Monthly Archives: March 2012

In humble worship of the holy trinity

Expect an epiphany when delving into the mysteries of the “Big Three”

First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2012 edition)

As it appeared

In my lapsed Catholic psyche the drinking of whisky can at times best be regarded as a religious experience.  I reckon you’d have to delve back some two millennia, when Jesus turned water into wine, to find a more apparent divine hand in the creation of a beverage.  There’s good reason why it’s known as the ‘golden nectar of the gods’.    Whisky too, like the religion of its progenitors, has a trinity:  Scotch, Irish and American – the big three of the whisky world, prominent in all places of worship.  As a novice drinker I was as mystified by this spirituous threesome as I had been by their spiritual counterparts.  Beyond the obvious, what was the difference?  Familiarity might breed contempt, but in this particular case I had anticipated delight instead, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.  Let’s take a short-cut through the catechism.

“In the beginning was the malt, and the malt was with barley, and the malt was barley” Anon.  Whisky by convention, and in many cases by law, is defined as a spirit distilled from cereal grains, the most reputed and famous of which is malted barley.  Whilst there are of course many other points of difference, it is this, the grain from which it is made, that on a basic level most clearly distinguishes one denomination of whisky from another.

Single malt, the high priest of Scotch, is made from malted barley which is often peated i.e. dried over a peat fire rather than a coal fire as would be the case with an unpeated malt.  The influence of the peat is evident in a smoky flavour, of which Islay whiskies are striking examples.  Whilst Scotch is not exclusively smoky (by any means), and whilst smoke is not exclusively Scotch, it is a broadly identifying feature, its bindi if you will.  There is a cult of Scotch whisky fans so devoted to this peated style that they have become known as ‘Peat Freaks’.  Sound appealing?  You’d do well then to try the most heavily peated whiskies on the market, said to be Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie) Octomore and Ardbeg’s aptly named Supernova.

The Irish too have a tradition of single malt, although theirs are most commonly unpeated.  However, their most emphatic prophet, whose rich, sweet and spicy flavours are converting untold numbers to the faith, is the single pot still, made from a recipe of predominantly unmalted barley.  This is the master component in the Jameson blend, Ireland’s most prolific whiskey by some distance.  The Midleton Distillery, producer of Jameson and currently the only exponent of this style, has just released the Midleton Barry Crocket Legacy, which at some €170 (≈R1770) a pop is the most premium single pot still available today.  I was lucky enough to taste this splendid whiskey late last year, and whilst I’m tempted to tell you more, it would be akin to speaking in tongues such is my gushing, uncontrollable admiration.

American whiskeys (and Canadian whiskies), of which Bourbon is probably the best known, generally have softer, sweeter, buttery flavours, a product of the largely corn based recipes (with rye in the minority adding a spicy kick).  Notably American whiskies are also somewhat fundamentalist.  They’re distinct from each other and from other whiskies not only by grain but also by age and by maturation.  An American whiskey must have been aged for a minimum of two years to be called a straight whiskey, and maturation of straight and other legislatively “named” whiskies must take place in virgin oak.  Iconic examples include Jack Daniels, a specialized Bourbon-style known as Tennessee whiskey, and Jim Beam, but those who’ve concluded their rites may prefer more complex and sophisticated options such as the highly-acclaimed George T. Stagg, or Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbons.

Each region has endured its reformation and travelled its own path, but it’s worth giving some consideration to the similarities as well as the differences.  That only grain, yeast and water, as rudimentary a recipe of ingredients as can be imagined, could yield such an astounding array of flavours, is inarguably cause for unifying wonderment no matter what your sectarian persuasions.  In the worship of whisky, each mass, wherever it may be held, is an enriching prospect.  May the dram be with you!

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The world’s first truly unique whisky…?

In my previous post I indicated that my next post (i.e. this post) would explore the subject of chillfiltration.  I’ve subsequently decided to hijack the topic for my whisky column in the May edition of Prestige Magazine.  It’ll be re-published here in a few months’ time.  Apologies.

You may remember from this post that a friend and I import an artisanal, boutique whisky into the country.  Be warned then that the information that follows is not critical or independent – in fact it’s a rehashed press release for the latest offering from French whisky guru Michel Couvreur.  You should find it interesting nonetheless.  The guys from GlenDronach did something loosely similar at last year’s Whisky Festival, but I think I’m right in saying that this is highly unusual.  Let me know if you’ve heard of any other instances.

What is a unique whisky?

A single malt is unique.  This style of whisky can only be produced at one distillery.  And yet year-on-year each bottling is pretty much the same.  A vintage whisky is unique.  It can only be made from liquid distilled and put in wood at the same time.  However there is no effective limit to how much of it can be churned out.  A single cask is unique.  All of this whisky must come out of a single cask.  Typically though a cask can produce up to 800 odd bottles of the same whisky.

Clearly then “unique” – in conjunction with whisky – is a word to be used with some circumspection.

Michel Couvreur has launched one of world’s only truly unique whiskies:  the 1983 vintage single cask…which is individually bottled on request.  Every bottle of the 1983 will be inscribed with the name of the purchaser and with the date and time of bottling.  This individual bottling process means that each and every bottle will spend a different period of time in wood, and consequently therefore will be a different and unique whisky!

Unique, uniquer, uniquest.

This 29 year-old malt is the ideal gift for the discriminating person who has it all, especially with Father’s Day approaching. The unique and personalized 1983 would without a doubt amplify any celebration, and enhance even the most eminent collection.

Michel Couvreur’s range of rare whiskies was officially launched in South Africa last year to critical acclaim.  Couvreur is a whisky artisan of long-standing, based in Burgundy in France, and he enjoys a stellar reputation for his highly cultivated maturation process, in which he employs individually selected Solera sherry casks.  He and his small team are the remnants of an almost-forgotten golden age, when craftsmanship trumped mass production.  He has been honoured in the press with the moniker “Last of the Mohicans”.

Only 20 bottles of the exclusive 1983 have been allotted to South Africa, and they are available at a unit cost of R4999.  Should you be interested in securing a bottle please contact us at info@whisky.co.za

And if you have this type of money to spend on whisky…I can only salute you.  It’s inspirational.  May the dram be with you!

New whiskies from the mouth of the river

An Islay whisky made from unpeated malt?   In the context of single malt whisky this is a stroke of positioning genius.  The whisky is Bunnahabhain of course, and it has been as intrinsically and intelligently set apart as could be imagined.   I don’t know whether this orchestration was deliberate or a fluke of circumstance, but as a student of marketing I find it quite beautiful to behold.  It would come as no surprise then if I were to reveal that I have always had a predisposed affinity for Bunna.  I sought it out since I first became aware of it, and I quickly came to the conclusion that it was damned good.  Now, much to the delight of all Bunna fans, it has ostensibly become even better.  Last week, at an elegant lunch held at Five Flies restaurant, the brand officially launched its new range of unchillfiltered whiskies in South Africa.

Picture perfect setting

A point of order quickly:  Bunnahabhain is pronounced Bũnna-ha-venn.   You might well have known that the gaelic bh is a phonetic v, but were you aware of the nasal u?  I wasn’t.  You live you learn, and if you can do the learning whilst eating good food and sipping great whisky…well that’s just a bonus.

Bunna chow!

It’s been my impression that whisky events have increasingly tended to be diluted by all sorts of distractions.   It’s understandable – there’s a lot of competition for people’s short attention spans – but it can all become a bit tiresome at times.  This particular function was a refreshing return to the basics, played out with gravitas.  The focus was kept firmly where it should be – on the whiskies, no gimmickry required.  We were hosted by Brian Glass and Pierre Meintjes:  two of the most experienced whisky men in the country, boasting between them some 75 years in the business.  Pierre is in fact known as “Mr. Whisky” in local circles so we could not have hoped for a more credible and authoritative presenter to conduct our tasting.  If you’re South African and interested in whisky you’d do well to attend one of Pierre’s events and partake of of his abundant knowledge.

Pierre holding court

Despite my enthusiasm for this whisky, the realities of my personal budgetary environment meant that I had only been acquainted with the previous chillfiltered 12YO, so it was a real treat to get to taste both the new version, as well as the rest of the amplified core range.   I found the 12 and 18 YO’s to be similar, with flavours typical of a sherry cask influence.  Bunnahabhain has actually taken the unusual initiative of disclosing its cask profiles – the 12YO is made from 25% sherry cask whisky, and 75% bourbon cask whisky, the 18YO has a 40:60 split, and the 25YO sits at 10:90 – and I applaud them for it.  Their transparency in this regard shows the respect that they have for their consumers.  Would that this practice were more prevalent amongst other distilleries and bottlers.   Anyhow, whilst the two variants are similar, the 12YO is a more restrained.  The 18YO is sweeter and woodier with a little bit of salt evident, as one might expect given its specification, its age, and the location of the maturation warehouses (abutting the ocean).  Interestingly Pierre mentioned that it was developed as an ideal whisky to accompany a cigar.  I have a Partegas hibernating somewhere, so I’m dead keen to put their efforts the test (budget permitting).  The 25YO was distinctly different: creamy, rich, caramelized, and exceptionally well balanced.  I enjoyed it tremendously but at R2k odd a pop I don’t expect it to be crossing my lips again anytime soon (budget definitely won’t be permitting).

The new range

I’ve lingered about dispensing pleasantries, and sincerely so, but in the process I’ve been skirting around the meat of the matter.  The launch was an uncomplicated affair – a judicious introduction to the reincarnation of a range of superb whiskies from an iconic distillery – so I felt it deserved an uncomplicated retelling.  The elephant in the room is chillfiltration, and it’s a messy beast of a thing.  Given the premise for this launch it can’t be avoided, but it can be postponed.  I’ll leave you for the moment with my pleasant memories of an excellent lunch, enjoyed with some excellent people, accompanied by some excellent whiskies.  If you have the appetite join me next time as I wade into some muddy, or should I say hazy, waters.

The whisky fraternity

Photos courtesy of Bunnahabhain and Nico Gründlingh at Image Solutions.

Class act

The poet John Lydgate once wrote: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, a quote that was subsequently adapted by Abraham Lincoln and bastardized by all manner of people.  Whilst the sentiment may have been put into words by a poet, I’d suggest that it’s actually a law of human nature.  At some point or another, and probably with some regularity, even the best of us will succumb to it.  This applies to brands as well, which are effectively just manifestations of peoples’ ideas and actions.  In the face of such inevitability the measure of person and, more pertinently for my purpose here, of a brand, is how it reacts when it has been the cause of disappointment.

I was invited earlier this year to attend a satellite tasting which was to be hosted by Dr. Bill Lumsden.  There’s only one properly fit description for Dr. Bill – he’s a legend!  This however obviously has its drawbacks, one of which is that it places incredible demands on his time.  Dr. Bill was called away on urgent business and unfortunately was forced to cancel the tasting on short notice.  I was disappointed, along with everyone else who’d been invited I’m sure, but I wasn’t given much time to reflect on my disappointment.  A week or so later a courier pitched up at my door and delivered a package containing a bottle of Glenmorangie 18YO (signed by Dr. Bill) as well as a personal letter apologising for the cancellation.

I was blown away.  This was sheer class.  I’m already a big fan of Glenmorangie, but if ever my affinity needed affirmation, then this gesture did the trick tenfold.  Dr. Bill, may the dram be with you!

Wow!