The land of the rising dram

Whisky, big in Japan.  Japan, big in whisky.  Patrick Leclezio separates his mizuwaris from his oyuwaris.

Whisky geeks have been on it for a while, but now it’s starting to explode in the mainstream.  Japanese, if you can get it, is the hottest thing in whisky.  And it’s been due for some time. Bill Murray memorably introduced (most of) us to it in 2003’s Lost in Translation: “For good times, make it Suntory time”.  After all when some paranormal publicity is required who you gonna call? Since then Suntory and Nikka, both the company and brand names of the two leading players, and their flagship single malts, Yamazaki and Yoichi, have rapidly established themselves in our collective consciousness, with the smaller marques following in their wakes.  Demand has grown to fever pitch, but with South Africa low on the list of supply priorities, the stuff is thin on the ground.  I wanted to know more and try more before writing this piece, so I sought out the country’s leading Japanese whisky distributor (and expert) Hector McBeth, to tap into his voluminous knowledge of the subject…and to sneak a few drams from his private stock.

Stranger in a strange land.  Five words that sum up the origins of Japanese whisky.  A Japanese man living and studying in distant Scotland in the early twentieth century.  A curious Scottish tradition taking root in Japan shortly thereafter.  These are the two intertwined threads, epitomising the unifying magic of whisky, that precipitated this industry.   Its watershed moment though came much later, in 2008, when Yoichi’s 20YO and the Suntory Hibiki were awarded the titles of world’s best single malt and world’s best blended whisky respectively by Whisky Magazine, one of the most credible of whisky authorities.  A deluge of awards have followed.

The face behind the liquid and its success, is somewhat inscrutable.  In fact Japanese whisky is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand there’s extreme rigidity.  The model and the basic techniques, and hence the flavours, are derived from Scotch.  I had always held out that the one tangibly identifiable feature distinguishing its whisky from others was the use of Japanese oak (mizunara), inserting the incense notes that are identifiable in some of its expressions.  Hector disavowed me of the notion, confirming that the proportion of these casks in any vatting or blend is minimal.  It’s a nice story, and it’s sometimes apparent (in Yamazaki in particular), but on the whole it’s not significant.  There just isn’t enough of the stuff (the wood).  Adding to its limitations, the various distilleries, already few in number, by and large do not trade stocks outside of their parent companies (of which there are fewer still), hence restricting the variety of product that’s available for vatting and blending.  This is a traditional convention, profoundly fixed in the Japanese ethic of company loyalty.  The result is a set of institutions that can appear deeply conservative, unimaginative and cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face inhibiting.

Then there’s the other hand, the contrast.  Paradoxically the same issues that have constrained Japanese whisky seem also to have driven it forward.  Starved of variety, Japanese distilleries began producing it for themselves.  A Scotch distillery will typically only produce one type of new make.  In Japan individual distilleries began experimenting with different barleys, different malting methods, different yeasts, different stills, and different distillation methods, to produce a wide variety of different single malts.  Bamboo charcoal filtration has been introduced.  High quality single malt has been made in a Coffey still. Necessity as they say is the mother of invention.  The narrow parameters of their setup – the adoption of the Scotch paradigm, the cultural issues – seem to have stimulated rather than restrained innovation – producing spectacular results.

The real impacts remain implicit rather than explicit.  It’s difficult to point out visible, significant distinguishing features.  Whereas other territories have made their mark with radical departures, the Japanese have made small tweaks, focusing on execution of the details.  Their work with yeast is supposedly industry leading, to the point, Hector tells me, that they legally register their strains.  My take-out is that they have taken vatting and blending to greater levels of dedication than anyone else.   Ireland and North America have their own very distinct styles.  Scotch is bound to provenance.   Japan is all about using their human resources to make the most of their limited physical resources – in whisky as in everything else really.  This is particularly evident in blended malts.   A neglected sector elsewhere the Japanese have embraced it, recognising and exploiting the extra dimension that it offers.  I’ve often maintained that blended malts have all the intrinsic advantages of single malts, and then some: they go beyond by providing the blender with an extensive palette of varying liquid, resulting in vatted potential that is undeniably superior (at least theoretically).   The Nikka portfolio in SA is a case in point: Nikka Pure Malts Red and Black, and the Taketsuru Pure Malt, along with Nikka from the Barrel, a high malt blend, being the most prevalent.

The industry has gone about things its own way, assiduously keeping the faith.  What it lacks in macro it has doubled in micro creativity, as growing legions of fans can bear witness.   If you’d like to be in that number, then march over to either Kyoto Gardens or Bascule Bar in Cape Town, or WhiskyBrother in Joburg, South Africa’s most assured purveyors of Japanese whisky.  May the dram be with you.

Sidebar:

Mizuwari: whisky with water and ice, served in a tall glass and stirred 13 and half times.

Oyuwaris: whisky with hot water, a custom that was borrowed from the drinking of sochu (the indigenous Japanese spirit).

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The gin list

What to try before the summer fades.   Patrick Leclezio explores six of the best.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2017 edition).

Everyone’s making gin these days.  The world has rediscovered a taste for it, and in an era of educated consumption, this burgeoning appetite has provoked a plethora of options, ranging from the old and established (and their more recent offshoots), to a raft of new entrants that are both industrial and craft in scale.  Unlike brown spirits gin doesn’t need to be matured (although some are), so the barriers to entry are relatively low, and accordingly they are being vaulted in droves.  This is an exciting unfolding of events – there’s never been more variety than there is at present.   Ten years ago a local aficionado would have been scratching around amongst a handful of products, today you can board a ride on a virtually endless gin adventure.   But being swamped by an embarrassment of riches brings its own problems – what to choose?  It’s a first world problem I grant you, but let me nonetheless help out with some first class solutions.

Plymouth

If any gin can claim a legendary aura, then Plymouth is it.  Bottled at 57% ABV, the so-called “navy strength”, because that’s the proofing level at which alcohol ignites gunpowder, this is a big gin in every sense.  It has longstanding ties to the British Navy, and it even has its own geographical indication – Plymouth Gin is (somewhat bizarrely) both a brand, and a protected regional name (like Champagne).  The bold nose leads out a complex, tight spectrum of flavours onto a settled palate: juniper and pepper, hemmed in by a barky, earthy woodiness, and strong herbal cologne.   It may be a touch less dry than your typical London Dry Gin, but this is unequivocally masculine stuff nonetheless, projecting a tethered depth of power and an incredible balance.  There are no wild lurches or veering detours here – nothing is out of place, and nothing is arbitrary.  You get the sense that this is liquid that has been evolved to a state of military precision over many years, with any kinks that it may have had progressively chiselled away.  It’s expensive, but keep in mind that it goes a lot further than its lower-bottling-strength compatriots.  The label says “for almost 200 years the navy never left port without it”.  I’m hardly going to be setting off any cannons, but it’s a sentiment that I can take to heart, for the sheer drinking pleasure of it.

Musgrave Pink

Simone Musgrave’s eponymous gin now has a stablemate that despite not being an incendiary is setting the local craft scene alight.  It’s not a pink gin in the conventional sense, but it’s pink in colour and in intention.   This new variant adds rosehip to the signature botanicals and is further infused with rose water, resulting in a flavour that’s dominated by rich floral notes, with the spiciness and the muskiness of the original still evident, but receded into the background.  The common theme amongst new wave gins (in South Africa specifically but elsewhere too) is the demotion of juniper, with this one being a case in point.   This may not be traditional, and it may even flout regulations (the EU set for gin dictating that the predominant flavour must be juniper), but I for one like it (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one).  It represents an intrepid expansion in gin territory, giving us new and more varied landscapes to explore and vistas to enjoy.  The Musgrave Pink iteration is probably a gin that’ll appeal more to women than men, but regardless of your sex, it’s striking and distinctive, and it’s stirring things up, so it should be on your radar.

Wilderer

Wilderer has a reputation for creating delightful small-batch liquid, grappas, eau de vie’s and the like.  It’s a name that’s become synonymous with craftsmanship in the little liquor niche that it occupies.   The chaps have most recently turned their hands to gin, their first foray into a big, popular category of spirits, with predictably impressive results.  A menthol nose and a peppery palate poke out above a dense herbaceous canopy, with tendrils of liquorice injecting a fleeting sweetness.   This gin is a flavour window into an olde worlde apothecary, or so I imagine it: vaguely medicinal, herby aromas dancing one with the other, leading, following, then rotating, throwing off your perspective.  There’s a lot going on here – it’s entrancingly interesting, and demanding of your attention.   You’ll spend a lot of time with this gin without getting bored.

Inverroche

The Verdant and Amber have long been two of my favourite gins.  In these drinks the Inverroche crew at Stilbaai has forged some sort of an alignment of the stars, I kid you not.  The former evokes dried flowers, the latter a balance between boiled sweets (a lollipop nose) and bitter-ish tannins.  But this crude attempt at describing their superbly cohesive flavours leaves much to be desired; the finely wrought combinations of fynbos ingredients, both distilled and infused, defy facile interpretations.  Gin is a versatile drink, but let’s be honest – any pretender lives and dies on its rendition of a GnT, and to a lesser extent a martini.  Some gins fight with the tonic, others are overwhelmed.   These two, I want to say serendipitously but that would be disrespectful, are the perfect complements, enhancing the tonic whilst maintaining the integrity of their characters.  I happened to try them in martini recently for the first time – less dry, and atypical, but mouth wateringly delicious.  No one-trick-pony these.   It’s very simple: if you’re South African and you claim to like gin, then you’re doing yourself a gross disservice if you haven’t drunk from the Inverroche well.

Bombay Sapphire

Despite all of the recent activity the benchmark in gin remains the London Dry style:  large in juniper, dry – as the name suggests, and often tangy, with well-integrated, fully distilled botanicals, and in Bombay it has a beautifully representative ambassador.   This is the ideal everyday gin – premium of quality but affordable, complex in flavour but not challenging, tiring or polarising, and soft, versatile, and accessible but also full flavoured and interesting.   The sight of that electric blue bottle behind my bar gives me a certain sense of inner peace – I’d feel off-kilter without it.  Bombay Sapphire is a gem indeed.

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A Cheers salute to men in skirts

First published in Cheers Magazine (January / February 2017 edition).

It actually makes more sense, anatomically at least, for men to be wearing skirts rather than women.   The momentum of history however has denied us this breezy freedom.  The prevailing aesthetic of men’s fashion dictates, and has for a long time now rather jeeringly, against our adoption (re-adoption would be more accurate) of this versatile garment.  In today’s world you might get away with wearing a sarong, at a push, but for aspirant skirt wearers wanting to project their robust manliness there’s only one unambiguous refuge.

What

The kilt.  Even the sound of it is comfortingly masculine.   A kilt is a knee level skirt (or a type of skirt) made from a single length of wool pleated at the rear, which is wrapped around the waist to navel height, and secured with straps. Its usage originated in the Highlands of Scotland in the early eighteenth century, evolving thence to become one of that country’s most iconic symbols.  More recently it has been adopted in other places as a unifying sign of Celtic identity.  The wool from which a kilt is made would usually display a tartan pattern, which typically has some sort of meaning to the wearer – either an association to a Clan or to a region.  Most importantly though – they’re great fun to wear.  Say it with me now, you know you want to:  “Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!” It sounds even better in a kilt, if that can be imagined…

How

A kilt is the central item in the Highland Dress set of formal attire.  There are various degrees and permutations, but the gist of it, from top to toe, is as follows: a dress shirt with bow tie; a jacket, of which a variety are acceptable, from the old-school Prince Charlie to the more modern Argyll, and an optional waistcoat; the kilt itself, along with a kilt pin, a sporran and sporran belt – the sporran is an elaborate pouch employed ostensibly (its aesthetic appeal notwithstanding) to compensate for the absence of pockets – and a belt, the latter only donned in the absence of the waistcoat; knee length socks (kilt hose); garter flashes (in the same tartan as the kilt); and smart, laced leather shoes.   You can further choose to carry a sgian-dubh (pronounced skee-an doo), a small ceremonial knife which is tucked into the hose.  And why not indeed – just watch yourself when you’re boarding an aircraft, or scrapping (good naturedly of course) with an Englishman.  Kilts are also worn more casually, traditionally with a ghillie shirt, but increasingly with rugby jerseys and the like, as suits the occasion.  Critically, you should be able to answer the question: “is anything worn under your kilt?” with this response: “no, nothing, everything is in perfect working order”.

Where

In South Africa kilts are strongly connected to Scotch whisky, so you’ll see them swishing about at whisky festivals, Burns suppers, and other whisky functions.  They’re also popular at weddings and various celebrations – at least those with Scottish links.  The most epic local kilt-wearing event though is undoubtedly the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich in early November.  The Keepers as an organisation is only about 30 years old, established circa 1987 – by a South African no less, James Espey – to promote the interests and the fellowship of Scotch whisky, but it gives the deep impression that it has accumulated centuries of venerable existence.  The organisation is exclusive – there are only 53 Keepers in the South African “Chapter”, each having served a minimum of five years in the industry, having been nominated to join and seconded by two existing Keepers, and having been inaugurated at the magnificent Blair Castle in Scotland – but it is not elitist – the organisation simply does not recognise rank.   Attendance at the banquet is by invitation only, so you’d need to cultivate a relationship to crack the nod.   And make no mistake – it’s a golden invitation.  There are few things to compare with feasting on haggis and fine whisky in the boisterous company of kilted-up whisky folk.  May the dram be with you!

Sidebar – Kilts and the accompanying dress can be purchased or rented from Staghorn, the country’s only Scottish outfitters, based in Plumstead, Cape Town.  021 761 4853.  http://www.scottishoutfitting.com/.

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Is brandy bouncing back?

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

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

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

Brandy definitions

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

Awards

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

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

Craft

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

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

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Treats from the top shelf

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

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

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

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

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

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

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

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

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

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

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

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

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

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The roads less travelled

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

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

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

Anise liquors

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

Baijiu

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

Cachaça

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

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San Francisco days, San Francisco nights

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

First published in GQ Magazine (November 2016 edition).

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

Stay

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

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

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

http://www.axiomhotel.com/

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Drink

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

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

www.pressclubsf.com

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Eat

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

Fog Harbor Fish House

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

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

www.fogharbor.com

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Foreign Cinema

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

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

www.foreigncinema.com

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Photo by Charlie Villyard

Saison

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

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

www.saisonsf.com

2nd Course: Golden Osetra Caviar

Shop

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

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

www.westfield.com/sanfrancisco

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See

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

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

www.hornblower.com

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

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

www.alcatrazcruises.com

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

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

www.presidio.gov

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Listen

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

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

www.clubdeluxe.co

Tour

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

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

www.sosfbiketours.com

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

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