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.

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.

“ 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…

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.

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.

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).

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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.


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.

The Spanish Connection

They arguably own as much of the whisky heritage as any producer. Patrick Leclezio reviews a selection of whiskies owing their vital essence to the grapes of Spain.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

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Ay caramba, the Spanish have infiltrated! This is not breaking news – in fact it shouldn’t even be news at all – it’s been a good long while in the making. And despite my ambiguous exclamation, it’s a good thing; for many, like me, the very best thing. I’m talking about sherry, of course, that quintessentially Spanish fortified wine, that has become so important to so many people – us whisky lovers – who don’t drink it, who have no intention of drinking it, yet who wouldn’t want to live without it. I set out recently to review, with a little bit of help from some discerning friends, some of the more notable sherried malt whiskies on the market, and to learn a bit more about sherry’s epic contribution to my favourite tipple.

One is often told – cut to an industry emissary assuming a portentous tone – that whisky is made from only three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Deep (not really – I’m just paying homage to the pregnant pause that usually follows), but also misleading. It may be true in terms of direct ingredients, but that’s only part of the story, luckily, otherwise our noses and palates would be bored stiff. There are other ingredients that have come to play a part, peat and oak notably, and, acting in synergy with the oak, a variety of other drinks, of which bourbon and sherry are overwhelmingly the most significant.

It may be worth taking a moment to contextualise matters. The single most important factor influencing the flavour of a whisky, undisputed and empirically proven, is the maturation (or ageing) of the spirit, which itself, for the most part, is constituted of three essential, equally vital elements: time, wood, and the sherry or bourbon in which the oak was seasoned. It’s a subjective view on which some may differ – you have to make up your own minds – but I would venture that of the two sherry is by far the more interesting. By this reasoning then – I don’t think I’m being dramatic – it is critical to whisky.


The sherries in whisky

There are a few distinct sherries primarily used by the whisky industry for the seasoning of its casks, each of which imparts a different influence to flavour.

Oloroso: The most popular sherry for whisky maturation. An oxidatively aged sherry – which means that it matures in contact with air. Dark, nutty, often sweet.

Pedro Ximenez (PX): Increasing in popularity. Pressed from dried grapes, thereby concentrating its sugars. Intense raisin and molasses. Very sweet.

Fino: A biologically aged sherry, covered during maturation by a cushion of yeast known as flor, which prevents contact with air. Light, fresh and dry, with no oak influence.

Others: Amontillado and Manzanilla casks are also rarely but occasionally employed.

Strangely, having said this, the importance of sherry to whisky is not endorsed in the regulations (I refer to those for Scotch whisky), which only require whisky to be matured in oak casks. Its use exists purely on the basis of accident (like so much with whisky), convention, and its own considerable merits – enough in itself. The origins of the relationship lie in the reuse of the casks that transported sherry from Spain to Britain (an idea stemming from the prudent Scots no doubt), to hold and store whisky for merchants and wealthy customers, who subsequently discovered a beneficial influence on the liquid. The practice was accordingly perpetuated and by the end of the eighteenth century distilleries had begun to mature their whiskies in this fashion as a standard. Today these transport casks have been replaced by bespoke casks – casks seasoned with sherry on instruction, for a prescribed period of usually between one and half to two years.

The resultant variety of flavour is attributable to the different types of sherry, but also to the different types of wood being used. This is sometimes overlooked by much of the whisky community, which often refers to sherry casks and European oak interchangeably – a gross mistake. Casks seasoned with sherry are made from both American oak and European oak, and have been for much of history, the latter mostly of Spanish oak, but possibly of French oak or of other types. The same sherry in one or the other has a markedly different result for the whisky end-product. Even the same sherry in the same wood, being organic and imbued by nature with its own individuality, will produce varied results, albeit less markedly. It’s a truly synergistic process where sherry, wood and whisky interact in a process where the resultant cask will be absolutely unique.

These insights could be evidenced in much of the selection that we reviewed. The pool, not comprehensive by any means, but as representative a collection of reasonably priced sherried whiskies as was possible and practical, was as follows: Aberlour 16YO, Balvenie 17YO Doublewood Bunnahabhain 18YO, Glendronach 12YO, Glendronach 16YO Platinum, Glenfiddich 18YO, Glenmorangie Lasanta, Highland Park 12YO, and Macallan Sienna. There isn’t a whisky amongst the lot that I wouldn’t gladly drink on a daily basis, testament to sherry’s potency if well deployed.

The most intense were the two Glendronachs – I could literally feel the tannins tugging gently on my palate. Both exclusively sherry cask matured (combination Oloroso and PX), the 12YO is aged a few years in American oak, but spends most its life in European oak, whilst the slightly more restrained 16YO is entirely matured in European oak. Powerful indeed! They define the term sherry bomb. The most interesting (but also challenging – there’s a lot going on) of the selection is perhaps the Balvenie, matured in both American and European oak (seasoning not specified but I would imagine both bourbon and sherry) and then finished in Oloroso butts for six months. A marvellously complex interplay of the dark dried fruits and spices expected of sherry. Its stable mate, the Glenfiddich, is rich and flavoursome, but less ambitious. The Bunnahabhain 18YO always reminds me of a salted dark chocolate. It’s full flavoured, with notes of cocoa and a hint of salt so subtle that I sometimes think it’s suggested by my visit to the distillery’s spray flecked dunnage, located point blank on the ocean. The Sienna is undeniably a Macallan with all the rounded richness that this entails, offering enough of the Macallans of yore to keep us all interested I’d warrant. It’s fully sherry cask matured in a pleasing, well balanced mix of first-fill American and European oak. The Highland Park was the only peated whisky amongst those we tasted, and it reconfirmed to me the need for sherry as a counterweight to peat, at least for my taste. It remains one of the most complete Scotches on the market. Lasanta, essentially a Glenmorangie Original finished (or extra matured in Glenmorangie parlance) in Oloroso casks for two years, is a striking example of the sherry contribution in general, taking a light, citrusy whisky, and transforming it into something rich and full bodied.

I hesitate to use the word favourite with reference to whisky, so I usually don’t and I won’t now. Your appreciation and consequently your evaluation of a whisky can depend I feel on your mood, your environment, and your physiology at a moment in time. You may have noticed however that I omitted mention of one of the whiskies in the review. Why? Well, I have this thoroughly unscientific test that I’ve used to single it out. After a tasting I unconsciously drink (hmm…don’t make too much of this combination of words) what remains of the bottles over time. Every now and again I take stock of the inventory. In this case the Aberlour 16YO was the first to disappear. Read into it what you will. My simple conclusion is that it ticks all the boxes with a flourish. Rich, balanced, and interesting without being taxing, with wisps of redolent flavours weaved into the backdrop of a thick, hearty traditional, home-made fruitcake. It’s an exemplary whisky, the type I can imagine to have created the tradition, that had people nodding their heads in appreciation and in realisation, and that forever bonded Spain into the whisky bloodline. May the dram be with you.

Prague for the weekend

It may come cheaper than most of Europe’s flashier cities, but the Czech capital’s persisting popularity owes as much to pedigree as to price.

This article does not feature anything about whisky.  I just couldn’t bring myself to mention the dodgy bottle of Czech whisky (Gold Cock) that I happened upon and bought whilst on this trip.

First published in GQ (July 2015 edition).

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It’s difficult to know what to make of Prague unless you’ve actually visited the place. It has a mixed reputation. Both admired and somewhat maligned, luckily in unequal measures – otherwise I may have had second thoughts about my trip, by those whom I consulted as I did my planning, the only sensible conclusion to which I could come was that the city clearly has the capacity to inspire a range of impressions. I set off then with tempered expectations. Would its noted budget-friendliness serve up gangs of inebriated, bachelor-partying louts (along with great value for my Rands)? Would I be greeted by Praguers grown jaded and unamenable by the continued press of tourist hordes? These concerns, and others, had weighed on my mind, but they were quickly dispelled on arrival, whether by luck, or by the foreboding (but in reality delightful) winter season, or by a lack of merit I can’t rightly say – I was there all too briefly. What I can say, heartily, unreservedly, is that, glimpsing it like I did, this city exudes a magical olde worlde charm, resplendent with its cobbled streets and squares, its imposing medieval spires, and its quaint, ginger-bread architecture, of sufficient degree to offer the makings of a mesmerising weekend.

Intercontinental Prague
In a walking city, and Prague is most definitely a walking city, location is gold, especially during a short stay – when you don’t want to be wasting time waiting for taxis, figuring out the public transport system, or making long treks. The Intercontinental, perched smack bang at the heart of the Old Town, couldn’t be better positioned. Five minutes of leisurely strolling will get you either to the Charles Bridge or the Old Town Square, fifteen minutes to the Castle. Now this is not a boutique hotel by any means – if that’s what you’re after then look elsewhere – but it’s comfortably well-appointed and it provides all the amenities expected of an upmarket hotel, from an overnight shoe shining service and an impressively large and well-equipped gym, to a Sunday brunch that’s apparently considered to be the best in the city.
Pařížská 30, +420-296-631 111
Bohemian crystal
The Czech Republic is reputed for its exquisite glassware, referred to as Bohemian crystal. Note that the term crystal is used in the country to denote any high-quality glass, whereas “lead crystal” specifically defines glass containing a minimum 24% lead oxide. If you’re intent on going shopping in this city then let it be for the local crystal – it’ll be a fitting memento and you’ll be buying craftsmanship equivalent to the best in the world. Prague though – be warned – is a lot like Venice: the tourist hotspots are wildly overgrown with souvenir shops and stalls, most carrying glass and some specialising in glass, many of which hawk crystal that is overpriced and of dubious provenance. Tread carefully. And pack carefully – crystal pieces aren’t the most robust items to be lugging about.
If you’re feeling flush then head directly to Moser, the oldest and most iconic glass manufacturer in the country. They’ve been making their precision, hand-crafted, lead-free crystal creations for over 150 years; and whilst you’ll be paying a premium, you’ll do so in the confidence that you’re getting the best of the best.
Staroměstské náměstí 603/15, +420 221 890 891
Dana Bohemia
Those who prefer their crystal with lead, incidentally making it softer and hence easier to cut, can visit the long-established Dana Bohemia, which offers a wide variety of products ranging from tableware and chandeliers, to Christmas decorations and figurines.
Národní 43, +420 224 214 655

Blue Praha
This chain of some nine stores is undoubtedly intended for tourists, with all its locations either in the Old Town or at the airport, but its products are interesting, its prices aren’t overly intimidating, and its scale confers reliability and authenticity.
Malé náměstí 14, +420 224 216 717

I have a weakness for pastries, I have to admit. It’s a disturbing compulsion, especially in these sugar reviling times in which we live, but I’ve been unable to overcome it. I single-mindedly seek them out wherever I go – pains au chocolat in France, cannoli in Italy, churros in Spain, danishes here, strudels there…I could go on. During my time in Prague I happened upon the Trdelnik, a traditional pastry common to several central European countries, the Czech Republic amongst them. This hollow cylinder of rolled dough is typically grilled over coals or gas flames, covered in sugar, nuts and cinnamon, and served piping hot, either as is or smeared with Nutella. It’s a decadent treat that’s ideal for a chilly winter morning. Try it from a street stall where you can watch as it’s being made.
Smetana Hall at Obecní dům
There’s arguably greater appreciation for classical music in central Europe than anywhere else in the world, so a visit to Prague represents an opportunity to partake in the region’s passion for this art form. The austere and cavernous, but acoustically well-endowed, Smetana Hall at the Municipal House hosts regular musical soirees, some as unimposingly short as an hour. There’s space to go around in my experience, but book early to avoid disappointment, especially in high season.
Námesti Republiky 1090/5, +420 222 002 130

The Czech Republic is famous for its beer consumption, per capita the highest in the world, and, more flatteringly, for its beer heritage and culture, which is derived in large part from Pilsner – its very own home-grown style. Pilsner is in fact a specific type within the lager family, distinguished primarily by the use of “noble hops”, which is more aromatic and less bitter relative to other varieties. First brewed in the town of Pilsen in 1842 – at the Citizens’ Brewery (now Pilsner Urquell) – it was widely acclaimed for its flavour, and, most influentially, for its colour. The clear golden liquid was a dramatic departure from the dark brews prevalent at the time, thereby forging a new standard to which most of the lagers that we consume today are indebted.
To any beer connoisseur a Tanknova, or Tank Pub, is holy ground. Previously these were unique to Czech Republic but they’ve now started to spread elsewhere – by popular demand I’m sure. Prague though remains the mecca, with a Tanknova on every corner…well, just about. Most of the beer we drink – certainly everything in bottles or cans, and much of the draught too – is pasteurised, to stabilise it and extend its shelf life, and like any preservation this process takes a little something away from the fresh, unadulterated original. Tanknovas offer unpasteurised beer, kept fresh, and safe from contamination, at between 8 and 10°C (the optimal range) in large stainless steel tanks, and then pressed out for serving using a high-pressure air compressor. The result: a rounder, more complex, fuller-flavoured beer – and a bucket list experience! Try the tanked Pilsner Urquell at the rustic Bredovský Dvůr; it’s virtually impossible to reconcile with the stuff we get over here.
Bredovský Dvůr, Politických vězňů 13, +420 224 215 427

Bar hopping
Blah Blah Bar
During my trip Blah Blah was Prague’s number one rated bar on TripAdvisor, so I decided to put it to the test. A recent addition to the scene – the bar was opened some six months ago – it was clearly striking the right chord with locals, expats and tourists alike. The place is owned by a dynamic Khazak couple – I kept my Borat impressions in check – whose (well executed) vision was an idea of community, of people coming together to converse. From the eclectic decorations, including seventies style upholstered bar frontage, and the mix of niche and mainstream liquor, the reassuring and interesting both covered, to its excellent service, despite the obvious busyness the barmen made the time to chit-chat, and its animal friendliness, one of the guests was accompanied by a beagle, I found Blah Blah to be charming and friendly, but also edgy. It’s a bit out of the way but well worth the visit. Try the Omg (oh my gin) gin – or is it just Omg? – produced by the Zufanek distillery in Moravia, whilst you’re there.
Žitná 41, +420 777 169 977
U Zlatého Tygra
U Tygra may be somewhat polarising – you’ve been warned upfront. It’s one of the two most well-known, uber traditional bars in the city (the other is U Černého Vola), and it seems to find its way into every guidebook – so here I am doing my bit for the cult. My brief experience of it went something like this: I walked in, I was nearly asphyxiated by the heavy pall of smoke, and I was roundly ignored by the staff for what felt like some ten minutes before I eventually walked out in resignation. As I’d waited awkwardly though I’d managed to observe that the overwhelmingly male clientele was seated at big communal tables, and that everyone seemed to be eating and drinking the same thing – a throwback to the communist past perhaps…? Having said this I have it on good authority that their limited fare – the beer and the food – is outstanding, so if you’re prepared to brave a visit I’d venture that it would be as authentic a Czech experience as for which you could hope. Get your concierge to phone in advance and make a reservation.
+420 222 221 111

Klub Architektů
I’d been a little apprehensive about the food in Prague, which I’d been told was gristly and stodgy, and marginalising for non-red meat eaters. This though wasn’t my experience. I ate the quintessential goulash-with-dumplings on no less than three occasions (when in Rome you know) – alternating between beef and venison for the former, and potato and dough for the latter – with absolute relish, the highlight being the first, a steaming, hearty affair – absolutely perfect for the sub-zero evening, at Klub Architektů. This restaurant, a prime example of the admittedly cosy local predilection for locating bars and restaurants in cellars, offers a varied menu – varied enough to have entirely satisfied my notoriously difficult pollo-pescetarian wife and to have immediately eased my reservations.
Betlémské náměstí 169/5A, 110 00 Praha 1, +420 224 248 878

It’s a little known fact outside of the country that Prague has a significant Vietnamese population. In the iron curtain era the Russians brought in Vietnamese labourers, many of whom remained to establish themselves, their families, and their culinary heritage in the city. Take a break from the goulash with the light, flavourful summer rolls at Remember.
Biskupská 5, +420 602 889 089

A cup of tea or coffee
Artisan Café and Bistrot
After a few hours of pounding Prague’s busy, buzzing, cobbled streets, you could be forgiven for seeking a temporary refuge. In such moments look no further than this little oasis of quiet, run by owner Krystof Polansky, where the sumptuousness of the teas and the deliciousness of the freshly-baked cakes cannot be overstated.
Vejvodova 1, +420 602 727 734

Painting the town red

The Mother’s Ruin episode. Patrick Leclezio reviews a seminal Cape Town nightspot.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

My ideal bar– if I could venture to describe it in these terms – would be something between the Korova milk bar from Clockwork Orange, and Cheers, the place where everybody knows your name: friendly and welcoming, but also interesting and verging towards the edgy. I’d obviously draw the line well before lacing drinks with narcotics, and the serving of minors, but you get the general drift… I hope. Anyhow, when a friend of mine started murmuring about opening a niche bar late last year, I felt that this might be the one. Mother’s Ruin was launched in December, to little fanfare, but in the space of a few short months it’s become one of Cape Town’s hottest bars.

You might have deduced from the name, especially if you have an interest in history, that this is a gin bar – notably Africa’s first specialist gin bar. Gin wasn’t always the high-brow drink that it is today – at one point in its less savoury past it was referred to as “mother’s ruin”, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. Mother’s Ruin the bar somehow isn’t hampered by this association, its harking back is quirky if anything, and a nod to the heritage of the spirit that it celebrates. Gin may have travelled a colourful road, but it has survived, it has flourished and, with its multitude of botanicals and flavour permutations, it has captured our contemporary imaginations. You could say circa 2015 that it’s the drink of the moment.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of Mother’s Ruin is what I’d also consider to be the most important feature of any bar focused on a particular drink – the selection (…in this case of gins, of course). The bar has racked up a still growing assemblage of some 90 odd varieties. The standards are all there of course – Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, and Gordon’s – but this is the type of place that offers an opportunity to cut loose and experiment. With exotic gins from all over Europe, from Kenya, from the United States, and with a fair few from within local reach, it’s got the makings a many a happy hour – you can read that any way you want – trying a bit of this and a bit of that.

Five gins to try at Mother’s Ruin:

1. Monkey 47
This fruity gin from the Black Forest in Germany chock-a-block with 47 different botanicals is as complex and layered a gin as I’ve ever tasted. A standout!

2. Gin Mare
With its principal botanicals being thyme, rosemary and olive, this is a Mediterranean gin indeed. Dirty martini baby.

3. Bombay Amber
Something strikingly different. Amber has been finished (in this case meaning matured for a short period) in French vermouth oak barrels, which is highly unusual for this typically unaged spirit.

4. Inverroche
The Inverroche gins from Stillbaai, Classic, Verdant and Amber, are the three best-selling gins at Mother’s Ruin. The people have voted – local is lekker. Be sure to also try Jorgensen’s gin and the gingery, spicy Musgrave gin.

5. No. 3
If you have classical taste then look no further. No. 3 strikes all the right juniper and citrus notes required in a great London Dry symphony.

Now, any gin bar worth its salt, no matter how good its collection, would need to engage in all the traditional deployments of this fine spirit: G and T’s, cocktails, and martinis (which I consider distinct from regular cocktails). Mother’s Ruin excels with each. The G and T’s are offered with a variety of tonics, from the standard (Schweppes, Fitch and Leedes) and the premium (Fever Tree, Fentimans), to the craft (Socks), and also with a variety of garnishes: if that means lemon or lime to you, then you’re clearly far too old school – the bar serves up mango (reckoned to be the pinnacle), grapefruit, cucumber, orange, rosemary, lemongrass, mint, and apple. Owner Mark Mulholland, a compulsive tinkerer with a food flavours background, has devised a cocktail menu that teams a few gin classics with his own imaginative creations – his “Klein Slaaitjie”, I won’t spoil the surprise, being the most popular. Last but not least, martinis are a serious business at Mother’s Ruin – twisted, dirty, perfect, the Vesper, they’re all represented, along with a constant stream of tweaks and experimentations. It’s a rich vein of conversation here – with suggestions and ideas welcome as they strive to create the ultimate martini. I should flag that they unfortunately subscribe to the Bond approach – minus points, so if you don’t want to risk an overdiluted, aerated affair, be sure to specify that you want yours stirred. On the plus side I spotted a few bottles of genuine French vermouth (Dolin) on my last visit – a rare treat in South Africa. Get some of it whilst stocks last.

Mother’s Ruin is nestled at the top of Bree Street, in an expanding, upmarket, vibrant nightlife district, where it’s kept company by Orphanage, Odyssey, and a few other bustling restaurants. It’s a must-visit venue for all gin loving gadabouts. See you there.