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.

Amsterdam in brief

Familiar and foreign both, Holland’s metropole strikes a poised balance as the ultimate place for a short city break.

First published in GQ Magazine (September 2016 edition).

I find myself in the fortunate position, courtesy of my work commitments, to be able to intermittently sojourn in a European city, typically for a long weekend.  The choice of destination is critical in this endeavour.  Given that these trips only manifest about once a year, so regularly but not often, and given the parlous state of the currency, I simply can’t face the prospect of disappointment.  The chosen city must therefore meet certain conditions – it must be convenient, distinctive, and interesting.  This year I opted for Amsterdam.  The conclusion, first – before you read on any further:  wau!  Or so the Dutch would say it.  The visit left me struggling to imagine any alternative that would have more emphatically fulfilled my criteria.

Convenient

If your time is limited you don’t want to be dealing with multiple transfers and contorted logistics.  Amsterdam Schiphol is a direct flight on KLM, a single stop on a host of other airlines, and an easy connection from all the major (and many of the minor) European cities.  It’s then a short journey of 20-odd minutes from the airport to the city’s central station by train.

Foreign languages are part of the charm of a holiday abroad, a charm particularly poignant in Amsterdam because of the filial relationship between Dutch and Afrikaans.  But they’re also an impediment, especially during a short stay when you’ll have neither the time nor inclination to wrestle with a language barrier.  The Dutch, and probably Amsterdamers in particular, speak the best English in Continental Europe.

The city’s tourism organisation IAMSTERDAM offers cards for purchase which include all public transport, canal tours, museum visits, and discounts at shops and restaurants.  They’re handy, although I found that I rarely needed to use the trams and the buses – the city centre is condensed enough that if you’re at your leisure anything other than walking is largely unwarranted.

Distinctive

The places that etch their mark most profoundly on our consciousness, that live longest and most vividly in our memories, are the ones with their own, unique, individual character.  If you were wake up here with no recollection of where you were – this city, with its canals, bicycles and winching beams…and its “coffee” shops and red light district, would immediately reveal itself to you, and impress itself (favourably!) upon you.

Interesting

Amsterdam has it all.  A deep and rich history.  A heritage of arts and innovation.   A broad culture encompassing food and drink, music and theatre, fashion and sports.  It’s a place of vibrant energy and unpretentious cool, endowed with a seemingly endless supply of things to see and do.

 Stay

The Conservatorium

Taking its name from the music school previously resident, the Conservatorium Hotel occupies a heritage building, renovated and extended by Piero Lissoni.  The result is a blend of the traditional and the contemporary that creates a reassuring, luxurious elegance.  The place is a spoil, be warned, but it delivers throughout: from the unusual split level rooms, the superbly well-equipped gym, the sumptuous spa with its watsu pool, and the Asian restaurant (Taiko) with its certified sake sommeliers to the quirky decorations, the shopping gallery with its cigar club, and the host department, which gets in touch with you ahead of your visit to assess your requirements and offer advice. The highlight perhaps is the flagship I love Amsterdam suite, nudged from the spectacular that you would expect to the outrageously sublime by a viewing deck, accessed by a spiral staircase to the roof of the hotel, which offers wraparound views of the city.  My only caution would be that its location is set slightly outside the thick of things, but the hotel offers bicycles to guests (naturally!) as a remedy so this is a negligible concern.  If it’s beyond your budget to stay then stop in at the excellent brasserie – with its community table for solo travellers, what a simple but beautiful idea – for a meal of duck breast or pikeperch, both exquisite, washed down with a Petit Chablis, to take in the charm of the place.

Paulus Potterstraat 50 – 1071 DB Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 570 0090

http://www.conservatoriumhotel.com

Dine

In a city that is both rooted in its traditions and that pushes the boundaries I thought it was important to experience both ends of the spectrum.

Supperclub

This restaurant seemed so avant garde to me that I was taken aback to learn that it had been operating for some 25 years.  Patrons recline at tables set on large beds, whilst being entertained by DJ’s and a variety of unconventional performers – imagine a fusion of Madame Zingara’s and the Blue Oyster Bar.  I don’t think I was successful in bringing out my “inner travolta” as they urged me to do, but I made a great time of it nonetheless.  It goes without saying too that the food was sumptuous.  An iconic Amsterdam experience!

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://supperclub.amsterdam/en

Haesje Claes

This family-run restaurant is an institution, having maintained persistent popularity since its inception some 40 years ago.  It’s a large place, but with its multiple dining areas enclosed into smaller separated spaces, with its decor of authentic Dutch furnishings, and with its friendly, chatty staff, an intimate atmosphere prevails.  Haesje Claes is a window to the past, to the old Holland of the seafaring age – I imagined myself a sailor, freshly stepped off a ship from the Indies, as I devoured a much anticipated meal of my favourite pea soup and stamp potten (a stew of sorts), whilst my wench, delighted at my return, celebrated with a dish of the local weaverfish with prawns and mussels.   Hearty and delicious.

Spuistraat 275 – 1012 VR Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 624 9998

www.haesjeclaes.nl

Drink

Wynand Fockink

With a name that made me smile every time I articulated it I was enjoying this place – a working distillery in the very centre of town – long before I actually got there.  Tours of the distillery are available on weekends, offering the ideal opportunity to learn about Holland’s traditional spirit, jenever (pronounced ye-nay-va).  It’s an ancestor of gin, but I found it more related to blended whisky, especially the premium Korenwijn style.  The accompanying bar is small but hugely popular, and incredibly fascinating.  Its knowledgeable barman schooled me in Dutch drinking habits:  the “buigen voor de borrel” ritual, which involves bending over to drink from an overfilled glass in order to avoid spillage (the Dutch are known to be thrifty), and the “kopstouter”, the traditional manner of drinking jenever, which is beer accompanied by a chaser of the stuff.   The real highlight though is a stupefying range, shelf after shelf, of sensational liqueurs and fruit brandies.  I’m not a huge fan of liqueurs but the flavours of the “half and half”, the “singelburger” and the “hansje in de kelder” blew me away.

Pijlsteeg 31 – 1012 HH Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 639 2695

http://www.wynand-fockink.nl

Hoppa

I love the concept of craft beer, so when I learnt that Amsterdam had a bar entirely dedicated to the genre I inked it on my itinerary immediately.  The beers were hit and miss, as one might expect from microbrews, but the array of flavours was impressive, living up easily to the promise suggested by their colourful names: Tropical Ralfie, Howling Wolf, and Thai Thai, to name a few.  I was particularly pleased to be served from a growler tap, one of only two in the city, a device which I was encountering for the first time and which apparently controls the level of carbonation (to prevent over-foaming) – and indeed it was a superlative pour.  Hoppa is the perfect place to while away a few hours, enjoying great beer and charcuterie, whilst gazing on the adjacent canal and contemplating this enthralling city.

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://hoppa.amsterdam/en

Snack

If a Dutch person were stranded on a desert island and given a choice of two foodstuffs as sustenance, it would undoubtedly be cheese and pastries.  And I wouldn’t argue with it.

Reypenaer

If you thought like me that great cheese was in the making then you stand corrected.  The people at Reypenaer don’t even make their own cheese, they’re entirely focused on maturation because they believe that it contributes 80% of the eventual flavour.   Based in Woerden, Holland’s cheese capital, with its conducive microclimate, Reypenaer cheese is matured in a wooden warehouse, allowing it to absorb flavours from the wood over time, much like a fine spirit.  The shop in Amsterdam offers a tasting of six cheeses paired with wine, ranging from a light, tangy four month-old goat cheese, to the rich and potent three year-old gouda XO.  Yum?  An understatement!

Singel 182 – 1015 AJ Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 320 6333

www.reypenaercheese.com

Pastries

You couldn’t throw a croissant in Amsterdam without hitting a bakery or a patisserie, and you’d probably be locked up for callous wastage if you did.  There’s a bit of everything – Amsterdam after all is one of the world’s great cosmopolitan centres – but the local fare, the moreish stroopwaffels and poffertjes, should be foremost in your attentions.   Inexplicably they haven’t travelled; you’re unlikely to get them easily elsewhere, so make hay whilst the sun shines.

Listen

Café Alto

Holland is home to the North Sea Jazz Festival, so the country’s a bit of a hub for this style of music.  Café Alto is one of Amsterdam’s foremost live jazz venues,  with a reputation for hosting top quality acts – and, for the most part, somehow, not charging couvert.   No second invitation required.

Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 115 – 1017 PX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 626 3249

www.jazz-cafe-alto.com

Shop

De Bijenkorf

I was in Amsterdam during the late-January sales, which were so compelling that purchases made sense even in beleaguered Rand terms.   The city centre is replete with a wide variety of shops and stores, including those of reputed Dutch labels such a G-Starr and Whisky and Soda – which is brilliant if you’re inclined to expedition about, but for a quick one-stop shop head to De Bijenkorff, an all-singing, all-dancing department store usefully located at the epicentre on Dam Square.

Dam 1 – 1012 JS Amsterdam, 0800-0818 (Netherlands) or +31 (0)88 245 3333 (other countries)

www.debijenkorf.nl

  Chill

All that walking around might up your shares on Fitbit, but it also parches the throat and piques the appetite.  Take a break at these enchanting cafes.

Ivy & Bros

This place screams hipster at the top of its voice, which I’ll confess had me in two minds.   My fears though were unfounded.  Whilst the pricing was a touch liberal, and the service a little off-beat, predictably so, the value of the experience could not be faulted.  I was held in rapt by the Ismael Lo soundtrack, by an excellent, original smoothie, and by décor which included a replica of the jaws of a megladon – something you don’t see every day.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal 96A – 1012 GH Amsterdam, +31 6 1192 4244

https://www.facebook.com/ivyandbros

De Laatste Kruimel

I kept walking past this quaint little eatery at inappropriate times but it made such an impression on me, its windows almost bursting with home-style baked goods, that I committed myself to returning.  And I’m glad I did.  The fare is simple – quiches, sandwiches and cakes – but it’s wholesomely delicious.  In case you’re wondering I did polish off my order of a turkey sandwich and a raspberry frangipane tart…to the last crumb.

Langebrugsteeg 4  – 1012 GB Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 423 0499

http://www.delaatstekruimel.nl

See

Rijksmuseum

This marvel is everything that you’d anticipate from the national museum of a country as pioneering, energetic and prolific as Holland.  The art collection (I use the term broadly) is astounding for its own intrinsic value – there are Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s aplenty, including the breath-taking, outsized Nightswatch, and much, much more besides – but also because it tells the story of a captivating history.  Not to be missed.

Museumstraat 1- 1071 XX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 674 7000

www.rijksmuseum.nl

Anne Frank House

A visit to this memorial is both emotional and, in my opinion, necessary.  There are certain things that should never be forgotten.  The horror and absurdity of Nazism is excruciatingly vivid, and haunting, when seen through the eyes of a child whilst sharing the very same space in which it was experienced.  You’ll want to brace yourself but this excursion is well worthwhile if you want to add some meaning to the fun of your trip.

Prinsengracht 267 – 1000 AS Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 556 7105

www.annefrank.org

GQ Amsterdam 1

As it appeared – p1.

GQ Amsterdam 2

As it appeared – p2.

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

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige June 2016 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.

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

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

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!

 

Prestige April 2016 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige April 2016 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.

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

Prestige Feb 2016 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Feb 2016 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.

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.

Prestige Feb 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Feb 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.