Monthly Archives: May 2012

Off the beaten path

An exploration of unusual drinks

First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2012 edition)

As it appeared – spot the auto-correction error.

A Korean, a Brazilian and a Frenchman walk into a Joburg bar…what do they order?  No, it’s not a joke, and the answers aren’t what one might think.  Even in this era of globalisation, informatisation, cosmopolitanisation and consumerisation the world of spirits is still much more diverse than what our local repertoire would have us believe.  Despite a proliferating of choice in recent times, our protagonists are at grave risk of having to leave with their thirst unquenched.  It may not seem like it – because we hospitable South Africans aim to please – but this is in fact good news.  It means that out there, somewhere, there’s the promise of something compelling that we haven’t yet really discovered.

Soju

After a hard day’s work making ships, cars and flat-screen televisions, the typical Korean relaxes with a glass of Soju (pronounced: so-jew).  To intimate that Soju is an obscure beverage is misleading.  The path to its door is not only well beaten, but paved and widened to six lanes:  Soju drinkers chug down well in excess of 100 million cases per annum.  I’ll give this a bit of context – it exceeds the cumulative volume generated by Smirnoff, Bacardi, Johnnie Walker, Absolut and Jack Daniel’s, the world’s top five so-called “international” brands.  It also dwarfs the combined yearly total spirits consumption of giant European tipplers France and Germany.  So why haven’t we heard of it?  Why isn’t James Bond ordering his shaken martinis with soju instead of vodka?  Soju and the similar Shochu are almost exclusively drunk in Korea and Japan, with little dribbles here and there in a few other countries.  So it is astronomical but not prevalent.  Without travelling to these countries one would be unlikely to have encountered it.

Soju is a colourless, clear distilled spirit.  Whilst it bears a rough resemblance to vodka it is distinguished from that spirit by its sweetness – a result of added sugar – and its on average lower alcoholic strength – ranging from the high teens to the mid-forties in ABV (alcohol by volume).  It is traditionally made from rice, but modern production also uses potato, grains, sweet potato and other starches.

A tip: given a soju-imbibing opportunity, one might want to order Jinro, the colossus of the industry.  Jinro is taking soju to the next level and making a big push into the US market, so it may not be long before we find it on our shelves as well.  As they say in Korea: “gun bae” (cheers)!

Cachaça

Is it a rum?  Is it a cane spirits?  No, it’s cachaça (pronounced: ka-sha-sa).  Outside of Brazil it is known (if at all – only 1% of total production is exported) as the prime ingredient in the caipirinha, a delicious sugar and lime cocktail.   Whilst it may sound exotic, cachaça is a staple to the Brazilian population, which annually flattens an estimated seven billion two hundred million tots of the fun-to-enunciate Pirassununga 51 alone (the largest brand).  Let me put this into relatable terms – we would need to recruit every single South African to drink a tot every second day for a year to match this consumption.  A staggering thought in itself, until one considers that there are some 4000 different brands being produced – ai caramba!

Cachaça, like the footballing superstars of its homeland, is hard to pin down.  It uses sugar cane juice as its raw material, a feature which it shares in common with the rhum agricole of the French Caribbean.  However it can in fact resemble either rum or cane spirits depending on the broad type, of which there are two.  Industrial cachaça, the most common variety and also the cheapest, is column-distilled, and the bulk of these are effectively a type of cane spirits.  Artisanal or traditional cachaça, the more sophisticated variety, is distilled in copper pots and is flavoursome like rum, although it must be noted that certain peculiarities in its crafting make it distinct from rum by definition, and the specificity of its aroma and palate make it distinct from rum by flavour.  Cachaça can be unaged and partly aged (white), or fully aged (gold).  This maturation takes place both in the typical oak barrels used by makers of fine spirits worldwide, and, more interestingly, using a variety of indigenous woods that are integral contributors to its distinctiveness.

Enough to whet one’s appetite?  Cachaça may be scarce within our borders but don’t despair – it is available.  Look out for Germana, an artisanal cachaça that can be found at some of the better cocktail bars.

Calvados

The French like nothing more than to be different.  It’s like a badge of honour.  At times this has worked out quite well for them.  Sacré bleu I’ve got it!  Let’s put some small bubbles in this wine.  At other times not so much.  Tanks?  Merci, but non, Monsieur Maginot has a better idea.  In the former category is Calvados.

Whilst it’s sometimes referred to as apple brandy, Calvados can be (and is often) made from both apples and pears.  That’s about as far as the laissez-faire extends however; the spirit is tightly regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the French system for governing the production and marketing of certain agricultural products, which is largely based on the concept of terroir.  For instance, unlike Scotch Whisky, which can employ barley that is grown anywhere (some of it in France), the apples and pears used in Calvados (of which only defined cider-specific varietals are permitted) must originate from the set Calvados region of Lower Normandy.  To keep things interesting there are also sub-appellations: Calvados Pays d’Auge and Calvados Domfrontais which amongst other criteria must, respectively, be double pot-distilled, as opposed to the column distillation more common for the wider marque, and must be aged for a minimum of three years rather than the standard two.

Locally Calvados is as rare as hen’s teeth, but seeing as we produce apples by the barrel-load it was only going to be a matter of time before some enterprising fellows created something similar.  Enter Malus, “the Terroir Spirit of Elgin”.   I’ve had the privilege of tasting Malus and there can be no doubt that it’s delicious.  Be warned though it’s highly exclusive – only 1000 decanters were produced – and accordingly it’s punishing on the wallet.

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Waiter, there’s a speck in my whisky

The good and bad of chillfiltration

As it appeared.

First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2012 edition).

My parents taught me that a discussion of religion and politics should best be avoided in polite society.  I decided instead to avoid polite society.  A note to posterity:  if I ever warrant quotation then please make this my defining quote.  There’s a lot to be said (literally) for a bit of impropriety and irreverence.  In whisky society – where things can get quite impolite after a few drams – the parts of politics and religion are often played by a red-rag-to-a-bull known as chillfiltration.   Prompted by Bunnahabhain’s recent launch of their unchillfiltered range I decided to wade into murky, or should I say hazy, waters to confront this messy beast of a topic and poke it with a stick.

What is chillfiltration?  Let’s start with the converse situation, in which whiskies are alternatingly termed unchillfiltered or non-chill filtered.  The industry seems to have shown standardisation the finger and chosen divergent grammatical paths, but whatever one’s predilection for prefixes, hyphens and contractions, the meaning is the same.  I’m going to opt for concision and use the former henceforth.   A whisky, when it comes out of its cask after maturation, is loaded with fatty acids and oily compounds (known in more scientific terms as congeners), from which it derives much of its flavour.  These congeners however also tend to bond together and precipitate (i.e. form a haze) when the whisky’s temperature and/or its level of alcohol are lowered.  This is an unchillfiltered whisky and it poses certain problems…at least for some.

To the uninformed a hazy whisky is aesthetically displeasing; and it gives the (misleading) impression that it might be decomposing.  The motivating reason for chillfiltration is to eliminate the occurrence of this hazing in whisky.  The process works like this:  the whisky is cooled to a temperature of around 0°C (give or take – some whiskies are more aggressively chillfiltered than others) and then passed through a mesh filter, thereby trapping and removing certain congeners.  The result is a clear, cosmetically attractive liquid.

To the informed whisky lover however chillfiltration is a double-edged sword: remove the congeners, remove the flavour.  It’s a somewhat ruthless solution.  There are other gentler ways to mitigate hazing; for instance an alcohol level of 46% ABV would guarantee solubility at room temperature, without any flavour removal required.  Unfortunately, if the temperature drops, and if ice or cold water is introduced, the hazing would reappear, so it’s at best an incomplete alternative.  Also, at 46% a whisky is circa 15% and 7% more expensive than at the statutory minimums of 40% and 43% respectively, hence affecting its commercial proposition.  Some brands have nonetheless followed this course in the quest to offer unchillfiltered whiskies, but they’re in the minority – primarily single malts for whom the flavour stakes are higher, and whose consumer base is likely to be more aware of such peculiarities.

Until recently I’d been part of the faction that poured scorn on chillfiltration.  It was, in my opinion, a creation of laziness and greed.  To be fair though it’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma – it doesn’t make sense to invest in education on the matter individually, so invariably the bulk of the industry has taken the path of least resistance, but, regardless, depriving us of optimal product in doing so.  Some producers claim that chillfiltration doesn’t affect the flavour in their whiskies, but the force of contrary logic and the self-interest inherent in these justifications would suggest otherwise.  Others yet claim that they chillfilter less aggressively, which still results in flavour still being extracted, just less of it than would otherwise be the case.  So it seems clear-cut then that chillfiltration does a disservice to the flavour-seeking, pukka whisky lover.  Maybe, maybe-not.

Conventional wisdom is all well and good, but evidence is the only way to discover what’s really true about anything.   There’s little publicly available data on chillfiltration but I recently came across some research by Matthew Ferguson-Stewart (a whisky aficionado) that poured fuel on the chillfiltration fire.   His experiment involved a blind tasting of unchillfiltered and chillfiltered versions of four whiskies by a small panel of experienced tasters.  The shocking conclusion: the tasters identified the difference but preferred the chillfiltered versions.

What should one make of this?  Perhaps the experiment was too limited.  Certainly it should be verified on a wider and larger scale.  Perhaps some congeners, in this case the balance of those removed, are somehow offensive.    For the moment though it has made a contentious subject even more inflammatory.  Given that the bulk of whiskies available to us are chillfiltered, I find his results encouraging.  We can’t draw any definitive conclusions yet, but there’s hope now that the typical whisky that we’re drinking isn’t in fact a diminished version of itself, as we had previously believed…and that can only be good news.  May the dram be with you!