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).

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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.

Conversations on whisky

The Kirstie McCallum episode. Patrick Leclezio interviews one of Scotch whisky’s pioneering women.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2015 edition).

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Dr Kirstie McCallum is one of a growing number of women occupying prominent positions in Scotch whisky. An analytical chemist by training, she’s worked for some of the leading companies in the industry and was an accomplished master blender before moving into her current role. We were fortunate enough to share some time with her during a recent visit to South Africa.

PM: You’re the Global Brand Ambassador for Burn Stewart – which, incidentally, is now part of South Africa’s Distell Group. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your time away from the work.

KM: My work involves travelling to various markets to educate consumers, the press, and our internal customers about our brands. In terms of leisure I’m a passionate World Rally fan, and I also enjoy watching ice hockey.

PM: What do you most like and dislike about your job?

KM: I like meeting people, seeing new places, and experiencing different cultures. I dislike airports, especially when there are flight delays.

PM: What in your opinion are the most important whisky developments and trends impacting the market at this point in time?

KM: Whisky cocktails, the emergence of women – both as consumers and whisky professionals, and the shift in the average age of the whisky consumer – more people are bringing whisky into their repertoire at a younger age.

PM: This issue of NAS whiskies has been getting a bit of blowback in the whisky press and in social media, particularly in the last year or so, with the increased proliferation of these products, key touch points being a lack of honesty from the industry about the motivation for this trend, the inherent deception (and lack of courage) in these products, and the perception that they’re a smokescreen for excessive profit-taking. What’s your view? Is this trend that will continue to grow – or will it retreat to a niche at some point? Do you think the industry will continue to phase out traditional aged whiskies even when stocks recover?

KM: I disagree. Whisky behaves differently at different ages, and offers different flavours at these various stages. A blender has two key elements with which to play – cask and age. NAS whiskies, by extending the blending palette, allow greater experimentation with flavour, which better serves the increasingly adventurous and knowledgeable modern consumer. This trend will definitely continue.

PM: The Scotch whisky industry is very traditional, with relatively little room for change and innovation. A guy like John Glaser has tried, and been somewhat successful at doing new and different things, but with much resistance. Do you think there’s scope for real innovation in whisky?

KM: We are closely regulated to ensure Scotch whisky stays true to its traditions and history, and remains a 100% natural hand crafted product. But although we are restricted there is still lots of scope for innovation, with cask finishing, different age and NAS expressions, and also things like different peating levels in the malt used to make the spirit, being prime examples.

PM: Glenfiddich cracked the million case mark in 2013 – the first single malt to do so. Whilst this signals the rapid growth of malt whisky, the market remains very much dominated by blends, with malts only making up some seven to eight percent. What’s your view of the future – where will things settle?

KM: I think we’ll continue to see malts increasing in volume, but blends will always dominate.

PM: Whisky has in fact proliferated to the point where it’s being made in a variety of new countries – case in point being Three Ships and Bain’s, now part of your group. How do you and how does the Scotch whisky industry view these new producers? Are they good for stimulating continued interest and growth, or do you see them as a potential future threat? Do they have a place in whisky, do they stand on their own two feet – or are they largely just derivative copycats?

KM: These whiskies give people new options to try. They complement Scotch whisky and the other traditional styles of whisky. I think that the industry as a whole doesn’t view them as either a threat or as being derivative. They most certainly stand on their own two feet.

PM: Is this your first visit to SA? What is it about the country that you’ve most enjoyed?

KM: Yes, it’s my first visit. I haven’t seen much since getting here but I can say that I’ve been very impressed by Table Mountain. My grandfather was an engineer on an oil tanker and he’d always referred to Cape Town as one of the most beautiful places that he’s ever seen, so I’m looking forward to seeing as much of it as I can.

PM: Islay seems to have established itself as a whisky Mecca. Its peated whiskies have developed a cult following. Why do you think this is the case? Do you personally enjoy heavily peated whiskies?

KM: I need to interject and mention that Islay is not just about peat. The island’s whiskies offer different levels of peating, and lots of differences in character independent of the peat. Our Islay malt Bunnahabhain offers a complex unpeated taste of Islay. Yes, peat plays a part in the appeal, but it’s also about the romance and the remoteness of Islay. The island inspires a very personal experience of whisky. Yes, I do enjoy peated whisky. Within our stable I can highly recommend Ledaig, its sweet peat being particularly accessible for the novice, and Bunnahabhain Ceobanach, a limited edition bottling that comes from the six weeks of the year during which we make a heavily peated (40ppm) spirit at the distillery.

PM: The industry’s suffered a setback in one of its biggest growth markets, China, with the recent anti-extravagance policies. This have emphasised the doubts about whether the growth of whisky in China stemmed from true appreciation. Where to from here? How can this be addressed? Where is the next China?

KM: I think South America , and South Africa have tremendous potential for growth. China isn’t our biggest market but it is a growth market for us and for me the answers lie in a continued focus on consumer education, and in products which suit Chinese tastes. An example would be Scottish Leader Supreme in Taiwan where the liquid has been especially blended to cater to the Taiwanese palate.

PM: Wood is generally acknowledged as the principal influence on the flavour of a whisky. Peat smoke is probably the most obvious. What are the other influences that might be isolated by the casual drinker?

KM: Undoubtedly still shape – which is different in every Scotch distillery. Bunnahabhain has the tallest stills on Islay, promoting a lighter spirit. Ledaig and Deanston have lye arm configurations that generate more reflux, resulting in a sweeter spirit.

PM: Whisky has seen a phenomenon uptake over the past 20 years. Why do you think that this has been the case? There is increasing competition as others up their game, and there will always be a natural fluctuation in trends and drinking habits. Can whisky continue to grow? What sets it apart from other fine spirits? What makes it persistently relevant?

KM: Whisky is distinct because of its tradition and heritage. These are enduring qualities so I believe it will always be relevant in the long term. PM: What makes Bunnahabhain such a special whisky?

KM: It’s a unique style of whisky for Islay. And its accessible flavour – with lots of fruits and nuts – makes it particularly special.

PM: What do you drink when you’re not drinking a Burn Stewart whisky?

KM: I was previously a gin blender so I like to try different types of gins. I’m also an international rum judge so I also favour the occasional rum, but my main drink is whisky.

PM: Are you a purist? How do you respond if someone asks you to mix a dram of Bunna 12YO with Coke? KM: There are no rules. I encourage people do what they like and to drink whisky as they’d best enjoy it.

PM: Lastly, how do you prefer to drink your whisky when you’re just having a casual dram with friends?

KM: It all depends on my mood. I drink Black Bottle with ginger ale and a splash of lime, I drink blended whisky with Coke, I’ve enjoyed single malt cocktails, and of course I also enjoy whisky on its own.

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.