Monthly Archives: February 2012

Whesskey anyone?

The world’s new whisky frontiers

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2012 edition).

As it appeared

Five years ago I happened upon a bottle of Armorik, a Breton whisky, whilst travelling about in France.  My paternal line hails from Brittany so I bought it for my father on a lark.  It was a bit young, but very promising.  Three years later acting on a cue from whisky reviewer Jim Murray I bought the delicious Amrut Fusion.  I’d always regarded Indian ‘whisky’ as a bit of joke, but this gave me cause for pause.  I’ve since meandered my way (I feel compelled to add: at a responsible pace) through half-a-dozen Japanese, a Tasmanian, a few Swedish, and, of course, some of the local fare, and in the process it has gradually become apparent to me that whisky – or more specifically good whisky – is no longer an exclusive preserve.

Whisky was created by the Irish, who called it “uisgebeatha”, meaning ‘the water of life’ in the Gaelic of that era.  From there it migrated to Scotland first, and then to North America.  These places to me represent the ‘big three’ of whisky, the areas from whence it became known to and loved by the world.  The Irish and Americans (with a few exceptions) called their product whiskey whilst the Scots and Canadians stayed with the original spelling.  This is just semantics but it is nonetheless symbolic; as the craft evolved in its various homes, each place added its own expression to contribute to the evolution of a spirit that is in my opinion unparalleled in variety and complexity.

Today this conclusion holds true on a multitude of new frontiers.    Whisky has captivated the world’s imagination – exports of Scotch whisky alone have increased almost six fold in volume since 1969 – and this in part has inspired the new genesis.  As Mark Twain once said “too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough”.  It’s a popular consensus in which consumption is only part of the story.  Increasingly whisky is being produced in territories with which it has little or no traditional connections.  Brittany and Wales might claim a common Celtic heritage and England, India, South Africa and Australia retain the loose bonds of a shared colonial past, but the phenomenon is bigger and wider.  Whisky is being distilled to acclaim in Japan, in Taiwan, and all over Europe.

In Germany the Höhler distillery, which makes whisky in various styles, has added to whisky’s etymological individualism, labelling its product “whesskey” as a nod to Hesse, the region in which it is located.  I see it as something of a standard bearer for these emerging producers, but then again I’m a nit-picking fanatic when it comes to the details of language.  More importantly, along with new spelling, the new territories have also introduced exciting new flavours and interesting new customs to the world of whisky.  Japan, which is at the forefront of the charge, and which has made an enormous impact, is a striking example.  Whilst the climate, the types of barley and yeast, the water, and the nuances of their crafting process all support the uniqueness of Japanese whisky, it is the employment of Japanese oak, imparting an intense aromatic influence, which is their most tangible contribution to the lexicon.  Culturally they also ushered in the mizuwari, a drink in which ice and water is mixed with a very precise thirteen and half stirs – simple but the bastion upon which their whisky-drinking ethos is built.  I recently had the privilege of enjoying a Nikka from the Barrel mizuwari with ice-balls…perhaps a subject for another time.

A decade or so ago any whisky that wasn’t Scotch, Irish or North American was a novelty, a peculiarity, even a bit of an aberration.  The entrenched whisky drinker of my parents’ generation wouldn’t give it any serious consideration.  But these perceptions are changing exponentially.  The quality of these new whiskies is being universally acknowledged.  The names Yamazaki, Yoichi (both Japanese) and Kavalan (Taiwanese) to name but a few are being spoken with the same respect as the most premium of the traditional marques, and are winning awards and topping blind tastings with metronomic regularity.  Distribution in South Africa is sketchy but, for motivated whisky lovers, many of these brands are already intermittently available, and there’s no doubt that they’ll become ever more readily available in the future.  This may be the first time you’ve heard about whesskey but I’ll wager it won’t be the last.  May the dram be with you!

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This is the Chivas life

After my recent tasting of Pride I began to see myself as a bit of a whisky hero.  I’d ripped back that dram with what I was coming to believe was a practiced hand.  Yes, it’s true that I drive around on a scooter, but such realities fade after a few drinks.  From now on when it comes to whisky the sky would be the limit.  In a field of barley when I called it they would come!

Ok, who am I kidding?  That delusion died quickly. In the real world I embrace thrifty efficiency as a way of life…although I’ve heard others describe my philosophy in somewhat less glowing terms – water off a duck’s back.  Anyhow, it was thus somewhat out of character when I made the decision to break the seal on a bottle of Chivas Brothers 30yo that I’d been hoarding for some time.

Out into the light

My thought process was as follows:

–        The Whisky Exchange sells this bottle for £425 ≈ R5100.

–        Further, mine just happened to be signed by Master Distiller Colin Scott – making it a limited edition of a limited edition and adding I’d hazard about 20% to its value.  So let’s call it at R6k, or just over.

–        Cue in the delicious Glenmorangie Lasanta, going for R469.99 a pop on WHISKYdotcoza.

–        The opportunity cost?  13 bottles of sherry barrelled bliss.

You’ve now probably guessed that I didn’t buy this bottle myself, and you’d be correct.  It was a gift from my erstwhile employer, Seagram, given to certain staff on the event of Chivas Brothers’ 200th anniversary (2001).   The special occasions for which I’d been saving it had come and gone, the bottle either forgotten or the opening thereof deferred.  My major remaining milestone is the arrival of my first-born, but I reckon I’ll need my wits about me if and when that happens.

So, sometime last year, I thought #u%& @t, I’m going to crack this bad boy.  Perhaps it was a remnant of Pride-induced grandeur, perhaps it was a stupor induced by who-knows-what, or perhaps, just perhaps, it was a glimmer of good sense.  Whatever it was I don’t regret it for an instant.  You should look back on life as a collection of the greater moments, and this one was epic.

How was I to go about executing this brave decision though?  I quite enjoy the expression “to cast pearls before swine”.  It tickles my fancy…I can almost hear the crunching noises.  Needless to say it’s a situation best avoided.  This whisky had to be properly appreciated.  It was a MUST.  The answer was simple enough – I would share it with some of Cape Town’s pre-eminent whisky personalities, most of whom I’ve come to know as both fellow travellers and friends.  We would also quest for the glory of documenting what I believe is this whisky’s first set of tasting notes, although I can’t 100% verify that this would be either glorious or true.

In attendance at the cathedral (the Bascule) were Candice Baker and Niel Hendriksz, the charming ambassadors for Glenmorangie, Macallan and other esteemed whisky brands, Bernard Gutman, that local whisky legend of prolific extent, Marsh/Miles/Mash Middleton, Whisky Magazine’s editor of the ether, and, of course, yours truly.  A quick aside: big thanks George for allowing me to bring in the bottle so that we could enjoy it in appropriately ‘Grace-ful’ surroundings.

And so it was that on a picture perfect Cape Town afternoon, the five of us seated ourselves adjacent to some luxury yachts – owned by people who probably drink this dram daily, curse them.  Things started badly.  The cork broke eliciting some momentary panic.  This though was quickly resolved with a fine sieve.  Disaster averted we cascaded the golden liquid into our glasses and sat back to ponder this whisky, whisky in general, and just about everything else.

Close call

I’m not really a tasting notes kind of guy.  So despite coming up with this quest I didn’t have the diligence to actually make any notes.  Luckily some of the others were more conscientious so I have some fairly reliable information to add to the flotsam left in my memory.

Packaging:

Elegant, dark bottle with dodgy cork closure.  Simple board box with silk-like fabric covering the interior.  Adequate in 2001.  Somewhat below par in the current era of decadent over-the-top presentation.

Appearance:

Dark burnished gold, betraying a substantial sherry provenance.

Nose:

Wonderful  treacle marzipan nose, delicate hint of espresso.  Dusty dates baked under the Sahara sun.  Caramel.  Toffee.  Sherry, and lots of it.

Palate:

Caramelised tropical fruits, slight bitterness.  Dryish cigar smoke.  Comes to life with water.  The grain component ostensibly lends a wonderful oily-textured mouthfeel.

Finish:

Long lingering, flavoursome, well-balanced finish.

Conclusion:

A classic heavy-hitting blend.  Luxuriant, but stops short of mind-blowing.

Drinking the fair share that I appropriated for myself I felt like a bear drizzling honey down its throat.  I was lightly toasted by the time I left and I couldn’t help but reflect that I was on whisky buzz that could best be described as premium.  There would be no ill-effects.

A gift from the gods. Ok, actually from Seagram – more bootleggers than gods. You get the idea.

It was an afternoon to be savoured for a long while.  The chaps made some noises about regular gatherings to enjoy fine whisky of the same ilk, so I wait with bated breath to see with what they’ll come up.

From me on this fine February evening – may the dram be with you!

Photos courtesy of Marsh Middleton.