for passable – life’s too short. The best to which we have access in this country is the delightful Fitch & Leedes, made by a small producer in Stellenbosch. I guess you could call it craft tonic. It’s a bit more expensive but worth every cent. Needless to say our tasting was conducted using this excellent option.

Gin flavours are very particular – and different gins will appeal to each individual to varying degrees of preference. Juniper, certainly, and also citrus seem to be the most widespread botanicals. I’d venture the opinion that these are the traditional signatures, perhaps best represented in gins like Tanqueray, and the under-the-radar, more muted (or subtle), but no less worthy Boodles. In fact Tanqueray marries so well with tonic that it’s become a standard for that purpose; it’s smooth and easy, but still interesting. Supercharge it and you get Tanqueray No. 10, or, once you’re better acquainted, Tanq 10 – same smooth integrated effect but bursting with additional flavours. If you’re inclined towards “traditional” gins and you’re willing to pay the premium then you probably don’t have to look too far beyond its impressive, faceted visage.

If the Tanqs occupy the London Dry Gin middle ground, then on either side you’ll will find Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater, the former soft, open, and fragrant, the latter savoury and edgy. These three gins are a striking exhibition of gin’s diversity. They have clearly distinct flavour profiles and I can see each having particular appeal to different drinkers: Beefeater and Bombay in my opinion are unlikely to be substitutable for one another to most gin lovers. Beefeater has pulled back from its extremities with its premium expression, the new-ish Beefeater 24, which is considerably more moderate; I wonder how it’s been received by hard-core fans of the mainline variant. It’s wonderfully enjoyable but it feels like a departure from what makes Beefeater Beefeater – in my opinion.

Now it’s worth noting some extrinsics at this stage. I firmly believe that flavour, and, relatedly, the appreciation of a fine spirit, is psychosomatic – by which I mean that external influences beyond aroma and taste play an important role. This extends from contextual elements such as setting and mood, to visual cues such as presentation and packaging. Bombay is a standout in this regard – a compelling mix of the classic and contemporary: Queen Victoria mixing it up in electric blue (or maybe a few shades shy). I can’t help but be drawn to it and luckily it doesn’t disappoint – anything but! – on cracking the seal.

The other gin that’s making a splash at the moment is Hendrick’s. This isn’t London Dry, so the flavours are created partly from infusions rather than only distillates, as a result of which the drink seems relatively less balanced and integrated but also bolder and more visceral. It’s also a step away from the traditional – cucumber and rose petal predominate making it significantly unlike anything else I’ve tasted; it’s rich, round and racy.

We were also privileged to have included in our review a local craft gin, made in Stillbaai, called Inverroche – epically South African in that fynbos constitutes its botanicals. It’s a well-presented, well-made product, with a strong, unique flavour. I prefer my gin more restrained and traditional, but I’d urge you to give this a try. There’s a little bit of the Cape in every bottle.

Last, and unfortunately least, in our estimation was Seagram’s Gin, the eponymously named gin of a now defunct liquor company accommodated in an iconic frosted bottle. Spirity and obvious, it’s best left to the formula which made it famous in the States – mixed with juice.

It would be an understatement if I were to tell you that I’ve become a fan of gin. My appreciation of this fine spirit is legion. It has become my aperitif of choice. At the risk of sounding like a tedious Capetonian – a risk I’ll take – I can think of little to compare with the experience of sitting on my veranda on a warm summer’s evening, and contemplating the mountain (and my day and life in general) whilst sipping on a stiff gin and tonic. Glorious! This is my special gin moment, as I’m sure you have yours. As the bible sort-of advises (and who would argue) – go forth and multiply it. Chin chin!

Special thanks to Marsh Middleton and Bernard Gutman.

State of the nation 2014

South African whisky. PATRICK LECLEZIO visited Wellington to take a reading.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I wanted to get a gauge on the health of the whisky of this country there was really only one man I needed to see. Andy Watts is synonymous with South African whisky; in some 23 years at the helm of the James Sedgwick distillery he has steered the ship (all three of them if you will) from plonk to virtual perfection. His two prodigies, Three Ships and Bain’s, over the past two years, have come of age and earned their stripes, seizing the prestigious World Whisky Awards titles for best blended whisky and best grain whisky respectively. The scale of these achievements cannot be overstated, especially for young, previously unfancied whiskies from the foot of Africa. I sought him out to chat about the journey and about plans for the future.

There was a time not so long ago when Three Ships was sneered at and put down with all manner of disparaging names. That was the era of our whisky’s infancy, a time during which Sedgwick’s output was of such low priority to its owners that the distillery was thwarted with old, discarded casks that nobody else wanted. Those days have well and truly been consigned to the past. Andy attributes the turnaround to a new, more serious, and more professional approach to whisky-making, particularly to wood management, instilled during the merger that created the Distell group. The whisky boom, which has been a hallmark of the past ten plus years, helped to justify and sustain the increased investment, with new stills, various other upgrades, and a resplendent facelift further transforming the distillery. It has become a jewel, both in style and substance, of which South Africans can be genuinely proud.

I think it’s explicitly apparent to any educated observer that the quality of product has been dramatically elevated, and that it’s now beyond doubt. Three Shits? Not for a long time now, and never again. Ok, that’s great, but is it enough? And if not, where to from here? I recently expressed some concerns about “world” whisky (whisky from emerging producer territories, of which South Africa is one); these and others will be the challenges facing Sedgwick’s and other aspiring local producers as they seek to take their next steps.
My main concern hinges on the question of what makes our whisky particular to its region; the answer – nothing, other than the obvious geographical provenance…at least in my view of things. Sedgwick’s produces whisky based on the Scotch model. Accordingly there’s nothing about Three Ships and Bain’s that identifies them as distinctly South African. In fact most of the blends sold under the Three Ships label, including the award-winning 5YO, are constituted with a Scotch component – not just the malted barley, which goes without saying, but actual distilled-and-matured-in-Scotland liquid; this is a policy set to persist for the immediate future (although to be fair the proportions have been diminishing). Even Bain’s, which can at least claim to be entirely indigenous (locally produced only from locally grown raw materials), doesn’t seem to differ conceptually from the whisky of a Scotch distillery like North British, which also makes grain predominantly from maize.

Now there may well be divergence of opinion on this issue depending on one’s individual interpretation of what constitutes distinctiveness. When I put the question to Andy, he suggested that the difference was one of focus: whereas grain whisky is considered a filler, subservient to malt, by the industry in Scotland – receiving the short end of the resource stick as a result – here in South Africa it is lavished with the type of care and attention (first-fill casks et al) expected for an heir to the kingdom…which is exactly what it’s considered to be. Bain’s is styling itself as a whisky for emerging markets – light, flavoursome, accessible and easy-drinking – which is set to conquer South Africa, the rest of Africa, and beyond. I liked what he had to say but his response addresses quality rather than style – at least at this stage; who knows what a purposeful dedication to grain may inspire in the future. For now though even the promising descriptor “Cape Mountain Whisky” is nothing more than a Distell trademark, with no particular definition of its own. It’s a pity, but my guess is that these guys are too busy making and selling exponentially increasing amounts of their whisky to worry about this very much. Perhaps in the future.

More promising, at least in this vein, are the new single malt styles being explored by Three Ships. It’s unusual that the brand serves as an umbrella for both single malts and blends – I can’t think of many prominent whisky labels that do the same (Bushmills and…?). Rather the trend is to move in the opposite direction – note Green Label’s relegation to black sheep status in the Johnnie Walker family. I was told that this structure was motivated by the brand’s pioneering nature, manifest in a drive to experiment with different whiskies and styles of whisky. I’m not so sure that this intention has publicly graduated into reality quite yet, but things seem to be percolating behind closed doors. Andy introduced me to a few special, recent creations: two styles of new-make malt (the distillery makes four) – one heavily peated, the other unpeated – matured (or rather finished) in Pinotage casks. South African whisky aged in a South African cask – very encouraging! This is the type of thing that needs to be pursued, and pursued vigorously, if the local product is going to be set apart. The flavours too give cause for belief: robust peat well-balanced with a sweet spot in the one, and a delicious spicy sweetness – the defining feature of Pinotage casks I’m told – shining through to full effect in the other.

Three Ships has only released three limited edition single malt bottlings to date – interestingly each distinct from the other as is the convention with vintages, although if these were vintages they were weren’t marketed as such – but there are plans afoot for a permanent malt program in the near future. Let’s hope that these two singular whiskies are included. They may just be the beginning of a genuine, ownable, inimitable South African whisky tradition. May the dram be with you!

 

Big on brandy

I don’t think that the emphasis on cocktails is the right way to restore faith in South African brandy. They’re easy-come easy-go, not fostering a relationship with the base spirit itself. And if the barmen serving them are clown incompetent and tortoise slow, it doesn’t help. This was the principle drawback – said and out of the way now – to an otherwise outstanding Brandy Festival 2014 (officially Fine Brandy Fusion), held at the Cape Town Convention Centre recently.
The most encouraging feature of the Festival was the increasing emphasis on pot still brandy. This stuff is the real deal – made in copper pots, as the name suggests, fully matured, and entirely credible. It is as it should be the flag-bearing style for the industry. Brandy is our signature spirit, a spirit that we can claim to be ours more than any other, and in pot still we have an expression of which we can be truly proud.
It became apparent to me as I was touring the exhibitions that there are now four strong mainstream brands each producing a significant range of excellent pot still brandies – not to mention the growing array of boutique creations, which hopefully will be better represented at the Festival in future years. In Van Ryn’s, KWV, Oude Molen and Oude Meester the style is being manifest in a manner befitting its tradition.
My introduction to Oude Meester was perhaps was the most encouraging experience of the evening. This was a brandy to which I hadn’t paid much attention in the past. Despite the Jamie Foxx-fronted reinvention it had always struck me as a bit stale and “ou doos”. Anything but! Oude Meester is the sipping brandy for a new generation. The 8YO “Demant” was perhaps the greatest revelation; bold, fresh and flavoursome, it is an easy-drinking and affordable entre to the genre – a welcoming gateway to the world of pot stills. The brand offers a graduated transition to a 12YO and then to its amazing 18YO – also bold and flavoursome, but evolving a generous measure of complexity that was missing in the more obvious Demant. I highly recommend a lingering acquaintance with these brandies, for novices and aficionados alike.
Oude Molen, since our last interaction, has doubled the size of its family – the impressive René Single Cask and Solera Grand Reserve joining the legendary VOV and the stalwart 100 Reserve – giving brandy lovers an added variety of terrain for exploration. I believe that their distillery in Elgin is well worth a visit too so that’s something to remember next time you’re in apple country and looking for an agreeable diversion.

Maturation at Oude Molen.

Maturation at Oude Molen.

Whilst I’m more familiar with both Van Ryn’s and KWV, which offer similarly structured portfolios of pot stills each consisting of 10, 12, 15 and 20 YO’s, than any other brandies this was nonetheless a rare opportunity (and privilege) to taste and compare their ranges side by side. The former’s aggressive flavour profiles contrasted with the more subtle, restrained character of the latter, but both are undoubtedly excellent, and deserving of their positions at the head of the pack.
The Brandy Festival is still in its infancy, so it may well have escaped your notice – if so then make sure you schedule it in your agenda for next year. It’s a must for anyone with so much as a passing interest. Its purpose is evidently to promote education about and consequently the appreciation of brandy, and in that regard it packs a punch – I particularly liked the nosing beakers isolating some of the more typical brandy flavours – but it does so with a velvet glove: the delicious food (really impressive for this type of large public event), the atmospheric décor, and the supplementary entertainment all contribute to make it a big brandified blast of an evening.

Meeting your match

I love whisky events – I get to drink interesting whiskies, with my whisky friends, whilst learning a little more about whisky. They tend to occur at cool venues, serving delicious food and playing great music, and usually I’ll leave at the end of these things with an enhanced ability to write meaningfully about whisky and the goings-on in whisky. What’s not to love? Some are better than others of course but on the whole – nothing. Okay okay, push me and I’ll reluctantly admit that many (the majority – tastings excepted) follow a formula of favouring style over substance, enjoyment over education if you will, form over function if I must.
It was refreshing thus, upon accepting an invitation to the launch of Johnnie Walker’s (JW) online profiler, to see that emphasis reversed. Not that this wasn’t fun – it was, but there was a real intent here to impart something more.
JW has for some years now been tilting its “king of flavour” platform. This ostensibly intrinsics-centric approach is sometimes communicated in a somewhat extrinsics-centric manner and could be considered at odds with JW’s other glitzy activities, but there can be no arguing its relevance. To you the whisky lover flavour should be the single most important feature to seek out in a whisky. Do you like it, and if so, what is it about it that you like? The online profiler attempts to answer these questions for you, albeit within the narrow confines of the JW universe.
I was treated to a somewhat upweighted experience – although the general principles are the same as the one you’d find online. It works like this: one is tasked to select two preferred aromas and two preferred tastes (online it’s three) from a wide-ish range of each. My real-life version provided small vials for nosing and small morsels for tasting, whilst online these selections need to made conceptually. An algorithm then processes the selections to determine a match to one of the JW whiskies. There’s also a choice of “vibe” in the form of a music snippet (online you’ll be asked for mood, setting and serving) but I was told that this makes little to no difference to the outcome.

Intriguing.

Intriguing.

So does this really work? Is the result valid? My match was JW Black Label, which I’d be hard-pressed to agree as my favourite whisky in the JW range; not necessarily a failing on the part of the profiler I guess; its output can only be as good as my inputs, and these types of preferences, for me at least, are not definitive in isolation. Do I prefer the taste of figs or cherries, or the aroma of oak or cut wood in whisky? It’s really impossible to say. I’m as likely to prefer one whisky’s manifestation of fig as I am another’s of cherry. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
I was struck by a few other concerns. A brand promotion is and should be self-serving by definition, but this facet of it can sometimes be achieved better indirectly. I would have been more grateful to JW for a steer beyond its own products and into the wider world of whisky, but maybe this is something for the next generation profiler. It can also be frustrating (rather than aspirational) to be matched to something that’s beyond your budget – yet there’s nothing to guard against this eventuality.
Where does that leave us? In the real world I suppose – where nothing is perfect. The profiler may not be pin-point precise, and it may have some minor drawbacks, but don’t let this put you off. It is pioneering tool – a great, genuinely value-adding effort, and hopefully the first foray of many, at solving the problem of how to make a whisky purchase decision that’s right for you. Give it a spin at www.meetyourmatchsa.co.za, and may the (right) dram be with you.

The art of dramming

A few simple tips to get the most from your whisky

First published in MUDL Magazine.

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Questions about whisky don’t come more vital, or more common, than this one – how should you drink it? The response will likely have an immediate and direct impact on your enjoyment of this fine spirit. Much of it comes down to personal preference, but here are a few guidelines which should help you to get the most from your whisky:

- Add a measure of water (bottled, not the chlorinated stuff from the tap). Water breaks down the congeners (flavour bearing fatty acids) in whisky thereby opening up its flavour, a phenomenon known amongst whisky lovers as “releasing the dragon”. The rough rule of thumb is to add the same volume of water as whisky, or less. If you want to do it right then beg yourself this nifty device – called “The Tilter” – from Bowmore Distillery; it’s a water dispenser issuing either drops from one spout or a gentle flow from the other.

- Use ice (made using bottled water) with circumspection. Cold, with its numbing, mildly anaesthetic properties, is a flavour inhibitor. Ice also results in rapid, uncontrolled dilution. If you must have ice then I’d suggest you favour ice-balls – with their reduced surface area relative to a block these are characterised by a slower melt.

Scottish folklore suggests that we should drink our whisky at the temperature of an old-fashioned parlour room. Here, under the hot African sun, where temperatures differ from Scotland somewhat, I’ve found that the addition of a small measure of cold water is enough to compensate quite nicely.

Postscript 18/05/2014: New suggestion – crushed ice. Great control over portion size, teaspoon by teaspoon. Melts quickly. Perfect for the hot summer.

- Don’t mix whisky. Actually, let me qualify this – don’t mix premium or aged whisky. Even the most expert tasters can’t appreciate the nuances of a great whisky if it’s been doused by coke, lemonade and the likes. Stick to the less expensive fare when mixing whisky and making cocktails; anything else is a waste.

- Nose your whisky. There are 32 primary aromas, as compared to only four primary tastes. A good whisky has so much more to offer than what can be enjoyed on the palate alone. You should seize the opportunity to explore this “hidden” dimension. Use a glass with a tapered rim to concentrate the vapours and leave your mouth open to enhance your olfactory abilities.

Postscript 18/05/2014: I’ve recently learned that this idea of 32 primary aromas is an invention – a plausible fabrication that has gathered momentum and been repeated so often that it’s somehow entrenched itself as the conventional whisky wisdom. My recent discovery comes courtesy of former whisky blogger Kevin Erskine.  In this case it doesn’t really matter – it doesn’t change the principle that I’m trying to substantiate; whether it’s 32, 20, 89 or any other significant number…the point is that aromas offer additional insight into and enjoyment of the flavours of a whisky. I say that to defend my advice, but not to defend myself. The lesson here is to question the facts and challenge assumptions. Is that as trite as it sounds? I think I need to add – to a reasonable extent. I should, strictly speaking, actually be verifying all of Erskine’s assertions as well, but that’s not realistic; if I had to do this consistently I’d never get anything done. It’s a lesson to stay alert nevertheless and engage a bit more common sense in sniffing out what is and is not legitimate.

Enjoy and may the dram be with you!

 

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.