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

Wanted Magazine Dec 2017 p2

As it appeared.

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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.

 

 

 

Clash of the Titans

The battle for number one.   Patrick Leclezio checks out the biggest and most intense rivalry in the single malt universe.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2017 edition).

There’s probably no greater engine for progress than competition.  It has defined our existence.  What is survival, if not a competition?  What is evolution, the mechanism culminating in an ability to build distilleries and make whisky (we can stop now!), if not the act of competing?  Competition elicits some of the finest human qualities – invention, excellence, determination – but also some of the worst, luckily largely controlled in our civilised world.  Healthy competition, by all objective measures, renders us, as a community, enhanced, advanced, and improved, across a range of endeavours, both the more and the less consequential.  Amongst the former, definitely amongst the former, somewhere between curing cancer and developing clean energy, is the crafting of single malt whisky.   And in recent times the thrusting and parrying between Glenfiddich and Glenlivet (The Glenlivet, if you want to be proper about it) has lit up this universe.

Following an extended era of persistent domination by Glenfiddich, the margins have been tighter in recent times, with the honours changing hands on two occasions in the last three years.  It’s not surprising that the onset of this competitive fervour corresponds with a period of tremendous activity and dynamism for the single malt style; its share of Scotch whisky sales have been on a radical incline.  Despite these gains though it remains a comparatively small and niched style; for all that I’m styling them “titans” the Glens, whilst significant in volume, having each crested the million case mark, are not mass-market brands.   Single malts appeal to a discerning audience, and whilst it may not be unswayed by extrinsic influence, it is relatively more attuned to the liquid itself.  In my opinion this makes the competitiveness in the sector a lot more meaningful.  If attributes like product innovation and quality rather than those like advertising and distribution, have a greater hold on the keys to success, then this can only be of benefit to genuine whisky lovers.   When Glenfiddich regained the mantle in 2016 brand spokesperson Enda O’Sullivan commented: “We are delighted with the current performance of Glenfiddich, and rather than focus on the best-selling single malt, we are committed to leading the category through innovation and creativity”.  It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that this is a space where the two can be one and the same.

This competition in fact can’t really be understood in a brand context.  Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet?  Those are just words.  The actual, visceral fight is taking place out there on various fronts, between the whiskies:  liquid against liquid.  I recently ventured out onto these battlefields, amidst the popping of corks, the clinking of glasses and the venturing of “slainte mhaths”, to visit with a few of those that are making a difference.   It became immediately evident, if indeed it hadn’t been already, that the story of their mettle, of the iron within their fists, like the Roman legions of old, begins with their superb foot soldiers.

The 12YO’s in each stable are what you expect them to be and more: of broad appeal, and consequently of moderate flavour, exceptionally reliable, and universally enjoyable.  If any of this sounds underwhelming then bear with me as I elaborate.  I drink a lot of different whisky, much of it old, much of it uniquely flavoursome.  I guess you could say that I’m whisky spoiled.  Nevertheless, I’ll drink a Glenlivet 12YO, or a Glenfiddich 12YO, anytime, anyplace, following any other whisky, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I’ll savour every moment of it.  After work drinks, after dinner drinks, high society drinks, watching the rugby drinks, gala evening drinks, you name it, they’re up to it.  The nutty pineapple sponge flavour of the one, and the soft, melt-in-your-mouth fruitiness of the other guarantee satisfaction to almost any palate.  When I said exceptionally reliable, I meant just that.

The rest of their core ranges is faultless, there isn’t a middling whisky to be found.  Amongst the Glenfiddichs, the 14YO Rich Oak and the 15YO Solera Reserve deserve high praise.  The Rich Oak’s depth of flavour is a treat in such a young and affordable whisky, a testament to the casks employed, whilst the solera vat’s legendary status is well deserved, delivering a breadth and balance that’s virtually unparalleled in this whisky’s class.  On a rand for rand basis it makes a claim that is difficult to challenge, such is the value it delivers.   When I consider the Glenlivet stalwarts it’s the 18YO that immediately jumps out.  Here a prominent sherry influence pervades, powerful raisin flavours overlaying citrus fruits, apricots, and fudge, assembling into a whisky that’s quite simply marvellous; one of those that I’ve chosen to mark portentous moments in my life.

Faultless is one thing.  But you can’t expect to prevail only by not making mistakes.  The SAS has it right.  Who dares wins!  Both of the Glens have dared, both have reinvented battle strategy – with products that are bold and different.  Glenlivet’s  Nadurra range went back to its roots, its Guardians Chapters inserted consumers into the blending process, a result of which was the show-stopping Exotic, and its Alpha introduced a new style of cask to whisky.  Glenfiddich’s recent Experimental Series may well be partly responsible for the latest tilting of the scales, both the IPA Experiment and the Project XX are explicitly distinct and interesting.  I was mulling over the XX during the last few weeks, trying to put my finger on what made it and its stablemate (a bottle of which I polished off in short order last year) so standout and so quaffable: it’s the casks’ profile obviously, these having been handpicked by the brand’s ambassadors given free rein to the maturation warehouse, but also the vatting.  My guess is there are young whiskies significantly included, but unlike many other NAS products, these two have matched execution to the best intentions motivating this format.  The younger liquid adds, in this case an appealing husky robustness, but it doesn’t detract.

I have no doubt that we can expect more new and exciting products from both brands in the years to come.   The battle lines have been etched, but unlike the real thing, this is a war in which everyone wins – not least us whisky fans.  The competition between the two is bringing out their best, as they spur each other to new heights.   The only problem will be choosing which to splash into your glass as you kick up your feet tonight.  Make it one (or two) of each – and may the dram be with you.

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When nurture trumps nature

Putting their stamp on it.  PATRICK LECLEZIO ruminates on independent bottlings.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2017 edition).

The whisky industry is a strange and fascinating beast.  It is virtually unique, which is largely why its output inspires such passionate devotion (also because it’s tasty I guess).  Elsewhere, in more dour pastures, the usual expectation is for an organisation that puts out a product to have produced it itself, or at a minimum, in this specialising era, to have conceived and designed it and perhaps contracted out the actual production.  Not so with whisky.  Despite being rigidly conventional, and cosseted by tradition in many respects, the industry is also extraordinarily nimble in others, nowhere more so than with what’s known as independent bottling.  Tiny in volume, colossal in variety, it’s a microcosmic snapshot of how the industry operates, and of what whisky’s all about.

Independent bottling is the practice by one party of further producing, and then marketing and selling, whisky that was initially produced by another party.  This sounds a bit clumsy, but unavoidably so.  At this point, before throwing these terms about any further, it may be worth contextualising what is meant by “production of whisky”.  If one reduces this analysis to identifying discrete opportunities to add meaningful value to the final output – which is a must for any party like an independent bottler trying to insert itself into the process, then I’d suggest that there are three broad stages: distillation of the new make (being the entire process culminating in distillation), maturation, and vatting or blending or timing.  The independent bottler is not involved in distillation, in imbuing the liquid with its nature (at least not for its independent bottlings), but can be involved in the other stages to a greater or lesser extent, the grooming of the liquid into whisky.  Funnily enough, though a moot point in that it doesn’t influence the whisky, the actual bottling is in most cases done by another third party, or perhaps even by the producing party.

The origins of independent bottling date back to the dawn of Scotch whisky’s big blockbuster brands, when grocers bought liquid from distillers to create their own proprietary blends. Some of these evolved into the multiple-distillery-owning behemoths that dominate the industry today, others into what we’ve come to know as independent bottlers.  We owe a debt to many of the latter in particular for sheltering and nurturing the malt whisky flame along the way.  There was a time when single malts were only available, virtually, from independent bottlers, and it was probably their cultivation of this niche into something significant that prompted the big distillers to follow suit.  This prescient attentiveness, when no-one else was much interested, means that the older, more established independent bottlers have stocks of some of the oldest malt whiskies in existence.  In 2015 Gordon & MacPhail issued bottlings of a 75 year old Mortlach, the oldest whisky ever released, a record they had already held with the previous releases of two 70 year olds, a Mortlach and a Glenlivet.  If you’re in the market for old Scotch malt whisky, generally at much more reasonable prices than equivalent distillery offerings, independent bottlings will provide a rich potential source.

There are many other advantages aside from its aged stocks and favourable costs that independent bottlers proffer to the whisky lover.  The mechanisms by which liquid is traded amongst the big distillers (for their blends) and the smaller operators like independent bottlers are largely shrouded from public view, but certain deductions can be made.   Distillers sell to independent bottlers for commercial reasons of course, but also for whisky reasons; if, for instance, individual casks are judged to be excessively outwith the parameters of the house style it may be deemed preferable to get rid of them.  The ensuing independent bottlings play the same role as that often underlying the deployment of vintage malts: manifesting variations of standard expressions that can be both interesting and compelling.  The phenomenon of “teaspooning”, which is undocumented but popularly believed to be true, is an interesting corollary to these trading practices.  Distilleries wanting to sell their liquid without lending their names to the independent bottlers in the bargain are reputed to add a teaspoon of a different malt to the cask being transacted, a rather messy device considering that it also prevents the whisky from being sold as a single malt.  The Westport blended malt for instance is understood to be Glenmorangie with a hint of Glen Moray.

The biggest boon though of independent bottlings is that they are small by definition.  Whilst these organisations can and do accumulate for making blended malts and blended whisky, the similar stock to which they have access tends to be of relatively reduced quantity.  The implications are twofold: firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, they put out a lot of small volume expressions of differing styles, constitution and flavour.  An explosion of variety.  The big producers have their limited edition and experimental forays, but they’re by and large focused on their larger variants.  If variety is the spice of life, then independent bottlers are pivotal to extending the range of our whisky experience; secondly, with little to underpin their liquid, the romance and backing of the distillery is arm’s length at best, independent bottlers often live and die by the sword – there’s no cushion so they need to constantly be adding value, providing something more, something different, something unique.  It’s a huge stimulus for innovation and distinctiveness.  Compass Box’s Spice Tree is a great example, as is the company as a whole, of this observation in action. The liquid is bought ready matured (ten years old), but then extra matured for two years in varying bespoke casks (the key constituent being the heavily toasted French oak heads), and finally intricately woven together by their blender. It’s a cohesive injection of accelerated complexity and willed variety that is interpreted on the nose and palate as sweet, spicy and rich.

The beauty of the independent bottling continuum is the multiple layers of opportunity that it offers to add value and apply a core competence, thereby prompting the introduction of new players and products into the mix.    The Checkers Liquor Private Barrel Company has specialised in bringing elusive single casks, which would otherwise rarely be seen here, to the South African marketplace.   Single casks are a precarious business.  There’s no place to hide – as there could be in a vatting or a blend.  It’s either good or it’s not.  In this light even something as seemingly minor as the selection or timing of a cask for bottling by a private bottler represents pivotal value – especially when integrated into a holistic plan for the product.  The latest expression, a judiciously selected and well-timed Glen Scotia 10 year old, is very good indeed, with a juicy, bursting flavour of tropical fruits and sweet spices.  If credence is needed then this whisky delivers in spades.

In many senses the whisky industry, despite its conventions and traditions, has been ahead of its time, and nowhere more so than in the sphere of independent bottlers.  There is something very modern and vibrant about the focus and specialisation that they have demonstrated.  Without their existence the industry would be much diminished, and we’d be shy of many wonderful whiskies.  Let’s look forward to travelling the new paths they’re forging on our continuing whisky journeys.  May the dram be with you.

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Breaking the glass ceiling

Bourbon gets interesting. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the latest stage in the evolution of America’s home grown spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2017 edition).

It’s impossible not to compare different styles of whisky.  People will always be measuring one thing against the other, especially things with a similar purpose.  When weighing up American whiskey alongside the other big styles, I’d always felt that it was a bit limited in its range of flavour.  I justify this opinion objectively with reference to its casks in particular:  whereas Scotch in contrast (or Irish for that matter) uses new and refill casks, made from American and European oak, treated by charring or toasting, with sizes and shapes from barrels to butts, seasoned by bourbon or sherry typically, but a wide variety of other liquors as well (and draws on this wide scope for its flavour profile), straight American whiskey is legally restricted to new, charred, oak, commercially restricted to white oak, conventionally restricted to barrels, and inevitably constrained as a consequence to a tighter band.  It’s been the blue-collar worker, the enlisted man, the poorer cousin, of the whisky world.  But things are a-changing, and bourbon is moving on up.

When I take a deeper look at any product I like to refer to its definition, the essence that gives it its identity and its constitution.  These are usually found floating about on Wikipedia and in various other crevices, but I decided in this case to get as close to the source as possible. The site for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB) of the United States publishes those for bourbon and straight bourbon as follows:

  • Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers
  • (Straight bourbon is) bourbon whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more
  • “Straight Bourbon Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state […will big straight bourbon blends become a thing?]

The exercise allowed me to make two interesting observations, one peripheral the other central, which I otherwise wouldn’t if I hadn’t sourced the original reference:  firstly, that the legislators in the US have used the “whisky” spelling rather than the conventional “whiskey” spelling.  This may be vestigial, having remained in place from the earliest laws governing production, before the Irish and Americans introduced the e to differentiate their products from Scotch; and secondly, that there is a huge variety of whiskey styles in the United States, the bar for most being very low.  This reinforced to me that the credibility of American whiskey as a broad category rests on straight whisky. The ability thus to generate complexity and variety within the scope of these definitions is critical.

The bourbon regulations allow more latitude with stills, and mashbills, relative to some other styles.  This is the reason why a brand like Woodford Reserve is able to employ a triple pot distillation to distinguish its product and flavour profile from most other bourbons, which are double distilled in column and doubler stills (essentially a combination of a column still and a pot still).  The still types and distillation techniques may promote flavour subtleties between one bourbon and another, but it’s a measured contribution, not a revolution – the stuff of a sergeant’s stripes, not a commission.  The mashbill is more impactful.   Corn must be predominant, but thereafter, in the selection and weighting of the secondary ingredient (known as the flavour grain, because of its pivotal influence), there is room to play – with three basic styles resulting: wheated, rye, and high rye.  The former tends to be softer and sweeter, with cereal and grass flavours prominent – and there’s a preconception that it matures more gracefully, largely on the back of the Pappy van Winkle legacy I would think – whilst the latter two are bolder, spicier and fruitier.  A bourbon becomes high rye when this component approaches and exceeds 20% of the mashbill.  These three styles are well populated but the inclination to further tap this ostensibly rich vein seems muted.  Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor Four Grain, using corn, malted barley (the standard tertiary ingredient, there to assist with fermentation) and BOTH rye and wheat, is a recent rare iteration (although there have been others).  This is a transcending era though, so it’ll be interesting to see what else springs from this well in the next few years.  Maybe an entirely new grain could be attempted, like unmalted barley.

We don’t get many American whiskeys in South Africa – perhaps that’s indicative of my starting point in itself – so we’re a little behind on the latest developments.  Sadly too, the Buffalo Trace distillery, one of the more innovative producers, is not presently represented locally.  We’re unlikely therefore to be seeing any Taylor bottles on our shelves anytime son.  Interestingly however the heralds to our shores of bourbon’s new swagger are products exploiting the most restrictive aspect of the definition: that guiding the maturation.   New charred oak only?  It’s a hell of a limit, but one that absolutely had to be challenged if any headway was to be made – time and wood are whisky’s single most important sources of flavour.

The wonderful Knob Creek, one of the standout bourbons to which we have ready access, is evidence of the initial forays, pushing charring to its maximum to better access the flavours in the woods and to carve a route for the liquid to travel and make deepest possible contact.  Jim Beam’s Double Oak, one of the latest arrivals, takes a leaf from Scotch with its double maturation (albeit both in same barrel styles), producing a succulent whiskey that’s rich, sweet and oaky, and highly drinkable.  I cracked a bottle with some colleagues after work, intending a quick drink before ducking home, but before I knew it a few hours had passed and the bottle was done.  Most inspiring though is the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.  The distillery has become known in the past while for its innovative work with wood – their Maple Wood Finish in particular was ground-breaking, although like many of the other products in their Master’s Collection it can’t be called a bourbon, so probably destined to stay niched.  The Double Oaked is most certainly a bourbon, also double matured like the Jim Beam, with the second racking being in casks that were deeply toasted first then submitted to a light charring.  The resulting depth of flavour has put my notions about the constrained potential of bourbon to the sword.

There’s a lot more that’s happening, and that can and will happen: the use of other oak species, of larger casks (particularly for a spirit that overcooks easily), of White oak grown in different eco-systems, to name just a few possibilities.  We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg but it’s enough to convince me that maturation – ironically, bourbon’s more confined and restrained space – is where the vital play is being, and will continue to be, made.  The innovation that’s being wrought is its ticket to the big stage, to an eventual equal billing with its more fancied forerunners.  I look forward with eager anticipation to the fruits of the endeavour.  May the dram be with you.

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