Stirred, not shaken

Taking your Martini education beyond Bond level

First published in Prestige Magazine (Issue 100).

If you were to bring up the Martini in arbitrary conversation you’d likely get a response that alludes to James Bond.  He’s almost come to own the drink and the drink him, such is the strength of their association.  And it’s not difficult to understand why Ian Fleming imbued his famous superspy with this predilection.  They fit like hand in glove.  They’re both suave and sophisticated, they’re both single-mindedly serious (with a certain dry wit), and they both get the job done, always.  The Martini has played no small part in fashioning the 007 legend, and he in turn has transported the drink into today’s popular imagination.

We thank him for it, for keeping the flame alive.  At one time of course – for long stretches on either side of the Second World War beginning with the roaring twenties – the Martini was wildly popular of its own accord, the symbol of an unrestrained golden age of excess.  It has ebbed since, but now, resurgent, is flowing again – perhaps though having evolved into a vehicle for discerning rather than uninhibited drinking.

In this new phase of its existence there seems to be real attention to quality.  As an example you’ll be hard-pressed to find any credible establishment that recommends a shaken Martini, despite the influential force of Bond’s iconic prescription. Shaking risks overdilution, and introduces foamy agitation on what should be a static presentation.  Some also say that it ‘bruises’ the gin, but what that means isn’t obviously discernible.  That it’s still a drop-two-gears-surge of a drink is without question – this is a stiff injection of booze – but the balance has shifted somewhat to a greater appreciation of its other charms: it’s also cultivated, elegant, and, if made properly, outright delicious.

On how this should be accomplished you’ll find Martini aficionados often pitted against one another in passionate disagreements, but whilst differences abound, there is widespread consensus on two vital elements: that the botanical-loaded favours of gin make a more interesting (and varying) base than vodka’s bland neutrality (Movie Bond prefers vodka, but Book Bond drinks both), and that it should be drunk deep-chilled i.e. stirred with lots of ice, and dispensed in frozen glassware. The rest is down to personal preference, notably the ratio of vermouth to gin, which ranges from rinsing the ice in vermouth before discarding it, to the recent 50:50 trend.  Noël Coward famously suggested that “a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy”, but given that the best dry vermouths come from France rather than Italy this ill-informed opinion should be treated with some scepticism – gin without vermouth is just gin, not a Martini. The addition of bitters can be considered and dry sherry substituted for vermouth, although purists would sneer at both suggestions. Garnishes are essential and play a defining role; an expressed twist of lemon produces a completely different result to olives, and both to olive brine.  In fact, such is their effect that the employment of another garnish, a cocktail onion, confers a distinct name to the drink: the Gibson. There’s much to be said for taking an open-minded position and evaluating all these options, in-field.

The Martini has persisted through the decades, with Bond’s help, for good reason: it is intrinsically exceptional, allowing it to weather fluctuations and impress itself on one generation after another.  And once you’ve acquired a taste for it, you’ll be hooked for life.  Ice breaker, conversation flamer, party blaster – it ticks all the boxes.  Go forth and stir.

Sidebar

The PRESTIGE Martini (recipe makes two)

125ml Inverroche Classic Gin

25ml Dolin vermouth

Stir well with ice and strain into chilled glasses

Garnish each with three queen olives on a spear

Prestige 100 Spirits

As it appeared – with apologies for the incorrectly copy-edited title.

 

 

Scenes from a Scottish buffet

A few whisky highlights from the past few months

First published in Prestige Magazine (Issue 100)

Old stock

If you’re even slightly familiar with whisky then you’ll know about maturation, and its importance.  This is the process by which whisky is “aged” in casks, thereby acquiring the most part of its eventual flavour.  Older whiskies aren’t necessarily better whiskies of course, but there’s something special about them.  The individual flavour that they’ve cultivated is scarce.  It can’t be replicated without the long passage of time, and even then maybe not at all.  When a whisky reaches an epic milestone, like 50 years of age, or say 51, then it becomes a rare privilege to be able to experience it, one that should be seized with both hands.

These opportunities are usually few and far between.  Whiskies of such ancient vintage are gut-wrenchingly expensive, out of reach for many, and albeit intriguing not worth the cost for others.  Sadly, those who can afford them often make such purchases for investment or collection purposes, with the result being that many of the world’s oldest and most prized whiskies never get put to palate.  They’re destined to sit encased in glass for eternity.

Cragellachie Single Malt, renowned for its popular 13YO and 17YO whiskies, has recently launched a crusade towards redressing this injustice…well maybe not a crusade, but a damned good initiative.  The self-proclaimed “bad boy of Speyside” is going against the malt, so to speak, by taking a cask of 51 year old whisky and offering it to whisky lovers around the world…for free!  In a world of cynical and rehashed marketing campaigns this is as sincere and creative as it gets – well done to them.  Dubbed Bar 51, the South African leg of these events, a pop-up bar disseminating the epic tastings, took place in Joburg at the WhiskyBrother bar on 21 and 22 November 2019, and in Cape Town at the Athletic Club & Social on 26 and 27 November 2019.  May the dram be with you and may it be a Craigellachie!

Balanced peat

Does anyone remember the transition of Black Bottle from the former green glass to the current black glass version?  The step-up in flavour, richness and quality was remarkable.  In particular the balance of the blend was spectacularly improved.  This may not have been as pleasing to hard-core peat freaks as to the rest of us, but most I think will agree that the mellowing of its trademark smoke with dark fruits and anise was a boon.  There is little to be faulted in Port Charlotte’s Scottish Barley, but the brand’s latest exponent, a 10YO launched recently in South Africa, has followed a similar (if less pronounced) trajectory to Black Bottle. It still showcases the big peat, make no mistake, but it’s accorded more prominent roles to the other players, toffee, sweet oak, and vanilla in particular.  The 10YO perpetuates Port Charlotte’s (and indeed Bruichladdich’s) infatuation with wine casks to great effect, especially with its extended maturation.  Long may it continue.

Big sherry

Glendronach has been on the local scene for a while, but it recently underwent a change of ownership, the reins assumed by industry giant Brown Forman.  The upshot for us whisky lovers is that the brand now wields distribution clout that is considerably stronger.  You’re significantly more likely to find its core range, comprising a 12, 18 and 21YO, in your preferred bars and liquor stores.  If you’re partial to the traditional sweet, spicy Pedro Ximenez flavours in your whisky (and who wouldn’t be) then this is great news for you.  Glendronach is noteworthy for employing the highest percentage of PX casks in the industry.  Caramba!

Two days as a Tsar

What to do with 48 hours in St. Petersburg

First published in Sawubona Magazine November 2019 edition

The holy grail of travel is the destination that delivers a big bang for a bargain.  St. Petersburg exemplifies this rare bird in all its splendour.  Moscow may dominate in scale and gravitas, but Russia’s second city thrives in its shadow, its beauty, legacy and charisma generating their own glittering light.  The grandeur of its days as the seat of an empire may be somewhat faded, but it’s re-emerging, and its reinvigorated and reimagined modern incarnation – in which electric bands busk on the boulevards – is every bit as compelling.  Here, now, you don’t need to earn like a Tsar to live like a Tsar…for a few days at least.

STAY

You may well choose to lodge in one of the city’s numerous grand hotels, a thrifty opportunity to lather yourself in bit of luxury, and indeed some of these may be worth a visit regardless, for “Tchaikovsky nights” at the Belmond as an example; however in a country where banyas (steams baths) are integral to the culture, a boutique hotel offering this facility makes for an authentic alternative.  Fitting the bill handsomely is the Rossi Hotel & Spa – long on olde-worlde charm, short on unnecessary posturing, it’s a quaint and intimate establishment, the type where the veteran doorman takes personal pride in extending hospitality and sharing his local knowledge. It’s conveniently located, satisfyingly comfortable, and unobtrusively atmospheric, with lavish spreads for breakfast, but its highlight though must be the spa itself.  If you like the idea of setting your day into gentle motion with an hour divided between the sauna and the (turbo powered!) jet pool, then this is just the place for you.

SEE

The priority when arriving in a new city should be to get the lay of the land, which in St. Petersburg, ironically, is best accomplished off the land.  Its network of canals, feeding in and out of the Neva, offers a magnificent vantage point from which to conduct a quick (or leisurely, as you would have it) exploration. There is a plethora of providers, routes, tours and formats – which can be overwhelming.  A specialist operator, such as Red Sun Tours, whose high-quality offerings range from customised private excursions to small group tours, might be a useful place to start making your arrangements.

Once orientated, the sight-seeing, as you’d expect for one of the great capitals of Western culture, is replete with possibilities, some of the most noteworthy being: the Hermitage, the world’s second largest art museum (after the Louvre), housed largely in the legendary Winter Palace, with its love-it-or-hate-it green pigmentation; the Peterhof, Peter the Great’s sprawling, keeping-up-with-the-joneses response to the Palace of Versailles; the Fabergé Museum, home to the largest private collection of the eponymous eggs and a palaceful of other exceptional  designware; and the Mariinsky Theatre, one of the iconic stages and spiritual homes of ballet.  This ball of string though is as long as you want it to be.

DINE

If the way to a traveller’s heart was through their stomach (probably the case for many of us), then St. Petersburg would be in for the win, hitting a trifecta of quality, variety and tradition.

The uber-cool Mansarda, boasting a mesmerising view onto the enormous gold plated dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, is a case in point, crafting a combination of classic dishes, including delicious renditions of local staples such as borsht and stroganoff, and modern fusion cuisine.  Its expansive menu is accompanied by an even broader 450-strong wine list stewarded by one of Russia’s top sommeliers, featuring the regular cast of course, but also exponents from more obscure regions such as Georgia, Hungary, Israel and Russia itself.  A singular dining experience!

Less flash, but every bit as delightful is Makaronniki, a trattoria that’ll have you questioning your location in the world.  In a field as dense and competitive as the purveying of Italian food, it’s a tall order to stand out, but stand-out it does…and then some.  The pesto focaccia, the tomato cappuccino with ricotta froth, and the pork stracotto with BBQ ice-cream in particular are of the highest calibre.  Throw in a rooftop courtyard, a well-considered Italo-centric drinks menu, and the most imaginative desserts you could hope to eat, and you’ve got a lock for your schedule.  “Buon appetito” has just been appropriated to Russian.

DRINK

If you’re in the market for a few mellow cocktails, you’ll be hard pressed to find better satisfaction than with Apotheke and its master barman – whose prodigious skill seems its reason for being.  There’s a chalked-up cocktail list, comprising both universal and house recipes, to guide your selecting, but Apotheke also subscribes to the entertaining trend of taking orders by flavour, with damn fine results.

SAVOUR

One of the great joys of travel is the prospect of sampling local traditions and local delicacies in situ, where they’re usually at their best.  Arguably this doesn’t get more exquisite than in Russia, the home of caviar.  A Tsar would simply order a kilogram of albino beluga, but for the rest of us St. Petersburg’s ArtCaviar presents an outstanding alternative.  This caviar boutique with its adjoining caviar inspired fine-dining restaurant offers the ideal setting for acquainting yourself with this delicacy.  The knowledgeable staff, whose passion and zeal are undoubtable, and the sublime culinary creations, witness pressed caviar in straciatella cheese with strawberries, expertly paired with Russian (or other) wines, make for an indelible experience.  When people advise you to spend your money on experiences rather than things, this is what they mean.

For those with a sweet tooth the Russian afternoon tea at the Astoria is a special treat.  The hotel has been host to some of the world’s most recognisable names, so a visit represents a chance to rub shoulders, and to linger in its aristocratic setting listening to live piano and enjoying Russian pastries such as pirosky (which is savoury), sguschenka, and medovik cake.   Go hungry.

MOVE

Ride hailing applications such as Bolt, Gett and Yandex make the best means for moving about in St. Petersburg.  Make sure you get yourself a Russian SIM card on arrival – it’s an essential requirement for accessing WIFI in most places.

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48 hours in Hong Kong

First published in Sawubona Magazine – July 2019 edition

Twenty years ago and before, at a time when an incursion into the Mainland was too forbidding for most, Hong Kong offered a précised and sanitised ‘Chinese experience’.  For travellers and traders alike it was a window to China.  This view of things is now a footnote in history, completely outdated, redundant: the world has shrunk and liberalised China is on our doorstep, readily accessible.  The territory’s days as a cheap destination are similarly long gone – the shopping’s still good, but don’t expect the fabled knock-down prices of the past, and as for the rest – food, accommodation, entertainment – you’ll by and large be paying top dollar.  But despite these changes, or maybe because of them, Hong Kong is a sexier and more rollicking ride than ever before.  Its essence, as a confluence of East and West, continues to define its course, but not in any cartoonish sense.  Instead it has evolved into an established hybrid, both reflective and independent of its progenitors – an inimitable, compelling amalgam of cool sophistication, warm hospitality, and vibrant energy.  The place just keeps raising its (gripping!) game.  For a visitor with a few days to fill there’s little to beat it.

Stay

Your lodgings can make or break a trip, so ensure the former with an astute selection.  You’ll struggle to find a better choice than the Island Shangri-La, the pre-eminent scion of a home-grown group, and the epitome of unpretentious refinement.  The typical benefits of a great hotel are superbly delivered – large rooms, lavish breakfasts, premium facilities, with the skyscraper-surrounded pool-deck a splendid highlight, especially in a city known for having more of them than any other in the world – but it’s with the finer touches that the hotel really excels: from the traditional welcome tea on arrival, beautifully presented in an insulated tea caddy, and the uber-comfortable mattresses and linen, developed by Simmon’s and Frette specifically for Shangri-La, to the day-of-the-week inscribed carpets in the lifts, and the L’Occitane and Acqua di Parma toiletries, they amplify the accommodation to an indulgent celebration.   The hotel houses eight restaurants on site, including the Michelin-starred Summer Palace, but it’s Restaurant Petrus that’s perhaps the star attraction.  Set on the 56th floor, in elegant, conducive surroundings (the ceiling frescoes and piano-accompanied strings live large), with breathtaking views over Victoria Harbour, the place offers classical fine dining, fine wining fare, but with just enough of an edge to stir the imagination.  Sample the green pea tart with yoghurt, meringue and coriander for dessert.

Island Shangri-La, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Rd, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2877 3838

Move

Taxis are plentiful and relatively affordable, but it’s often quicker and more convenient, especially when crossing from island to mainland and vice-versa, to use Hong Kong’s outstanding public transport system, one of the most effective and user-friendly worldwide, encompassing buses, trains, trams, and ferries.  The Octopus card, which you should definitely invest in on arrival, is probably the world’s leading fare collection and contactless smartcard payment system (and the model upon which London’s Oyster card was based), allows you to breeze on and off for the duration of your visit without worrying  about buying individual tickets.

See

Hong Kong is intense.  Visually spectacular, with a compact frame of sea, city, and mountain, and densely constituted, with its bustling population of enterprising people on the go, there is no shortage of things to see and do.  In geography there are some resonating parallels with Cape Town.  Victoria Peak, like Table Mountain, offers a spectacular vantage point from which to view and contemplate the city, and indeed the whole of Hong Kong Island on the walks around its circumference.  It’s accessible by foot for the fit and energetic, or otherwise by tram.  The Southern District, like our Southern Peninsula, is dotted with picturesque day-tripping towns – Aberdeen, Stanley and Repulse Bay notably – all easily accessible via the excellent public transport network.  Aberdeen in particular is something unique.  Historically the channel separating its settlements was home to a floating village of fisherfolk.  The boats remain, a ragtag but impressive fleet numbering in the hundreds and bearing testimony to this heritage, although fewer and fewer people still reside aboard permanently.  The area is also renowned for its cheap and cheerful fish ball noodles – test your chopsticks technique on the rendition at Nam Kee Noodle on Main Road.

 The Peak Tram Lower Terminus, Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2522 0922

 Exchange Square Bus Terminus, Ground floor, Exchange Square, 8 Connaught Place,

Central (Bus 70 to Aberdeen, from Aberdeen Bus 73 to Stanley via Repulse Bay)

 Nam Kee Noodle, Shop 1-3, G/F, 208 Aberdeen Main Rd, Aberdeen

+852 2552 2731

 Drink

A dark passage, a nondescript staircase, and an unmarked door.  This is the low-key entranceway to Stockton, one of Hong Kong’s coolest bars – a pre-emptive measure maybe against intrusion by the roving bands of Jack the Lads from neighbouring Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s notorious party district.  Or other random arrivals.  If you’re not in the know, clearly you shouldn’t be here.  Named for Hunter Stockton Thompson, reporter, writer, reveller, the place is inspired by literary themes and influences, from its seasonal cocktail menu, the latest being a dive into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (featuring drinks such as “The Berry Picker”), to its eclectic collection of vintage furniture and decorations, allusions to a private library or a reading room.  You get the sense that everything here has been well thought-out and deeply considered: it’s a place of substance for people of substance.  There are intimate crevices and alcoves, a thronging bar, a “secret” cigar den (known as the “Rake Room”), a discerning selection of fine liquors, a toilet with a two-way mirror (!!), and a menu featuring unusual delicacies like duck scotch eggs and cauliflower fritters.  Treat yourself to an exceptional Old Fashioned, hit repeat, and spend a rewarding evening at this superb, atmospheric venue.

Stockton, 32 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2898 3788

Eat

You can get the best of pretty much anything you want in Hong Kong, but it’s always a good idea to eat local.  The speciality here is Cantonese, the style of Chinese cuisine most internationally prevalent:  chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and dim sum being typical dishes. There’s a gaping chasm though between what you get at your local Chinese, and the finer exponents available in situ.  Duddell’s, an eatery-cum-art-gallery in the heart of Central on the island, gives you exactly that, the finer if not finest exponents of the style, but with a modern interpretation.  Their dim sum is off-the-scale, the scallop dumplings with caviar and asparagus good enough to break the gauge, whilst their use of non-traditional ingredients such as Wagyu beef and ibérico pork exemplifies Hong Kong’s flair and individuality.  Other highlights include the a double-boiled mushroom, bamboo and cabbage soup, shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice sheets, a vegetarian ensemble of asparagus, mushrooms, lily buds and black truffles, and their signature chicken dish: marinated, air dried and then deep fried.  The best approach though might be to explore their unlimited Weekend Salon Brunch, with an option for free-flow Veuve.  Go hungry (and thirsty)!

Duddell’s, Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central

+852 2525 9191

Over the bay, in Kowloon, you’ll find the pinnacle of an unpretentious, uniquely Hong Kongese speciality being served from a tiny, humble outlet.  Whilst the physical structure belies the presence of something special, the constant queues give it away.  Mammy Pancake serves egg waffles, a base batter of eggs, sugar, flour and evaporated milk, supplemented with various other ingredients, such as chocolate, peanut butter, and banana, according to taste, prepared on a waffle iron which moulds interconnected little pods (which you break off and eat by hand), and served in a brown bag.  Simple and delicious.  Try it as a breakfast snack, or at any time of the day.

Mammy Pancake, G/F, Carnarvon Mansion, 8-12 Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

 

 

 

Small batch, big patch

Four craft spirits to try before you braai

First published in Sawubona Magazine (March 2019).

The last five years have seen a mushrooming proliferation of craft products on the local liquor scene.  It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to contend that we are experiencing something of a spirituous golden age.  Taking inspiration from wine and beer, and moving from early rumblings in brandy, South Africa’s signature spirit, to the heady days of the ongoing gin boom, this momentum is now being felt across a variety of sectors and styles.   Our brandy heritage reaches back centuries, but it’s only in recent years that smaller producers have been re-emerging.  Backsberg, Boplaas, and Joseph Barry, were and still are some of the standout frontrunners, issuing interesting, distinctive small-batch brandies of international quality, and forging the path for a chasing pack, with the result that we’re awash today in these amber riches.  Gin may not be home-grown, but we’ve made it our own – what is South Africa if not a melting pot of vibrant, varied and sometimes adopted influences.   The resources of the Cape Floristic Kingdom, accounting for the greatest non-tropical concentration of higher plant species in the world, served as both input and catalyst for local gin production.  Pioneers like Roger Jorgensen, and Lorna Scott of Inverroche, the latter perhaps more than anyone else, showed that fynbos botanicals have the potential to create extraordinary, unique gins.  The distillery’s “Amber Gin” made infusions and local ingredients sexy, elevating this style into the popular imagination.  The quality and creativity of these trailblazers, their warm reception by the drinking public, and the surge of the rising tide which brought them about in the first place, seem to have generated a perfect storm.  A plethora of South African craft spirits is now taking the expression ‘local is lekker’ to a whole new level.

The appeal of this exciting new landscape is unfortunately also its drawback – there are, as an example, 250 plus gins being manufactured locally.  It’s getting difficult to see the wood for the trees.  Those that have already made their names stand out, but those that haven’t yet, the new generation, can be lost in the growing clutter.  We got stuck in, did a bit of homework, and identified a few which we thought might be worth your attention.

Pimville Gin

Styled by its four founders – Yongama Skweyiya, Thami Banda, Nkululeko Maseko, and Francois Bezuidenhout – as an African gin, made for Africans, with African flavours, an African story and an African home, and named after one the original towns that formed what was later to be called the South Western Townships (contracted to Soweto – who knew! ), this gin is intended as celebration of the charm and energy of African townships.

The outcome has been a robust gin, instilled with juniper, marula fruit, baobab, and, most prominently in our reckoning, African ginger, that is faithful to and a tribute to its mandate.  There is a flavour continuum for gins that ranges from retiring wallflower to life-of-the-party.   Pimville marches to the boisterous beat of an African drum, asserting its presence in martinis and with tonic.  A bold gin for a bold era.

Copeland Rum

James Copeland is a character study of a craft entrepreneur.   An internationally-renowned, globetrotting Trance DJ, he became inspired by rum during trips to Mauritius.  Armed with a burning passion he decided to make his own…in Kommetjie (which thinking about it just seems like a place where rum should be made – and drunk!).  We met him during the recent Rum Festival in Cape Town, slinging drinks from his “rum shack” (a beach bar fashioned stall) and bringing the message to the masses.

Copeland Rum is a white exponent distilled from a brew of blackstrap molasses, surprisingly polished for an unaged spirit, and exuding a full, rounded fruitiness, notably banana in our estimation.  Although he has plans for aged variants – with various trials currently in maturation – Copeland’s ethos and focus is about and on creating definitive, fermentation-driven rums, bursting with concentrated flavours.  This may be a drink that nimbly straddles rum’s penchant for unruly fun on the one side, and elegant enjoyment on the other.

BoPlaas Whisky

The chaps at Boplaas have some serious ambition, and from all evidence, the skills to go with it.  Wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, brandies, gins, and “now” whiskies; it seems nothing is too much for this Calitzdorp clan.  Whisky is tricky beast, which is probably why it’s one of the least prevalent spirits in the craft arena.  The production can be complex, the maturation extended, and the market extremely competitive, making it challenging to put out an affordable product that strikes the right balance, and that is sufficiently distinctive to resonate.

The Boplaas 6YO is a creditable single grain whisky finished in Cape Tawny (port) casks that have exerted a significant influence on its flavour.  It’ll appeal we’re sure to fans of wine-casked whiskies.  Most importantly it’s a distinct drink with a strong identity, speaking of the region, the estate, and of the people who created it – and transforming consumption into exploration.  We’ll look forward, as we sip at it contentedly, to more of the same from this industrious outfit.

Agua Zulu Cachaça

If you’re familiar with Brazil’s national cocktail – the caipirinha, served just about everywhere in that country – then you’ll be enthused with this selection, and if you’re not then it’s something you’d be advised to remedy.  A masterpiece of delicious simplicity, it’s made from sugar, lime, ice, and, most importantly, cachaça: a distillate of sugar cane juice, similar to the rhum agricole of the French Caribbean.   What we should ultimately want from the local craft industry are products that go beyond the obvious, that cater for niched, overlooked needs, and that provide the type of diversity and particularity not feasible on a mass scale.  The fact that this speciality spirit is now being produced locally is an encouraging signal that this aspiration has come to pass.

Distillery 031’s Agua Zulu, made in the Brazilian style from local cane and with a local touch, is bursting with the distinctively funky, pot-stilled cachaça flavours that guarantee a rousing caipirinha.  This initial incarnation is unaged, but with luck it’ll be succeeded by matured variants in the future, perhaps borrowing from the tradition and being casked in unusual, local wood.  As they say in Brazil: there comes a time when no matter what the question is, the answer is caipirinha.

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Two whiskies to reaffirm your faith

First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (March 2018).

During the course of my relationship with whisky I’ve rarely been disappointed.  Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs, but the troughs are usually my fault, isolated to occasions where I’ve abused its good graces.  More typically, over the years, it’s treated me to a series of wonderful encounters and experiences, nurturing between us a warm glow of contentment.  It has invigorated me when I’ve flagged, rewarded me when I’ve risen, encouraged my friendships, and made for good company at pretty much any time in between.  Most impressively, it keeps surprising me.  We’ve known each other well, for a long time now, so this is no mean feat.  They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it can obviously breed more positive regard as well – like delight.  I’ve had a few of those moments of late, brought on by two newcomers, which, if you’d like to instil a bit of fresh life into your bond with whisky, might be worth your attention.

Glenmorangie Allta

The tenth and latest in the unfailingly interesting, envelope-pushing Private Edition series, Allta fiercely perpetuates the spirit of this campaign.  I was lucky enough to “sense” this whisky along with a few others, Original, Cadboll and Lasanta, at the Glenmorangie HQ in Edinburgh, in an enthralling circular space known as “The Snug”, which showcases pretty much every whisky produced by the company in the modern age – wow!.  It was my first hit of Cadboll, and my first of Lasanta since the the finishing casks were changed from exclusively Oloroso to Oloroso and PX some four years ago.  The former, post-graduating from Muscat and Semillon casks, is a delicious sponge cake of sweet, polished flavours that’ll appeal to a broad range of palates, but especially to fans of Nectar d’Or.  It’s a Travel Retail exclusive so look out for it next time you’re going abroad.  The latter is a personal favourite, but I detected something on this occasion, a burnt flavour, somewhere between toasted sugar and an extinguished match, that I hadn’t previously noticed.  Whether this observation is derived from the new cask profile, or a function of my past inattention, is less important than the additional layer it ostensibly bequeaths to my perception of an already full flavoured whisky.  I won’t be waiting another four years.  The main show though was Allta, gaelic for ‘wild’, a nod to its raison d’être, a strain of wild yeast growing on the ears of Glenmorangie’s own cadboll barley identified by none other than the company’s whisky chief Dr. Bill Lumsden, and now catalysing this whisky’s fermentation.  An aside: the yeast was cultivated for production by South African-affiliated yeast supplier Lallemand.  The underlying rationale for Allta is that yeast variations are an unfortunate rarity in Scotch whisky.  In Dr. Bill’s words: “Yeast’s influence on taste has been overlooked for years, but it’s an area ripe for exploration”.  Perhaps taking a leaf from the Japanese whisky play book, which prescribes prolific experimentation with yeast, he’s created (yet another) whisky worthy of its place in this hallowed collection.  The liquid has much in common with The Original, its half sibling of similar age and cask profile, but is palpably fuller and more robust, bristling on the palate like a Rioja.  Earthy and herbaceous on the nose, waxy, bready and floral, with hints of mint and corn, it relaxes into a sweet, typically vanilla finish.  The distinctions pedestal yeast’s contribution to flavour, as I’m sure was the intention.  This in my opinion is a whisky to be bought and appreciated for three reasons: for its own innate value, for its place in this riveting Private Edition whisky story (to be enjoyed like a series of riveting, unmissable novels), and for making tangible the role of yeast in whisky creation.

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The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

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The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

Arbikie Highland Rye

Estate producers Arbikie are liquor all-rounders, better known for producing vodkas and gins.  How then, with no relevant credentials, do you get noticed on your first foray into an arena as crowded as Scotch whisky?  The answer: do something no-one’s ever done before (or at least, not for a long time).  The Arbikie Highland Rye’s premise is that it’s the first Scotch rye whisky produced in the last hundred odd years.  I guess that this makes it just a single grain in the Scotch Whisky Association classification, but unofficially I’ll happily concede that it’s rather unique and special.  Now let’s get the bad news out of the way upfront – this is a one-of-its-kind product, with a limited bottling of 998, factors driving a unit price of some R4.5k, which is clearly excessive for a young, barely legal whisky.  Then again, there’s no pretence of value for money – that’s not the idea.  There’s also lots of good news to even things out.  My experience of Arbikie Highland Rye left me with some striking impressions.  Firstly, rye brings something to the Scotch party – there’s enough here to persist and forge onwards with this experiment, which I believe Arbikie is doing; Secondly, this is one of the richest, fullest three year old whiskies I’ve ever tasted.  Whether it’s the rye, the casks, the small batch craftsmanship, or a combination that’s responsible can be debated, but the result is remarkable regardless.  Lastly, rye and sherry do great bedfellows make.  This is an unusual combination, which I’d never encountered before.  American straight rye whiskey is legislated to be aged only in new oak, and although the industry is increasingly breaking these shackles, variations are not commonplace.  But they should be.  Going by Arbikie Highland Rye – which has been “enhanced” in PX casks for 3-6 months – there’s evidence that this partnership works a treat.  If you’re in the fervent niche that’s dedicated to exploring new whisky horizons you may just have to throw pecuniary caution to the wind.

As it appeared: https://whiskymag.co.za/two-whiskies-to-reaffirm-your-faith/

 

Ignition 2019

Fortifying yourself for the festive season and the year ahead?  PATRICK LECLEZIO finds three excellent candidates to do the job.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).