Monthly Archives: April 2011

Glenfarclas tasting and independent bottlings

I was privileged during the weekend to be invited by a good mate to taste a very special whisky; special because it was intrinsically so, and also because it’s a vintage dating from the year in which his late brother was born.  We drank a toast in remembrance – rest in peace Warren.

The whisky in question was a Douglas Laing independent bottling of Glenfarclas that had been distilled in 1967.  It’s part of their Old Malt Cask range, comprising uniquely of single casks all bottled non-chill filtered at 50% abv (sometimes referred to as “the golden strength”).   They have their reasons but it seems restrictive to me.  What would happen if the cask strength for a particular older cask was below 50%?  Worrying, but I only let this view into the abyss deter me momentarily.

Malt that's more mature than me

This is a whisky that was wholly matured in sherry casks, so I was expecting resinous, raisiny, leathery, tannic flavours, and I was conscious that at 42 years old it might be overly oaked.  It turned out to be a tight, well-integrated, balanced whisky, purposeful and sure of itself, and without any excessive wood influence.   Over and above I also identified some nutty aromas, restrained sweetness, and a bit of spice on the palate and finish.  The only drawback was that I had anticipated something more vivid.  The cultivation of tasting ability is a progressive exercise and I’ll admit that mine is still a work in progress, so I may well miss some subtle flavours, simply through lack of experience and education.   I’m not going to get too hung up about it – I don’t want to transform myself into either an anorak or a Hilton old boy (the dark sides of the dram) – so I’ll just trust my instincts:  good, even great whisky, made even better by the company in which I enjoyed it, but not animate enough to be spectacular.

This experience also prompted me to reflect on the whole concept of independent bottling, which I think is fascinating.   Typically an independent bottler would secure new-make spirit from a distillery, mature the spirit themselves, and then release a single-malt under both its name and that of the distillery.  Duncan Taylor, and Gordon and Macphail are two such well known examples.  Some bottlers do not associate their single malts with the distillery of origin, either on the insistence of the distillery (to prevent dilution of their brand name) where this has sway, or so as not to be committed to a specific source of supply.  In certain circles these are known as bastard malts, but I find this descriptor unfairly disparaging.  I’ve tasted some that are simply magnificent.  Some distilleries have employed practices such a teaspooning as a deterrent.  It sounds kinky but disappointingly isn’t.  The most famous practitioner is Glenmorangie, reputed to add a teaspoon of Glen Moray to spirit that they sold to blenders – under the name “Westport” – to prevent it from reappearing later as independent bottlings under the Glenmorangie name.  Curiously I’ve seen Westport labelled as a single malt, and not a blended/vatted/pure malt, so either someone is taking a chance, no-one is too bothered about the teaspoon, or the story is a myth.

Completely unrelated

Fascinating indeed.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – whisky appeals to me because of its integrity, its complexity and its variety, and independent bottlings really contribute to that variety.  They allow for a wide range of different products to be crafted from the same new make spirit.  Unfortunately availability is scarce in SA – the upper end of the market is not mature enough, and the process for bringing new liquor into the country is a contortion of epic proportions.  These add up to be a roadblock for niche products.  There’s hope however: SA is today the 5th largest export market for Scotch whisky (4th if you don’t count Singapore), and the premium segment continues to grow.  Hopefully the dynamics will change as we continue to leap forward.

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Wrap party at Pepénero Restaurant

Last night saw the WHISKYdotcoza site wrap party take place.  There’s still some information to chase up from errant suppliers, and a few final tweaks to be made, but we’re almost there.  The opening bell is about to sound.  Let the trading begin…soon.

I sneaked in a quiet one before the festivities began

Our event was held at Pepénero in Mouille Point – a venue that I frequent regularly, and so do many other Capetonians it seems; Wednesday night and the place was packed to capacity.  We chose it for the party because it’s a great place to drink whisky.  For starters there’s a meaty selection of whiskies, as one would expect because it’s owned by the scion of one of the doyens of the local liquor industry.  The bar area is atmospheric – featuring an opulent décor style (which extends to the restaurant), large comfortable leather couches,  and a massive travertine bar counter, which is just perfect for propping up whisky-sipping barflies.  Take a bow Paul Kovensky.

I asked to bring in my own whiskies – their selection is wide, but by no means exhaustive – which they graciously allowed, so we worked our way through bottles of Macallan 12yo Sherry Oak and Highland Park 12yo, a taste journey starting from preserves and working its way to soft smoke.  I appreciate Islay malts once in a while, but I’m by no means a peat-freak, and this Highland Park is just right; enough peat into which to sink your teeth, but not so much that it clobbers you over the head.   Awesome stuff!

On the culinary front the restaurant was as reliable as always.  They have a fairly broad menu, but I find myself gravitating to their sushi more often than not.  It’s delicious and reasonably-priced, a winning combination in my books.  I like my sushi with strong wasabi, and too often restaurants don’t get this right.  Pepénero’s wasabi takes no prisoners – it sits up and punches you in the nose.

On the whole a great evening with our web designers and friends from Milk, who have done an amazing job.  Whisky, good company, and a great setting…what more is there?

Happy Easter everyone.  May the dram be with you.

Asoka bar, restaurant and lounge

This is the first in what will be a series of restaurant and bar reviews.  I like chowing down as much as if not more than the next guy, I like whisky, and I like writing, so connect the dots and it seems like my career as a critic was written in the stars…or maybe just in the script of delusions that play inside my head.  Less grandiose but probably closer to the truth.  Whichever way it matters not.   The cuisine of course will feature along with ambience, décor, clientele and all those other factors that attract people to such venues, but for the purposes of my reviews they’ll be satellites revolving around the whisky sun.

Asoka is the old Dharma Lounge – I think it was somewhat pretentiously called Asoka Son of Dharma for a time – and not much seems to have changed.  The architecture is the same, the décor similar, and the trademark tree still stands in the middle of the lounge; all that was missing was the former kepi-wearing owner, and with it my chance to enquire about the source of the hat.  Damn, I really want one.

Too cool for school

I was there for a function so can’t comment much about the food.  We had platters of chilli-poppers, prawns, calamari, tandoori chicken in pitas, deep fried goat’s cheese, and miniature burgers.  Solid fare, no-one was complaining.  I was quite enchanted however with the delightful drinks menu which includes a long list of cocktails, several with a whiskey base (Mint Julep, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Sour), a very decent selection of single malts, and unusually for South Africa, a relatively extensive choice of American whiskey: the ubiquitous Jacks of course, but also virtually the entire Buffalo Trace stable, Maker’s Mark, and Woodford Reserve.

I decided to encourage this initiative by opting for a double Maker’s Mark (which had to be repoured after the barman loaded my glass with ice).  This is one of my favourite bourbons, a bourbon for all seasons, and it was delicious as always with its soft, gentle sweet honey palate.  Later, ready for some more pronounced flavours, I switched to Jameson’s Gold Reserve, enjoying the lingering spice and the complex interplay of bourbon, sherry and virgin woods in the whisky.

The impressive bar selection aside, Asoka provides a great ambience in which to comfortably relax and enjoy the golden nectar.  The music is set at just the right volume to promote a vibey atmosphere, but at the same time not inhibit conversation.  Clearly the whole mix must be working, because amongst our fellow patrons were some government power-brokers including Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula.  Back when he was ANC Youth League President I thought this guy was a prize twat, however my criteria for conferring twatitude have had to be re-evaluated with the emergence of his successor (amandla, Julius, please don’t point the M14’s this way).  I was handing out the mantle far too easily.  By comparison Fikile now seems like a righteous dude.

The new benchmark

I can wholeheartedly recommend Asoka to fellow whisky lovers – just be specific about how you want your whisky served.

Asokas scene-setting tree

Well, the weekend is upon us.  It’ll probably fly by as usual, but let’s remain optimistic.  Until the next time may the dram be with you.

Royal wedding whisky

There is no manner of business it seems that shies away from exploiting a royal wedding.  Memorable highlights so far are the mixed-up mugs (Harry and Kate), and the “condoms of distinction”, appropriately – in every which sense – purple in colour.

Sheaths for a royal sword

Lone English whisky distiller The English Whisky Co., not wanting to be left out, has clambered onto the bandwagon with gusto, with its William & Kate Commemorative Decanter.   I’m sure other whiskies will follow.  In fact experts predict that the wedding will boost the British economy by some £600 million (I read this on the internet so it must be true).  It’s enough to make a groupie out of even hardened royal cynics like myself…if I were British.  I’m not so as things stand I still don’t really give a toss.

Will & Kate whisky

Anyhow, back to the whisky then.  This bit of news brought the English Whisky Co. onto my radar screen, and, its geographical uniqueness aside, there were a few features of its product offering that piqued my attention.

Firstly, it seems to be overpriced.  I realise that distillers such as this one, Penderyn (Welsh), and I guess many of the Continental distillers, don’t have the economies of scale from which the big boys of whisky benefit, but nonetheless I wonder whether they can sustain these price levels if they hope to be anything other than a niched oddity.  Compare their Chapter 6, a 3yo Malt selling at £35, to an “equivalent” Scotch Single Malt such as Glen Grant’s Major’s Reserve at £20.95.  I might pay for the novelty once, but short of it blowing me away, I doubt that I’d come back for more too often.

Secondly, they’re one of the few distillers that sell new-make and young malt spirit i.e. not yet 3 years old, so not able to qualify as whisky.  This is great, even if only for the education.  It allows you to compare the stuff that comes off the still with its progressively aged counterparts and thereby get some great insight into the influence of the wood.  My concern however is the prominence of the word “whisky” in the brand name, which adorns all their products, whisky or not.  Can this not be considered misleading?  The Scotch Whisky Association recently censured a Panamanian company called “Scottish Spirits” that sells whisky…in a can!  Even though their product does not claim to be Scotch, the SWA has come down on them because of the potential for consumer confusion.  Is this not the same thing?

Quality stuff I'm sure...not

This is by no means a criticism of the English Whisky Co. (like a good Islay malt I like to balance peat with sweet).  If they can command the pricing that they do, and if they’ve managed to slip past the SWA then good luck to them.  Until and if I experience otherwise I’ll also assume that they make great whisky, and I look forward to making its acquaintance (unlikely in South Africa unfortunately).  Most creditably though they’ve brought the lost art of whisky distillation back to England and for that alone they deserve warm regard.

Shackleton whisky replicated

Early readers of this blog may remember the post Ancient Whisky,  which mused on the discovery of the Shackleton whisky.

The whisky has now been analysed and replicated by Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson, who seems to have done a fine job of it. A representative from Whisky Magazine was at the unveiling and wrote this report.

Paterson had been quoted – when the whisky was first delivered to him for analysis – 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”.  There’s no doubt that he deserves plaudits for this remarkable achievement.  I can only imagine the intricacies involved. However I’m struggling at this stage to see the benefits for the wider industry, and I can’t help but feel that W&M’s donation to the Trust doesn’t seem so generous.  The discovery of the whisky, its loan to W&M (which allowed Paterson to do his work), and the massive resultant publicity, from which the imminent sales will benefit to no small measure I’m sure, all derive from the Trust.  5% seems rather measly.  I can’t confess any insight into the accounting but at £100 a pop, I reckon I’m being conservative in assuming that W&M’s unit GP must be about £30.  Why should the Trust’s share be only 16% odd?

Am I being unfair?  Maybe…but the outcome of this whole saga that is most clear to me is that if they sell the 50 000 bottles W&M will haul in a pot load of sterling.  Good luck to them – I’m guess I’m just jealous.

Chwisgi interview

I was privileged today to be interviewed by fellow whiskyphile Jens Wedin.  Jens hails from Sweden, and runs Chwisgi.com, which he calls an “open social whisky community”.  It’s a great platform for whisky lovers to exchange views on all things whisky.

You can see the interview here.

Big Jack

Well, the 1st of April tomfoolery is now past…for another year anyhow. I was easily unmasked – yes, Chivas is still Regal.  E-tailer Master of Malt had better success it seems (amongst the more gullible anyhow) with a story about putting a 105yo whisky on sale at £870k.  The most expensive whisky in the world if it in fact existed would probably taste like a mouthful of sawdust.

With the silliness over on Friday it was time to get down to more serious duties. My government was turning 35 and we were hosting a G2G, so I had to gather up some decent whiskies to mark the occasion in fitting style. As it happened I had recently been given a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel by blogmeister and burgeoning media mogul Seth Rotherham, South Africa’s answer to Silvio Berlusconi (I mean that in the best possible way).  It would do nicely. I might not be able to live the holiday (yet) but I could quaff some Big Jack and pretend.

His brother from another mother

For those of you who don’t know, the typical American whiskey (and whisky in general, including single malts) is bottled from a blending of multiple casks, often of different ages. This is done to ensure flavour consistency from one bottling to the next.  More rarely, as in this case, there are expressions bottled from a single cask. Single casks – or in the American whiskey lexicon single barrels – are special whiskies, considered good enough to bottle as is. They are also vintages by definition, although Big Jack does not claim such. A single cask Scotch is usually a one-off. When another single cask is offered by a brand, it would be as a distinct offering, because it would be a different whisky; since wood is a living thing, each cask is different from another, thus having a varying impact on the whisky within. American whiskeys however appear to operate otherwise. Brands such as Jack, Blanton’s and others, offer a perpetuating single barrel variant, for which it’s not possible to accurately maintain a flavour from one bottling to the next. This is an unusual and interesting proposition – a branded product that changes from one day to the next – and indeed the Big Jack label states: “for unique flavour and character”.

Big Jack’s particular claim to fame is that the barrels are individually and specially selected – so you’re getting the much-loved Old no. 7 product (I believe aged 6 years rather than the usual 4, although in both cases there is no age claim), but the crème de la crème thereof. They’re chosen from what’s called the “Angel’s Roost”, the top of the warehouse, where these barrels are exposed to the widest temperature variations: contracting in the winter, and expanding in the summer to aggressively draw the whisky in and out of the wood, and intensify the impact of maturation.

This makes great marketing copy. However, ageing is a complex endeavour, and things may not be as straightforward.  There is a body of thought which suggests that dunnage warehouses, short buildings in which 3 layers of barrels are stacked one on top of the other, are the optimal places in which to age malt whisky. Why? Because their thick brick or stone walls insulate the whisky from temperature variations. Big Jack is a grain whiskey but nevertheless, this opinion flies in the face of the basis for its existence. I personally don’t think there’s a right and a wrong answer either way. Many elements of this science are not precise, and some of the methods which created the flavours we love today were accidents of history that have subsequently become established practice more through sheer momentum than anything else. Pure pot still Irish whiskey for instance was only created because of a lower tax on unmalted barley.  New experiments mean that conventional wisdom is being challenged and re-evaluated constantly. Take the case of Amrut Indian whisky which is aged at altitude in a hot, dry climate, resulting in 5yo whisky tasting like an 18yo.  There is more than one way to skin a cat as they say, and sometimes things need to be evaluated on their merits rather than according to a particular fixed notion.

The bottom line is that Big Jack is a damn fine whiskey. Soft smoky nose, with an intense foresty freshness…pine rather than oak (?).   It reminded me of my days as a cub-scout building forts in forests on the foothills of the Drakensberg.  Great full mouthfeel. Smooth, balanced woody taste on the palate with traces of candy like-sweetness, perhaps a bit sherbety. Long, lingering finish with similar elements to the palate. It is what it makes itself out to be – an evolved version of its little brother. Thanks Seth, and thanks Dino at Brown Forman. You have my contact details – don’t be shy to send more samples.

Big Jack suited up in a groovy bottle