A clinking Christmas

Making spirits bright and laughing all the way.  Patrick Leclezio prepares for some festive season fun.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).

Another year is set to bite the dust.  This period always gets me thinking about the elapsing of time, and about how moments in life come and go with a disconcerting haste.  We can get melancholy about it of course, but what’s the point.  This passing is inevitable, it is beyond our control.  What we do with our time however is another matter, and something over which we should exert our most diligent influence, particularly in the weeks ahead, when we all-too-briefly get to shrug off our work obligations and focus on what really matters – our friends, our families, our loved ones, and ourselves.  This is a column about liquor though, so I’ll limit my counsel to the overall sentiment and more specifically to the decorative cherries to which it is dedicated i.e. the inspiring drinks that’ll add a finishing touch to your experiences and festivities this season.  Cheers, sláinte, l’chaim, gesondheid!  Make the most of it.

The Gin Box

The gin revolution, whilst much covered in these pages, especially as manifest in the country, and particularly in the Cape, keeps on keeping on, outstripping my ability to stay current; I always seem to be a few newcomers behind.  It’s worth considering, given this effusive flow, how gin is so prevalent over here.  The Cape Floristic Region is one of six worldwide, the only one entirely contained in a single country, and home to an incredible diversity of plant species, numbering some 9000, a large proportion of which (69%) are unique to the region.  It is a botanical paradise, generally, but for an aspirant gin-maker specifically – and it goes some way to explaining the rapid local propagation of new and interesting gins.    If you’re overwhelmed, as you’d unstintingly be forgiven for feeling, and unable to see the wood for the trees, then the Gin Box may be just the thing for you.  This enterprising concept delivers to your doorstep monthly, bi-monthly (each R650), or once-off (R750), a carefully selected small-batch craft gin, accompanied by all sorts of delicious treats and useful gin-related information, including tasting notes and cocktail recipes.

The December / Christmas box is a treasure trove.  The gins, there are three – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – each in a 200ml bottle, are bespoke limited editions developed for the Gin Box by the highly regarded Hope on Hopkins distillery.  Each is delightful in its own right, each I’d be happy to drink at any time of year, but its Christmassy flavours of spice, nuts, and soft citrus make it an ideal complement for the festive season.   It’s worth noting that the botanicals actually feature frankincense and myrrh, and that the gold version is lightly aged in oak to give the liquid its eponymous tinge.  The box is stuffed with all sorts of other goodies, including two bottles of Goldberg Japanese Yuzu tonic, distinctly different from the Indian version with its sweeter, citrus overtones; some dried fruit garnishes; and a few food items – notable amongst these being the decadent “Fat Santa Bar” from The Counter (yum!).

Louis XIII

Remy Martin’s flagship cognac is the ultimate luxury spirit, possessing a pedigree and an essence unmatched by any other drink.  Its inspirations date back to the Battle of Jarnac in 1569, to the discovery of metal flask on the battlefield that would serve as the model for its renowned, meticulously-crafted, Baccarat decanter.  The Louis “Treize” (French for 13), as it’s referred to, was launched in 1874 and has been continuously produced ever since, inexorably enhancing its reputation as it climbed to the presiding status that it enjoys today.  The liquid itself is a blend with up to 1200 distinct Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie, the youngest matured for a minimum of 40 years, the oldest, incredibly, for over a century.   When I first encountered it I was expecting an oaky character, being at a loss to understand how the cellar masters could restrain the wood on a product with such an extended maturation.  I was wrong.  There’s wood of course, but it’s one of many chimes in this multipart melody.   The “secret” is the tierçon, a special type of cask employed in the maturation.  Made from Limousin oak, with finer staves than typical casks, they are restored but never replaced.  These casks, in my view of it – the Remy people don’t use this term – are largely exhausted, having little of their oak elements left to impart – leaving the maturation to persist via the chemical reactions in the liquid and the interaction of the liquid with its environment as they breathe.   The result is tantalising and transfixing, a rare phenomenon of awe-inspiring depth and complexity – all the benefits of old age but without its drawbacks.  The Louis XIII earns its chops and then some.

Christmas cocktail

Our sunny alfresco South African Christmases demand a sunny alfresco cocktail, the kind that you mix up in a jug and serve under blue skies on a lawn.   Enter the ho-ho-ho merry Cointreau Fizz.   I’d never considered triple sec as anything other than a sidekick ingredient, Tonto to the Tequila Lone Ranger in my margarita, before chancing upon the Fizz – which promptly prompted me to revaluate my impressions.  It’s simple, delicious and healthy, the sweet spirit offsetting tangy lime for a perfect balance.

THE RECIPE

2 ½ parts Cointreau
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
5 parts sparkling water

Fill a jug with ice, add Cointreau and lime, top off with sparkling water, and garnish with an orange wheel or any sweet juicy fruit.

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The return of Port Ellen and Brora

Rising from illustrious graves.  PATRICK LECLEZIO deconstructs the excitement.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).

The biggest news in whisky in the last few months has been the mouth-watering declaration that the Port Ellen and Brora distilleries are to be refitted, and reopened in 2020.  This is most whisky lovers’ (much conjectured) fantasy come true.  We’ve been living of late through a golden age of malt whisky in which the inception of new distilleries and the revival of previously terminated or shuttered distilleries (so-called silent stills) have been common occurrences:  examples range from the massive Roseisle and the boutiquey Wolfburn, Kilchoman, and Kingsbarn on the one hand, to forerunners like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, and more recently Tamdhu and Glengassaugh on the other.  But this is different.  Special.  Exceeding the “ok, cool” reaction that the others would have elicited, and tipping the scales at “yahoo!”.  New distilleries are unknowns, and reincarnates like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich have largely created their standing during this latest phase of their existence.  Port Ellen and Brora though are the Van Goghs of whisky, unregarded and mostly used as blending fodder whilst active, then garnering massive acclaim after their demise, and attracting followings during the interlude, Port Ellen in particular, that it would be trite to describe as “cult”.  With this gong still reverberating, let’s take a look at what these announcements really mean.

They boil down to three simple realities really:  we’ll have access to whisky that until now has been very expensive and limited, it may or may not be what we expect, and we’ll have to wait a long time still before getting our hands on any of it – a situation in totality that should both fire and temper our enthusiasms.

When time was called on Port Ellen and Brora in 1983 – part of a widespread series of closures by the Distillers Company Limited (Diageo, effectively),  including now heralded distilleries such as Dallas Dhu, St. Magdelene, and Rosebank, driven by flagging demand – whisky was at a low ebb, and bottled single malt was a small speck on a blended landscape.  In fact the first book featuring tasting notes, ubiquitous today, and the first magazine devoted to Scotch whisky (inconceivable in a media environment where we’re drowning in whisky commentary) were only published in 1986.  In the modern age Port Ellen’s production, predominantly, and Brora’s, entirely, during their active years had been allocated to blending, so they were to a large extent unknown quantities.  The only bottling of Port Ellen between 1967 and 1983 was a 12YO commemorating the Queen’s visit to the distillery in 1980, and the first known Brora bottling was released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989.  Independent bottlings became relatively common, but it was only with official bottlings in the late nineties and turn of the century (now a feature of Diageo’s annual special releases), and in Port Ellen’s case extended maturation, that the legends were created.  The quality of the whiskies and the fact that no more of it would be produced (ostensibly) combined to arouse messianic devotion – and pricing to match.  The Port Ellen First Release, a 22YO of which there were 6000 bottled and offered at £110 in 2001, sells for some £4500 in 2017.  Prices have escalated exponentially with each subsequent release, with Brora following a similar pattern.  The prospect thus of larger supply, of being able to access these fine liquids at reasonable prices, is undoubtedly cause for celebration.

But don’t pop your stoppers just yet.  Making the same whisky as was done 30 years ago is not a given – as conceded by Diageo in its press release of 9 October: “Port Ellen Distillery on the famous whisky island of Islay, and Brora on the remote eastern coast of Sutherland, will both be reinstated to distil in carefully controlled quantities, with a meticulous attention to detail, replicating where possible the distillation regimes and spirit character of the original distilleries”.  The strains of barley and yeast employed, and the calibrations of production – especially from a more manual era, may be difficult to duplicate and replicate.  There is an additional challenge too: whilst Brora was merely “mothballed”, the original buildings and stills left intact, Port Ellen was partly demolished, its equipment, the stills included, scavenged by other distilleries within the group.   The whisky will undoubtedly be wonderful, but whether it’ll have the same austere, pier head flavours (as redolently described by Dave Broom) that made its name is debatable.

Any celebration is also somewhat premature.  Production is anticipated to begin in 2020 once “planning permission and regulatory consents, detailed design, construction and commissioning work” have been secured and completed, although it seems logical that Brora should be ready ahead of Port Ellen.  Be that as it may the gain of a year or so in this initial period is of little significance.  As with any whisky the production will be just a small part of the overall time frame.  In various interviews on the subject Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, has disclosed an intention to release the two whiskies as 12YO’s, whilst also acknowledging that there may be preceding smaller releases.  A 12YO would put us at 2032 – a long wait indeed.   Any earlier release would likely mean NAS, perhaps playing with the maturation regimen (smaller casks, new oak) and perhaps vatting with (dwindling) pre-83 stocks – although I think they’d be hard pressed to take this risk, given the premium that these command unadulterated, and the higher purpose that they can serve in perpetuating the hype (now more useful than ever).   The Port Ellen’s and Brora’s to which we’ve become accustomed (those lucky few amongst us) are perceptible only on a distant horizon.

The order of the day then appears to be patience, in pursuit of a probable but uncertain payoff.   Our patience though is unlikely to be arduous.  One of the shining beacons of Scotch whisky, and whisky in general, drawing in and engaging people from far and wide, is its variety.   The number quite evidently will keep changing but at present there are 98 active malt distilleries in Scotland producing innumerable expressions, two of which, sharing certain similarities with a Port Ellen and a Brora, I’ll recommend to keep you company in the cold nights ahead, before your much anticipated rendezvous  with their future emissaries.  Lagavulin, a few kilometres from Port Ellen, produces a rich, peaty, and complex 16YO whisky of exceptionally elegant balance.   It is a defining Islay malt.  On the opposite coast to Brora but unmistakably its Highland brethren you’ll find Oban, and in multiple bars and liquor stores around the world you’ll find its popular 14YO, a gorgeously fruity, aromatic maritime malt, imbued with fine wisps of smoke.  Ask Santa to add these to your stocking.  May the dram be with you.

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One night in Budapest

First published in Marie Claire (December 2017 edition).

The long nights of the European winter, if my delving into its extents is to serve as any indication, are perhaps at their longest in Budapest.   I’m not proposing that accolade for the time from dusk till dawn – clearly it’s trumped in this regard by the large continental swathe that enjoys a latitudinal advantage – but instead for the other more compelling (if less scientific) measure of a night’s duration: the time from dress till duvet.  On this score other contenders would be hard-pressed to compete such is the allure and volume of its nocturnal charms, evidenced during my visit.  I wanted to eat and drink fine things.  I wanted an excursion that straddled storybook romance and rampant revelry.  I wanted to suck out all the marrow, but without paying the earth…a tall order that the Hungarian capital, as it kept on keeping the day at bay, somehow contrived to deliver.

With the sub-zero temperatures and falling snow adding an exotic edge to our anticipation, we – my wife and I, intersecting trips allowing us to steal a weekend together in the city – set out from our hotel, glove in glove and scarves fluttering, headed for nearby Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), the beating heart of the city’s after-hours action.   I’d been vaguely aware that Hungary was a wine producing country, having been (presciently!) introduced to one of their renowned dessert wines at a recent dinner.  Accordingly, being both keen to broaden my experience and to get the ball rolling for the evening with a few mellow glasses,  we made our way to Doblo, the city’s premier wine bar.  Luckily I’d booked because the place was packed to its exposed rafters – with a young, stylish crowd seemingly cast for this backdrop, described to me as “Brooklyn loft style”.  Call it whatever, it’s a happy space for some relaxed appreciation, the unplastered walls in particular giving a warm, cellar-like ambience.  The two of us wandered our way through Kreinbacher Extra Dry, apparently the country’s best bubbles, the visceral Bull’s Blood, the national blend, the best examples coming from the Eger and Szekszárd regions, a Royal Tokaji, the sweet wine that put the region on the map (and on my radar), and a few others recommended by the venue, until eventually, reluctantly, departing, a little more cultured than when we’d arrived, and thoroughly primed for the night ahead.

Given a charged itinerary that depended on getting from one place to the next efficiently and making the most of things in the short time available I’d been worried that communication difficulties might hamper us.  It came as a relief then, the extent of my language preparation having been to add the h-sound to the pronunciation of “Budapesht”, to find that English is spoken widely and well.  In fact the waiters we encountered had an almost native proficiency.  At our next stop, the intimate Gettó Gulyás for a spot of dinner, this facility played out to delicious advantage, the staff taking us through the menu in detail, understanding our preferences clearly, and making astute recommendations, a pleasing contrast to some of my other travels when choosing dishes had been a roll of the dice.  The food managed to strike an unpretentious balance between the unusual, the interesting, and the accessible: a soup of beetroot, cheese, cream, pear and parsley to start, a satisfyingly central European main of wild boar, and the odd-sounding but sumptuous tasting goat’s cheese dumplings with cinnamon dressing for dessert.  Encouragingly the pricing was comparable to SA, here and elsewhere in Budapest, which was surprising for Europe, even this far east.  We left Gettó, fuel in our tanks to fire the festivity to follow, feeling like we’d found the holy grail of foreign eateries: small and authentic, trendy but comfortable, frequented by locals, and, most importantly, magnificent – in both quality and value.

The two features for which Budapest’s nightlife is most reputed are its Ruin Bars, and the fact that it has the cheapest booze in Europe, the latter sounding a tad dubious to me, initially at least.  I had it in mind to enjoy a few digestifs after my dinner, a natural opportunity then to explore this scene, and to check out what all the fuss was about.  The problem with cheap liquor of course is that it tends to attract certain types of people.  The streets by this time were thronging, the glacial temperatures notwithstanding.  I caught glimpses of Irish, American, and English accents, and scatterings of French, German, Italian, and other languages that I couldn’t identify.  The odd bachelor and hen party cruised past.  Groups of revelers spilled out of bars.  Whether it was the price of drinks or the city’s many fine attributes, or a combination of these things, people had come here from all over to party.  Unswervingly though, at that point and for the rest of our visit, the atmosphere in the district was festive rather than rowdy – with not a hooligan in sight.  By the time we arrived at Szimpla my misgivings had laid to rest.

A Ruin Bar, whilst not a ruin as such, is pretty much true to the name.  It’s an old, dilapidated building that’s been transformed into a nightspot.  Szimpla Kert was the first of its kind, the mother from which all other Ruin Bars sprang.  The site was originally a furnace factory, subsequently converted into a residential block before falling into disuse.  It couldn’t be demolished or materially redeveloped, having been assigned heritage protection, so an enterprising entrepreneur decided to make a bar of it, creating a Budapestian tradition in the process.  There are now Ruin Bars all over the city, and elsewhere.  Szimpla, and the similar Fogas, our next stop, are stalwart examples, exuding the dingy, grotto cool that’s come to characterise these places.  We found ourselves in a maze of stained, pitted walls, raw floors, and random fittings and furnishings, amidst a deluge of other patrons.  Their popularity – each can and regularly do take in over 1000 guests at any one time – stems I’d venture from their distinctiveness, and also because they offer something for everyone (without diluting each experience), from raging dance floors to quieter lounges, from live music and traditional dancing to silent movies, and so much else that I lost track of it all.  We sampled two local favourites, my wife the mulled wine, me a few palinkas (fruit brandy), whilst we explored and soaked up the rising vibe.  When I next looked up it was already eleven.  Budapest was only just beginning to hit its straps.

One of the attractions that drew me to this city was the Danube, the second largest river in Europe, and once the frontier of the civilised world.  It is undeniably one of the world’s great rivers, so the idea of incorporating it into the night’s activities was hugely appealing.  Enter the A38, an old stone-carrier ship, moored on the Buda side of the river, now enjoying a second life as the best club in the world (an honour bestowed by Lonely Planet three years ago).  Elizabeth Town being in Pest, this required a bit of a mad dash to catch a tram over before the system shut down for the night.  It’s a bit of a trek, but well worthwhile for this inimitable experience.  We boarded the ship, impressively protruding out of the ice floes covering the river,  just in time for a performance by the German electronic mega-band Tangerine Dream.  I can’t claim that this is my preferred style of music but we abandoned ourselves to it, the dreamlike communion with hundreds of devotees in the hull of this ship taking us there, making the occasion unforgettable.

Back in the heartland, in Pest, things were starting to reach high gear.  We had a little left in us and we decided to make our last stand at Tesla, a pulsing dance club that’s as electric as the name suggests.  I merged a bit of deep house with few shots of Oban, and found it to my liking.  By this stage I knew I was going to pay the price the next day but I just didn’t care.  Tesla’s energy buoyed us along for a few hours, pointing and popping, shuffling, neck bobbing, fist pumping and Saturday night fevering, until we had to concede defeat.  An honourable defeat though.

At about five in the morning we were done.  Budapest however was not, and neither were our new found friends at Tesla.  It’s somewhat counter intuitive for a country on the eastern fringe of a time zone to be on this kind of late night cycle, especially in winter, but there was no disputing it, seen with my own eyes, tried and tested.  If you’ve got what it takes, which they clearly have over here, I guess it doesn’t matter.  Party like a Russian, end of discussion?  I beg to differ Robbie Williams, you’ve obviously never been to Budapest.

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We didn’t twiddle our thumbs whilst waiting for our epic night in Budapest to begin.

Spa culture

Swimming in the mist-shrouded outdoors in minus seven degree temperatures is surreal – but good surreal, in fact great surreal.  Budapest is built on a chain of hot, mineral springs, giving rise to the preponderance of spas that have earned it the name ‘City of Spas’.  Locals make regular visits a habit, touting the health benefits of the waters, although the premise struck me as social more than medicinal.  Széchenyi, one of the best-known and the one to which we gravitated, is a massive, sprawling complex of pools, steam rooms, saunas, and other spa facilities.  We opted for a massage before trying a variety of the warmer pools, culminating in a dip in the large, cascading expanse outside.  If you happen to be around in the warmer months, be sure to attend a unique Budapest “sparty” – which is, as the name suggests, a party in a spa!

Cruising the Danube

Whilst these city cruise setups are admittedly a bit formulaic, they’ve got a lot going for them nonetheless, presenting the opportunity to see some unparalleled vistas of a city, sit down to a traditional meal (chicken paprikash amongst others in our case – Hungarians are particularly proud of their paprika!), and listen to some live music.  Our experience with Danube Cruise broke the mould though, made special by the stunning sheets of shifting ice through which we were being propelled.  We felt compelled to sneak up to the prow for a Titanic moment.

Eating out

Kiosk is an all-encompassing, envelope-pushing bistro, set on a square facing the river.  The fabulous location is fittingly complemented by spectacular (renovated) eighteenth century accommodations which boast generous space and high ceilings, divulging their origins as a high school gymnasium.  Old Hungarian black and white movies are projected onto a wall, and there’s a tree canopied over the central bar, adding quirky flair to the polished ambience.  It’s a place for all seasons. The menu offers vegan, vegetarian and lactose free options throughout, the drinks list accounts for 250 varieties of Hungarian wine (stocked in a large walk-in fridge separating it from its adjacent fine-dining sister restaurant) and a range of hyper-creative cocktails, and the desserts, a speciality, are all produced at the in-house patisserie.   Try the ampoule cocktail, the forest mushroom soup, and any given pastry – outstanding!

If you’re looking for something a little more casual, a quick bite whilst you’re taking in the sights, you won’t go wrong at Bors.  This ridiculously popular little food bar puts out, under the vigilant eye of its Darth Vadar mascot, a range of soups, baguettes and desserts, and the odd pasta and salad as well.  I normally wouldn’t recommend going over to the dark side, but I’ll make a delicious exception in this case.  May the Bors be with you.

Budapest on blades

Imagine a giraffe on ice and you’ll get an idea of my skating talent.  Having heard though that Budapest hosts the largest outdoor rink in Europe (Városligeti Műjégpálya), I was determined to give it a go regardless.  And I was glad I did.  The long stretches of crisp ice underfoot, the beautiful old castle in the background, the whizzing and whirling crowd all around make for a sensational outing.  Furthermore, the place is quick to access – it’s a short walk from the nearest metro station – and skates are easily and cheaply rented on site.  Even the spasmodic exertions of my boskak style couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. What a pleasure!

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Primed for whisky

Wanted’s gallivanting guide to six of the finest

First published in Wanted Magazine December 2017.

Whisky, the so-called nectar of the gods (justifiably so!), originated in Ireland and Scotland, where over centuries it was passionately nurtured from humble beginnings to the globally popular drink that it is today.  We browsed through the collections of these two countries to find a few of the best.

The Glenlivet, Scotland’s first licensed distillery and industry groundbreaker, is synonymous with Scotch whisky and its history.  ‘’THE Glenlivet is THE ORIGINAL’’, says South African brand ambassador Isaac Pooe.  ‘’It’s been the Original Speyside Single Malt since 1824, setting the benchmark in taste, heritage and exploration ever since.  This is the reason I enjoy hosting private tastings so much – I get to reveal the story behind our whisky, and the tenacity of George Smith, the founder,  whose passion for his craft made me fall in love with whisky in the first place’’.

At the helm since 2009, Master Distiller Alan Winchester has ushered in a raft of progressive expressions from the Guardians’ Chapters and the Alpha to the extension of the Nadurra range, helping to entrench the brand as one of the world’s leading single malts.  It’s the inception of Founder’s Reserve though that’s been the most compelling development of recent years:  a multi-vintage whisky that triumphs in the ambitious trifecta of affordable, accessible, and interesting.

Nose: citrus fruit, sweet orange; Palate: zesty orange, pear, toffee apples; Finish: long, creamy, smooth

Wanted says: fruit compote in silky porridge

Equally special amongst the country’s gems is Aberlour (pronounced Aber-lauer).   Founded by James Fleming in 1879, there’s a deep sense of continuity and tradition at this distillery.  The acclaimed A’bunadh, a mouthful in every sense, was recreated from a bottle dating back to 1898.  And distilling chief Douglas Cruickshank, along with most of his team, has been forging these exceptionally balanced whiskies for some 25 years, not least the metronomic 12YO.

Nose: Soft and rounded, with fruity notes of red apple; Palate: A fine sherried character, balanced with rich chocolate, toffee, cinnamon and ginger spiciness; Finish: Warming and lingering – sweet and slightly spicy

Wanted says: a ripe plum of a whisky that’ll never let you down

Across in Ireland it’s single pot stills that preside, rather than single malts.  This once dominant style, made from both malted and unmalted barley, is staging a rousing comeback, led by the Midleton Distillery.  Crafted by a team under various “Masters” including Billy Leighton (Blending) and Brian Nation (Distilling), Midleton’s muscular pot still portfolio is making the rich, fruity and spicy band of the flavour spectrum its own.

The backbone of the style, especially during its hiatus, Redbreast is now the world’s best-selling single pot still.  The range numbers five delicious, aged expressions, but the 12YO remains the paterfamilias, exercising authority over both its stable and style with sheer force of character and weight of credibility.

Nose:  A complex spicy and fruity aroma with toasted wood notes evident.  Palate: Full flavoured and complex; a harmonious balance of spicy, creamy, fruity, sherry and toasted notes.  Finish:  satisfyingly long, the complex flavours linger on the palate.

Wanted says: Every day is Christmas with this baked melange of dark fruits

The Spot Whiskeys were named after the method of identifying the age of the casks used for their maturation i.e. by daubing them with a spot of coloured paint.  Yellow Spot, with its unusual mix of Bourbon, Sherry and Malaga cask influences, delivers a succulent sweetness is that is almost uniquely special.

Nose:  Mown hay & cracked black pepper. Red bell peppers, nutmeg, clove oil & green tea.  Sweet honey & peaches from the Malaga casks. Palate: Honey sweetness with pot still spices.  Flavours of fresh coffee, creamy milk chocolate & Crème Brûlée. Notes of red apples & toasted oak.  Finish: Sophisticated & complex with a sweetness throughout.   a mix of red grape & dry barley on exit.

Wanted says: a dripping honey pot infused with fruit and spice

Powers whiskey dates back to 1791 when James Power established a distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin.  Since then it’s built a reputation for bold to bursting, flavoursome whiskeys, one of latest exponents being the Signature Release.

Nose:  Crisp herbal notes with touches of nutmeg, fig and black pepper corns. Sweet vanilla, followed by succulent berry fruits.  Palate: Vanilla with black licorice and cinnamon reveal fresh fruit – melons, green apples and pears – followed by crisp barley.  Finish: Long and wonderfully complex honey and spice.

Wanted says: a punchy combination of orchard fruits and sweet spices

Its eponymous brand is also the distillery’s most premium, with good reason.  Whereas the others are overtly demonstrative, Midleton runs to subtlety, complexity and refinement.  The Barry Crockett Legacy takes its name from the distillery’s long serving, now retired Master Distiller, a pivotal figure in the resurgence of Irish whiskey.

Nose: Elegant aroma of vanilla and toasted oak complimented by a touch of lime, succulent green berries, pears and green sweet pepper.  Palate: Light pepper carries onto fresh citrus, limes and mandarin orange sweetness. A hint of cinnamon with vanilla and oak reveals its years spent in American oak.  Finish: The full spectrum of flavours lasts well into the finish, slowly fading to expose the clean American oak foundation.

Wanted says: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, tart fruits, and tangy candy the next, it reveals one delight after the next – drink it in slow reflection of time well spent

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An enduring love affair

PATRICK LECLEZIO sits down with the guys tending South Africa’s passion for Scotch whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2017 edition).

If you were ever searching for evidence that South Africans have good taste, you’d find a rich vein in our affection for Scotch whisky.  It’s a preference that says something about us: we’re discerning without being fussy, and cultivated but not pretentious.  We’ll connect over a glass of the good stuff, in silent nod to this shared understanding, whether we’re crusty old dogs, boardroom bigshots, or slinky models.   Like brothers-in-law married to a set of outstanding sisters, we’re bound together by our good judgement and common devotion.  In fact the extent and duration of our ardour has been impressive indeed: South Africa has for decades now been amongst the top ten export markets for Scotch whisky.  We might have had suspicions though, until not long ago, that this affection was unrequited.  No longer.  Thanks largely to the ministrations of companies like Intra and Distell it can now be confirmed jubilantly that we love Scotch and that Scotch also loves us – the relationship is unreservedly mutual, and richly reciprocated.  This commitment to one another is emphatically evident in Distell’s landmark investment in the industry – which wedded three distilleries (Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory) to South Africa.  I recently chatted to Andy Watts, their Head of Whisky Intrinsic (and an all-round whisky legend!), and Dino D’Araujo, the Spirits Category Marketing Manager, about the company’s role in these matrimonial developments.

PM: When did Distell first get involved with Scotch whisky beyond representation and distribution?

DD: Distell was initially involved with building the Scotch industry in South Africa as a distributor of a number of iconic brands. When these agreements ended in the 1990’s, Distell and Burn Stewart Distillers (BSD) formed a joint venture for Africa and distribution of the brands started in South Africa.  This was then extended with the purchase of BSD in April 2013.

PM: What was the rationale for the acquisition?

DD: Scotch whisky remains an exciting category globally and in South Africa so it made sense for Distell to move from joint venture to acquisition, building upon an already sound working relationship with BSD. The acquisition further strengthened our international portfolio and added scale and synergies.

PM: We’ve heard that Distell recently bought a stake in the Best brand.  Does this indicate an intention to focus (a) regionally within Africa on (b) value-for-money Scotch whisky?

DD: Distell has a long-standing focus on growing in Africa.  The acquisition of a 26% stake in Best Whisky opens the door for synergies as we progress towards taking a controlling stake. We also believe the combined portfolios will help to fast-track the portfolios of both Best and Distell in Africa across multiple value tiers.

PM: What are the next steps for Distell regarding Scotch whisky, both globally and particularly with regards to the South African market? 

DD: Whisky we believe will retain its inherent appeal with consumers around the world and South Africa is no exception, where the category is in excess of 4 million cases. We find that both our Scotch as well as our South African whisky portfolios are well poised for growth domestically as consumers become more discerning in their choices. We will be focusing our efforts between both portfolios.

PM: Andy, what is the scope of your involvement in BSD / Distell’s Scotch whisky operations?

AW: I was appointed into the newly formed Distell Centre of Excellence Intrinsics just over a year ago. My roles cover the overall quality of the whisky which goes into the bottle as well as looking at the production methods we are using across our different distilleries – identifying opportunities for synergy as well as standardisation of good practice. The timeframe is still relatively young but already projects are being implemented in Scotland at Tobermory, Bunnahabhain and possibly Deanston within the near future. These projects are being driven by the highly capable team which we have in Scotland so my involvement is not on a day to day basis.

PM: I’m guessing that Distell has a different approach to and a different vision for whisky making compared to BSD’s previous management.   Can you give us any insight into these differences – and specifically give us examples of how they have already and how they may impact the whiskies and the product range going forward?

AW: Distell’s approach to all of its operations is to produce world-class products in the most efficient and effective manner. The team in Scotland is a new team with the operations under the capable leadership of Alan Wright. Again my involvement is not on a daily basis but the immediate task is to produce consistent base malts which will allow us to grow the current malt range as well as apply innovation to continue to be at the forefront of whisky evolution.

The only real change between the old and new Burn Stewart / Distell International operations is a focus on cased own goods business rather than the bulk supply of whisky to third parties.

Remember we have whiskies that have already been produced and that were in maturation long before the acquisition took place, therefore the focus is on the future and how we do things going forward to achieve those goals.

PM: Related question: what changes / improvements has Distell made to the whisky making process at BSD, if any?

The changes are more in terms of an upgrade and improvement to some equipment and not one of changing time-honoured process. The legislation governing how whisky is produced in Scotland is very transparent, and we strictly comply to the laws. I am fortunate enough to taste all of the expressions before they go into the bottle and I am very excited at the work being done both on the blending front with Dr Kirstie McCallum, and on the production side under the guidance of Stephen Woodcock, the Distilleries Manager.

PM: You’ve been an SA whisky man for a long time. Some people and some companies can wear multiple hats, some can’t. Do you think the acquisition has enhanced / will enhance both categories within Distell, or do you think one will be favoured at the expense of the other?  What are the roles that each is expected to play?

AW: We make South African whisky, considered a ‘New World’ whisky region, as well as Scotch whisky, one of the most pedigreed areas for whisky production in the world.  For me, it is easy to wear the two hats as I don’t feel that the two categories compete with each other. I am still very involved with our SA marketing as the “face” of our South African whisky portfolio but I do not see that role spreading to our Scottish family. We with very capable distillers, blenders, ambassadors and marketers who will continue to grow the awareness of our Scottish portfolio as more and more of our whisky come on line in future years. We will continue to be innovative on both fronts whilst ensuring the core ranges grow accordingly.

PM: Lastly, what’s your favourite whisky within the BSD portfolio and why?

AW: Having not really being exposed to BSD whiskies before the acquisition it was fun when all of a sudden I could try just about anything! However I have come to enjoy Deanston 12-year-old, matured predominantly in ex-Bourbon barrels, un-chill filtered and bottled at 46.3%. I think Deanston is one of our hidden gems – one, which going forward, will appear more frequently on whisky lovers’ “to try” lists.

Nose: I enjoy the soft vanilla which gives way to some citrus notes as well as the oak of the cask.

Taste:  Again nice vanilla but with a creamy honey feel whilst holding in your mouth. Upon swallowing then spices begin to come through which makes it a very interesting whisky to me.

Overall: Possibly a little sweeter than the general Highland malts but one which really had me hooked from the first taste and one which I believe will make an exceptional entry level malt to anyone wanting to start their journey into the wonderful world of whisky.

Distell locally offers a range of Bunnahabhain whiskies, atypical, unpeated Islay malts, as well as the Black Bottle and Scottish Leader blends, the former a well balanced mix of peat and sherry influences, and the latter’s 12YO a light, accessible blend well suited to our climate (I’d recommend it in Mizuwari style).  We wait with bated breath for the arrival of Deanston, Ledaig and Tobermory to our shores.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

Spirits for the summer

A change of drinks for a change of seasons. PATRICK LECLEZIO gets set for some sunshine.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2017 edition).

There’s something primal about the anticipation of summer – maybe because we depended on it for our survival, or maybe because after long, bleak winters it’s what made life worth living.  Whatever the reason it’s an excitement that’s programmed deep within us.  Benson and Hedges tapped into this emotion with the soundtrack for their cricket commercials in the 1990’s.  I didn’t and never would smoke, and I didn’t really attend live matches at the time, but regardless I found that imploring incantation incredibly relevant and evocative.  It was a summons – for sunshine, freedom, and good times – that gripped me at the core.  I subscribe to the view that life is short and that we should enthusiastically make the most of any given moment, but it’s easy to get distracted, hypnotised by the tedium of everyday life.  Summer is the clarion.  A reminder that we should suck the marrow from every juicy bone presented to us – or more specific to our modest purposes here: drink the drinks that make the whole world sing.  So, as we hear that rousing chant all around us [come on summer], let’s fill our glasses with right stuff [come on summer], and get ready to celebrate the season in style [come on summer, come on!].

Wixworth Gin

Nothing says summer quite like gin – and it’s comforting to note, as we contemplate this sentiment, that the “gin boom” has furnished us with a magnificent selection, ready to be harnessed to the purpose.  One of the latest to emerge, after a long and considered development, is Wixworth.  Whilst there may be veritable flood, each gin, by virtue of its choice and combination of botanicals, has the potential to stand out and be distinctive – and Wixworth is no exception in this regard.  Ironically though I think it distinguishes itself most in its adherence to tradition (and regulations), rather than its individuality.  In an era of boundary pushing (and crossing!), juniper-recessive (if not absent) gins, Wixworth is a true London Dry Gin, out and proud brandishing its predominating juniper essence.  This is the style that in the sweltering outposts of the British Empire gave birth to the gin and tonic, so in equipping ourselves for the conditions that made its name, it’s clearly not to be taken lightly.  London Dry it may be, but it’s also avidly South African; its use of Renosterbos in particular, a local shrub that was historically added to river water to mask its brackish taste, unmistakably binds its identity to the country.  Wixworth’s style and substance, the latter evidenced in a crisp pine and citrus flavour, makes it an ideal gin on which to ride this summer’s rolling swells.

Symmetry tonic

With gin in play you’ll invariably need tonic, its trusty sidekick.  When I first started drinking GnT’s I was astounded and dismayed by the amount of sugar in tonic.  It’s there to check the bitterness of the quinine, but health-wise you may as well be drinking coke.   There’s further concern, because tonic is largely water, in that a disproportionate share of what you’re buying is invested in packaging (mostly disposable and environmentally unfriendly).  Enter the tonic cordial, and Symmetry in particular.  By using cinchona bark (the source of the quinine) instead of the quinine extract alone Symmetry balances its typical bitterness with the bark’s other components, mitigating the requirement for excessive sugar.  The pack delivers approximately 12 servings in concentrated form, as opposed to the four that you’d get from a litre bottle of the regular stuff.  The format has enabled both the bottle and closure to be significantly upweighted, each made from glass and reusable as a carafe and wine stopper respectively.  This is well and good, but if the flavour doesn’t measure up then it’s all for nothing – and it’s in this sphere that Symmetry arguably shines brightest, being constituted from a hand-picked selection of local botanicals that have been expertly crafted into a range comprising three variants: Citrus, Spice and Floral.  A word of caution: you don’t want these full-flavoured tonics to overpower your specific gin, so choose the one that’s most complementary.  Some experimentation may be required to get this right – luckily you’ve got a whole summer to work at it.

Snow Leopard vodka

Vodka is the world’s most internationally popular spirit: there are more people drinking it across a broad swathe of countries than any other.   It’s also the one drink where lack of flavour (or subtlety of flavour, as one would have it) has wrought a crushing advantage – defining a versatility that’s largely responsible for this widespread appeal.  This makes it the ideal summer spirit, a willingly assimilating partner for any number of tall, cool, refreshing mixers.  Whatever your preference, vodka will enhance it.  In Snow Leopard we have an exponent that straddles the fine vodka line between no flavour and too much flavour – it offers a little something when drunk neat, but it doesn’t interfere when mixed.   The unusual use of spelt grain, an expensive ancient wheat hybrid more commonly employed by jenever rather than vodka distillers, lends a rich and creamy mouthfeel, and everything about it from the concept to its packaging to the liquid itself, suggests a high quality, well-made vodka.  The clincher for me though is its commitment to nature conservation, dedicating a significant 15% of its profits to the preservation of the critically endangered Snow Leopard, and highlighting its plight.  I like the idea of kicking my feet back and watching a late sunset with glass in hand, I like it even more knowing it’s doing some good in the world.

Summer cocktail

My tastes run to strong cocktails.  And my favourite cocktail ingredient is lime, which happens to be perfectly suited to summer.  The Gimlet, neatly encompassing both those attributes, is a tried and tested classic that’s been persistently drunk for almost a century.   Most importantly it’s simple and delicious.  If you want to shake things up (no pun intended) and try something different, then look no further.

Add two and half tots of Wixworth gin, one tot of fresh lime juice, and half a tot to a tot of simple syrup (according to taste) into a cocktail shaker loaded with ice.  Stir or swirl, and strain into a coupe.  Garnish with a lime wedge or a cucumber wheel.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.

Lies, obfuscation and contempt – an AirBnB story

I love AirBnB.   Please don’t let the title above convince you otherwise.  Actually, to better express my sentiments, I should probably say that I love the AirBnB concept.   The simple business genius of it aside, it’s done so much genuine good: prompting and enabling, for ordinary people on a vast scale, experiences and livelihoods that would otherwise not have been possible.  When it works, which is most of the time I’m sure, it works a treat.  I’d venture though that it’s in adversity that core truths are revealed, be it about a person, or an organisation.  If my story is anything to go by – and on the one hand that I’d concede it’s just one story, whilst on the other I’d question, as should you, whether it’s an aberration or an indication – the treat it seems can easily sour into a trick.  If you’re a prospective AirBnB user then stay with me as I tell my story.  Forewarned is forearmed.

The story begins rather well.  I booked an apartment in Rio de Janeiro – for three of us.  The host levies a surcharge of US$25 per person per night, for occupancy by more than two guests.  Fair enough.  The third person subsequently withdrew from the trip.  We advised the host of this late change shortly before arriving.  The trip then unfolded relatively pleasingly.  The accommodation was pleasant, if not ideal.  Specifically there were two points which bothered us:

Firstly this apartment was located immediately adjacent to a play school for young children, resulting in constant, excessive noise from just after 07h00.  There was no reference whatsoever made to this in the listing, which I felt was a somewhat disingenuous omission – especially for a holiday let:  who wouldn’t relish a little lie-in during their break?  This information would have been a material consideration for us and for most others I’m sure.

Secondly, the host offers access to “his driver”, free of any commission, for transits from the airport, elaborated as follows:  “I urge you to take advantage of this generous offer.  It is in your interest to avoid added costs and stress…”.  Our conclusion, reasonable I think if admittedly lazy, was that this was a competitive rate, so we took him up on it.  On returning to the airport via Uber, and after subsequent research, we learnt that we could have done the trip for 25% of the cost.  Whilst Uber and a driver with a placard are different types of services, we felt, given the scale of the difference, that most people would want to know about it, rather than succumbing to the same assumptions that we did.

These are the “perils” of this format, and this is what the review system is there for.  We mentioned both points in an otherwise and overall positive review.  The host reviewed us (we use my wife’s account) as follows: “Marni is a charming and experienced (URL HIDDEN) to host anytime!”.  Keep his review in mind as we continue with the story, particularly the fact that AirBnB redacted it.

The Review

On seeing our review the host went postal – a reaction, an attack really, that ranged haphazardly over a lengthy international telephone call, and then a series of emails, to eventually stalking us on Facebook, slinging mud and spewing lies.  The details aren’t relevant or important – this isn’t a story about unpleasant and vindictive people; they’re unfortunately just a part of life.  The gist of it, what you need to know, is that he wanted the review removed, which on principle we refused to do.

A month or so later I arbitrarily checked on the review.  It was gone.  We got in touch with AirBnB, to be told that our review had violated their content policy: “Reviews are the backbone of Airbnb’s community. In order to maintain this structure, we have guidelines in place that ensure that all reviews are fair, honest, and relevant to your travel and experiences.  The content of your review did not comply with these guidelines. It is therefore our responsibility to hide it from view. Your Host contacted us regarding this”.  Now let’s skip past a series of aggravating emails disputing this outcome, and being repeatedly stonewalled with non-explanations, to the end of this particular chapter.  After tweeting our discontent – it’s a little frightening that it takes public exposure to beg some common courtesy from a place where you’re spending your money – we were put in touch with “Jenny” at the head-office, who was slightly more forthcoming:  the reason our review had been deleted she said was that it had violated another policy that precluded reviews from mentioning company names (ours mentioned Uber).  A recent policy change also meant that reviews could no longer be edited under any circumstances, thereby neatly taking the option off the table for me to make a quick change to remove this offending mention.

But this explanation does not add up:

  • The review in fact was not deleted because of this Uber mention. This was only brought up much later, after our tweets, once Jenny got involved.  As quoted above we were clearly told that, motivated by the host, it was deemed by AirBnB to be unfair, dishonest and or irrelevant.  When we had queried how AirBnB could come to this conclusion without speaking to both parties (us as well as the host), and what it was about the review that did not meet these standards, we were told repeatedly, by two different people, without any further clarification, that the decision was final.  Medieval style justice, as dispensed to the peasantry.
  • The Uber mention at this stage (a stage which lasted weeks) had not yet been identified, or had not yet occurred to them (otherwise they would have referenced it). There would be no reason not to, as it later proved an easy out (the only out).  Yet in its absence despite having no valid substantiation for deleting the review, despite the process by which they went about it being flawed, and despite having both these points emphasized to its staff, AirBnB doggedly stuck to its position.  One has to wonder why.  Gross incompetence?    It seems less than likely with multiple parties involved.  The logic we were presenting was compelling and not difficult to grasp.  It seemed rather that the decision was predetermined.
  • Eventually, in the Uber mention, AirBnB found a rationale that could stick, at least in terms of the letter of their policies. But even this doesn’t make sense.  Why would an organisation that (in its own words) considers reviews to be the “backbone” of its community choose to delete one in its entirety, when a basic redaction would have brought it back in line?  It should, one would think, be bending over backwards to encourage and enable a preponderance of reviews.  Our host’s review was redacted (ostensibly for some sort of a policy violation), but it seems that we could not be afforded the same treatment.   This question, like most of our other questions (such impertinence!), also went unanswered.

The Surcharge

I requested a refund of the surcharge.  My understanding of this surcharge was that it was there to compensate for the incrementally heavier use of the facilities and utilities, and for any additional items provided, by way of toilet paper, soap and so forth.  There was no third person and we’d given a day’s notice, enough for the host to avoid any attendant costs (i.e. withhold said extra items).   But I was open to another explanation.  I conceded from the start that if there was good reason for the charge I would withdraw the request immediately.   As became a feature of my dealings with both the host and AirBnB these types of questions would not be answered.  I was again relentlessly stonewalled, and quoted policies that did not make sense.   I still have no idea how or why the surcharge is justified.  I paid US$25 for eight nights, US$200.  I may as well have been mugged in the backstreets of Rio, with the police stopping just short of cheering for the muggers.

The host responded that his policy (the AirBnB “Strict” cancellation policy) required cancellation (I guess notice in this case) seven full days in advance, which had not happened.   When I pointed out that the policy did not specify that it applied to the surcharge he changed tack to find something that would stick (a feature of this story), insisting now that another AirBnB policy required me to “make a claim” to AirBnB within 24 hours of check-in.  I was lost by all the policy talk – I am after all, like most, just a casual AirBnB user – and I’d learnt enough about this guy at this stage to be disabused of any faith that he’d be fair or reasonable so I pursued the matter further by requesting AirBnB intervention via their “Resolution Centre”.   When AirBnB denied the claim (the fourth different staff member I dealt with regarding this stay), it was on the grounds that I had not made an “alteration request” on check-in.

Now imagine for a moment that you’ve booked into a regular hotel on a similar basis.  On check-in you advise the staff of the change.  They say nothing.  On check-out you are charged nonetheless.  You protest.  You didn’t fill out the alteration form they tell you.  You didn’t tell me about this alteration form, you say.  Tough shit they say (effectively), it’s our policy.  It’s quite simply an inconceivable situation.  It would never happen with any ethical establishment.

Yet, with AirBnB, it has and it does.  I was charged for something that I advised upfront I wouldn’t use, that I then didn’t use, and that didn’t cost anyone anything.  And I was charged for it because I didn’t follow a process that wasn’t flagged to me, of which I wasn’t aware, and of which I’d suggest any awareness on my part could not be reasonably expected.  Why didn’t the host bring the alteration request to my attention when I advised him of the change in plans?  Surely this is where the responsibility belongs?  In this fiefdom of the fine print though, it seems that the law lords have deaf ears.

I acknowledged from the start that this is just one story.  It doesn’t prove anything beyond this single case of appalling service.  But it certainly musters justifiable supposition.  We transact with AirBnB, as we do with most apparently reputable companies, in good faith – in the belief that the company, if not the individual host, will treat us fairly and with respect.  That it certainly didn’t happen in this instance; that I’m out of pocket for no good reason, and that other guests will likely be misled when booking this apartment, is disconcerting.  But more worrying – for all of us – is that this might be the tip of a very large iceberg.  In the absence of sensible answers, for which multiple invitations have been proffered and rejected, we are left to our inferences.   The matter could be ascribed to a series of unfortunate mistakes, or to some truculent staff, or to something equally isolated; it could though feasibly also point to something more sinister, such as a systematic bias towards hosts, who effectively represent the income-generating assets of the business, or indeed a systematic bias to whatever happens to best serve the company’s interests in any particular given case.  But what do I know?  I just have my one little story.  Let’s then consider this to be just another review – a little bit of karmic balance for all those reviews that may have been deleted and those surcharges that may have been withheld, and a little cud to chew on as you’re deciding where (and how) to stay on your next holiday.

Update:

During August I submitted this article to a few media outlets for publication.  These outlets in turn approached AirBnB for comment.  Shortly thereafter we received an email from AirBnB (18/08/07) confirming that a (another) investigation had taken place, and concluding as follows: “we can confirm that there was no violation on the review and we can reinstate the review”.  I can verify that this has been done and that the review is back up on the site.

The same email went on to say: “Another part we want to address from your letter is the fact that it’s fully up to the host to refund you for the extra charges. The person surcharge is not included in the cancellation policy and if the host refuses to refund through the resolution centre, it’s up to him. I hope you understand our policy in this matter”.

I rejected this explanation – for the reasons I propounded in the article.

We then received another email later the same day, informing us that “a refund of R2436 ZAR” had been issued to our credit card, but that it would take 15 days to reflect.  No further explanation was given.  I take it in good faith that this is the surcharge and that it will be made good shortly.

Update 2:

An article by Georgina Crouth taking up the matter was published on 28/08 in The Argus, The Star, The Pretoria News, and the Daily News.  The Daily News version is shown below.  Small correction: the Uber was about 25% of the cost of the host’s taxi, not 25% cheaper.