Is brandy bouncing back?

PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the recent exploits of South Africa’s signature spirit

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

After years of decline the popularity of local brandy sales has stabilised.  Ostensibly this is the product of fiscal policy, so to speak, but there’s cause for hope and optimism, and to believe in a real recovery beyond.  Shepherded by the South African Brandy Foundation, and driven by the contributions of a group of talented producers and an influx of fresh brands, the drink has taken on a new lustre and a renewed purpose.  There’s a mountain of good work that has been done, and is ongoing, in three areas in particular, and whilst only time will tell if it will be enough to revisit and exceed past glories, the fruits of this labour, deserving of a (pride of) place in any liquor cabinet, speak for themselves.

Brandy definitions

In a similar sense that you are a product of your DNA, so brandy is a product of its definitions, the rules that guide how it is to be made and matured.  I’ve been critical of these in the past, having considered them weaker than those of its peers, whisky and cognac specifically.  Since then though significant, concerted progress has been made in this area.  Brandy has three classifications: blended brandy, vintage brandy and potstill brandy.   The judicious excision of a dubious 10% allowance for spirits that were neither matured nor potstilled from the makeups of the latter two has been a major stride in the right direction.  Whether producers were exploiting it in the past or not, its removal happens to be coinciding with a bright era of excellence for potstills, and it gives us a measure of assurance that things should stay this way.  I wouldn’t be giving a balanced view though if I didn’t admit that problems remain.  The bar for blended brandy is staying comparatively low, stipulating a 30% minimum for matured (3 years or more), potstilled content, in excess of which it seems (I can’t know definitively, but my enquiries suggest as much) few or no producers are venturing.  And who can blame them in a price sensitive market – 3YO potstilled brandy being materially more expensive than the unmatured column-stilled wine spirit that makes up the balance.  It’s a situation though that’s inimical to the true greatness to which this drink aspires and which it deserves.  It means that on average, if you’ll forgive my crude analysis, the liquid in your typical blended brandy is less than a year old, and only one and half in a labelled 5YO.  Younger potstill brandies are available, such as the hearty, robust Kingna 5YO, but these are mostly of this age and its vicinity, and sold at a premium price.   My persisting conclusion is that a gap exists in the definitions, and in the market price-wise, for a fully matured, lighter style of young brandy.   Perhaps this is partly what created space for the precipitous growth of VS cognacs…

Awards

There must be acute despondency in the other brandy producing regions of the world.  Over the last three years, building on an already impressive award-winning track record, South African brandies have made a clean sweep at arguably the world’s two foremost competitions, the International Wine and Spirits Competition and the International Spirits Challenge, taking the best-in-class “Trophy” prizes in each case.   This year’s winner at the latter, the KWV 15YO, perfectly epitomises the evolution of local brandy at the upper end of the spectrum.   It is rich, oh-so-rich, full-bodied, and complex, with notes of husk fruits, oak and spice, delivering on and exceeding expectations for a fine, luxury spirit.  This is a bottle to enjoy at (m)any given moments (not quite any, close though), but pull it out in repose with friends after a fine meal, and you’ll be soon be ascending to an everything-is-right-with-the-world plane of satisfaction.

The industry is still young in marketing itself to the world, and in building and justifying stocks of mature enough liquid to go toe-to-toe with the big boys, but the momentum is gathering.  It’s just a matter of time.  In the interim we local admirers can relish our well-priced access to the world’s most outstanding brandies.

Craft

There’s one phenomenon that’s convincing me of brandy’s resurgence and of its potential to kick-on more than any other, and that’s the explosive proliferation in the “craft” sector of the industry.  There are now dozens of small producers who are putting out audacious, delicious, exceptional offerings, and who are weaving the magic of unique stories to be told, the adventure of new and flavoursome territories to be explored, and the romance of daring exploits to be tasted and experienced, into the tapestry of brandy’s landscape.  The lure of its call is being dialled up exponentially.  I’ve already mentioned Kingna, made by a diesel-mechanic who discovered a passion and skill for brandy-making and consequently turned distiller, but there are so many others.  The coco-nutty  Sumasaré 5YO and the fragrant Boplaas 8YO both made immediate, this-is-special impressions on me, and more recently I discovered the Ladysmith 8YO, a journey of garden aromas, with pods of sweet spice, and rakings of orchard fruits and velvet custard scattered on palate and finish.  The scene is replete with variety – different music each, but merging into a harmonious concerto.  Volumes are small, but that’s not the point.  This is the leading edge of the wedge, representing the wider product, and infusing it with an aura of amplified credibility, vigorous energy, and innovative thinking.  We have the sweet, exciting privilege of being able to embrace this revolution in its infancy.  Long may it last.

If you are or were a brandy drinker or had considered giving it a go this is the time to take another look.  Things are happening, and they merit your attention.  South African brandy has a new mantle, an evolved reputation that’s taken it from being referenced as “karate water” to the elegance of a dedicated drinks trolley, there by request, at the Test Kitchen.   It’s not for nothing.  This new style has a substance of iron to it.  I wouldn’t want to miss out and neither do you.

prestige-december-2016-spirits-p1

As it appeared – p1.

prestige-december-2016-spirits-p2

As it appeared – p2.

Treats from the top shelf

PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends five fine whiskies to accompany the festive season’s feasting.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

The end of another year looms, so reassuringly close now.  We’re in the final straight, the finish line in sight and beckoning. There’s something about this period that’s exciting, in such a deep-seated sense that it’s more physiological than cerebral – a simmering exhilaration that gets you deep in the gut.   It’s a time to devote undistracted quality time to friends and family, to step away from the frantic pace of modern life, and to reward yourself for some sustained hard toil.  It’s that once a year culmination – and it should be fittingly anointed.   If there is ever a time to spoil yourself then this is it.  Life is short, this end-of-term hiatus even shorter; these are moments to be seized and savoured to within an inch of their existence.   In whisky terms – and revelling’s not revelling without great whisky – it’s the moment to let loose with the lucre, to drink something a little more special, to embrace some celebratory catalysts for sharing time with your favourite people.   Here are my five picks to fire the flame of your festive season.

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

It’s only recently that Irish Distillers renewed the Single Pot Still style, beefing up what had been – given its spectacular attributes – a criminally sparse offering.  The new range is still limited but it’ll get you on enthusiastically and it’ll keep you riding indefinitely.  Redbreast, the “Spots”, Power’s – these are heralds enough to convince us emphatically that this style is the equal of single malt, but for all their worth they are blunt instruments in comparison to the Barry Crockett, a whiskey of such subtlety and refinement as to leave you in awe.   Using an uncommon combination of both ex-bourbon and new casks, the Midleton distillery has a created an uncommon whiskey indeed.   I’m a sceptic when it comes to NAS whiskies, but this one honours all the justifications that are spouted on the subject.  There isn’t any indication of immaturity; the younger whiskies used in these vattings contribute to and complement the array within with no detraction whatsoever – and what an array it is!  It’s something you’ll have to keep revisiting: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, orchard fruitiness, and tangy candy the next, new twists layer after layer.  Drink it in slow reflection of a year well spent.

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

Great whiskies can grow on you gradually, or they can announce themselves immediately.  Black Art is unequivocally amongst the latter.  I came upon an earlier edition some three to four years ago at a whisky show, with no prior knowledge of it whatsoever.  There was no fuss.  I thought it was just another release from a distillery known for its prolific experimentation.  Until I tasted it.  It rocked me where I stood.  The universe suddenly came into focus – I kid you not.  I felt like I had unearthed genius, if you’ll allow me to be a bit liberal.  I’ve since sought out subsequent editions at every opportunity.  There is something particularly special about a series, whether it be vintages or editions.  You know what you’re getting in broad terms but each is a little different, carving out new nooks and crannies to explore, and offering fresh surprises to keep things interesting.   The wood profile is top secret – we’re told that there’s American oak and French oak (seasoned by “premium wine”) involved, but that could mean many things.  There’s no point hypothesising – it’s a sideshow.   The cascade of fruits, the hints of spice, the honey, toffee, chocolate and molasses, gather and swell into a sensational deluge of flavour that’ll keep you riveted from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day and well beyond.

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

I first experienced the Darkest sitting at the magnificent bar at Bowmore (my first stop on the island) looking out over the bay under a brooding sky.  Classic Islay.  It may have coloured my perceptions at the time:  how could you not enjoy the place’s peated whiskies with that weight of geography and heritage and atmosphere weighing upon you?  Well, after many further stops, with the passage of the years, and with a few other bites at the cherry since I’ll admit, the Darkest still lives large if not largest in my memory.  This is Islay as it should be – at least for my taste.  The unmistakeable smokiness is there, but it knows its place: as an equal not an oppressor.  The result is a rich and beautifully calibrated whisky – drifting, briny smoke with a balancing scale of raisins and dark, dried fruits, and butterscotch sweetness.  I can’t think of a better whisky with which to conclude the season’s typically banquetlike meals.

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

Johnnie Walker has its place and purpose, but on the whole I find its range of blends to be obvious, and somewhat overstated (appealing for many).   The Platinum is an exception.   It’s bold and big, yes, but there’s also a depth to be plumbed.  Candied cherries, nutty granola, and vanilla dance amongst dark chocolate crumbles and sparks of citrus and spice, with a fine smokiness, the traditional Scotch signature, playing a mellow music in the background.  There aren’t too many blended whiskies of this class and complexity on our local market – so I’d consider Platinum a get-in-the-festive-mood go-to:  something to “session” as you clink crystal tumblers with old mates, and regale each other with the highlights of your year.

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

I’m referencing this one as local, but let there be no misconception – this is a whisky that stands down to no other.  It is quite simply world class.  I was lucky enough to delve into some Pinotage experiments at the distillery about two to three years ago, and both the concept and the liquids intrigued and encouraged me hugely.  They spoke of a day when “we” would make a truly South African whisky, so both in provenance and style, and a truly great one to boot.  That day has now come.  The whisky that has materialised is full and well balanced, with fruits, sweet spice, dusted nougat, and mineral loaminess appearing and then disappearing like well-choreographed actors on a stage.  There’s peat smoke too, flitting around the edges of tongue and palate, clearly polished by a decade and half in wood, but still in burnished evidence.  Spend some time with this one.  It reveals more and more as you nurture it, the wine only showing itself directly to me when I nosed my emptied glass.  The whisky was finished in twelve Pinotage barrels for about two years, which makes it unusual in two senses: it’s the only mainstream (if not the only, period) release to have used this type of cask, and it’s one of a very few blended whiskies to have been either double matured or finished – so I’ll suggest that it’s a blend that’s been crafted with a level of attention, care and passion typically afforded only to single malts.  You’ll note from the number of casks I mentioned that supply is finite; only 3500 bottles are available, so don’t dawdle.   Stake your claim to a piece of whisky history whilst you can.

prestige-december-2016-whisky-p1

As it appeared – p1.

prestige-december-2016-whisky-v2

As it appeared – p2.

The roads less travelled

A world of liquor.  A world in liquor.  PATRICK LECLEZIO unearths a few lesser known spirituous gems.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Drinks are more than just drinks.  The typical person doesn’t really think about it but one’s enjoyment of a drink goes beyond the liquid itself, and the value that this offers in isolation.  Context is important, the intangible elements with which it is associated are important, which is why untold millions are spent on engineering and augmenting context, on creating these little worlds in which you the drinker experiences the drink – from its story and its rationale, and its packaging and its advertising, to the perception of yourself that it frames for you.  These machinations though often take inspiration from what is already there. I take great relish from a drink’s pure and natural context.  All over the world drinks have evolved in response to and in harmony with their environment, to become a portal into a history, a culture, and a way of life.  The pleasure in a drink is often irrespective of the liquid.  So put aside your regular beverage, step out your routine, and open yourself up to a different world, to a holiday abroad every time you have a drink.  Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Anise liquors

Anise (or Aniseed) is a flowering plant native to the Eastern Mediterranean, the fruit of which, or rather its essential oil – called anethole, is used to flavour a variety of spirits indigenous to the region.  The best known and most widely consumed are pastis, ouzo and raki, in France, Greece, and Turkey and Greece respectively.   The distinctive licorice-like flavour is somewhat polarising, but even if you don’t have a ready affinity for it (and I count myself in that number) it can be immensely satisfying.  The typical serve – diluted with water over ice – is a revelation:  I would struggle to find something to compete on the basis of sheer refreshment.  These are drinks that obviously evolved to douse the throat and quench the thirst during the hot summer months in the Mediterranean basin…perhaps when sitting in a little family-owned café, overlooking the sea, eating a few dolmades whilst waiting for a freshly caught fish to be served.  Or at least that’s the world you’ll experience when you sample these drinks.  Their other, equally distinctive feature is a transformation in appearance to a cloudy, milky colour when mixed with water.  This reaction is known as spontaneous emulsification or, more memorably, as the Ouzo effect.  This Lion’s Milk (as the raki version is known in Turkey) notwithstanding, these drinks have some versatility: I was recently in Crete, where raki is also served a digestif shot, complimentary (!) at the end of a meal in many places.  A great way to end to a Greek meal.

Baijiu

I must confess that when I hear the word “byejo” (as it is pronounced) it strikes fear in my heart.  I first encountered the stuff at dinner with a supplier in central China.  I was incited to throw it back to loud shouts of “gan-bei”, the Chinese equivalent of cheers, which literally means drink it all.  At 48 to 56% ABV (and sometimes even higher), with a flavour that needs protracted acquisition to an uninitiated Western palate, and when introduced to you with frenzied drinking, baijiu can be intimidating.  But it’s worth persisting.  Chalking up an estimated half a billion nine-litre cases in sales, it is easily the world’s biggest spirits category, so with millions upon millions of Chinese drinking it, and having drunk it or its antecedents for thousands of years, it’s clear that it’s something worthwhile.  And yet it’s almost unknown outside of that country, even now in the post isolation era.  How ironic that the world’s most plentiful spirit is also one of its most obscure. The stuff is made using a variety of grains, primarily sorghum, although rice is also used in some regions, and it is categorised by fragrance, with varieties ranging from the “sauce”, with a character resembling soy sauce, to “phoenix”, which is earthy and fruity.  It is served warm or at room temperature and usually as an accompaniment to a meal.  Interestingly Baijiu is aged in large earthenware pots, a process which I would think is of dubious value for distilled liquor.  So whist you shouldn’t be fooled into buying the older, premium priced varieties – do keep a bottle at hand for raucous, banqueting celebrations, Chinese style!

Cachaça

There are few cocktails that compare to Brazil’s caipirinha.  The exquisite taste both belies and credits the simplicity of the ingredients – lime, sugar and cachaça.  I find many cocktails to be frivolous, but then there are those that bring such weight of tradition and meaning to bear as to be undeniable.  If you haven’t had one, then make it your mission to correct the oversight.  Despite its similarity to rum and specifically to rhum agricole, both are made from sugarcane juice, cachaça is its own unique spirit with a distinctive, funky, evocative flavour.  It’s a beach, a party, and a party on a beach (in the best Brazilian style), all inside the confines of nine ounce rocks glass.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect to cachaça and a hint to its one-of-a-kind flavour profile is that it’s matured in a variety of woods, including the exotic sounding amendoim, jequitibá and umburana, unlike other fine spirits which employ oak exclusively.  It’s thin on the ground in South Africa, but the excellent Germana, an artisanal, pot distilled cachaça in a distinctive banana leaf wrapped bottle, can be found here and there.

prestige-oct-2016-spirits-p1

As it appeared – p1.

prestige-oct-2016-spirits-p2

As it appeared – p2.

San Francisco days, San Francisco nights

The long haul will be quickly forgotten, the city once there etched on you forever.  We never will be through, San Francisco.

First published in GQ Magazine (November 2016 edition).

San Fran.  Frisco. SF.  It’s hardly surprising when remarking on this city, that these conversant-with diminutives abound, even from those who haven’t come within a parsec of the place.  The tendency exists for good reason: because the city is so damned pervasively to-the-marrow-of-its-bones cool that people subconsciously ache for this familiarity.  And I’m not talking about some indefinable, je ne sais quoi cool.  No, this is the obvious, all-encompassing kind.  Very simply – San Francisco is the complete package.  Awe-inspiring beauty.  Tick.  Distinct and interesting character.  Tick.  Cosmopolitan.  Tick.  Diverse range of things to see and do.  Tick, tick, tick!  I could go on ad nauseam but I think you get the picture.  They say things are bigger and better in America and with San Francisco representing even an unimpressionable (if not downright cynical) person like me would find the sentiment difficult to dispute.  To quote Jim Morrison: “The West is the best.  Get here, and we’ll do the rest”.   He may just as well have been thinking of San Francisco when he wrote it.

Stay

The Mission, Castro, Nob Hill, SOMA, Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury…  San Francisco is replete with a plethora of fascinating, willful, extraordinary neighbourhoods.  As I was wandering through Castro, I happened upon a guy wearing only takkies (sneakers!) and a cock-sock.  Not something you see every day I thought to myself.  Apparently though, in Castro, this is exactly the sort of thing that you see every day.

castro-copy

Most of these areas have their own unique personality, into one of which you may want to immerse yourself for the duration of your visit, depending on your particular preferences.  Personally, I’m an advocate of the central location, the convenient springboard from which to access and explore a city easily.  In pursuit of this objective you’ll be hard pressed to find better than the brand-new, downtown-based Axiom Hotel.  From its fibre-optic internet connections delivered via individual routers, its interactive TV-interfaced information and entertainment system, and its paperless philosophy, to its communal tables, its pets welcome policy (with no extra cost), and its foosball table and arcade games, this place is a mirror of the city’s young, progressive and tech-savvy essence.

28 Cyril Magnin Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-392-9466

http://www.axiomhotel.com/

axiom-hotel-games-copy

Drink

Some places keep their distance, warming to you and you to them only gradually.  Frisco, with our trip kicking off at the Press Club San Francisco, gave us a big, welcoming hug right at from start.  I was cognisant that I was near the heart of America’s wine country, but that I wouldn’t have the time to visit any of the outlying wineries.  Lucky then for wine bars like this one.  I sat back in the elegantly appointed surroundings, the DJ creating a buzzing atmosphere for the 200 odd patrons (with some excellent remixed hard rock), and tasted eight of the 300 different available expressions, paired with options from a vast, exquisite small-plates pairing menu.  The sumptuous food and wine, the relaxed cosmopolitan crowd, and lesbian speed dating taking place at the table behind me plugged me straight into the SF vibe.

20 Yerba Buena Lane San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-744-5000

www.pressclubsf.com

press-club-1-copy-copy

Eat

I’ve travelled extensively to Paris, Rome, and London, cities that I’d consider to be heavyweight culinary capitals, but I’ve never eaten as well, across the board, as I did in San Francisco – a compliment not lightly dispensed.  I set out specifically to experience three types of eateries: traditional, funky, and fine dining.  In that order then.

Fog Harbor Fish House

Dungeness crab, and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl – these are the iconic San Francisco dishes, in which Fog Harbor specialises.  With the restaurant being located in Pier 39, the city’s equivalent of the V&A Waterfront, and being part of a group, I was somewhat concerned that the experience might be a bit artificial, pre-packaged for the tourist masses.   There were tourists, no doubt (I tend to overlook in such instances that I’m one myself), but this didn’t detract from what turned out to be a long, lingering, satisfyingly authentic lunch, drinking craft beer and local wine, and contemplating the knockout view of the Bay.  We sampled the crab, the chowder, the bread (from reputed baker Boudin), and a mixed seafood grill, all of which was delicious, but, ironically, the highlight was the outstanding crème brulee.  Go figure.

39 Pier 39 Concourse San Francisco CA 94133, +1 415-421-2442

www.fogharbor.com

fog-harbor-139-copy

Foreign Cinema

Ostensibly this spot’s claim to fame is its screening of seminal movies, foreign or otherwise (the Goonies whilst we were there), intended and executed as ambience rather than active entertainment.   They’ve created a unique atmosphere, possibly the most charming and compelling that I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant, from the retro, theatre-style façade and entrance passage to the al fresco dining area, a large courtyard fringed by a wall onto which the films are projected.   But as attractive as it is, it would be a disservice to get overly caught up in the veneer, because Foreign Cinema has a real epicurean depth and credibility to it.  The wine list numbers 800 odd, flabbergasting for a neighbourhood brasserie, and the selection of oysters alone, a speciality clearly, runs to a dozen odd, impressive for any establishment anywhere.   The rest of the menu is expansive and imaginative – the American caviar, cod gratin, fried chicken, and rhubarb and huckleberry cheesecake that I was served were all delightful – and to my further astonishment, I was told that it changes daily.  You’d have to twist my rubber arm to go back to verify.

2534 Mission Street San Francisco CA 94110, +1 415-648-7600

www.foreigncinema.com

fc-weekend-brunch-courtyard-copy

Photo by Charlie Villyard

Saison

Wow!  If Mazlow’s hierarchy was adapted to eating specifically, then Saison would be its self-actualisating apex.  After a visit here it seemed vulgar to me that food should have to be used for physical sustenance when it’s so obviously suited to a much higher purpose.  I asked the head sommelier on arrival if there was any particular theme to his wine and drinks menu.  His reply was that they simply look to source and offer the very best of everything.  And that was my sense of it for the place in its entirety.  Our 15-course tasting menu introduced itself with salt seasoned caviar in an egg custard accompanied by a little loaf of fat basted bread, so ridiculously good that I thought they’d overreached too early.  Oh ye of little faith indeed.  In a meandering, bibulous journey with such highlights as trout (from “Battle Creek”!), lobster, abalone (in a sauce of its liver and capers), crab, and wild boar, and a variety of dishes – such as the grilled artichoke barigoule – made from vegetables cultivated in the restaurant’s own garden, my doubts were put to the sword in decisive fashion.  The wines with which these courses were paired were predictably spectacular but it is the Eiko Fuji unpasteurised sake and the Jacques Perritaz cider (who knew cider could taste like this!) that live largest in my memory.   A place of understated elegance and outrageous tantalisation.

178 Townsend Street San Francisco CA 94107, +1 415-828-7990

www.saisonsf.com

2nd Course: Golden Osetra Caviar

Shop

Valencia Street in the Mission, a hip, slightly eccentric assemblage featuring artisanal purveyors of all persuasions, offers the opportunity for an extended stretch of mellow ambling and browsing, with a stop for some gelato here, and a nibble on some chocolate there.  Drop in at Tartine in the general area for an excellent if overpriced pastry (or even for an asparagus croque monsieur).  Hayes Valley flaunts a lively retail scene, Haight Street still has the same vibrancy as I imagine it did during the Summer of Love,  the Ferry Building market is a gourmet’s treat , and if you’re about at the right time of year you’ll want to catch the inimitable 420 (look it up) exhibition (a pop-up market really) in Golden Gate Park.   However whilst these trendy, signature San Fran spots are all well and good, this is still the US of A, where the shopping mall is king.  Here specifically it’s the Westfield that reigns.  Large (170 shops), upmarket (Bloomingdale’s, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss), central (epicentral!), it presented me with the occasion to track down and secure an obscure-ish piece of luggage that I’d been hankering after.  In fact the selection was so vast that I found it in no less than three places.  Never mind Alice’s Restaurant, it’s here where you can get anything you want.  Special mentions for David’s Tea, an outlet offering 150 varieties, and Tap 415, where you’ll get a large range of not only draught beer but also wine on tap (which prevents oxidisation), and other specialities like chicharones, pretzel nuggets, and the show-stopping Tap burger, a hamburger for the ages.

865 Market Street San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-512-6776

www.westfield.com/sanfrancisco

westfield-1-copy

westfield-3-copy

See

There are dozens of exciting possible excursions in and around Frisco, but the area’s incredible beauty is perhaps best appreciated on the Bay itself.  From the variety of operators plying the water we opted for the Hornblower brunch cruise.  Americans don’t mess around when it comes to buffets, and this lavish spread was no exception.  I was able to enjoy unparalleled views of the city (those famous ski-jump streets), the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and the surrounding areas (Oakland, Sonoma, and Sausalito in the distance), all from the sated comfort of a liner-style dining deck, with live piano included.

Pier 3 Hornblower Landing The Embarcadero San Francisco CA 94111, +1 415-788-8866

www.hornblower.com

hornblower1-copy

These are views of which you just can’t get enough, and I had a second bite when we subsequently visited Alcatraz.  I’d been fascinated with the place since watching Clint Eastwood in “Escape from Alcatraz”, a true story – one of many colourful stories about the island and its former inhabitants, so I was determined to fulfil it with my own on-the-spot insights of America’s most notorious prison.  Alcatraz is welded into San Francisco’s landscape both geographically and culturally, and as such it’s an indispensable inclusion in any itinerary.

Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing San Francisco California 94133, +1 415-981-7625

www.alcatrazcruises.com

alcatraz-cruise-2-copy

For a young city San Fran has a rich history.  The Presidio, a large tract of land at its northern end, offers a great portal into parts of this past, by way of its museum, its heritage buildings and structures, its free programs at the The Presidio Officers’ Club, and its own pivotal role in local and national events.  Dating back to 1776, the time of the Spanish settlement, it served as a military base for most of its existence before being transferred to the Presidio Trust to manage as a national park.   Moreover though, it’s a kill-ten-birds-with-one-stone, multifaceted type of place, the possibilities ranging from walking and biking (and just gazing out from the overlooks) along a picturesque, 24-mile trail in its forested parklands, mass picnicking on Thursdays and Sundays, feasting in one of its choice of ten eateries (try the margaritas at Arguello, yum!), golfing, swimming at Baker Beach, camping at the city’s only campground, and much much more given that it also accommodates a brewery, a bowling alley, a trampoline park, and tennis courts.  This rambling resort is easily arrived at to boot by means of a free shuttle from downtown.  Stay at the historic inn, take in some live music, get a look at the Walt Disney Family Museum, and visit Yoda’s statue outside the Lucas Films HQ.

The Presidio San Francisco ‎CA 94129, +1 415-561-4323

www.presidio.gov

presidio-cemetary

Listen

I read a report recently that claimed that San Fran’s black population had declined from one in seven in 1970, to one in twenty today.  One of the casualties of these shifting dynamics has been the city’s jazz scene, previously bustling, now reduced to only a few dedicated clubs.  Deluxe is an endearingly gritty jazz “dive” that’s keeping the flag flying and flying high.   Their focus is firmly the music – the excellent Bastet, playing on the night that we visited, is one of 60 odd bands on their books – but they also mix a mean Tom Collins.

1511 Haight Street San Francisco CA 94117, +1 415-552-6949

www.clubdeluxe.co

Tour

It’s not really feasible to walk San Francisco.  It may not be the largest of cities, by American standards, but it’s large enough.   Cycling though, which retains a point-blank perspective but with added reach, is a great option.  It’s popular in these parts both as a sport – Specialized has its head office close-by – and as a commuting format, with multiple bike lanes facilitating.  We chose Streets of San Francisco bike tours, based on excellent TripAdvisor reviews and it didn’t disappoint: from the decent bikes, and the complementary water and snacks, to the knowledgeable guide, very importantly, who was able to instruct us on a diverse topics including street art, architecture, culture, and history, never mind the geography of the place (one part of it being the reputed “Wiggle”, the hill-avoiding traverse) – making us feel like we were able to get under the surface of the city in a short space of time.

370 Linden Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-448-7673

www.sosfbiketours.com

_mg_2205-2-copy

Special thanks to San Francisco Travel (www.sanfrancisco.travel).

gq-san-fran-1

As it appeared – p1.

gq-san-fran-2

As it appeared – p2.

Back to its roots

Whisky finds new inspiration from within.  PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along.  Familiarity is fickle lens.  Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you.  Until you do.  And even then it can be a while until it takes hold.  The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start.  Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently.  It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long.  Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future.  That future was in fact the elemental past.  The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.

There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”.  The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer.  These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time.  More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.

The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale.  This intuitively feels right.   What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself?  The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.

The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly.  In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer.  Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer.  The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness.  Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first.  Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer.   A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it.  The flame is now starting to flare.

With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed.  The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale.  I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours).  This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints.  A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours.  The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal.  This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures.  It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.

The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst.  We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment.  There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours.  In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service.  May the brew be with you.

prestige-oct-2016-whisky-p1

As it appeared – p1.

prestige-oct-2016-whisky-p2

As it appeared – p2.

The full kit

Primed and ready for action.  PATRICK LECLEZIO gets to grips with stocking the right spirituous gear.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

I don’t consider myself to be a materialistic.  I don’t covet for the sake of it.  I’m not a shiny new toy type of person.  I do subscribe though to the philosophy that I must have what I need for what I want to do.   There is a certain comfort, a fulfilment, a confidence in being properly equipped.   Maybe it’s a lingering impetus from Boy Scout times – Be prepared! – or maybe it’s a harking back to that first-day-of-school, new-uniform-and-stationery (full set!), ready-to-face-the-world feeling that made such a deep impression, or  maybe it’s just an innate striving for completeness.  It just is – and if attended to it makes the endeavour more enjoyable.  When I’m out running on a cold and wet Cape winter morning, I find that it’s more agreeable if I’m wearing my dedicated rain jacket, rather than trying to get by with something makeshift.  If you’re going to do something, be ready to do it properly – this goes for drinking and entertaining, like anything else.   Here’s how you go about it.

Your personal repertoire will dictate what you need, but I’m going to steer a course suited to the well-rounded, gregarious bon vivant.

Strategy

You’ll want to be able to serve beers and ciders, wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, a range of spirits, and a few cocktails.  Our focus here will be on what you need for spirits, but I mention the others because there’s no point in being well fortified (no pun intended…well maybe a little bit) over here, and leaving your defences gaping over there.  Your equipment requirements will need to cover bar tools and glassware, and, whilst not equipment in the strict sense of it, the drinks and their ingredients shouldn’t be overlooked.

Bar tools

Tot measure

Even if you’re a free pour type of person you’ll need this for controlling proportions when mixing up a cocktail.  You might also find that the occasional guest will want regulated portions, especially in these days of heightened awareness about drink driving.  I recommend the version with both single and double measure combined – it’ll save time and hassle with continued use.  In bar speak these things are known as jiggers.

Cocktail shaker

There are two common types: the regular three-part Cobbler shaker and the two-part Boston shaker.  The latter is more theatrical but also more messy and difficult to use – especially as intended without a strainer.  The third option for cocktail preparations is a mixer, where you would use a large, robust glass (effectively one half of the Boston shaker), a spoon, and a strainer.  I favour the latter option, the stirred-not-shaken style of cocktail execution, particularly for my favoured drinks: there’s less risk of over-dilution or aeration (i.e. lots of bubbles on the surface).

 Spoon

The typical bar spoon is of an extended length, to enable you to easily reach to the bottom of a cocktail shaker or a tall glass.  This can make it cumbersome to wash and store.  I would recommend a telescopic spoon, which can be extended to the desired length for any conceivable purpose, and then contracted to store easily.

Ice-crusher

If you like ice with your spirits then this is an essential bit of kit.  One of the problems with ice is that it introduces uncontrolled dilution into a drink, which is stronger when the ice is added, and gradually weaker as the ice melts.  Crushed ice allows the addition of a measured volume of ice (conveniently using a measuring spoon), and it melts far quicker than cubed ice, giving a more consistent drinking experience.

Muddler

Optional, depending on what cocktails you’ll be making.  I’m contracting myself (as far as the use of makeshift equipment goes), but for occasional use you can get away with a heavy spoon in its absence.

Squeezer

Also optional, if your concoctions call for lemon or lime juice in particular, the former being better fresh, the latter being almost impossible to find.

Ice-buckets

You’ll need two sizes: a small one for dispensing ice, and a large one for chilling a bottle (wine of course, but also useful for vodka and tequila).

Jugs

Two sizes also needed here: a small one for dispensing water for spirits, and a large one to mix cocktails in party batches.

Glassware

Styles

These are the basic requirements: tumbler, highball or zombie (tall glass), and nosing, balloon, and shot glasses, and optionally martini and margarita glasses.  It’s all in the mind of course but it just feels better to be drinking the right drink from the right glass.  If you’re a GnT fan you may also want to consider copa de balon glasses (the Spanish style balloon glass on a long stem).

Quality

I have two sets of martini glasses:  one that’s from one of the local homeware stores, undoubtedly of Chinese provenance, perfectly serviceable but uninspiring, and one that’s made by the German manufacturer Schott Zwiesel.  I remarked the other day than unless I’m hosting a large gathering the former remains unused.  I just unconsciously gravitate towards the other.  The shape, the balance, the surface texture and the general glass quality are all superior, and it makes a difference to my enjoyment of the drinking experience.  I’ve subsequently bought their wine and whisky glasses, with similar results in satisfaction.  You don’t need labour-intensive crystal necessarily, unless that’s your thing, but it’s worth investing in quality glassware.

Drinks and ingredients

Spirits

The stocking principle which I’d advise is to achieve a good balance between choice and excess.  You should try to have at least two options of all the major spirits, but a depth of selection for at least two types, specifically those where flavour diversity is expected – such as whisky and gin.  Over and above I’d also suggest you also have a few exotic spirits available – cassis, amaretto, calvados, and cachaça for instance are both intriguing and delicious.

Mixers

You’ll almost certainly need tonic, soda and cola, and obviously others may be required depending on your particular taste and that of your guests.  I’d recommend keeping a supply of tomato juice (bloody mary / virgin mary), ginger ale (versatile for brown spirits), lemonade (rock shandy), and bottled water (unchlorinated water for adding to brown spirits) at hand.

Other ingredients

The last considerations are garnishes and cocktail ingredients.  The most versatile garnishes are lemon and lime, which can be used in drinks ranging from a GnT and a martini to a cuba libre and a tequila shooter.  So they’re critical.  The rest will be driven by the cocktails that you intend to mix and offer.  You should specialise in a few cocktails, which will come to represent your own particular signature style.  My personal favourites are the martini (vermouth and olives or lemon needed) and the margarita (triple sec, sea salt and lime), but I’m also partial to the odd caiparinha (sugar and lime) and mohito (mint, lime and sugar).   Let the fun begin.

 

prestige-aug-2016-spirits-p1

As it appeared – p1.

prestige-aug-2016-spirits-p2

As it appeared – p2.

 

 

 

The wood in whisky

A phenomenon called maturation.  PATRICK LECLEZIO bows respectfully but unflinchingly to one of the great forces in whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

The use of wood in crafting whisky is enormously important.  Many years ago – almost all the players seem to have their own quaint, romantic story about how it occurred – someone put their spirits into an oak cask, ostensibly for storage or transport, left it for longer than intended, and realised that the resultant, conditioned liquid had been considerably enhanced.  I can only imagine the joy of that discovery, the whisky equivalent of fire, or the wheel, or penicillin (or maybe that’s me imagining what I would say after appropriately celebrating the discovery).  Anyhow, in the aftermath of this happy accident (or these happy accidents, if we’re to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) laying spirits in wood gradually became a deliberate practice, utilised across the board.  It is now of such importance that the makers of fine spirits, and other drinks too (wines and fortified wines in particular), dedicate massive resources to what is known as maturation.  In asserting and validating the extent of its influence I’m going to delve into some the critical factors, but I also want to counter myself with a cautionary voice, because maturation is the one issue in whisky that tends to be over-aggrandised – so I’ll attempt to debunk the glib statements that are sometimes used to stress its importance, but that often misrepresent and mislead.

I’ve repeatedly been told that the most important influence on the flavour of a whisky is its maturation, or, similarly, that maturation contributes 60% (or 70%, or 80% – depends to whom you’re listening) of the flavour of a whisky…and I’ve probably passed on these same suppositions myself.  No longer, or at least, not in these terms.  I have no problem with the direction of the sentiment (there’s no doubting that maturation is important, enormously so, as I’ve already said and will say again, and in many or even most cases of majority importance), but I find it tenuous to reduce it to a fixed, universal, and absolute point.  Firstly the effect of maturation on different whiskies is variable: most obviously because of its duration, the weightings of its input into a 3YO and a 25YO will be dramatically different, but also because wood is a natural substance, and therefore not consistent in its impacts, and further because the relative scale of other influences will also vary.  In the Ardbeg 10YO for instance I could make the (not unreasonable) contention that it is peat smoke and not maturation that commands the single biggest impression in the flavour.  Secondly, flavour is subject to interpretation – it simply can’t be factually referenced in quantitative terms (when this is done in scoring it’s an opinion), or even in definitive terms.  I may be predominantly captivated by the biscuit notes in Maker’s Mark, which I attribute to the wheat in the mashbill, but someone else, sitting drinking the identical whisky opposite me, may be more captivated by the sweet vanilla derived from the casks.  The reason I’m labouring this point is that flavour is suggestive.  If you believe that maturation is the be-all, end-all, that’s often what it will be, perhaps to your detriment. During a business trip with two seasoned industry professionals we were served a cognac which we were told was a Scotch whisky.  We proceeded to debate amongst ourselves whether it was a blend or a single malt (I went for single malt, at least I got the copper distillation right).  In retrospect (blushes notwithstanding) I knew I had identified something funky, but I had simply ruled it out of my mind before even picking up the glass that this was anything other than whisky.  Question assumptions, about this and about anything else really (life rule).

When we talk about maturation, we effectively refer, in very simplistic terms, to the process over time where a liquid resting in a cask absorbs (and relinquishes) certain characteristics, primarily from (and to) the cask itself, and to a lesser degree from the environment in which the cask is accommodated, which permeates as the cask expands and contracts (breathes) with temperature fluctuations, and where the liquid further evolves as the result of chemical reactions between its component compounds and those being absorbed.  The cask itself plays the pivotal role, both intrinsically, by contributing the natural elements of the wood from which it’s made, and by passing on “second-hand” flavours that it has absorbed in its previous maturations, typically of bourbon or sherry, but increasingly of other drinks as well.  I recently worked my way through a bottle of the Glenfiddich 21YO (“raised in Scotland, roused by the Caribbean”…classic), finished in rum casks, with the molasses underpinning that spirit startlingly and deliciously evident in the final liquid.  Glenmorangie has just released Milsean, a whisky finished (extra matured in their parlance) in Portuguese red wine barriques.  Michel Couvreur, a brand with which I was previously associated, produces Spiral, which is finished (double matured might be more apt given the duration) in Jura vin de paille casks and which is one of the outstanding whiskies of my experience.  William Grant, and now Jameson (and possibly others), make whisky finished in ale casks.  And on it goes.  This aspect of maturation has created a model where the possibilities for flavour diversity are almost endless.  It is the sexy face of maturation.  Ex-sherry, ex-bourbon! Oloroso, Pedro Ximinez, manzanilla!  Port, sauternes! And whilst it’s undeniably interesting and alluring it’s important not to forget that much of the body of the whisky comes from the wood itself.

The wood in whisky is the mighty oak – as is the case for most spirits.  There are indigenous Brazilian trees that are used for maturing cachaça, the odd, old, arbitrary chestnut cask has turned up here and there in Scotland, and I’ve read of an American whiskey using maple for finishing, but these are strictly exceptions.  Somehow, out of all the trees in all the world, it’s curiously only oak that works properly (mighty indeed!), and furthermore only oak that has been grown in the right climate and conditions. The attempt to grow Quercus Alba (American white oak) in South Africa was a disaster; the wood was of such poor quality as to be unusable.  This is the reason why a company like Glenmorangie pays such close attention to wood cultivation, to the point where Bill Lumsden, their whisky supremo, flies out to the United States to individually select the trees that’ll be used to make their casks; and why a brand like Glenfiddich celebrates the intricate role of the wood in its whisky – as evidenced by the beautiful “Journey of the Cask” photo essay, from which I’ve chosen images to accompany this piece.   I’ll spare you a detailed knowledge the actual chemistry – because it’s above my pay grade I’ll admit, but also (I say somewhat conveniently) because it’s unnecessary if your objective is to better understand whisky for the purpose of its enjoyment.  The basics of it though are as follows:  The wood performs two functions. The charred or toasted inner layer, like the charcoal that it is, absorbs impurities from the raw spirit, making its smoother and more palatable.   It also gives the spirit a pathway into the wood, from which it absorbs vanillins, lignins and tannins – the elements that make such a central contribution (the second function) to flavour.

Lost to this simplistic explanation are a multitude of other considerations, that all stake a claim:  the seasoning of the wood – the process and time governing the drying of the cut wood (to be distinguished from the seasoning of the casks with liquid); the toasting and charring levels; the skill of the cooperage; the selection and proportion of virgin casks, first fills or refills; and, very importantly, the species of the wood – the most common being the Quercus Alba already mentioned, and Quercus Robur, the European oak.  I had the privilege of attending a nosing with Edrington (Macallan, Highland Park) heavyweight Gordon Motion, during which we compared the same whisky matured for the same period in the same warehouse in American oak and European oak casks, both seasoned with the same sherry for the same period.  From the number of times I’ve used the word same in that sentence you’ve obviously worked out by now that I’m setting you up.  Yes, the whiskies were dramatically different.

Maturation then is a critical lever for flavour.  Even today it retains a sense of that natural world mystique that must have astonished the first person to have stumbled upon it.  Its influence on whisky is both broad and deep.  It’s an easy trap to fall into though to think that it is all-important.  Look at a whisky, nose a whisky, taste a whisky and the first thing that dominates your thinking is a consideration of the casks from which it’s made.  As with all things that are imposing and extraordinary though, it’s worth taking a measured perspective to keep from being overawed.  If I can leave you with only one guiding sentiment about maturation it’s this: appreciate it but don’t exaggerate it.  Leave room for other things.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.