The beating heart of brandy

Alive and well and making a comeback. Patrick Leclezio reports on a proud South African tradition.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

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I champion the mantra drink better not more. Admittedly this is hardly a ground-breaking proposition, but it’s a wise sentiment by which to live, and it warrants advocation even at the risk of being obvious. Occasionally, I’ll cut loose and tag on or more of better, but that’s another, less responsible story. If you’re in agreement or indeed you’re already following this approach in your consumption of alcoholic beverages, then let me inform you, in case you hadn’t noticed, that you’re living in an unprecedented golden age. We are happily awash with a greater choice of premium drinks than ever before – and that’s an observation that applies equally to our home-grown fare. Rousing stuff! The quality over quantity ethos is an easy sell if the quality is in abundant and varied supply.

A significant contributor to this agreeable state of affairs is the rise of “craft” – the term used to describe independent, small batch production. This is has been particularly evident in beer, where an array of brands such as CBC, Darling, Citizen Alliance, Birkenhead, and the ebullient Jack Black, to name just a few, are offering refreshingly varied, exceptionally flavoursome, and strikingly compelling alternatives to the bland, industrial lagers that have long dominated the market. It’s all the beer I drink now, and not because I’m a hirsute hipster who feels compelled (I’m neither) – but because it’s damned good and well worth the extra cost.

Now unless you’ve been living under a rock I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You may be less aware however that forging this new frontier shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines with its malted brethren is South Africa’s signature spirit: brandy.

South African brandy has taken a savage beating in the last decade; it’s saddled with significant problems, yet to be overcome. Things though may be starting to change. The calibre of our potstill brandies, on which increasing emphasis is being placed, is outstanding, and in craft producers, most of whom focus on the potstill style, we have a group of people that is committed to the cause, that is passionate about brandy and about its importance to our legacy, and that has the skill and impetus to make a difference.

I should perhaps rein myself in a touch at this point. Craft doesn’t necessarily mean better. Actually when you consider the comparison in resources between a craft and an industrial producer –a yawning chasm – it’s perhaps surprising that it has anything to offer. Micro-producers however enjoy decisive advantages in that they’re small and unconstrained, which translates into an ability to make something that is special and individual. If they want to use a specific, unusual varietal, grown on a particular patch of land, under the influence of a certain type of climate – no problem. If they want their maturation in first-fill Muscadel casks from a tiny boutique winery – done deal. They just go for it. Special and individual then. These are not insignificant attributes, as any fine spirits aficionado will attest.

A case in point is the Sumaré 5 year old, crafted at Wandsbeck in the Agterkliphoogste area of Robertson. This is as singular a brandy as I’ve ever tasted, spicy and fruity as one might expect, but more strikingly layered by an appealing and unusual (in my experience) coconut flavour. It’s soft and elegant, and whilst a bit thin, perhaps another few years in wood would benefit, it’s nonetheless an outstanding example of the distinctiveness, the individuality, offered by these craft brandies, and a delightful brandy in itself.

Craft brandies are usually associated with a farm, hence also referred to as estate brandies. They are special in both the flavour of the liquid, but also in the flavour that they provide to the brandy environment. Fine spirits are about so much more than the product. They are about the people who make them, about history and heritage, stories and anecdotes, about background, about a place and its visceral energy, the sights, sounds and smells, and about character. We as brandy drinkers and brandy lovers want to know what it is about a product that makes it special. Sumaré distiller Danie Erasmus regales in his story of a near-miss, when a still malfunction caused a fire that almost burned down the historic stillhouse building. The burn marks are still visible on the ceiling, there to be seen and touched and spoken of, a testament to the experience (that we can all enjoy, albeit vicariously) of creating this wonderful brandy. In fact tales of distillery fires and explosions abound. Craft distillation is clearly not for the faint hearted.

I’ve meandered my way through a small corner of this expanding universe. Kingna 5yo, a brandy made by a former diesel mechanic is maybe – I’m using some poetic licence – a reflection of its creator: solid, reliable, and satisfying. It’s not the most subtle or complex brandy, but I can see myself sitting around with friends, enjoying their company over its warm, hearty, full flavoured glow. Grundheim, a 9yo brandy from Oudshoorn, is matured in re-toasted port casks, as evidenced by its mahogany colour and its intense flavour. Mons Ruber, claimant to a history of distillation stretching back to the 1850’s, is old and bold, a 2003 vintage that I found a little unbalanced, but challenging and interesting. The Green Kalahari based Bezalel uses a variety of cultivars, including, rather unusually, red grapes, in making its brandy. It in particular epitomises the concept of terroir that largely defines these estate brandies and sets them apart, with the region’s climate and soils premised to have a deep influence on the product.

There are many others, in a growing list. South Africa has become home to a bona fide and comprehensive brandy route. Any discriminating drinker, any disciple of the better not more philosophy will not be disappointed. You’ve heard of three cheers? Allow me then to propose the brandy customised six cheers – as in clink drink, clink drink, clink drink…and hip hip hoorah.

The essentials of whisky

An often confusing navigation. PATRICK LECLEZIO cuts through the clutter

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

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“We distill our whisky more slowly than any other distillery in Scotland”. This snippet of is courtesy of Glengoyne. How about this one? (I bet you know it). “Triple distilled, twice as smooth, one great taste”. These are just two of innumerable promotional shots in an incessant barrage. The whisky industry monologue, as its brands clamour for your attention and, more importantly, for your hard earned lucre, is peppered with all sorts of often confounding claims. Buying whisky can be akin to taking an exam for which you haven’t studied, like trying to appreciate a tune that you like in a cacophony of noise. What matters and what doesn’t? A how-long-is –a-ball-of-string question for the ages really – one about which voluminous tracts can be written (I won’t, not here). It’s worth though taking the time to dip our feet.

So, why should you buy one whisky rather than another of the many available? There are a multitude of reasons, some of which are central to the product, and some not. The latter group, whilst ìt can be significant to enjoyment, featuring influences like branding, is not relevant for our purposes here, which is to focus on a few tangible and factual observations related to the liquid itself – the flavour, the texture, and even the colour – and thereby to objectively guide purchase. A whisky, in order to win you over, needs to resolve the question in its favour; and to do so it ideally needs to demonstrate meaningful differences from which the basis for preference might be inspired. You on the other hand need to interrupt the monologue – with a firm put up or shut up. Here’s how.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the beginning there was the grain, and the grain was with whisky, and the grain was whisky. The type of grain, usually barley, malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye, is significant, and will manifest differently, but it’s rarely a critical variable unless you’re deciding between styles of whisky, in which case many other factors encroach. There are exceptions though. Bourbon for instance must be comprised of minimum 51% corn, but can include either rye or wheat as a secondary grain (often called the flavour grain). Rye will typically give a spicy flavour, wheat a cereal biscuit flavour. More pertinently you’ll be entreated to believe that a variant of a particular grain sets a whisky apart. Optic barley, the original Golden Promise, organic, exclusively Scottish-grown barley, Islay-grown…whatever. In reality, whilst it impacts on issues like yield and raw material cost, too distant to be of any concern to us the apprehensive receptacles at the far end of the line, it makes little or no difference to flavour. The exception perhaps is peat smoke, which transmits itself impressively into the resultant whisky through malting (or specifically kilning). Consequently, the constitution of that smoke, the peat from which it emanates – be it coastal, in its many varieties, or inland – makes a mark, albeit subtle.

The grain then gets milled, mashed, and fermented, but there aren’t really enough differences between distilleries for these processes to have any kind of a pronounced impact. Wooden or metal washbacks? It’s nice of them to point it out on a visitors’ tour but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Bourbon and Japanese producers tend to make a lot of noise about their individual yeasts. I’m still in dreamland, although maybe because it has never been specifically demonstrated to me. Some whisky experts disagree, I’m still not sure that the average whisky lover would notice or should care.

The culmination of production, like a shining copper beacon in the night announcing its importance, is the distillation itself. And here’s where it’s time to wake up. Woodford Reserve is the only mainstream bourbon to be distilled in copper pots – affording its distillate a “conversation” that resonates in the final product. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland – the height of an adult giraffe. How do I know? They’ve ensured that I’ve absorbed this fact by repeatedly disseminating it to me. And it is indeed important. The type of still, the size of the still, the copper, and the shape of the still, are all critical to the individual taste of a whisky. Glenmorangie’s long slender stills foster a light, delicate spirit, Macallan’s short, rotund stills a richer, heavier spirit. I swear that I can almost taste their shape when I drink a Macallan. That may be a stretch but there can be no doubting that it sets the liquid apart. Every distiller will tell you that when they replace a still it’s copied to the last detail – if the original was dented, well then a near-as-damn-it identical dent is administered to its successor. As to differences (actual real differences) in length of distillation, and the number of distillations…apologies to Glengoyne and Jameson – as much as I enjoy both of their creations, I remain to be convinced.
Moving on. Whisky may be the water of life, but the role of the water used in its production and its reduction is pretty much equivalent regardless of the source. The former is distilled – I’ve yet to taste distilled water that distinguishable one from another. The latter is demineralised – rendering it as generic as generic gets. Yet whiskies often talk up their water, talk best digested with a liberal pinch of salt.

I’ve saved the most important for last. It’s generally acknowledged that up to 70% of the flavour of a whisky comes from the wood in which it’s aged. It follows then that maturation is a critical point of difference. Spanish, American or Japanese oak? Seasoned with sherry, bourbon, or something more exotic? First-fill, or refill? Duration of maturation? Double maturation or extra maturation (otherwise known as finishing)? As promised I’m sparing you the detail, save to say that there’s nothing that exerts more sway. Take careful note, and drink it all in.

There’s lots more, lots. But this brief guide hopefully should map out the areas that warrant exploration, and those that don’t. These are the questions on the exam paper, the noise-cancelling earphones to sift out the sweet music of whisky. Good luck, and may the dram be with you.

Hong Kong’s best bars

First published in Sawubona Magazine (February 2015 edition).

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After a day of pounding pavements in the overcrowded sauna that is Hong Kong, you could be forgiven for contemplating a retreat to some sedate air-conditioned refuge. Or rather – that might be your expectation from afar. The electric reality though is that despite its tropical climate this city is overflowing with an infectious energy that the shirt-sticking, brow-slicking humidity just can’t restrain. You’ll soon be craving to paint the town a balls-to-the-wall shade of garish Chinese red. As my friend Jim, a legendary party guy, might have said: the east is a feast, get here and we’ll let out the beast.

Here are a few suggestions – tried, tested and trusted – for when (not if) the mood strikes. Brace yourselves.

Ozone, perched on the 118th floor of the fabulous Ritz Carlton in Kowloon, is apparently – not that I doubt it – officially the world’s highest bar. The mainland may be less fashionable but you wouldn’t think it here. With viscerally glam décor by Japanese design house Wonderwall, with a bar selection that commands both the premium and the niched, and with wrap-around views of the peninsula – the boats, the mountains, and the skyscrapers merging with the blue sky – that from this astronautical height are palpitating, sinking sundowners in this place is an indelible, knock-your-socks-off experience; no matter who you are or where you’ve been you will be impressed. I was particularly enamoured with their gin and tonic promotion, consisting of eight combinations of different gins and different tonics, and a variety of garnishes and additional ingredients ranging from Acacia honey to green tea syrup. Whiskies too feature in pleasing proportion – I counted 48, including six Glenlivets.

Alchemy, in the unhinged Central district of Hong Kong island, where it all goes down, has styled itself as a “gastronomic lounge”. An apothecaric alcove at the entrance appears to be a dead end, before a sliding panel opens to grant you access. It’s a nice touch that sets the chic tone maintained throughout. The emphasis is culinary, but that doesn’t mean you get short-changed elsewhere – quite the opposite. The bar is stocked with the usual generous assortment of premium spirits that I came to expect in Hong Kong, it demonstrates a passionate proficiency in the making of mojitos with its offering of ten different varieties, and it also holds a few surprises up its sleeve – notably a couple of options of Calvados, rare outside of France, and an uber-cool bottle of Chivas Revolve. Their “treble” notwithstanding, Alchemy is all about that bass. A three-star Michelin chef caters a tapas menu for the loungers, but the serious action takes place in the basement: dining in the dark (!), the idea being to augment your sense of taste by depriving you of your sight. Intriguing.

The evocatively named Angel’s Share is Hong Kong’s premier whisky bar. I’d heard murmurings about “secret” Japanese whisky bars, worth investigating further, but I can’t imagine that they’d top this venue on all-round appeal. The assemblage of whiskies is pleasing and considered (and indeed there’s a beefy-ish Japanese offering), with enough variety in provenance, style, and vintage to satisfy most whisky lovers, and the setting is plush and tasteful, with lots of the leather and wood that pairs so well with whisky. The centrepiece of Angel’s Share however is the cask, life-sized but not live (it has a stainless steel membrane), that dominates the entrance, and which they fill with private bottlings – on this occasion a 17YO Glenlivet, with punchy notes of citrus and spice. It may be a bit gimmicky but even as someone who’s drunk whisky in an actual dunnage warehouse it warmed the cockles to be served from a cask with a valinch.

I’m tempted to say that I’m showing you the way to the next whisky bar but whilst the Shangri-La’s Lobster Bar and Grill has a brown spirits bedrock it aspires to more than just whisky. This place is heady mix of the unashamedly masculine colonial – my stiff dram of Glenlivet (theme for the trip, 21YO this time) was served in a weighty gentleman’s club style crystal tumbler – and the majestically modern – on the adjacent roof terrace Hong Kong’s skyscrapers watch over you like towering sentinels. This is the type of place where you can listen to live music (six days a week), smoke a cigar, and have a few drinks with the friendly (and also naughty!) bar staff. Time beautifully filled.

Cocktails have become increasingly elaborate and nowhere more so than at The Envoy, whose concoctions are global award winners. This bar is so serious about its cocktails that it even has a rotary evaporator on site which is used to redistill spirits with a variety of added ingredients. I tasted an Absolut Vodka and pandan leaves distillation that demonstrated an incredible, integrated infusion of flavour. The bar offers cocktails ranging from barrel aged Negronis (which I think they consider ho-hum), and tea-centric cocktails (which they pair with their afternoon tea menu), to arrangements like the bizarrely spectacular True Blood (a deep red, ginseng flavoured liquid served in a blood bag on a metal “kill” tray).

Last but not least is Le Boudoir – a pulsing “speakeasy” for the trendy, in-the-know crowd. You’re virtually guaranteed to be one of the only tourists in the place. I walked past its unobtrusive entrance three times before identifying it. Inside you can party with a friendly throng – in my case some French and Russian expats – into the early hours to the insomniacal beat of various outstanding DJ’s, including South African Ryan Ashton.

Mad about Martinis

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

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2014 edition).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The WoW classic Martini

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

The headline whiskies of 2014

PATRICK LECLEZIO toasts the standouts of a quality year

First published in the December 2014 edition of Prestige Magazine.

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

Black Bottle

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

Glenfiddich 26YO

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

Glenlivet Guardians Chapter: Exotic

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

Single pot stills

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

Whisky in the winelands

The collection at Cavalli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hobnobbing with the scions of Scotland

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

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

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

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

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

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