Monthly Archives: July 2012

Winter whisky specials

This message went out to the WHISKYdotcoza database today.  Ignore if you’re not interested in a commercial punt.

Winter is upon us.  If you’re anything like me then you’re probably enjoying a dram or three to fight back the cold.  In this regard WHISKYdotcoza is offering a little bit of winter cheer.

We’ve teamed up with Macallan and Highland Park to bring you these special offers:

These promotions will be open for the next two months, but be warned that stock is limited.  It’s strictly first-come, first served.

Note too that WHISKYdotcoza has secured some stock of the Glenfiddich Age of Discovery Madeira Cask 19YO.  The South African allocation is limited, so if this is something that strikes your fancy don’t delay in getting yourself a bottle.  The numbers are too small to place the product on the site so please contact us at info@whisky.co.za to order.  Price is R1099.

We’ve also been informed by the local suppliers of Laphroaig that there’s a global shortage of the 10YO.  It’s currently out of stock – there’ll be limited stock arriving next month and then no further availability for the rest of the year.  Same deal as above – if this is your bag then get an advance order in to us at soonest convenience.

Until next time – keep well and may the dram be with you!

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A lightness of winning

The gilded honours of spirits awards

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2012 edition).

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared – page 2.

In the marketing of brands, whether spirits or otherwise, endorsement is the key to the kingdom.  We as consumers find a recommendation – be it from a friend, from a celebrity, from the masses, or from some other source to which we ascribe credibility – to be compellingly persuasive, perhaps even decisive, as we go about making our purchase decisions.  And when considering the population of potential sources what could be more reassuringly credible than a competition, or, more specifically, the results thereof?  In a sense these appeal to our baser, survival-of-the-fittest nature – an all-out duel, foe versus foe (well…foes), locked in combat for the ultimate prize – but they also serve a very rational purpose.  Before letting loose with our lucre we need to know which is best from the sometimes confusing array of options with which we’ve been presented.

A competition for distilled spirits (wine would be similar) works something like this: a fee is charged per entry, each of which would then be submitted to a qualified panel of judges for assessment, at the conclusion of which an award, typically a medal, would then be conferred upon each winner (and often multiple runners-up) in various categories.  Ostensibly this is a good thing.  It appears to give us the basis upon which to make that judicious choice for which we are continually striving.  If I want vodka wouldn’t it serve my purposes to know which – from amongst the dozens of brands clamouring for validation on the bottle-store shelves – is the gold medallist, the best of the best?  When though are things ever as they seem…?

Here then is the case for and against spirits awards, and, following thereafter, should one be inclined towards the argument for the former, a brief feature on one of the more notable competitions from which guidance might be derived.

For

–        The theoretical benefit already mentioned.  In a perfect world a competition would give us the basis for a satisfying purchase decision.  Hmm…a perfect world…I’m dubious already.

–        The outcome of a competition is an immediately understandable concept.  There are gold, silver and bronze medallists, or an equivalently straightforward grading.  This is something that can be readily processed by consumers.  The apparent benefits are therefore easy to access.

–        Competitions are an efficient vehicle to bring new or little-known but worthy products, about which we might otherwise never have known, to our attention.  They are, in moderation, a cost-effective promotional platform for the smaller players.

–        Competitions are usually independent and judged by credible experts.  Whilst the calibre may vary from one to the other, one can generally be confident that selections are made without bias and with competence.

 

Against

–        A spirits award is generally of questionable value, much like the Zimbabwean dollar.  There are far too many competitions handing out far too many awards for these to be worth very much at all, to the extent that it prompted a prominent commentator to term the phenomenon “medal fatigue”.  The “major” competitions alone number in the dozens and some these hand out awards to upward of 80% of entrants.

–        Why would a dominant brand – a Smirnoff, a Johnnie Walker, a Bacardi or an Absolut – enter a competition?  Add the fact that there’s little to be gained to the potential for humiliation and what one gets is that many (most?) don’t.  So what’s a victory worth if those who might reasonably be perceived to be the best aren’t even competing?  Not too much I reckon.

–        Conversely some of the big players, those with access to bigger budgets, enter a truckload of their brands, perhaps those that are newer or smaller, into multiple competitions.  Enter enough times in enough places with product of a reasonable standard, and a slew of awards is inevitable.  This renders the more meritorious victories anonymous and makes a mockery of the entire system.

–        Taste is subjective, and there are extrinsic, emotive factors which play a significant role in satisfaction.  Competitions are unhelpful in this regard and may even be counter-productive.

The International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC)

If there was claim to be the most prestigious of spirits competitions, the IWSC has it secured.  It would in all likelihood be the gold medallist in a competition for competitions.   Established in 1969, and operating continuously since, the competition regularly draws entries from some 80 countries worldwide.  It is truly as competitive a competition as one could hope to find.

A competition of this nature is only as a good as the people involved, and this is where the IWSC really shows its class.  The list of past presidents, extensive because the incumbent changes on an annual basis, makes for particularly interesting reading, with eminence clearly being a necessary criterion.  South Africa’s sole representative was no less illustrious a person than Anton Rupert.  The fact that he associated himself with the Competition speaks volumes.  I’d say though that what really matters is the quality of the judging, the foundation for a competition’s credibility, and to this end the IWSC is able to call on an impressive breadth and depth of expertise.  Entries are evaluated by panels drawn from a pool of 250 specialists from around the world.  Our own Dave Hughes, probably the country’s more prominent liquor taster (and expert in general), is an IWSC judge.  Five large platoons comprising people of his calibre is mind-boggling indeed!

Underpinning the impressive personnel is a rigorous process and an impeccable infrastructure.   The Competition itself is divided into two parts occurring over a period of six months: it involves firstly a blind tasting and secondly a precise technical analysis conducted by an independent laboratory.  The tastings take place on the Competition’s own, dedicated premises, which includes temperature controlled cellars, purpose-built tasting rooms, and storage facilities and cellaring for some 30 000 bottles.  Nothing is left to chance – judges reporting on the process have commented on the preponderance of signage warning against smoking and the wearing of fragrance (so as not to interfere with the ability to nose and taste).  It is tasting at its most professional.

I guess what I’m saying is that if one was to put any credence in an award then one should probably make sure that it’s from the IWSC.


The why’s of whisky – episode 1

Why oats?

As I’ve travelled along on my whisky journey, I’ve come across many a confounding twist in the road.  Some are easily navigated, others not.  This series is dedicated to the latter;  questions whose answers are frustratingly arcane – buried in the past, not publicly available, kept close to the chest by the industry, or just technical and obscure – but interesting enough, at least for me, to warrant some sort of exploration.

My intention is for this to be a forum rather than a collection of posts.  I will propose questions, sometimes with answers, which may or may not be correct and/or comprehensive, and sometimes without.  My hope is that fellow whisky lovers will be encouraged to contribute to both sides i.e. suggest questions and answers, and generally express a point of view.  I’d also welcome guest posts.  This may turn out to be a great vehicle to use to address those niggling unknowns which I’m sure we’ve all encountered at some point or another…or at the very least mine.  Let’s see how it goes.

Thirteen odd years ago I read my first whisky book – the “The World Guide to Whisky” written by the legendary Michael Jackson.  In the section on Irish whiskey he writes: “It nonetheless remains the case that that Irish whiskey may contain a distillate of malt, one made in a pot still with barley, and a third portion comprising grain spirit.  Of the three, the barley distillate is central, and it contributes the greatest character to several Irish whiskeys.  In the past, a tiny proportion of oats was also used…”

Oats growing in a field.

This was written some time ago, and it’s no longer entirely accurate.  Irish whiskey is in the springtime of a sweeping revival, and it is turning to its history for inspiration.  Last year three new single pot stills were introduced by Irish Distillers and not much less recently Cooley started to make single pot still at Kilbeggan…using oats in the mashbill.  Oats as an ingredient is no longer a thing of the past.

So then we get to the central issue – why oats?  I have them for breakfast every morning but what the hell are they doing in my whiskey?

Most ingredients used today are a result of convention.  It’s a certainty that Cooley is using oats to try to resurrect a time-honoured Irish tradition.  But at a point way back in the past it must have been motivated by some sort of functionally-driven logic.  Malt, Corn, Rye, and Wheat were used to make whisky because these ingredients were plentiful in the areas where they were used and because they made good whisky.  Unmalted barley was used to avoid the higher taxes on malted barley, and because, as any of you who have tasted a single pot still would know, it made damn good whiskey when combined with malt.  But the reason for oats, in such small proportions nogal, is less evident.

I did a bit of web research and came across this snippet on the Liquid Irish blog, which gave me a brief glimpse at the answer:

“The oats, it is said, are there to allow liquid to flow more freely through the bed of the mashtun. Alex Chasko, the Innovation Manager at Cooley, is sceptical about this, not having seen the effect in his experiments. Whatever about the filtering advantages, we are all hoping for an interesting influence on taste.”

Might the inclusion of oats then originally have been a factor of the mashing process rather than anything to do with economics, accessibility, or flavour?

The answer, it seems, is yes.  The next (and conclusive) step of my research process was more old school.  Check this out – it’s from an old Scottish treatise by Thomas Thomson called “The Manufacture of Whisky”:

“When the proportion of malt is very small, it is customary to add a quantity of the seeds of oats (the husk of oats separated during the grinding), to facilitate the separation of the water from the grains [by grains he means unmalted barley], after the process of mashing is over; for barley meal parts with water with much greater difficulty than malt.  When the proportion of raw grain to malt is as 2 to 1, or even as 3 to 1, this addition of oats seeds may be dispensed with.  But it is probably essential when the proportions amount to 5 to 1, or, still more, when 9 to 1.”

Auld book.

This allows me to draw a few conclusions:

–        This is the likely core reason for why oats once formed part of a mashbill.

–        Scots at one stage made whisky in the style of Irish single pot still.

–        Cooley – with its mashbill for the Locke’s revival reputed to be 60% malt, 35% stone ground spring barley and 5% oats – has no technical need for the oats.  Probably the reason why their experiments are hitting a blank.

Regardless, the oats must contribute to flavour.  We may have a while yet to wait before the product is aged and ready for market, but I for one can’t wait.  This question can’t really be put to bed until the porridgey nectar runs over our palates.

May the dram be with you.

Out and about with whisky

The Hong Kong episode

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2012 edition)

As it appeared.

There is little that’s quite as interesting for a whisky lover as a whisky excursion, whether it’s in the immediate locale, or somewhere a bit more far-flung.  Out there is a whisky world teeming with possibilities: there are maltings, distilleries, maturation warehouses, cooperages, bottlers, heritage centres, speciality shops, and bars aplenty, all waiting to be visited and explored.  I’ve tasked myself to get out and about and report back on my findings in a series of intermittent episodes, of which this, a bar tour, is the first.   It’s a tough slog of a job I know, but someone has to do it and it may as well be me.

Almost everyone it seems is travelling east these days.  China became South Africa’s leading trade partner in 2009, and its importance to our economy will almost certainly continue to grow in the future.  Despite this situation, it’s near impossible to fly there direct.  There are infrequent flights from Joburg to Beijing, but failing this somewhat impractical option one would likely be flying via the former British enclaves of Hong Kong or Singapore (subject of the next episode); and, finding oneself in either of these vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, one might be tempted to hang around for a bit.  So peripatetic whisky lovers – take note.  Here’s what one needs to know about Hong Kong.

Prince Charles was quoted as saying that Hong Kong has created one of the most successful societies on Earth.  If his opinion is valid then it would stand to reason, by my standards anyhow, that a whisky culture should be prominent.  And true it proved to be.  After a spot of preliminary research on the city’s whisky scene, and a predictably overpriced dinner in the mildly loutish Lan Kwai Fong, the famous party district, I set out to visit the two places at the top of my list: Angel’s Share and The Chinnery.

The most striking feature of Angel’s Share, dominating the entrance to the bar, is a large cask…sufficient to set the heart of any whisky lover aflutter.  My immediate impression was that this might be a “live” cask, an exciting thought.  Imagine drinking a theoretically different whisky every time one ordered from the cask!   Most distilleries however do not sell casks lock, stock, and…uh…barrel to the retail trade, and legislation now prevents single malts or single casks from being bottled outside of Scotland and effectively from being dispensed out of anything other than a bottle, so this was unlikely.  And indeed Eric Wan, my genial host, confirmed that the cask was a replica, and that its inner surface was lined with a metal membrane.  The illusion persisted nonetheless and I thoroughly enjoyed the undisputedly authentic ritual of being served from the cask – a heavy dram of Highland Park 1997 vintage having been drawn for me with a valinch*.

I would be doing the venue a disservice though if I were to fixate exclusively on the cask.  This is the ideal place to enjoy a superb evening of whisky appreciation and casual conversation – it is all dim-lit, intimate-nooked, and leather sofa’d elegance.  Whilst the brash whisky-drinking classes emerging in the Mainland might be quaffing the golden nectar with green tea (shudder), the clientele here is rather more refined and sophisticated.  Hong Kong after all has always been, and remains, the leading edge of the wedge.  The menu is somewhat modest by upper-tier whisky bar standards, but with a selection of 150 odd distinct whiskies, it is ample regardless.  I spotted a Macallan 1936 at HK$ 1240 (about the same in Rands) for a 30ml serving.  Perhaps when my ship comes in….

Eric twisted my rubber arm and had me linger longer over a glass of the excellent Laddie 17YO, his favourite of the moment.  This was my first rum-casked whisky, and its big exotic fruit flavours were well worth the wait.  Eventually however I reluctantly dragged myself away and hurried over to The Chinnery.  They hadn’t responded (in time) to my request for an appointment but I thought I’d just pitch up anyhow.  I arrived just before midnight only to encounter a massive disappointment – the place had closed for the evening.   The Chinnery has a laudable reputation, and I’m sure that it’s spectacular, but I have to ask: what kind of whisky bar closes at 11pm on a Saturday evening?  Especially in Hong Kong.  I’ll have to wait for my next visit to get an answer.

As my train headed over the horizon and my leaving became palpable I felt my spirits buoyed by this visit to a very special bar in this very special town.  If in the vicinity be sure to follow suit.  May the dram be with you!

*Valinch – A tube-like instrument used for drawing liquor from a cask via its bunghole.

Liquid gifts

A spirit of generosity

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2012 edition).

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared – page 2.

I’ve walked into the umpteenth shop only to leave again, short on ideas, long on frustration.  I’d set aside an hour of my busy day, and so far it’s taken three and counting.  It might be Father’s Day, a birthday, Christmas, or any number of other gift-giving occasions.  I just can’t seem to find that appropriate gift without a struggle.  I could resort to a voucher, or just compromise and settle on any old thing, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  It seems so callous; a gift should indicate that one cares enough to invest both money and thought (even if it’s not the case) otherwise it’s all a bit pointless.  This has been an unfortunate recurring episode in my life.  Sound familiar?  Fear not, help, such as it is, is at hand.  There is a genre of gifts that is ubiquitous and generic enough to be expedient, and yet varied and personal enough to convey a fulfilling sense of consideration.  I’m talking about fine spirits of course, the doyens of which are whisky and cognac.   I did a bit of shopping recently (sadly only of the window variety) and identified a few highlights.

Chivas Regal

Royal in both name and stature, Chivas Regal is quite likely the world’s most gifted spirit.  This iconic brand, now well over a double century in existence, has carved for itself an enviable reputation as a supreme purveyor of deluxe whisky.  Millions of people can’t be too far wrong; as a gift Chivas (pronounced shivers without the r) hits all the right notes.  It is flavoursome and interesting to the connoisseur – at the heart of the blend is Strathisla, a single malt from what is said to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in Scotland.  And it is accessible to the novice – its mild, fruity flavour is easily acquired and its pricing, at least for the entry level 12 year old (a smidgen over R200), is entirely reasonable within the premium whisky bracket.

Chivas Regal is available on our shelves as either a 12, 18 and 25 year old.  The former is being offered in a package with two complimentary whisky tumblers during special gifting occasions, and the latter two are available year-round in attractive, top-end presentation boxes.

Remy Martin Louis XIII

If cognacs were stones, this one would be a diamond.  There are some that are more expensive, others that are more popular, and others still that are decked with a brighter glitter, but nothing else possesses the same cachet, shines with the same aura, or enjoys the same acclaim as Remy Martin Louis XIII.  Verbalised by the cognoscenti as “Louis Treize” (French for 13), this brand is an enduring classic.  I’ve seen advertisers gratuitously use the term “a mark of distinction” to peddle their wares.  Remy doesn’t need do this for Louis XIII (and Remy certainly doesn’t peddle).  If ever there was a product that was a mark of distinction then this is it…but it’s an unspoken fact, simply understood where that understanding is required.

Cognac is known for its excessive, some would say over-the-top, packaging.  The Louis Treize was one of the products that blazed this trail.  It has since 1937 been bottled in a Baccarat crystal decanter that itself probably costs more than most other cognacs.  Decadent as this may seem, given that some components in the blend are over a hundred years old, it’s somehow elegantly appropriate.

Pricing is steep – expect to pay in excess of R17 000.  I would perhaps suggest that this a gift to be reserved for those held in the very highest esteem…or for those needing to be convincingly impressed.  The latter might explain why the Remy Treize, along with cognac as a whole, has become so popular in the East, where there is an entrenched gift-giving (and favour currying) culture in the working environment.

Richelieu XO Cognac

Isn’t Richelieu a brandy?  Well, as of last year, the brandy in the age-old French tradition is now offering us an age-old French tradition – cognac.    I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Richelieu XO, and I can report that it is magnificent, demonstrating complex flavours of fruit and spices and a full-bodied, silky mouth-feel.  The liquid is supplied by Richelieu’s stablemate Bisquit, but unlike their VSOP, which I find too cloying, this product manages to be both bold and restrained, each in the right place.

At circa R1600 it’s worth highlighting that it represents good value for an XO cognac.  It might just be the perfect gift for a new father – to accompany the obligatory cigars.

Michel Couvreur 1983

Here’s something one doesn’t see everyday.  Michel Couvreur has launched one of world’s only truly unique whiskies:  a 1983 vintage single cask…which is individually bottled on request.  The bottle comes inscribed with the name of the purchaser, and with the date and time of bottling.  It’s also accompanied by a certificate verifying its authenticity.  The individual bottling process means that each and every bottle will spend a different period of time in wood, and, as a result, will in theory be a different and unique whisky.

Couvreur is a whisky artisan of long standing, based in Burgundy in France, and known in particular for his highly cultivated maturation process, in which he ages Scottish new-make spirit in individually selected Solera sherry casks.  He and his small team are the remnants of an almost-forgotten golden era of whisky craftsmanship.

The Couvreur range of whiskies was launched in South Africa last year and is available in strictly limited quantities.  The 1983 retails for R4999.

Glenmorangie

Glenmorangie is one of the “maisons” in the LVMH group – the world’s largest single owner of luxury brands, and home to epic labels such Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bulgari.  One would thus expect the guys at Glenmorangie to exhibit a swaggering command when it comes to gifting.  And indeed they don’t disappoint – every year bringing out gift offers that set a benchmark for the industry.  Their latest gift-pack whilst not their best is compelling nonetheless.  It’s a beautifully designed carton containing a bottle of Glenmorangie Original, and a complimentary dinky bottle of Nectar D’Or, an expression from the brand’s pioneering extra matured range (this one specifically was finished in Sauternes casks).

Pricing is at around the R400 mark.

Down the hatch

Guidelines for drinking whisky

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2012 edition)

As it appeared.

Whisky is not self-evident.  It has a certain seductive mystique that is central to its allure.  The pursuit of whisky – like that of all worthwhile endeavours – requires measures of application, perseverance and patience, efforts that are amply rewarding (and rewarded).  As one embarks on this path perhaps the most pressing query is that of how to drink whisky.  This question has been repeatedly put to me (as a whisky lover), and it should be answered very seriously.  It is undoubtedly the single most critical whisky matter to be encountered by the casual drinker, since it has a direct and immediate impact on enjoyment…and what’s more important than that.  I’ve heard people in the industry answer it in blasé and somewhat self-serving terms:  “Anyway you like it” or “there’s no right way or wrong way”.  Really?  Think of a word that starts with B and ends with T.  Here are five basic guidelines for the optimal appreciation of whisky.

Rule #1:

Enjoy it.  Drinking whisky should be fun.  I’ve seen people get so caught up trying to identify flavours that the act of drinking whisky begins to seem like a task or a chore.  Learn in order to enjoy, don’t learn just for the sake of learning.  To me there’s nothing better than a lose-myself-to-the-moment drink when I don’t have to concentrate on anything other than my own pleasure and some good conversation.

Rule #2:

Don’t mix aged or premium whisky.  There’s nothing wrong with drinking whisky and Coke, if that’s a personal preference, but make a cheap whisky.  Anything else is a waste of money (and whisky).  Once a whisky has been doused with a typically sugary mixer it would be exceedingly challenging, even for an expert taster, to appreciate the complexity of flavour that sets it apart from its younger, more regular brethren.

Rules #3:

Don’t forget to nose (i.e. smell) the whisky.  Flavour is made up of both aroma and taste, and yet we seem fixated on taste, maybe because it’s the pre-culminating moment in the consumption process, and because it’s the act of consumption itself that gives the most satisfaction.  Ironically though, on a sensory level, taste is relatively limited and less interesting when compared to smell; there are only four primary tastes but 32 primary aromas.   So, savour the nose – it’s the gateway to a “hidden” dimension of enjoyment that’s waiting to be discovered.  I’d also advise using tumblers with a narrow, inward-tapering rim that concentrates the aroma-carrying vapours and thereby facilitates and accentuates the nosing.

Rule #4A:

Add water.  This is contentious.  Some whisky folk prefer to drink their drams neat as a matter of course.  All power to them – I fully endorse their right of individual choice.  Some people also choose to believe that the earth is flat.  In both cases however there’s good reason to believe that there’s a better alternative.  Adding a splash of water to your dram is known as “releasing the serpent”- the water reacts with and breaks down flavour-bearing congeners and in doing so unlocks their flavour, and opens up the whisky.  It’s difficult to prescribe how much water should be added.  The arbitrary rule of thumb is equal parts water to whisky, but this can and should vary according to individual taste, and to the nature of the whisky and its alcohol content.  I find that very little is usually required.  Water also softens the alcoholic edge of the whisky, which can otherwise be lightly anaesthetising, although die-hards will claim that saliva does the same job.  I think not.

Rule #4B:

A corollary to the last rule – use still mineral water, filtered water, or something similarly pure.  Water purifying chemicals such as chlorine do not belong in one’s expensive whisky.

Rule #5

Use ice with circumspection.  There’s an old expression suggesting that whisky is best enjoyed at the temperature of a traditional Scottish parlour.  It sounds a bit vague but the broad principle is sound.  Like alcohol, cold is numbing and inhibits flavour.  Furthermore, ice melts and introduces uncontrolled dilution into a drink.  Having said all this – we’re not in Scotland.  I’ve found that adding cold water is ideal for drinking whisky under the hot African sun.

As straightforward as these rules may seem good intentions will be put to the test – count on it.  I’ve been asked to serve Royal Salute mixed with Coke.  Most bars will pour whisky into tumblers filled with ice.  The mineral water bottle always seems to be empty come whisky time.  Despite it all though I’ve never gone back.  The whisky tastes so damned much better!  Keep the faith and may the dram be with you!