Monthly Archives: February 2011

Whisky and all

It’s a glorious monday morning in the Mother City (if you don’t mind chasing hats), the Mountain watches protectively over me as I write this post, and all is well in this part of the world.  Somewhat responsible for my buoyant mood is my discovery, or rather re-discovery, of a bottle of Chivas Brothers 30yo whisky that I had sort-of forgotten I had.  I’m not a collector; whilst I can certainly admire and appreciate a lovingly assembled stash of whisky, I personally prefer to drink rather than hoard.  So open it I will, and soon.  More about it then.

Over the weekend I was glued to my sofa whilst watching the World Cup games taking place in India, and since I’m always thinking about whisky my thoughts quite naturally turned to Indian whisky.  Whisky in India is big business: of the 5 best-selling whisky brands in the world in 2009, 4 were Indian, including Bagpiper, the world’s top seller for that year.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a healthy situation – a developing market asserting itself in the arena, increased global competition, a wake-up call for the big boys – but the picture is less than rosy.   In actual fact the Indian whisky industry has a whiff about it which compares unfavourably to a French cheese ripening in the Mumbai heat.

At the heart of the matter is the question of whether Indian whisky is really whisky at all.  Vijay Mallya, the owner of United Spirits, India’s largest whisky producer, was quoted as saying:  “I’ve had this constant battle with the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) on the definition of whisky. They won’t let me export my Indian whisky out of India and into the European Union. My last offer to them was that I said I was quite happy to label it ‘Indian whisky’ the same way that Suntory makes Japanese whisky. Why should there be any sort of discrimination? But for reasons best known to them, which is why we have our little disagreements every so often, they just won’t allow it”.   I just love this guy.  I have the feeling that he’s going to be fertilizing my blog for years to come.  Indian whisky can in fact be imported into the EU (and duty-free at that) but it cannot be labelled as “whisky”, Indian or otherwise.  Whisky by historical tradition, by overwhelming convention, and by law in most countries, must be made from cereals (grains).  In India the bulk of local whisky is made from molasses, which is subsequently blended with various proportions of malt whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premium-ness.  “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said Bill Lumsden, an industry pioneer and the master distiller at Glenmorangie, of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky.  Mallya’s reasoning is beyond farcical.  Japanese whisky – as I’m sure he well knows – is in fact made from malt and other grains, and is undisputedly acknowledged to be whisky.

I'm also the owner of the Flat Earth Society

The reality is that Indian whisky is protected in its local market by exorbitant tariffs which violate WTO rules and without which the industry would collapse.  This is costing the Indian government and people a fortune in lost revenue, promoting counterfeiting, damaging trade, and, worst of all, deceiving Indian palates.  It reminds me of an experience I had in China recently when I bought some American whiskey.  Close comparison of the bottle with the real thing – which only happened after buying and tasting – revealed that it was a 99.5% perfect replica.  So in much the same way most Chinese people believe that Jack Daniels tastes like toner fluid, so most Indian people believe that whisky tastes like a Black Label with a few shots of Mainstay.

Some progress is being made: I read that this month Scotch whisky gained GI (Geographical Indication) status in India, but I personally wonder about how this will be enforced.   When there are vast sums of money at stake (India is far and away the world’s largest whisky market), and powerful interests with entrenched agendas in the equation, things are rarely simple.   Of the two biggest Indian whisky brands, the first, the aforementioned Bagpiper, features a corresponding visual on the label, and the second is called McDowell’s…and these are just two examples – Scottish sounding names and Scottish imagery abound, which in any other market would be a clear violation of GI regulations.

It’ll be interesting to see how things develop, but in my opinion the future lies with brands such as Amrut, a highly acclaimed, genuine, Indian born-and-bred malt whisky.  I reckon that only if India cultivates quality brands that can stand up to international competition will barriers be lowered and the situation resolved.  Even if I’m wrong at least I’ve figured out why Cane Spirits sell so well in Natal.

Real whisky

Respect for elders

Apologies, this post is a bit late.  Between SA’s opening World Cup match and work, time got away from me.  So, cutting to the chase: wednesday’s BBR launch was, as the post title suggested, interesting indeed.  There were the usual canapés, chit-chat and networking that are to be expected from these types of functions, but there was also more substance to it than the standard.  We were treated to a selection of carefully considered cocktails and drinks from their range of spirits, and a presentation with greater depth than the usual marketing veneer;  Mike Harrison, the presenter, and one of the company’s directors, clearly knows his stuff.  This is a blog about whisky, so I don’t intend to dwell on other liquor, but I’ll make a quick exception for Pink Pigeon, an infused Mauritian rum, because I’m a big fan of both rum and Mauritius.  I fear it’ll be too expensive to make a significant impact locally – but it’s delicious and exquisitely crafted.  Don’t hold back if someone else is buying.

Onto the real deal.  We were offered a dram of Glenrothes Select Reserve, which to my nose and palate was big on vanilla, underlaid with a full maltiness, and with detectable hints of citrus, dried fruit, and aniseed.  The Select Reserve, which has no age statement, although I’ve seen a Joburg liquor store boldly advertising it as a 12yo, is the entry-level variant of Glenrothes.  The guys at Kreate Brands, who are the new SA distributors for BBR, have promised me a tasting of their more premium bottlings next week.  There, it’s in print, so they can’t back out.

The guys from BBR - Mike (left) and Peter (right)

Even more interesting than the tasting was the insight we gained into the philosophy of Glenrothes… and for me one of the broader questions that it raises.  Mike explained to us that Glenrothes is all about natural flavour.  They steer clear of spirit caramel and chill filtration (which is commendable), and also finishing (why I don’t know, perhaps they feel it overcomplicates or unbalances whisky).     Most pertinently however, as I alluded to earlier, they don’t make age claims, preferring instead to focus on releasing vintage* whiskies.    Their rationale is that they don’t want to be dictated to by an arbitrary time-frame, they’d rather let the whisky mature at its own pace and “tell” them when it’s ready.  It all sounds very sensible, and I’m not by any means suggesting that the guys from Glenrothes don’t mean what they say (especially because many of their vintages are very old, and identifiably so), but such intentions are becoming almost commonplace in the industry now, and for a good reason: it’s expensive to keep whisky in wood.  It also presents certain logistical difficulties.  If your brand takes off and you don’t have enough stock…well, you just have to wait, or change the product from a single malt to a pure/blended malt (like Cardhu did a few years ago, a questionable move if ever I saw one).  Basically it’s a marketer’s wet dream to foist upon us a super-premium whisky with no age statement.  Johnnie Walker has done so quite successfully with Blue Label, and a few years ago (last year in SA) Glenmorangie launched Signet, a whisky of indeterminate age which sells for circa R2000 per bottle.  I must admit that it is a stupendously good whisky, uniquely constituted with a proportion of “chocolate” (overmalted) malt and partly aged in virgin casks to accelerate the effect of the wood without overpowering the whisky.  Nonetheless it makes me uncomfortable that I don’t know its age.  Full disclosure has not been made.  The producers are treating me like a child, thinking that the age, which would obviously be far too young for the price tag, would distract me from appreciating the merits of the whisky and valuing it accordingly.  I take a Jake White view on this – age in whisky, like size in rugby,does matter (up to a certain threshold, after which it becomes detrimental).   Pieter de Villiers, not typically known for his eloquence, summed it up quite nicely: “A small talented guy will always be better than a big untalented guy, and a big talented guy is better than a small talented guy”.

Age statement or not Glenrothes is a fine single malt offering decent value.  It currently sells in the R300 odd bracket.  I don’t think that they intend to make the vintages widely available in the local market in the short-term, but I’ll post my impressions next week regardless.  Have a great weekend and may the dram be with you!

*A whisky, even a single malt, is usually a “blend” of products of different ages.  This is done to maintain flavour consistency from bottling to bottling.  A whisky claiming vintage status was all distilled and put in wood in the same year – the one specified in the label – and then later also bottled at the same time.  In theory it is individually good enough to be offered as a stand-alone bottling, and would usually have a distinct flavour profile to the standard bottling.

Interesting spirits launch

This evening I’m off to attend the local launch of the Berry Bros & Rudd (BBR) spirits portfolio, which includes the Glenrothes single malt.  The name is pronounced Glen-roth-this (this as in thistle, not as in this gaelic pronunciation is a bugger).   I’m excited, not only because it’s an opportunity to savour a great whisky, but also because of the historical interest value.

Glenrothes comes in a cool sample-type bottle with a hand-written label

BBR is Britain’s oldest wine and spirits merchant, having been established in 1698, and it has since cemented a world-leading position as a supplier of fine wines and super-premium spirits.  Its most famous creation was Cutty Sark, the blended whisky named after the Scots-made tea clipper, at one time the world’s fastest ship.  Cutty Sark claims to be the first light-coloured blended whisky ever made, having originally (not sure if it’s still the case today) shunned the use of spirit caramel, which many whisky makers use to darken their products and ensure colour consistency, but which is also thought to mask more subtle flavours.  It was formulated by Charles Julian, who went on to create J&B in its image, as well as having a hand in putting together the Chivas Regal that we drink today.  From its origins in the early 1920’s Cutty Sark went on to become a prohibition-era success story and eventually the best-selling Scotch whisky in the US (at one time).  The brand, I guess because of its stature in American society, has featured repeatedly in popular culture.  Its epic name and distinctive bottle and label really made it stand out; I remember seeing it in movies such as Caddyshack and Goodfellas, marvelling at how much Chevy, Bob and others seemed to like the stuff, and wondering why I’d never come across it locally.

Glenrothes is the signature malt in Cutty Sark, and a significant contributor to other blends such as Famous Grouse and Chivas Regal.  BBR no longer owns Cutty Sark – in a contorted-sounding deal it recently sold the brand to the Edrington Group (owners of the Macallan, Famous Grouse, and Highland Park), in return acquiring the rights to the Glenrothes brand.  The Glenrothes distillery remains in Edrington’s hands, ostensibly to ensure control of supply for Cutty Sark et al.  The good news coming out of all of this for whisky lovers is that there should now be an increased focus on Glenrothes as a single malt, compared to past years where it served primarily as an ingredient for blends.  I’ll report back tomorrow on what we can expect from Glenrothes in SA.

Incidentally one of Cutty Sark’s first “distributors” was the smuggler Captain Bill McCoy, who had a reputation for supplying uncut, unadulterated spirits at a time (prohibition) when this was more exception than rule…hence the expression “the real McCoy”.

Bill and crew

Whisky bloody whisky

Where are you…? Search as I might, by the end of the evening I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. I’m referring of course, in case you haven’t deciphered my subtle-as-a-sledgehammer turns of phrase, to the U2 concert held on Friday at the Greenpoint Stadium, where there wasn’t a drop of whisky to be begged, borrowed or stolen. The dram was most definitely not with us.  Strange I thought because Heineken, one of the sponsors, resides in the Brandhouse stable, home also to the largest whisky portfolio in the country, including the County Antrim-based Bushmills. What could have been more fitting under a…uh…moonlit sky than watching these Irish gods of rock music whilst sipping Black Bush, the tipple reputedly favoured by Bono? But it was not to be. Make no mistake the people at Brandhouse are sharp operators, and not likely to resist the prospect of having their whiskies available to an 80 000 strong captive audience. So then, what manner of perniciousness was it that conspired to deny us? I decided to call Brandhouse to get some answers. They put me onto Big Concerts COO John Langford who explained that it was very difficult to get a special events liquor licence covering spirits, so they generally don’t bother applying (unless it’s specific to restricted areas like a VIP room). Bad news for us whisky-loving concert goers. It seems that the authorities just don’t trust us with hard tack in large groups. I guess situations like these are why the flask was invented.

Hey, I'm not happy about it either but no need to go all Woodward and Bernstein on us

This whisky fiasco notwithstanding the concert was top-drawer, although for many people the live experience must have been diminished somewhat by viewing most of the proceedings on their cell-phone screens; one of my mates with whom I attended the concert recorded so much footage that I’m expecting him to release a bootleg DVD.

Bascule photo shoot part 2

Well, our excursion to the Bascule was most enjoyable, if not entirely successful.  They were out of pure pot still (damn!) so I had to think quickly to appease my palate.  I ended up trying the Sazerac 6yo rye whiskey, and the Nikka Hokkaido 12yo pure malt (which prompted me to wonder if the Japanese will follow the Scottish lead and change this descriptor to “blended malt”).  Earlier this year I had tasted the delicious, award-winning Sazerac 18yo rye, courtesy of my friends at Liquidity (thanks Emil), and I must say that its little brother isn’t too far behind: all the zinging spiciness that you’d expect from a rye but well-balanced and with a smooth finish.  The Hokkaido also had a pleasing equilibrium, dancing in the mouth from buttery to fragrant.  My drinking companions took the paths more travelled, thoroughly relishing the Macallan 12yo sherry oak and Glenfiddich 15yo solera reserve.

The photo-shoot objective was accomplished to our satisfaction, with my brother Fred behind the lens.  I’ll be the first to admit that our family wasn’t front of the queue when artistic talents were handed out, but we seemed to have grabbed a few nuggets here and there.  Judge for yourselves.

Bascule photo shoot

This afternoon the WHISKYdotcoza team is off to Cape Town’s whisky mecca, the Bascule Bar, for a photo shoot.   Bascule manager George Novitskas has kindly agreed to let us do our thing at his venue, which is reputed to have the largest whisky collection in the southern hemisphere.  It should be perfect for the atmospheric images that we’re after.  One of my favourite magazines, Drinks International, recently commissioned an authoritative (I say this because they call it “The most authoritative bar industry survey ever”, so its authoritativeness cannot be overstated) survey to rate the world’s 50 best bars, and whilst South Africa is well represented – Café Caprice and Planet Bar crack the nod – for my money the Bascule can feel hard done by.  The supplement was published in November last year and if you’re inclined to do so it can be downloaded here: http://www.drinksint.com/files/Supplements/2010/Bar-Supplement-2010.pdf.  I’ve written to them to see if there are any plans to feature the world’s best whisky bars, whereupon the Bascule, and Katzy’s in Johannesburg, will I’m sure keep the flag flying.

Drinks International best bars supplement

I’m also going to be taking the opportunity of this afternoon’s visit to remedy a glaring omission in my whisky repertoire.  I have tasted and enjoyed all the significant types of whisky bar one – pure pot still Irish.  I can’t drink in Irish company again – and what better drinking company is there – until I set this right.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, this is the definitive Irish style of whiskey, much as single malt is to Scotch.  Pure pot still must be made in a pot still and, by convention (there are no regulations, as there are for Scotch, defining Irish whiskey styles), from a mixed mashbill (i.e. recipe) of malted and predominantly unmalted barley.

The pot stills at the Midleton distillery

The unmalted (or “raw”) barley is what gives Irish whiskey its distinctive flavour.  Most of the Irish whiskey available – for instance popular brands such as Jameson and Tullamore Dew – are blends, made of pure pot still, single malt, and grain whiskey, or any two thereof.  Most of these blends would contain grain whiskey (I only know of 1 pot still-malt blend, known as a “pot still blend” because both components are distilled in a pot still), which, unlike Scotch grains, are distilled close to neutrality, and intended only as a lightening agent so as not to interfere with the flavour of the “master” component…which is more often than not the pure pot still.  So whilst I’m familiar with the flavour from drinking these blends, I’m really looking forward to tasting the real thing.  Now I’m just hoping that the Bascule has it in stock…

Check in tomorrow for excerpts from our shoot and (hopefully) my impressions of pure pot still.  Until then – may the dram be with you.

Legendary but rare - Green Spot pure pot still whiskey

The acclaimed Redbreast pure pot still whiskey

Ancient whisky

One of Shackleton's whisky crates

Whisky hit the mainstream news headlines last year when a crate of 100 odd year old whisky was retrieved from an Antarctic hut abandoned in the early 1900’s by explorer Ernest Shackleton.  I’m not going to rehash the story – if you’re unfamiliar with the details you can read up on it further at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12202880 and elsewhere.  The whisky is Mackinlay’s: a brand owned by Whyte & Mackay, which was discontinued some time back.

There are two elements to this story which caught my attention in particular.  Firstly the whisky has been estimated to be worth US$69 000 per bottle on the open market.  Clearly not because of its intrinsics – at this time no-one even knows whether this is a blend, a blended malt, or a single malt.  Further whisky doesn’t mature in the bottle, so the age in terms of the liquid itself is at best irrelevant, at worst of detriment to quality.  As an aside I think it would have been considerably more interesting had Shackleton taken casks with him.  In typical conditions 100 years of wood would overpower a whisky, but who knows what cycles of freezing and thawing over that period would have accomplished.  Anyhow, throw in the risk of taint, musty aroma, and particulate from these corked bottles, and it becomes clear that the value comes from provenance and not product (drinkable though it may still be).  It thus absolutely amazes me that people would be prepared to spend this much for items that, to be frank, are of dubious historical significance; after all, heroic though Shackleton may have been, his missions failed to achieve their objectives.  And the bottles are not even particularly rare – there are some 35 of them in existence.   Perhaps then it’s for the best that this is all academic.  The Antarctic Preservation Trust has made it clear that they won’t be put on sale.

The second point of interest is that 3 bottles have been flown back to Scotland for analysis – by Whyte & Mackay Master Blender Richard Paterson, who was quoted as saying: “It is an absolute honour to be able to use my experience to analyse this amazing spirit for the benefit of the Trust and the whisky industry”.  Very noble.  Owner of Whyte & Mackay Vijay Mallya was more forthright: “to us it might well be a huge marketing opportunity”.  His plan is to use the results of the analysis to recreate the whisky’s recipe.  Personally I’m not sure what this window into the past can teach us about making better whisky.  Whisky-making is part-art, part-science, but the best of the art has been retained, refined, and passed on over generations, and the science has improved somewhat since Shacketon’s whisky was made.  Nonetheless, if there are any insights to be gained I welcome it.  Perhaps they’ll identify and be able to recreate a particularly appealing strain of barley.   My suspicion though is that this is about marketing pure and simple.  Given our fascination with the past, it’s a great angle to be able to offer whisky as it was drunk a century ago.  Unfortunately for Whyte & Mackay they’ve been beaten to the punch.  A few days ago Glenmorangie officially launched Finealta, a recreation of a 1900’s recipe found in the distillery’s archives.  If anyone’s tasted it I’d be interested to hear if history’s bounty justifies the hype.  Even better, if someone from Glenmorangie happens to read this, kudos and don’t hesitate to send me a bottle.

Glenmorangie Finealta