Maturing tequila

An everlasting youth.  PATRICK LECLEZIO touches base with an old friend.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

In the movie Betty Blue, there’s a memorable scene in which Zorg, one of the principal characters, mixes shots of alcohol with a carbonated beverage in a glass, that he then wraps in a napkin and pounds on the table, inducing an explosion of fizziness, before downing the mixture.  It was a slammer of course, one of the many epically, vigorously festive drinks which tequila has bestowed upon us, and at the time it struck a deep chord; I had to get out there and give it a try at the soonest opportunity.  And so began my tempestuous friendship with tequila.  Twenty odd years later I feel that I’ve grown up (somewhat), but that tequila hasn’t – all dressed up it can look the part, but at heart it’s still stuck in its twenties, ready to tear it up given the faintest nudge.  We’re still friends, we still indulge in the occasional big night (and still there’s no-one who’s more fun in these instances!), but I’m reluctant to invite tequila to an elegant adult gathering for fear of intimidating my other friends or for risk of trashing the event?  Its illustrious, outrageous exploits may just have pigeonholed it for life.

The success of tequila is hinged in my opinion on three factors.  Firstly, the incipience of the mythical “tequila buzz”, a widely believed-in phenomenon despite having with no scientific basis –alcohol is alcohol, differing only in flavour so this can only be explained psychosomatically, as a self-fulfilling prophecy – has been a powerful influence on the cult of the drink.  Secondly, tequila has cornered the market on ritualised drinking.  Shots with lemon, lime and salt, body shots, shots with oranges segments, “no hands no faces”, slammers, and all manner of other customised practices – I’ve even participated in some involving raw eggs and physical abuse (don’t ask).  These all form a largely universal party language that everyone wants to speak and can only be understood with tequila.  Thirdly, tequila is the base of one of the world’s most popular cocktail: the margarita, an incredibly tasty, versatile drink, made with tequila, lime juice, triple sec and salt, that seems to suit just about every moment – lunch, dinner, smart, casual, summer, winter, and everything in between.

These forces have propelled tequila into our consciousness, where it lives a large but limited life.  It is a party drink, a carousing, revelling, raucous, rioting drink.  Yet, the older tequila, that friend who never quite grew up, has all the potential, the proven potential, to be a responsible, sophisticated member of society.   Tequila is made using the heart of the blue agave plant, an unusual medium for alcohol, which tends to be made from grains or fruits, and then distilled primarily in alembic stills made from copper or with copper components. There are five basic types of tequila which result: Blanco, unmatured or minimally matured tequila – which is what is mostly used for margaritas; Gold, effectively Blanco with some colouring, the stuff that created the legend; Reposado, aged a minimum of two months (in oak barrels); Anejo, aged a minimum of a year (in small oak barrels), and Extra Anejo, aged a minimum of three years.  These latter categories, the Extra in particular (added in 2006 for this very purpose), are the face of respectable tequila.  The guy who has trimmed his hair, put on a good suit, and gets to work on time in the morning, and whose rough edges have been smoothed away (in multiple senses).  I like him, I like that he’s trying, I can’t fault his efforts, but somehow I just can’t take him seriously enough in this alternative guise.

I recently took two tequilas out for a spin.  I relived some youthful moments with Sauza Blanco, a couple of slammers for old time’s sake, and a margarita, to which I’m still partial.  This is the tequila I know and love.  There’s a certain magic to the flavour, general to tequila, and faithfully represented by the Sauza – it’s repulsively attractive on its own (after you get to know it better), and outright delicious in thoughtful combinations, as in a margarita.  There’s a uniqueness to it that you just won’t come close to finding with any other spirit.  My second outing was with Patron Anejo – from the cleverly crafted range Patron Spirits, which you may or may not know was founded by shampoo-guy Paul Mitchell.  Yes, you can sip it.  You can see that this is the direction in which it’s going.  The richness and mellowness of the cask maturation is apparent, but I still found myself shooting it, albeit without the need for any kind of fruit to follow.  The Anejo is still a bit on the young side, but it shows enough to validate tequila’s claim to the status of fine spirit.  Habits are habits though, and this is the nub of it:  whilst the fundamentals may be in place the perception will take longer to shift.

Given enough time you can reinvent yourself.  I’m not sure though that I want my friend tequila to change though.  In fact I think I need this friend to stay true to what I know it to be as a connection to that part of myself that might otherwise get lost.  We may not hang out as often as we used to but it’s good to know that we can if we want to.  Everyone has to have a friend like tequila.  Adios for now amigos.

Prestige June 2016 Spirits p1

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Grain versus Malt

A family affair.   PATRICK LECLEZIO spotlights the plight of whisky’s less favoured son.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

There are two brothers in the Whisky Family.   Malt Whisky, the eldest, is a prodigy of the highest order.  It’s clear from the start that he is both outrageously talented and wildly popular, and as a result his potential has been obsessively nurtured, to the virtual exclusion of anything or anyone else.  He is lavished with the best that the family has to offer, and, unsurprisingly, his accomplishments have been prodigious.  His brother Grain Whisky too shows glimpses of great potential, and he has his own aspirations, but for the most part they’ve been swept aside.  He is recognised only for what he can do to contribute to Malt’s success.  Ironically it’s as a team that they’ve made the most impact, but whilst Grain does most of the heavy lifting the plaudits always seem to go to Malt.  He basks in the glory of the applause, as his brother, unacknowledged, if not downright ignored, is relegated to watching from the wings.

This is the dynamic that plays itself out in Scotch whisky primarily (but also elsewhere), albeit in less pointedly emotive fashion.  And as with any family drama worth its salt, each party has their side of the story.  Malt typically dominates the whisky conversation, but the less recognised, less understood, less appreciated grain also deserves its chance – and if you have an affinity for whisky (which of course you do!), you’ll be amply rewarded in giving grain some of your attention.   I love whisky for a whole variety of reasons, large amongst them being the variety of flavour that it offers.  Grain whisky may be related to its malt sibling in their common whisky brotherhood, but it is also a distinct style of its own – and it varies on perhaps the most fundamental possible basis – thereby offering an alternative, refreshing corridor of exploration, which you overlook to your detriment.

The most obvious difference between malt and grain whiskies is the raw ingredient or base from which each is made: malt from malted barley, and grain from any other cereal, although there are some caveats.  Malted barley is used in many grain whiskies in small proportions to assist with fermentation, and there are some styles, single pot still comes to mind, that would defy categorisation as either malt or grain.  The grain whisky of Scotland is made primarily from wheat, but also from maize.  American bourbons (the cousins of our two brothers) are effectively grain whiskies made predominantly from maize (corn in their parlance).  This base, being the core of a whisky, imparts significant differences in flavour, and even in mouthfeel, to the final spirit.  In wheat based whiskies there is often a biscuity sweetness and an oily mouthfeel , and in maize based whiskies a full buttery chewiness, detectable through the other influences.

Malts and grains are produced by means of two different processes, the former through pot distillation, the latter through column distillation.  The conventional wisdom is that pot stills facilitate more flavour through copper “conversation” (contact of the liquid with the copper material from which these stills are usually made) and by distilling a less pure liquid to lower concentrations (with the impurities imparting flavour).  Column stills conversely are seen to produce lighter, cleaner spirit to higher alcoholic strengths.  It is true that most grain whiskies tend to have lighter characters than malt for this reason, but distillation is a dark art in which many things are possible, and accordingly you should be careful not to paint all grains with the same brush.  Anyone who has sampled the Nikka Coffey grain and malt whiskies would be able to testify to the richness and depth of flavour achieveable with a column still.

Perhaps the most striking deviation between the two styles is not so much in their intrinsic constitution – the ingredients and the processes just described – but in the intentions that have guided their creation and importantly their maturation.  Scotch grains have been made almost exclusively for blending.  As a result they are designed: to be light, to “dilute” the rough edges of young malts; to be cost effective, so perhaps racked in lesser casks, and to be simple and accessible, so that the blend doesn’t detract from character of the malt.  These intentions, that have inhibited grain’s ostensible ambitions for the most part, are luckily not ubiquitous.  They may be in small numbers but there are grain whiskies that have been and are being produced for their own glory, and that are equivalent in class to the great malts whilst having their own unique charm and flair.

I evaluated two of these recently – Compass Box’s Hedonism (a blended grain), and Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky (a single grain), both brilliant fulfilments of the grain whisky potential.  Hedonism is a decadent delight, especially for those of us who value the typical elements of American oak ex-bourbon cask maturation.  Vanilla and coconut abound, being given free rein, with some oatmeal and honey also detectable.  The advantage of a lighter, purer spirit is that it doesn’t have to fight with its casks – it simply provides the canvas, and lets the painting ensue.   Bain’s, whilst still a lighter whisky in an absolute sense, is noticeably more fat and robust, with toffee nibs, a brisk hit of spice, and sweet oak prominent, the latter perhaps a factor of the double maturation, and ripe-ish fruitiness and some vanilla in the background.  It strikes with a certain confident aplomb the tenuous balance between interesting and easy.

There is a certain line in the whisky family which is expected to be toed: Malt comes first.  This is how it is – and it’s not to be disputed.  The extent of his talent and the weight of momentum have created an unstoppable force.  It’s exciting though that that there have been the occasional infractions, as Grain has stepped out of line to express his own talent.  There’s room I think for lot more of it.  May the rivalry endure, and may the dram be with you.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p1

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A diamond in the rough

Prospecting in rum.  Patrick Leclezio tracks a spirituous revelation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2016 edition).

In 2005 whilst living in Italy I discovered rum.  I’d been stumbling over it for a while of course, drinking mixed rums – typically in the fabled Cuba Libre style – but I’d never picked it up, dusted it off, held it to the light and given it proper consideration.  My prior experience of it had pigeonholed the spirit as something agreeable but limited, like a friend with whom you have just the one thing in common, which once exhausted leaves nothing much else that’s engaging.  My awakening, in the little bars of Trastevere in Rome, where the forerunning Latin appreciation for the drink had already been given unrestrained expression, exposed me to a sleeping giant.  In products like Appleton’s 21YO, Pampero Anniversario, Barbancourt, and Zacapa Centenario (these were the days before Diageo’s misguided attempt to fashion the thing into a cocktail base), I felt I’d seen a glimpse of the future.  Ten odd years later this future has finally arrived in the country.   Stay with me as I draw open the curtains.

Rum is a spirit with a colourful history, but with associations I feel that have held back its graduation to the upper echelons attained by its peers.  The reference to pirates, sailors, navvies and the like has evoked images of adventure, fun and daring-do, dominant themes in how rums have portrayed themselves and been perceived, but the potential for elegance and style has been largely overlooked, ignored, and overshadowed in the process.  No longer. The era of “sipping rums”, rums that have been judiciously produced and significantly matured, that can be drunk neat or with a dash of water, and that would not be amiss if served in a gentleman’s club, has been dawning, albeit slowly.  It’s been a bit of a drawn out, extended, impatient wait but today there is a satisfying-enough number of these rums available on the South African market.  This is great news, dare I say cause for raucous celebration (ok, refined celebration) for those of us who love fine spirits, in that it both confers a previously unknown abundance and variety of flavour to our drinking repertoires, and in that it does so for remarkable value; that the price of rum compares favourably with that of whisky and cognac is a gross understatement.

There are challenges certainly: rum, to be blunt, is all over the show.  The industry is fragmented; there are no unifying standards (often even within individual territories); there is no concerted and coordinated effort at consumer education, worrying at a time when consumers are thirsty (yes, sorry) for information and more discriminating than ever before; access to and depth of information, for those aficionados who are looking to self-educate is sketchy; and, for many of the reasons listed, the perceived integrity of rum in relative terms is sorely lacking – why, as an example, does Zacapa get to label a rum with the age of its oldest component when Appleton denotes theirs with the age of the youngest?  Surely this can’t be good for the wider category?  The flip side is that rum producers have incredible freedom.  Column stills, pot stills, both, liberal maturation – almost anything goes, all without constraints.  With a sparsity of rules and regulations comes both the risk of consumer confusion and frustration, and scope for incredible creations.

I had the opportunity recently to evaluate side by side all the major players contesting our attention locally.  The standard bearers for rum have long been the historically intertwined Bacardi and Havana Club, although the latter has only more recently manifest itself as a global brand.  The former’s 8YO and the latter’s 7YO are both plump, juicy drinks, ironically quite similar, with a pleasing fruitiness, perhaps pineapple, on the palate, and a long finish.  They may not be intricately complex, which I’m pretty sure is not the intention anyhow, but they’re solid, dependable and, most importantly, enjoyable.  From stalwarts to upstarts.  My guiding principle in analysing global spirits is that a premium brown spirit cannot be successful without heritage.  One of the most striking and impressive exceptions is the barrier-breaking Patron Spirits Company.  They’ve again broken the mould with Pyrat – its liquid has such a pronounced orange flavour that some rum commentators suspected added flavouring.  In fact the rum is finished in casks that had previously held orange liqueur, the only such instance of which I’m aware.  It may not be everyone’s ration of grog but its two strokes of silky citrus and bitter tang are simple and effective, at least for my taste.  Pair it with a few squares of dark chocolate as a digestif.  Also out of ordinary is Inverroche’s 7YO rum.  Next time I’m drifting down the coast I’ll stop in specifically to explore how this is put together.  All rums are made with cane (forgetting a few beet derived freaks) – either molasses or juice, so you’re pretty much be expecting a sugary profile.  The Inverroche rum is less sweet and more herbaceous – it is as distinct a rum as is available in the country.  Appleton, the venerable, long established Jamaican distillery, conversely, produces liquid that as typical as rum can be imagined to be.   Both its X/V and its 12YO display pungent molasses on the nose and ripe cane on the palate, as if you’d sunk your teeth into a stalk on the cusp of fermentation.   A rum’s rums, so to speak.

My favourites though, each of which glittered with the best of rum’s new sparkle, were those from Mount Gay, with which I could imagine myself to have endless entertaining conversations – the Black Barrel, syrupy and rich, maybe a factor of its heavily charred casks, with a peppery surprise on the finish, and the XO, subtle and sophisticated with notes of caramelised sugar and a juicy, mouth-coating fullness – and then, inevitably, the much beloved, and somewhat maligned Zacapa.  The suggestion has been made that Zacapa has declined in quality of late, since the reins changed hands, but if this is true then I wasn’t able to detect it.  It remains the complex, layered, gripping rum, brimming with sweet oak and sultanas, that I first tasted all those years ago.  The virgin press juice, the solera process, the variety of four different casks including Pedro Ximenex sherry, and the high altitude maturation constitute a winning formula.  It is outstanding, and it continues to be the herald of rum’s progressing journey to the pantheon.  Salud!

 

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Gindigenous

Hot on its heels. Patrick Leclezio tracks the local response to the global gin explosion.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2016 edition).

If there was even a slight hint of doubt about how searingly hot gin has become in the last few years it would be persuasively quelled by the extent of the local craft gin industry. I’d set out late last year with preparations for a review, which I’d hoped would be comprehensive, but my ambitions were thwarted by sheer numbers, and by what seemed like a constant stream of new entrants. My selection was eventually limited to nine, resulting in a mix of the more established, the new, and the brand new – in practical, manageable proportions; but keep in mind that there are a lot of others out there, with more joining by the day. There’s a gin heaven manifesting itself in South Africa and the gates are wide open. Join me for a quick tour.

It can be difficult to make any kind of systematic sense of gin. There are so few objective rules, and so much potential for variation. Juniper is ostensibly intended to be the dominant flavour – the word gin is in fact a derivative of juniper – but this has become doubtful (and somewhat controversial) in recent times, as new gins have been increasingly pushing the boundaries in attempts to carve out distinctive niches for themselves. Resistant purists claim that without the strong juniper a gin is simply a flavoured vodka. It’s a classic conflict between innovation and tradition. In fairness this was a regulation that was crying out of be trampled. How do you legislate flavour? Action may need to be taken though to tighten things up, such is the pace of developments – a subject for another time. Our local legislation is less prescriptive, simply calling for the presence of juniper amongst the botanicals, but not specifying anything further. The result is a whole new style of “African” gins – based on the use of indigenous ingredients – in which juniper is either receded into the background, or in fact entirely undetectable. I’ve had my nose in a big pot of juniper extract on more than one occasion so I’m confident that I’m familiar with its pine-y flavour – enough to identify its reticence. Anyhow, despite this departure, these gins are nonetheless is unmistakeably gin, in the nature and composition of its other botanicals.

The two most long established brands are the well-tractioned Inverroche, which has entrenched itself as the country’s flagship craft gin, and the more reclusive Jorgensen’s. The three variants of the former – Classic, Verdant and Amber – and two variants of the latter – its eponymous gin and saffron gin, were assessed for this review. The Inverroche Classic sets the benchmark for the profile of a fynbos based gin. Its base of cane spirits redistilled with limestone fynbos botanicals imparts peppery and savoury flavours – creating an interesting, edgy drink that’s likely to find favour with those who prefer their gins in the Beefeater mould. Jorgensen’s by comparison has a fuller, richer flavour – with hints of its grape base peeking through. I used it in a martini on whim, yielding impressive results, the only detraction being that it maybe lacks the “sessionability” (the dubious advisability of sessionable martini drinking is noted) of something softer. But that’s a question of personal taste. The other Inverroche variants use different recipes of botanicals, mountain fynbos for Verdant, coastal fynbos for Amber, whatever these might mean, as well as undisclosed fynbos infusions, resulting in gins that are substantially contrasted to the Classic and to each other. Most importantly both combine astoundingly well with tonic – not something that I say lightly. Jorgensen’s Saffron is a more subtle deviation from its parent – likely because the distillate used is the same, or very similar. Distillation is a dark art, one which I don’t pretend to fully understand, but what knowledge I have has made me partial to copper pot distillation – the method used by both Jorgensen’s and Inverroche – as a superior attributor of flavour. Whether this is justified or not it’s a preconception that’s certainly borne out by the well-crafted depth of flavour in these two gins.

The other bookend comprises newcomers to the scene in the form of Musgrave and Blind Tiger gins, the latter yet-to-be-launched. Musgrave is a bold gin that is African in both theme and flavour. Its broad and pronounced ginger flavour is derived from its use of African ginger as a prominent botanical. Less pronounced but discernible nonetheless is the cardamom – I’m a big fan of Earl Grey, so I was particularly pleased with its inclusion. Blind Tiger occupies what seems like a separate space from its local peers, and from the defining local style. It is softer, sweeter, and more classical, more international. It also packs some additional value at 46% ABV, which shouldn’t be overlooked.  The in-betweeners are two variants from the Woodstock Gin Company. I found them to be little spirity, with flat flavours, but this may be unfair, especially since they were evaluated alongside more premium priced gins. Apples and oranges. The one is made from barley spirit and the other from a grape spirit – but both from the same recipe, offering fascinating insight into the influence of that base spirit. Worth checking out on that basis alone.

This burgeoning story of local gin is vibrant and inspiring, and hopefully it’ll continue to instil interest and gather momentum. The scene has been set, and the narrative has been populated with an expanding cast of compelling characters – refer to the handy table adjacent for a plot summary. It’s safe to say I’d venture that you can look forward to a persisting and varying injection of quality liquid for your GnT’s and your martinis. May the botanicals be with you.

Craft gin - MASTER information sheet v2

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Indian renaissance

From pariah to performer. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the two brands that are rehabilitating the reputation of Indian whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2016 edition).

Ahead of a recent trip to India I had it in my mind to secure some samples for a report on Indian whisky. Unfortunately this proved difficult; I was informed that transporting liquor across certain state borders – in this case from Goa and Bangalore to Delhi – is prohibited. The problem was eventually resolved using a more circuitous route (via the UK!), thanks to the gracious people at Paul John and Amrut, but the experience gave me a little bit of first-hand insight into the contorted nature of Indian liquor legislation. Their complicated system of national and state regulations has engineered a bizarre situation where the majority of people in the world’s largest whisky drinking market don’t drink whisky, and can’t drink whisky (at a reasonable price).

India consumes some 1.5 billion litres of “whisky” per year, hugely in excess of any other country. The inverted commas however account for the fact that most of it isn’t actually whisky – anywhere other than in India. A glance at South African law for instance would reveal a stipulation that for whisky to be sold as whisky in this country it would need to “be produced from a mash of grain”. Whisky by historical tradition, by overwhelming convention, and by regulatory definition in most countries – as we’re seen with our local example – must be made from grains. In India the bulk of local whisky is made from molasses, which is subsequently blended with various proportions of grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premium-ness. “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said Bill Lumsden, an industry pioneer and the master distiller at Glenmorangie, of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. This is a simplistic analysis of course – there are other concerns, maturation for instance -but it’s sufficient to make the point that Indian whisky by any objective measure is largely substandard. The buttresses that keeps these whiskies afloat, and protected from redress by healthy competition, are the regulations to which I’d earlier alluded, primarily a set of exorbitant tariffs which violate World Trade Organisation rules, and without which that local industry would collapse.

This scenario is bleak for many reasons. It’s costing the country both economically in lost revenue and blunted potential, and socially in that whisky lovers are being deceived and short changed. I don’t think I’m being dramatic in suggesting that this is probably the single biggest issue in the whisky arena today. Negotiations have been ongoing for some time, but I would imagine that the scale of entrenchment makes progress difficult. It might seem like a horse-before-cart, pie-in-the-sky prognosis but things will probably change only if India cultivates quality brands that can stand up to their international peers.

This kind of a solution is some way off for the mainstream, but faint ripples have started to appear. In the Bangalore based Amrut first, and more recently the Goa based Paul John, India has two distilleries producing world class, genuine whisky. This is exciting not only for India – primarily at this stage as an affirmation of their ability to go toe-to-toe with the best – but also for us, for whisky drinkers globally; with their emergence we have access to an exciting, dynamic new style of whisky.

My first experience of Amrut was of the ground-breaking Fusion – arguably the whisky that made its name. A fusion indeed, of Indian grown barley, with Islay peated malt, it is a delightful whisky, explicitly smoky but not overpoweringly so, leaving plenty of space for a plethora of other rich, spicy, fruity flavours. I made the mistake of serving my first bottle some five years ago at my birthday party. It was smacked out of its brief existence in short order, such was the immediate rapport that it struck. This time I intend to savour the new bottle in more fitting tribute to its indisputable merits.

The style of Fusion, and indeed the others that I examined, the Amrut Single Malt, the Paul John Brilliance, and the Paul John Edited, has been cast in the mould of Scotch single malt, with a similar-ish palette of flavours. The critical point of difference is maturation. Both Amrut and Paul John are produced in the oven that is Southern India – resulting in an intense, accelerated ageing process. These malts, ranging from three to five years old, would not have been ready to bottle if matured in Scotland, or in most other whisky producing climates. It’s a benefit and a hindrance though, the bonus of good whisky fast tempered by the unlikelihood (or, dare I say it – impossibility) of turning out anything old and superpremium. Quick to cook, quick to burn (and evaporate!), with a much reduced sweet spot. This though is the distinctive feature which will define Indian whisky as style of its own amongst aficionados.

The Amrut Single Malt and the Paul John Brilliance are solid, quaffable single malts – abundant with the vanilla and honey typical of bourbon casks. Mostly I was surprised by their poise and balance. Surely, I thought, there’s got to be a cost to the speed; but if there is it’s not apparent in these two whiskies. They may not be the fullest and richest, or the most complex, but they’re well-executed and interesting…and well worth exploring. The Paul John Edited, like the Amrut Fusion, is peated, although more lightly peated, but it’s travelled a different and imaginative road to get there. Fusion uses Scottish peated malt, Paul John uses Indian barley malted using Scottish peat. I can’t say that I could ascribe a difference to the influence of each – noting that the peat used may be different too – but it’ll be fun spending some time with both to try to identify it. Regardless, the added dimension introduced by the peating propels this variant from solid to superb, as gentle smoke wisps amongst streaks of chocolate-y sweetness.

If ever a country needed a whisky redemption, there’s no doubt that it is India – because of its diabolical rotgut (I say this relative to what it should be) and because of its importance. In response Amrut and Paul John have delivered and delivered decisively. For the country’s whisky drinkers the road may be long and hard, and the destination uncertain, but the potential is quite conclusively there. Whatever happens it seems that the rest of us can look forward to some fine Indian single malt, and who knows what else, in the years to come. May the dram be with you, and all.

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Complementary drinks

A contextualised guide to the appreciation of fine liquor

First published in GQ Magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

I recently watched Kingsman, a rip snorting romp of a spy movie in which suave veteran Harry Hart mentors young buck Eggsy on how to be a gentleman, the latter being a bit rough around the edges. His second lesson instructs on the making of a proper Martini. A little overly-trodden, and a little insufficient, but it had me nodding in agreement – yes indeed, gentlemen should know their liquor. What to drink when, and how. The right juice if you will for the right occasion. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter in suggesting that a cultivated repertoire is a vital attribute if you hope to evolve your masculinity to the next level. Well, maybe a little, but let’s just agree that it’s important. I may not be cast from the same aristocratic superspy mould but in this case I think I can step in where he left off. If you thought then that this was going to be a piece on cadging free booze I have this suggestion (now that I’ve assumed the mantle) for you: a gentleman should also own a dictionary (preferably the dictionary). But that’s just in passing. The matter at hand is drinks, and it is where I’ll make my bid for a small contribution to the lexicon of gentlemanliness.

Complement: “something that completes”, “one of a pair, or one of two things that go together”.

When it comes down to it life is about complementariness. The search for harmony. For optimality. The bringing of balance to the force. There are moments and occasions, which, whilst giving their own fundamental value to how you experience them, can be amplified, transformed even, made complete at the very least, by the right complements. In these instances, when they pertain to the not insignificant (as I think we’ve established) subject of drinks, it is beholden upon you to bring your gentlemanly knowledge to bear.

When: celebrations

What: champagne
An obvious one to start. From victories and Valentines, to birthdays and betrothals, this geographically indicated sparkling wine is synonymous with celebration. The crisp, dry taste – and the tingling mouthfeel, courtesy of its hallmark fine bubbles – of brut champagne is the foundation on which it’s forged its popularity, but, as if often the case with liquor, perception plays almost as much of a role as the liquid itself. The popping of corks, launching of ships, the sabrage method, the champagne towers, and its many other rituals have all impressed this drink on our collective consciousness as something distinctly special.

Try: Veuve Clicquot Rich. I’ve marked many of the milestones in my life with Veuve, and it’s always lived up to expectations, with its superior taste, depth of heritage, and innovative approach. The Maison Veuve Clicquot in Reims too adds to the charm and is well worth the visit. Rich in particular is an accessible, versatile offering which lends itself to personalised drinking. Shake things up by mixing in some cassis for a classic Kir Royale, or by creating your own infusions.

When: landmark celebrations

What: vintage spirits
A vintage bottling refers to liquid that was distilled and put into maturation in a single calendar year – the one denoted on its label. It is individual and variable by design, differing from a distillery’s standard bottlings, which may draw from production spanning various years in order to achieve flavour consistency. As such it captures the essence of one particular year – and what better way to fete an epic birthday or anniversary than by experiencing a little “stolen” taste of that specific period in time.

Try: Balblair vintage highland single malt Scotch whisky. I’ve had the privilege of enjoying their 1983, 1989, 1990 and 2000 vintages, all occupying the zone between delicious and outstanding, and I can reliably say that each is a fitting tribute.

When: summer and sunshine
What: caipirinha
Nothing evokes summer like sand and sea – so it seems fitting to take the lead for the season’s drink from the world’s foremost beach culture. A well-made caipirinha ticks all the boxes: it’s cool and refreshing – the essential attribute of course, it builds further with its complex and interesting flavour (but without being too challenging – that type of effort would only interfere with the fun and relaxation), and it’s strong and pure enough to be taken seriously – fun is great, frivolous is a waste of your gentlemanly time.
Try: Germana cachaça. The prime ingredient in the caipirinha is Brazil’s inimitable (no, it’s not rum) home-grown spirit. This stuff ranges from the cheap and nasty to the aromatic and sublime, with corresponding results for your caipirinha. Germana – a pot-stilled, artisanal cachaça housed in an unmistakeable banana bark wrapped bottle – features within the latter category. One word of caution – easy on the sugar.

When: gala events
What: martini
Ah, the martini resurfaces, as we always knew it must. Whoever said clothes maketh the man had clearly not yet encountered this most elegant of drinks – or he would have supplied an addendum. Your dress attire simply isn’t complete without the iconic martini stemware dangling languidly from your hand, and conversely a martini will never taste as downright delightful as it does when you’re suited and booted. And should it turn out to be a stuffy affair…well, let’s say that your bases are covered.

Try: Bombay Sapphire. Everyone has their own take on the Martini – here’s mine: Gin, of course, not vodka – it’s so much more interesting; and preferably a soft gin like Bombay. Dry vermouth – it exists for a reason. Noel Coward’s diametrically opposed view is that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy”, but how seriously can you take someone who thinks that the vermouth deployed in a martini comes from Italy? Pas du tout, I’m afraid. A ratio of five parts gin to one part vermouth – stirred or swirled, not shaken. Pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with olives or a twist, depending on your mood.

When: sports

What: craft beer
It’s difficult enough to maintain your cool, calm, gentlemanly demeanour when watching your favourite team play a nail-biting game without introducing liquor into the equation. But then again it wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as with a few drinks. The solution is something moderate, like beer. It’s crisp and refreshing, which is important for day-time drinking, it can be deliciously flavoursome, and, let’s face it, we’ve been pre-conditioned by a relentless avalanche of advertising and sponsorship campaigns to associate beer with sports. It feels right, so why fight it? You can choose though to cock a snook at those corporate puppeteers by applying your refined palate to the consumption of small-batch beer – to reassure yourself that you still have free will, and because it’s tastier by far.

Try: Jack Black. One of the original operators in the proliferating Cape Town craft scene, it now boasts the three additional variants, alongside the legendary flagship lager – my favourite being the Skeleton Coast IPA, a pleasingly bitter ale with a full well-balanced cereal flavour. The 440ml format, which seems to be a standard in the category, and the 6.6% ABV employed by Jack Black on the IPA, deliver what I would describe as an ideal per-unit level of satisfaction.

When: a birth

What: cognac
It’s a time honoured tradition, the origins of which are obscured by the mists of time, to present and smoke cigars at the birth of a child, and there’s nothing better suited to supplement a stogie and to toast such a momentous event than a fine cognac. The fragrant aromas of the former, and the rich flavour of the latter, and the theatre of two in concert, cigar between the fingers in one hand, balloon glass filled with smoke in the other, is the best of backdrops for this congratulatory gathering.

Try: Courvoisier XO. The Jarnac-based Couvoisier is one of leading producers of cognacs, having established its reputation as the preferred cognac of no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte, a man with Europe at his feet and with the pick I’m sure of any fine spirit he might have desired. XO, which stands for extra old, refers to blends of cognac in which the youngest component is no less than six years old, and whilst age isn’t everything, it’s nonetheless a loosely reliable indicator amongst cognac’s big brands that you’ll be getting a suitably-matured, quality drink.

GQ comp drinks p1

As it appeared – p1.

 

GQ comp drinks p2

As it appeared – p2

GQ comp drinks p3

As it appeared – p3.

 

 

 

 

 

Running on the roof of the world

A tribute to the Himalayan. Patrick Leclezio reports on one of ultra-running’s unique races.

First published in Runner’s World magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

Running brings out the best in people. It may be because we are born to it and that it is our essential state of being, if you accept (as I do) the theory proposed by Christopher McDougall; it may be because it challenges us to strive for many of the finer human qualities – discipline, persistence, and courage; or it may be, perhaps, because it inspires us to respond to adversity from a deep and pure place within ourselves. There’s just something about running that motivates us to reach for our better selves, or at least parts thereof. Now I don’t claim that this observation will stand up to any kind of scientific scrutiny, but it’s how I felt recently after watching a party of some thirty odd participants attempt the epic Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race. I bore witness to a group of runners doing some amazing things.

The Himalayan takes place over five gruelling days covering some of the most spectacular, but arduous, terrain imaginable. Run in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal in Northern India, it is as idiomatically far removed from a cup of the local produce as you could possibly fear to expect (and fear you should, at least somewhat). The race straddles the Nepalese border for much of its course, covering some ridiculous elevations, and reaches an oxygen-scarce altitude of almost 3700 metres. I may not be ultra-running fit, but I am fit – yet at this height above sea level even a light uphill stroll gave me pause for thought. Throw in the elements – we experienced rain, hail and bitter cold – and it became clear why this type of running is considered an adventure sport, and why this race is touted to be India’s premier adventure event. As I found the Race Director (and founder), the inimitable and voluble C. S. Pandey, to be fond of saying: an adventure is a “calculated risk”, and indeed the Himalayan delivered its fair share of uncertainty, on this its 25th anniversary as I’m guessing it did in previous years, for many if not most of the competitors.

The first stage sets out from Mane Bhanjang at some 1900m and climbs to the race apex at Sandhakphu, delivering gradients of hair-raising steepness during its course, uphill naturally, but also downhill – prompting I’m sure the disheartening sense of gains being given up in the progress towards this formidable summit. As a runner finishing in the cold and wet, on the verge of hypothermia, or ailing from altitude sickness, or just tired, sore and depleted, that first night, with sleep at such an unaccustomed altitude difficult, the thought of getting up to do it all over again the next day would have been a serious test of will. Yet get up they did, to a man (and woman, as the case had been).

The most, but by no means the only, remarkable example, was one my media companions, Helmut Linchbichler of Austria, a 74 year old, third-time Himalayan veteran. He’d been one of those badly affected by the weather, prey to a logistical miscalculation in the deployment of his rain gear. His predicament had been further aggravated when he’d taken a tumble during a trail run in the week preceding the race, leaving his upper leg badly bruised. On arrival at the finish he was chilled to the bone and looked in bad shape. 25 miles of torture. Wet, glacial conditions. No jacket and little insulation. 74! This guy was done…or so I had thought. But when I got up the next day, warmly ensconced in my down jacket, there he improbably was, in his running gear, smiling and joking, looking ready for come what may. I had clearly underestimated the fortitude of the man, of the running mindset, and of the Himalayan spirit.

The first two nights, with the second stage doubling back on itself along the ridge line, were spent at the summit at Sandakphu, where we were afforded the opportunity to sight four of the world’s five highest peaks – a breathtaking, affirming experience, when the participants would have needed it most. Kangchenjunga in particular, the third highest, and the most impressive in terms of breadth, more a massif than a single mountain, is so close that you can almost reach out and touch it. The place is both magically beautiful, its position dramatic, its views unparalleled (virtually), and vividly stark, the accommodation spartan, the comforts few. It is the perfect backdrop to test yourself in and against the majesty of nature.

The third stage also happened to be a marathon, the 263rd (!) for one of the runners – RAF retiree David Green, although there was some debate over whether it was standard or not, never resolved because of the patchy GPS connections in the region. Regardless, it featured a tremendous, quadriceps-crippling descent to the town of Rimbik, a return to approximately 1900m, where if I was delighted then the runners, despite their stoic forbearance, must have been maniacally overjoyed, to become reacquainted with running water and hot showers. Our little lodge (Hotel Tenzing Sherpa), made excellent by the earlier deprivations, but a warm and friendly place of its own accord, also offered another, entirely unexpected treat, which would have been a major boon for the calorie-craving runners: a tagliatelle napoletana of Neapolitan standard (poetic licence, apologies), with what tasted like genuine parmesan cheese. To suggest that this was surprising in these rural backwaters – where I couldn’t even get my hands on Indian tonic water – would be entirely insufficient.

As the race wore on into the fourth and fifth stages, with any significant flat stretch of track still to be taken into evidence (did I say gruelling?), it gradually started to become clear that stage racing is a beast all of its own. Experience and holistic preparation (as opposed to just training) would be crucial. The Himalayan is more about participation than competition – something that would have been apparent to any bystander from the camaraderie that prevailed throughout. To underscore the point the 2015 participants were each amateurs. All the same it is a race and it had attracted some prodigious runners. Over the first three days the contest was hard-fought by three of these – a hugely talented, 18 year-old Canadian, the leader at that point, running his first race of the kind, and two highly practiced Australians. The Aussies, Tegyn Angel and Kellie Emmerson, eventual winners, were noticeably well equipped, and were set apart by a professional approach to their race nutrition, which started to tell in the latter stages. The aid stations provided small oases of respite and nourishment, but their fare of bananas, potatoes, biscuits and water wasn’t enough for peak performance. Taking nothing away from their own talent, and the immense discipline and determination that would have been needed to train for and run this event so effectively, I’m sure nevertheless that this supplementation played an important role in staying stronger, and, critically, healthier, when many started to wane.

Others too fought and won their own battles. An Englishman struck down by an adverse reaction to the altitude and by the lingering effects of a cold gutsed it out over the full five days and finished strongly, in an impressive display of stiff-upper-lipped resolve. An American woman struggled with diarrhoea – woe betide the person whose immune system lets down its guard in India! – but also persisted bravely, to the end. It was rousing stuff. Insanely admirable. At times I had to ask myself why. What was it for? All runners have their own reasons, their own motivations, but I think everyone is driven by the elation that comes with finishing, and, for a race of this scale and stature, that unbridled joy – at overcoming the obstacles, at surmounting the challenge, at completing the mission, at giving the best of yourself and not being found wanting – seemed enough reward in and of itself. It was an occasion that enhanced the lore of running. And, say what you will, scrutiny or no scrutiny, it was truly an experience that brought out the best.

RW RUN THE WORLD MAR16

As it appeared.