India from the top

From Delhi to the Himalayas and back again. Patrick Leclezio recounts the highlights of a journey through northern India.

First published in Sawubona magazine (February 2016 edition).

No view can compare to the view from the roof of the world. I’m completely certain then that for as long as I live I’ll see few sights to rival a sunrise over Sandakphu. It’s difficult to describe the extent of its impact. The unfolding of it was so spectacular, its searing magnificence so pronounced, that the experience, spiritual if ever there was one – and if you’ll humour such an overused and underappreciated expression, will remain with me forever. If you’re lucky a trip will be defined by a staggering moment, that on its own justifies (and amplifies) the time, the expense and the effort. Standing there on that mountain, amidst a jumble of emotions, that was my sense of things. I felt completely fulfilled. Sated. I had the powerful realisation that – wow! – I didn’t need anything more.

The journey to Sandakphu, located on the Singalila Ridge in the Darjeeling district on the Indian border with Nepal, is long and progressively arduous: starting with a long haul flight to Delhi, then onto the lottery of Indian air travel with a domestic leg to Bagdogra, followed by an initially chaotic, later winding and precipitous road transfer to Mirik (in my case) and then Mane Bhanjang, and ending with a bone-jarring, at times hair-raising, ride to the 3700m summit in ancient, bald-tyred Land Rovers. The final stage is hiked over a few days by many visitors to the area, or, as was the case with the party I was accompanying, an audacious few, the participants of the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, it can be run. The result is the same, give or take a few doses of exhaustion. You find yourself off the grid – no running water, no plumbing, no mobile phone signal, and if that’s off-putting then it’s your loss – in a rustic place that it would be trite to describe as beautiful. It was overcast when I arrived: grey velvet draped over a dramatic landscape, primed for a grand reveal. We were up at 04h30 the next day, ready for the show, anticipation now properly heightened. And then there it was. When the sun rose shortly thereafter, it gradually illuminated four of the world’s five highest peaks. Everest of course, iconic, clustered with Lhotse and Makalu, but at a distance. The most impressive – huge, dwarfing the others from our point-blank perspective – was the broad Kangchenjunga massif, culminating in the world’s third highest peak. Its presence was so imposing that I felt it more than I saw it. I had no doubt that I had experienced something profound.

The experience of the Himalayas proved central to my enjoyment of India. The prime objective of travel is to experience new places and new cultures, but the real reward comes from stepping outside of yourself and of your fixed views and habits, and of experiencing their reality through the eyes of the locals, or even of your fellow travellers. I was prompted with this “insight” whilst visiting the fascinating Himalayan Mountain Institute in Darjeeling early in the trip. Everest was first summited by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. When I was growing up, learning history, Hillary was the central figure in the accomplishment, whilst Norgay was a footnote. In India, as I remarked at the Institute, those roles are reversed.  A matter of perspective. It reminded me to review my own preconceptions – which made the trip, especially the parts of it in the Himalayan region, literally translated as “house of snow”, considerably more enriching.

One of the features of the Darjeeling district  is of course its tea – the mountainsides are dotted with plantations – so in a when-in-Rome spirit I drank tea until it was coming out of my ears. We were afforded the opportunity to sample a variety of the Darjeeling styles but the one I found most interesting was a brew that we were served in the town of Rimbik – a smoky variety, the leaves clearly dried over a fire, reminiscent of lapsang souchong. My one regret, being pressed for time to make the departure of the Toy Train (officially the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), was missing the chance to visit the Glenary Bakery, a highly reputed old colonial establishment which I’m told is the perfect place to enjoy these famous teas accompanied with some quality cakes and pastries.

With the race finished – five days of what seemed like torturous running and trekking for the participants, five days spent drinking deep of the stupendous scenery for me – we returned to Delhi, and to India proper. We would swap the teetering but relatively vacant roads, posted with signs imploring you to “enjoy the beauty of hills”, for an urban tumult of epic proportions. A Delhi traffic jam is bewildering. Every spare inch of road, the shoulders, the pavements and whatever other space is available, is utilised to bursting point, with the only rules seemingly being the same ones that govern the game of chicken. The city’s highlights for sightseeing include the Minaret, a structure that marks the onset of Muslim rule in the area, India Gate, the massive Arc de Triomphe style monument to the unknown soldier, surrounded by festive (during the weekend) parks, its many bazaars, which are overwhelmingly crowded, and the Gandhi Monument – at which I found it particularly interesting to tour the perimeter, where trees have been planted by representatives from countries around the world in tribute to this great leader, whilst everyone else was focused on the eternal flame at the centre.

A trip to India would not be complete without visiting its most celebrated structure – the Taj Mahal. I can’t say that I’m a connoisseur of architecture , but I’ve travelled Europe extensively and I’ve visited some of its most impressive historical structures, from the Colosseum and the Tower of London to Notre Dame and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and whilst I wouldn’t say that I’m blasé about it all I thought I’d be inured to more of the same. The impression that the Taj made on me though took me by surprise. It stands apart because of its simple, stunning beauty – both in conception and execution. The former is particularly meaningful. The significant buildings of human history are dedicated almost exclusively to the display of military, political or religious power, whereas the Taj is a memorial to love – the tribute of a king to his dead wife. Located some two hours (they say – in reality longer) south of Delhi, in Agra, a typically messy Indian town of haphazard construction, wandering livestock, and dense population, its pristine, shimmering white form in contrast eventually appears through the haze like a mirage in a desert. I was particularly taken with the impermeable white marble with which it was built, its feel and texture being as impressive as its appearance. It’s with no small reason that the Taj has become one of the most recognisable structures in the world.

India is a jewel of incomparable value and beauty, sometimes rough and unpolished, sometimes cast aside unknowingly. It’s worth taking the time to pick it up, clean it off and look at it with unencumbered appreciation. You get the feeling here that your experiences are often earned rather than just accessed or bought. And once earned it’s the type of place that rewards you tenfold. Bon voyage!

Travel tips

Cuisine: Their curries are legendary, vegetarians in particular will rejoice, but less well widely celebrated are the Indian desserts. I highly recommend the yoghurt based Shree Khand, a two thousand year old dish that has stood the test of time.

Airports: You’ll be required to show some proof of your ticket before being granted access to an Indian airport, which can take you unawares in this electronic age. Have a printout ready.

Yes or no?: Indians will shake their heads to signal an affirmative response, the opposite meaning to the rest of the world.

Lunch in Delhi: Escape the frantic bustle of the city with lunch at Lutyen’s Cocktail bar, one of Delhi’s hottest new eateries. Its colonial décor is a quaint throwback to the British Raj period, but more importantly – for me at least – is its wide range of imported beers, which provides a welcome respite from the diabolical (!) Indian fare.

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Rocking the repertoire

Entertaining with spirits.  A rough guide by Patrick Leclezio.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

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So you’re hosting a dinner and you’re fussing over the wine. Chenin with the fish. Or maybe a Chardonnay. And then a robust Shiraz with the fillet. Cool, sorted. Well, no, not really. Don’t feel bad though. This is a trap into which you’re easily ensnared. It’s become bizarrely commonplace to spend time and effort (and money!) selecting great wines for our guests, whilst then at the same time absentmindedly relying on whatever happens to be around, or perhaps just grabbing a six-pack or two, for the balance of the beverages. I’ve lost count of the occasions during which I’ve been disappointed by an absence of whisky, or gin, or been elated to find some gin, only to be told that there’s no tonic (vermouth – forget it!)…and that’s without even delving into the less popular drinks. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

And that’s that it doesn’t make sense. It is illogical, for three reasons. Firstly, the time spent eating is actually in the minority. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy wine before or after the meal – but there are so many spirits out there that are considerably more interesting for the purpose. It brooks no argument that more attention can and should be devoted to making your guests happier during the larger part of their time with you. Secondly, if you harbour ambitions as a good host, a complete and cultivated host, then you should be encouraging a repertoire in tastes, or at least catering for a variety thereof. We have an incredibly diverse heritage of drinks from which to draw, established over centuries, tried and tested, and evolved to suit a multiplicity of occasions and a range of palates. It seems positively uneducated to act in ignorance of these traditions. Lastly, very simply, without being silly about it, spirits are simply more fun than wine. There’s a reason they call it a dinner party. Don’t let yours get stuck on the first word.

Freddie Mercury memorably sang: I want it all and I want it now. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. You don’t need to open a bar. And for that matter you don’t need to do it my way. This isn’t rocket science though, and I’ve given it some thought, so why reinvent the wheel. There are four easy considerations: what you should serve before, during and after the meal, and what wildcards you should hold (apologies for being coy, an explanation will follow). This is how you should play it.

The drinks served before the meal are called aperitifs. You’ll be serving these on arrival, and typically with snacks, so they need to be both refreshing and lubricating. The primary (but not exclusive) focus then should be on drinks that are typically consumed with a mixer of some sort. An aperitif is usually dry for classical tastes, but there’ll also be preferences for sweet. Keep an array of the more popular spirits: gin, vodka, rum, brandy, and whisky, along with these mixers: tonic, soda, coke, lime cordial, ginger ale, and a juice, perhaps cranberry. Water of course, preferably bottled, so that your fine spirits aren’t tainted by the chlorine in tap water. I personally don’t opt for garnish, but many people do, so it’s advisable have lime and lemon available. These are only the basics of course. I’d further recommend that you offer some depth of choice for at least one of these spirits – any other than vodka, where intrinsic variety is close to meaningless, and that you be prepared to mix a cocktail or two – caipirinhas and martinis are less frivolous options. This opening period sets the tone for the evening – first impressions count as they say – so it’s essential that it be effective.

The opportunity may now present itself to throw a wildcard on the table – a round of shooters. This may sound juvenile, but how it’s received is all in the context and the execution. Who’s in the mix? What’s the prevailing mood? Is there cause for celebration? Shooters are your firestarter – be ready to deploy, but don’t do it unnecessarily. Read the situation. And as for the choice of shooter: frozen vodka. Its curious texture and its innocuous taste should find universal appreciation.

With the meal – wine, as rule with few exceptions. It’s become quite trendy to pair fine spirits such as whisky and brandy with food, but whilst this is plausible for experimental or promotional purposes, it’s not self-perpetuating. These spirits should only be marginally diluted (or you’ll lose their flavour) and as a result they’re not lubricating enough to accompany anything heavy. Dessert is an exception, with rich spirits serving well both as an accompaniment to the sweet flavours; try a well-matured brown spirit in particular, and as an ingredient, try a liberal dash of Chambord or crème de cassis – with just about anything.

Last but not least, the digestif, and the moment to cast a final impression, to seal the approval of those present, and, more importantly, to continue their enjoyment of the proceedings (as well as your own!). The obvious fare is cognac (or brandy) and whisky, but this is a chance to pull out another wildcard – something exotic. Offer your guests “un petit Calva”, or a sipping rum, or even an aged tequila.

You’ve now successfully avoided the wine tunnel-vision trap. Hopefully, as they’re reluctantly leaving, your partygoers would now be reflecting on the rich repertoire, on your superior hospitality, and on having shared an entertaining and fulfilling evening. You’ve unleashed the enormous spirituous potential. Let the good times roll. Chin chin.

From one whisky to another

Painting the town a golden amber. Patrick Leclezio looks back at 2015’s whisky calendar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

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It’s been another lively period on the scene. Year-in year-out South Africa offers a wide variety of interesting diversions to the whisky devotee, from festivals and shows, to dinners and launches, with fanciful and sometimes extravagant events in between. We are one of the world’s largest (and still growing) markets for Scotch whisky. This pretty much ensures a continuous cycle of activity. There’s little I enjoy more than drinking whisky, but one of those things is drinking whisky with other people who enjoy little more than drinking whisky. If you’re one of those then it’s worth keeping your eyes and ears open, and staying abreast of the possibilities. These were the highlights from 2015. May the dram be with you.

The Wade Bales Wine & Whisky Affair

This is one of my not-to-be-missed favourites. I’m almost never ill, but in 2013 I managed to contract a 24-hour virus concurrent to this event, and I was absent as a consequence. The regret still hangs over me like a pall. Its eponymous founder is a wine specialist, but he’s fluently extended the “affair” into whisky, and he gives it enough focus for the result to be meaningful. It is an outstanding show in every respect: well-catered, I particularly enjoy the enormous parmesan wheel which makes an annual appearance (I hope I’m not jinxing it), relaxed and elegant, it draws a fun-loving but refined crowd, and diverse, the association with wine is natural, beneficial, and convenient, giving you the rare advantage most especially to attend with friends who may not particularly like whisky (yes, there are such people, unlikely as it may seem). I love the ambiance of the occasion – it affords the opportunity to engage, with the various whiskies’ representatives, and with other whisky lovers, without having to battle a crowd.

Checkers single casks

Earlier this year the retail juggernaut launched the latest batch in its series of single cask whiskies. Single casks, as the name implies, are single malts drawn from a single cask. One style, one source, one cask – they epitomise the romance of whisky. With each expression limited to no more than some 600 bottles, the Checkers range represent a golden (and in SA virtually unique) opportunity to sample a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness. I had a few reservations about some of the previous offerings but these latest few variants are a step ahead, mostly sourced directly from the distillery owners, which is a good indication both of quality and of the group’s expanding influence in the industry. Expect more in the years to come.

Three Ships PX finish

It’s been an open secret for some time that Three Ships (and Bain’s) Master Distiller Andy Watts has been busily cultivating some extra special whiskies. This year, prompted by a Twitter campaign – #DistellAreYouListening – orchestrated by blogger Mark Hughes and whisky luminary Marsh Middleton, distillery owner Distell duly stepped up and decided to release one of these onto the market. We were witness thus to a shot across the bows of whisky’s big boys (ok, maybe not quite that dramatic) with the launch of the heraldic Three Ships single cask PX finish – a vatting of Three Ships whiskies finished in a single Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The whisky is deliciously well crafted of course, but, more importantly, it signals the advent of a brave new era in South African whisky-making.

Whisky Live

Albeit under new management this year, and having weathered some challenges in the past this whisky extravaganza continues unabated, testament to the value of the concept, the skill of the organisers, and the substantial public appetite for whisky and whisky entertainment. There have been events in Cape Town, Durban and Soweto (and plans for the smaller cities as well) but the flagship event in Sandton is a beast of a spectacle that dwarfs all the others; it is reputed to be the single biggest whisky show in the world. I was invited this year to host The Glenlivet’s Dram Room, a quiet-ish (nothing escapes the bagpipe music!) pod set apart from the throng, where I had the privilege of talking whisky with small groups of fellow enthusiasts. It kept me busy but on my occasional excursions into the main hall the pulsing heartbeat of whisky love was overwhelmingly in evidence. If you haven’t attended before (or even if you have) then make a point of it next year. It’s a scarce chance, for relatively little outlay, to taste a wide range of top class whiskies, speak to the experts, and share in the communion.

Keepers of the Quaich banquet

After years of deliberation I finally decided to take the plunge and get a kilt. It was made for me by Staghorn, South Africa’s only Scottish Outfitters, in the tartan I’m proud to say of the Breton town from which my ancestors originated. Kilt in hand I now needed an occasion to wear it, and there’s no better time and place, the baking late-November weather notwithstanding, than at the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich. The Keepers is an invitation-only society, intended to serve the interests of Scotch whisky, and into which members are inducted on the basis of their service to Scotch whisky. With its convocation of Highlands attired guests, its pipe bands, its haggis, its Burns recital and its generous lashings of whisky, this is truly the feast of feasts for South Africa’s whisky folk. The guest of honour at this year’s function was industry legend James Espey, the founder of the society, and the man behind landmark products such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Malibu, a special treat.

The spirit of the game

A world cup is inevitably a time of reflection about how we approach our rugby.   Following this last iteration Patrick Leclezio prescribes how to get the most from your viewing.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2015 edition).

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I lost the plot during that fateful 2011 quarter-final. As in berserk. At the special viewing arranged for us by the hotel at which I was staying in Mauritius, attended by me and two Brits, I conducted myself in less than ambassadorial fashion. We lost both the game and a couple of potential tourists on that day. Reflecting on it now, I needed fortification. I needed the pleasantly tranquilising effect of a stiff drink. I don’t drink before 11am as a rule, so the time zones conspired against me on that occasion. This time I didn’t make the same mistake. The combination of rugby and liquor (enjoyed responsibly people…), apart from being a time honoured tradition, presents you, me and all bibulous fans with a win-win scenario. The highs are higher – oh that victory buzz! – and the lows are higher – the pain of defeat is cushioned in a warm haze. This year I set out to do it properly. I came up with a spirit pairing for some of the leading teams, so that I could enjoy the drink, the rugby, and a little slice of each country’s culture, all at the same time. It’s the ultimate rugby viewing template – for World Cups and for between World Cups. In the future, regardless of how we fare, I’m confident of some great memories, and being able to look back on tournaments and matches savoured to the fullest. Join me on my journey.

Argentina
There’s a bizarre category of drinks known as bitters, and, whilst the constituent products differ substantially one from another they’re typically a witch’s brew of herbaceous ingredients. One of the world’s best-selling bitters is Fernet Branca, for which the brand largely has Argentina to thank. The Argies love this stuff, knocking back millions of litres per year – with coke or soda, or neat as a digestif. These guys are a bit dodgy with their application of the laws – give them a clueless French referee and they’ll make hay till the final whistle blows – but one has to admire how their game has progressed, and the passion with which they play it. When they started bawling during the singing of their national anthem I was raising my glass of Fernet Branca to the West in salute.

Australia
“ I’ll have a Bundy mate”. Well, not exactly. I did want to make the effort for our Aussie cousins, and the fortuitous absence over here of their mainstay – the infamous Bundaberg Rum – greased this wheel for me. I’m not averse to the mix-with-coke variety of rum to which Bundaberg belongs, but I’d much rather partake of something a bit finer. So I joined them in rum-drinking rugby kinship with a few fingers of Ron Zacapa, the sugar-cane honey derived, high-altitude matured, petate-attired Guatemalan favourite. Now I just need to learn to sing Waltzing Matilda in Spanish…

England
After those feet in ancient times walked upon England’s mountains green they would have been grateful I’m sure for a cool, tall glass of Pimm’s – maybe on a pleasant pasture – to refresh and restore. There is no more quintessentially English drink. Garnished with strawberries to colour match the red rose on an England jersey, and entwined as it is with a setting of green English turf, it is an all-appropriate accompaniment to that country’s rugby endeavours.

France
French rugby is a bit hit and miss, much like the drink I’m advising for watching their matches. Pastis, an anise-flavoured (specifically using star anise as an ingredient), unmistakeably Mediterranean spirit, is one of France’s most popular drinks, particular in the south of the country – corresponding loosely (more east than west) to the area where rugby also predominates. It’s a cliché of French rugby that they either pitch up or they don’t. Similarly you either like the polarising anise flavour or you don’t. There’s limited choice in SA but Ricard pastis, bedrock of the eponymous liquor giant Pernod Ricard, is generally available in local stores. It’s usually mixed with chilled water and ice, resulting in an iconically cloudy, superbly refreshing liquid – best enjoyed whilst watching French rugby…or at a street-side café in Marseille.

Ireland
The most underrated style of whiskey, like its perennially underrated team, comes from Ireland. Single pot still is Ireland’s traditional style, a full bodied whiskey made from both malted and unmalted barley that inexplicably lost popularity at one time, but that’s now back with a test-match winning intensity. I recommend answering Ireland’s call with Green Spot, an orchard-in-a-bottle exponent that’ll transform your rugby viewing into a total sensory experience. It’s a great reason to catch as many of Ireland’s games as possible. The colour correspondence by the way is completely coincidental, but surprisingly pleasing nonetheless.

South Africa
Our flagbearing sports team and our signature spirit – it’s a union ordained by the sporting and spirituous gods. Rugby in this country is synonymous with brandy, particularly blended brandy, so I’ll signal my support accordingly – with one of the best blended brandies that I’ve yet had the opportunity to taste: the Carel Nel 15YO from Boplaas. Let’s hope we’ll be drinking it in more frequently victorious circumstances in the future.

A map to nowhere

The malt whisky regions.  Patrick Leclezio disputes the validity of some deeply held Scotch whisky dogma.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2015 edition).

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In my last column I pondered the influence of stories – with their inherent ability to capture our attention – in the appeal and the success of single malt whisky. This phenomenon can be observed in the efforts of Scotch whisky to subtly propagate the romantic notion of terroir. We have been led to believe that single malts differ one from another partly because of the influence of the ground on which they stand – a premise that has specifically found voice in the classification of malts by geographic region, both officially and unofficially. The reasoning on which this is based is that whiskies from the same region, having been forged in similar environments, using similar ingredients, and stemming from the same traditions, share commonalities in style. The designation is considered of sufficient importance by the industry that it is typically printed on the label, second in prominence only to the name of whisky. In reality though the extent of its relevance to the average malt whisky drinker warrants some exploration.

There are five official Scotch whisky regions, as prescribed by the Scotch Whisky Association, the industry’s governing body: the Lowlands, Islay, Cambeltown, the Highlands, and Speyside – the latter being geographically within the Highlands, but of sufficient distinction and of such abundance as to justify its own separate identity. In this regions paradigm particular styles and flavours are ascribed to each region, some more persistently manifest than others.

Speyside: In very broad terms the better known malts from the region have become known for flavours evoking heather, flowers, fruits and spices. They’re sometimes lightly peated, but usually not. This is the cultural hub of Scotch whisky – and consequently the impression of a Speysider is one of elegance and refinement. The embodiment of its whisky, or rather this idea of a Speyside whisky, is Longmorn – the drinking of which invokes, for me at least, the strudel scene from Inglourious Basterds. Yes, it’s that delicious.

Highlands: The Highlands is so vast and so sparse that it’s difficult even theoretically to conceive of the evolution of a unified style. There’s salt and peat, think Talisker, a rich overflow from Speyside in whiskies like Glengoyne and Dalmore, and spices, heather and grass here and there. They can be light (Glenmorangie), waxy (Clynelish), rich (Macallan), smoky (Ardmore) or nutty (the recent Wolfburn). Even close neighbours can be poles apart, consider Highland Park and Scapa for instance The range is so broad, touching on just about everything on the Scotch palette, as to render the Highlands meaningless as a flavour denoting region.

Campbeltown: The whiskies here are known for being smoky, oily, and briny – they’re seafaring whiskies. The peninsula is the smallest of the regions, and whilst it once flourished only three active distilleries now feature, the most well-known of which is the outstanding Springbank – which produces three different brands of whisky. I’m relatively familiar with the Springbank range, the 10YO in particular – and whilst it’s often difficult to distinguish one type of peating from another, Springbank’s has a maritime fog quality to it, if I can put it that way, that you don’t find in others. Then again perhaps I’m just falling prey to the story…

Islay: This famous, dare I say legendary, west coast island builds the strongest case for classification by regions. It has forged its reputation on the influence of peat, specifically the local peat which is redolent of medicinal seaweed – giving rise to robust whiskies with phenolic, pungent, smoky flavours. This regional character is consistent(-ish) and unmistakable. Its most highly peated exponent, with a standard peating level of 55ppm – enough to register on the Richter scale – is Ardbeg. I particularly recommend the Uigeadail (if you can get it), a variant where this powerful peat component, whilst no less evident, has been beautifully balanced with some judicious sherry cask maturation, resulting in a magnificently layered, complex whisky that flits between hard flint and sweet velvet. Even here on Islay though there are reasons to question the model, with Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich producing unpeated (or lightly peated) contrarian whiskies.

Lowlands: These malts are generally light, soft and floral, and, with notes of cereal and zest. The fresh and sweet Glenkinchie, from Diageo’s Classic Malts collection, is arguably the most recognised.
This classification gives a certain poetic order to the malt universe but the supposed kinship is less than consistent. There is no pure terroir in whisky, as it would be understood in wine, except in the contribution of peat, and even there, as I’ve mentioned, it takes some distinguishing one from the other. Water is a ruse, its individuality is not even vaguely apparent. There are other direct factors – such as still shape and maturation – which play a far greater role in dictating flavour, and these are independent of region. Indirect factors, such as the traditional regional adherence to a style, still play a role but this has somewhat meandered, dissipated and migrated with time.

So then, whilst whisky regions are a quaint concept, they have limited merit and should be considered a loose guide (at best!) rather than a fixed rule. Individual whiskies can and do vary significantly within regions, even the most harmonised regions. It can be comforting to the novice to have a gateway into the initially baffling array of malt whisky choices, but I’d suggest that this one is largely a false comfort. Next time you see Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky on a bottle don’t assume that it necessarily bears resemblance to that other Highlands whisky that you like so much. Explore, experiment, and enjoy, by all means, but do so on the counsel of other reasoning. May the dram be with you.

The song of the single cask

How bias governs the malt universe, and why it doesn’t matter. Patrick Leclezio runs the rule over blended malts, single malts, vintages and single casks.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2015 edition).

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With whisky there is the spirit and then there is the story. And make no mistake the story is important. In his bestselling book on cognitive biases: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli explains that people have an innate need to seek the meaning in or the understanding of a thing through the vehicle of a story – something he calls the ‘story bias’. A narrative – a suggested meaning – that may be irrelevant or inconsequential to the underlying matter, such as the concept of single malt is to the actual, real quality of the whisky for instance, can nonetheless be found to be irresistible and compelling. Whisky lovers, as much as we’d want to deny it, are not immune to this logical lapse – but whether it’s a problem in this sphere, ignoring the ostensible exploitation of pricing by producers, is less evident. I’ve always found that even if certain factors don’t affect the liquid they may well indirectly influence a person’s perception of the liquid. This is whisky after all, not the Matrix – we’re not being deceived so much as inspired.

Have you thought about the differences between blended malts and single malts? I mean really thought about it. The malt whisky universe is categorised into four types: blended malts and single malts, as a start, and then the latter further into “regular” single malts, vintages, and single casks. Typically, all other things being equal, pricing tends to correspond to the order that I’ve listed, because that’s the order in which they’re valued by whisky buyers. Yet, as much as we see these types as distinct, there’s no actual physical difference between any of them. They’re all made from the same ingredients (malted barley), using much the same production and maturation processes (specifically the copper potstills and oak casks that are so important to the flavour). The difference is only in the story – and what a lyrical story it is.

The concept of single malt is rooted in its unique source and single point of origin. This is the theme that drives its story – although, as an aside, it’s worth nothing that some have strayed slightly from the script: many distilleries don’t mature on site. It goes something like this (in my own words, no insincerity meant, the tangible reality notwithstanding, I believe it and I intend it). These whiskies embody a singular terroir and style: their unique stills, their local water, their people, focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part multiple generations in the making, their heritage, and indeed their very air, the breath in their casks, set single malts apart from other whiskies. They are pure, distinctive, rare and limited – and bound to their birthplace – and each individual single malt is a critical point, one of many, on the map that makes whisky the great, complex, varied, and much-loved spirit that it is today.
These are the melodic sounds that have catapulted single malts deep into the popular imagination. It’s not much considered by the casual whisky drinker but in fact most single malts are in fact blended (or, more correctly, “vatted”) – different casks of different wood from different years can be and are typically used, to give the blender enough range to maintain flavour consistency from one bottle to the next. The succeeding verses, whilst more specialised, are in much the same vein. Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only whisky 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 the vintage plotline 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. The outstanding Balblair distillery offers outstanding exponents of vintage whisky – with subtle, interesting variations of their primary philosophy of bourbon cask maturation, to the odd wild deviation, such as the excellent sherry matured 1990. The final type, the single cask, is the apex, the chorus: one source, one year, one cask…(although these can be double matured or finished). The ties to its heritage, always important if not definitive with whisky, are particularly strong here – single casks explain its history. They are the origins of the story, whisky at its  purest and most unadulterated.

All of this though is pure romance. There is nothing that a single malt can do, that a blended malt cannot do better. In fact as one moves up the value trajectory, from blended malts to regular single malts, and then to vintages and single casks, as a whisky maker one becomes increasingly limited. In terms of the hard science this inflating status is counter intuitive. Blended malts can summon all of the intrinsic advantages of the others, and then can add to these – by calling on its blender’s palette, at least in theory – an unlimited potential for variety and complexity.

I challenge you however to name ten blended malts, off the top of your head. You’ll struggle. Five? The fact is that there’s just no story. No quaint distillery, no home in a craggy corner of Scotland, and no shiel-wielding old-timers, working the same malt as their grandfathers, and their great-grandfathers before them. They just don’t have the same ability to inspire. This might afford us a new appreciation for the potential of blended malts but it shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for single malts, vintages or single casks in the slightest. The story counts for something. Enjoyment does not need to be rational. The single cask serenade may influence my appreciation of the sumptuous Private Barrel Company GlenDronach 20YO that’s currently cradled in my hand, but it’s a positive influence, so why fight it. We’re human, and these are two hand-in-hand human vices – whisky and whimsy – that we should be able to enjoy without restraint. May the dram be with you.

The vodka phenomenon

Style over substance: how an unlikely, unassuming liquid took over the planet. Patrick Leclezio looks over the world’s most internationally popular spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

It can be made from everything, it doesn’t look like anything, and it tastes like nothing. These aren’t attributes that you’d think would best recommend a drink. At least not at first glance. Looking more closely though they neatly explain both vodka’s success and its dominance. Originating in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, Europe’s “vodka belt” – Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Sweden and Finland have a particularly strong tradition – vodka is now made just about everywhere, and significantly drunk pretty much anywhere. Its popularity is unmatched. It beggars the question – how did this come to be?

Whisky is made from barley, bourbon is made from corn (primarily), rum from sugar cane derivatives (the molasses, the juice, the syrup), tequila from agave…I could go on. Most spirits are produced from a specific type of raw material, whatever was to be found in the area in which they originated, and to a large extent this has bound them to these regions. Vodka though differs in that it can be made from any vegetable matter. There is no legal restriction – although the “vodka war” of the early 2000’s pitted historic against new producers for this very reason, with the former seeking to restrict materials to the traditional: cereal grains, potatoes and sugar beets. The dispute was settled with a compromise that compelled vodkas made from other ingredients to declare it on the label, in Europe at least. The Cîroc label for instance follows the descriptor vodka with the words “distilled from fine French grapes”. In spite of this sideshow (and to a large extent having prompted the sideshow), there are significant, thriving vodkas made from all sorts of things. If it’s commercially viable you can be assured that somewhere someone is using it to make vodka. Equally, almost every territory has something within their agricultural resource base that can feasibly be applied to the production of vodka. The general upshot is that the spirit is cheap, plentiful and accessible, and wildly popular, wherever you might happen to be. If you make it they will come.

Sidebar

The stuff of leading vodkas

Belvedere – rye
Finlandia – barley
Ciroc – grapes
Skyy – wheat
Absolut – winter wheat
Grey Goose – wheat
Ketel One – wheat
Chopin – potatoes
Smirnoff 1818 – sugar cane

Moving then from inputs to the output, the results are similarly compelling. South African legislation dictates that vodka should not have “any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”. It’s a liquid that’s clear, and for the most part largely tasteless and odourless – those few vodkas that have managed to skirt this regulation have flavour profiles which it would be an overstatement to describe as subtle. I find it counter intuitive, paradoxical even, that a drink could be both banal and globally dominant, and yet this is precisely the case with vodka. Everything though is explainable, there logic to it:
Firstly, whilst it has the same (sometimes offensive) effects as any other spirit, of these vodka is the least inoffensive. It’s might not be politically correct to say it, but we drink liquor in large part for the effects of intoxication, although hopefully with a responsible rein on its extent. Vodka then is the consummate facilitator; with no edge – other than the alcohol, and no flavour funk, it’s smooth and universally palatable (if well distilled and filtered), and it’s easily masked – ease it into a mixer, or a cocktail and you won’t even know that it’s there. It’s a consistently reliable complement to your favourite flavours, and it’s crisp and fresh on its own. In a word – it’s easy.
Secondly, they say clothes maketh the man – I’m not sure I agree but clothes certainly maketh the vodka. It’s the ultimate branded spirit. With little to distinguish one vodka from another intrinsically, the attention has been very much focused on its extrinsic attributes – the name, the packaging, the image communication – which are out there for all to see and experience. Vodkas are explicitly and overtly designed to be loved by the demographic for which they’re intended, they are engineered. A cynical observation perhaps, but valid I think. And don’t knock it. People get satisfaction across all spirits and indeed all products from far more than just the raw product itself.

I consider whisky, rum and gin to be my favourite spirits. I’m also partial to brandy and cognac, and with a little more exposure I know I’d grow to love a Calva. I’m a flavour snob and these are diverse and interesting spirits. Vodka is not. And yet I buy it, I serve it and I drink it. On any given occasion there’ll be a bottle both behind my bar and in my freezer – ready for the versatile deployment of which it is uniquely capabable. It’s managed to find its way into even my unsympathic heart, such is its appeal. If it’s a rule that you can’t be all things to all people, then surely vodka must be the exception.