Monthly Archives: August 2012

The sum of all rum

From corsair to connoisseur

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2012 edition).

As it appeared – page 2.

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest-

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!

Drink and the devil had done for the rest-

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”

This is the gung-ho opening stanza of the pirate’s anthem, as sung to us in Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’.  It epitomises the rum ethos – that of hard-drinking bravado.  There is simply no other drink that’s quite as synonymous with masculine adventure as rum: be it boarding a Spanish galleon, or bush-diving from a balcony, it’s more likely than not to have played a part.  Whilst some of the rough edges may have been smoothed away and the fairer sex accommodated with the inception of light, spiced, and other flavoured versions, rum has nonetheless remained steadfastly raucous since its epic days of yore.  In ‘The Rum Diary’, the movie based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name, one of the characters famously says to another “I think we’re drinking too much rum”, to which the other replies “there ain’t no such thing”.  Indeed.  Rum is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall party drink.

Or, I should way, it was.  Allow me to announce, ahead of the approaching dawn, that our society’s experience of rum is set to change.  In Jekyll and Hyde fashion (also Robert Louis, how droll) this is a dissociative drink.  Whilst many of us in the Anglosphere – and it’s still very much the case in South Africa – have been distracted, or even misled, by its often emetic incarnation (which has somewhat tainted its image), discerning rum-lovers, in the Latin world in particular, have for many years now been charmed by a different, altogether more suave and elegant persona.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Before rum, there was the inventively named brum, a drink fermented from sugar cane juice by the Malay people of antiquity.  It wasn’t until much later however, half a world away (the Caribbean of the 1600’s), that distillation was introduced into the mix.  Rum quickly became a staple in the British navy, issued to sailors in rations, and from that source the habit found its way first to privateers and then to pirates, proving a hearty companion during those endless voyages on the seven seas.  These chaps took their libations as grog and bumbo respectively, concoctions including any of water, weak beer, lime or lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to accompany the rum.  And these unlikely forerunners of the cocktail era set the trend of mixing rum into motion.  The Cuba Libre, rum mixed with coke (and lime, strictly speaking), then took the baton during the twentieth century and went on to become spectacularly popular, propelling Bacardi at one stage to the position of world’s best-selling international brand.

Despite this dubious, albeit colourful, legacy, rum, as I implied earlier, is actually a fine spirit, offering a variety and complexity of flavour to those who seek it out.  It makes an effortless transition from spring break to cigar lounge.  Rum is defined almost everywhere as a spirit distilled from cane sugar and its derivatives, although there has been the odd attempt, such as Sweden’s Altissima, to make “rum” from sugar beets as well.   This may seem like a blandly uniform recipe but cane derivatives are surprisingly diverse, and each has a distinct impact on flavour.  Rum producers in the majority use molasses, a thick, gooey by-product of the sugar refining process, as their primary ingredient, but sugar cane juice and sugar cane syrup (also known as sugar cane honey) are also frequently used.  Product made from sugar cane juice, known as Rhum Agricole, is a feature of the French Caribbean islands, and also of other francophone islands such as Reunion and Mauritius.  Martinique in particular has an Appellation designation (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC being the French system for regulating certain agricultural products), giving their accordingly produced rhums a special cachet.  One of the world’s best rums, Ron Zacapa of Guatemala, is produced from sugar cane syrup – in fact these guys differentiate their ingredient further as first-press or virgin sugar-cane honey.  I’m sold on that description alone.  Most importantly though all the better rums share the same pedigree as good whisky and cognac – dictated by extensive cask maturation.  New casks, bourbon casks, sherry casks, and various wine casks are employed – often, especially in Latin territories, in a Solera system (a complicated ageing method in which liquid from one cask is blended into others at intervals) – to produce exquisite, expertly blended liquid.

Rum then it appears is a spirit for all seasons.  I’m partial to a Captain and Coke, with its foaming head and its promise of unruly fun, but increasingly I’d rather seek out Zacapa, or Barbancourt of Haiti, or others of their ilk whenever I can find them.   Whilst the awareness and acceptance of premium rums is still unfolding over here, the signs are unmistakable.  Aye me hearties, a new rum era is upon us for sure.

Out and about with whisky

The Singapore episode

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

Singapore never fails to impress me.  Looking down as one approaches from the air it’s no stretch to believe that this is one of the top three busiest ports in the world.  The Straits of Singapore is a bustling bottleneck – densely peppered with naval traffic from one horizon to the other.  The island city also happens to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Singaporeans are not struggling for drinking money and it shows in the whisky scene.

In an overall Asian whisky context, Singapore would be classed as a mid-mature culture.  It sits somewhere between the refined palates evident in Japan and Taiwan, where demand for vintage whisky is de rigueur, and the still raw uptake in crazy China, where whisky drinking is karaoke-inspired mixology.  The place regularly ranks amongst the leading markets for Scotch whisky exports, and whilst most of that stock is filtered into the wider region its presence alone must be infectious.   Things are happening here.  I visited no fewer than three top-quality whisky bars during my short eight hour layover and I was so enthralled by the experience that I came within a barley whisker of missing my flight home.  My whisky-addled, panic-stricken dash to the airport, involving no fewer than three modes of transportation (four if you include the trip on the airport skytrain needed to correct my arrival at the wrong terminal), must have been quite something to behold…more amusing to onlookers than it was to me.

La Maison du Whisky (LMDW)

This legendary French whisky business was founded in 1956 by Georges Bénitah, one of the true whisky pioneers of the modern era.  Its bar in Singapore – based at the vibey Roberson Quay on the banks of the eponymous river – is a little different, not only from its other outlets but from most other bars:  it is both a shop and a bar.

I didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It’s an appealing concept in theory, if a country’s regulations allow for it.  Imagine browsing whiskies and then being able to sit down and test drive one’s options before committing.  Generally I dislike shopping but this I think I could grow to enjoy.  I also like the idea of a total whisky zone, where I can ogle whisky, talk whisky, taste whisky, and then, to make the experience complete, take-away whisky.

But in reality can anything really be all things to all men?  LMDW Singapore, in keeping with its heritage, is more shop than bar.  I’ve been there once, early-ish on a weekday evening, so take my opinion from whence it comes, but with its face of plate-glass and severe lighting that it projects to the world, it wouldn’t be my first choice for an intimate evening of mellow dramming.

Ambience aside, it ticks all the boxes with a flourish.  LDDW boasts a selection of 400 distinct Scotches and 200 other whiskies, including some rare bottlings (to which the closest we would have come here in SA is a fleeting glimpse in one of the international versions of Whisky Magazine), and some dedicated bottlings.  GM Jeremy Moreau introduced me to a Strathisla 1965 Single Cask, specially bottled for the group by Gordon & MacPhail, whose rich, bite-into sherry flavours I savoured at length…yum.  Worth the visit?  It goes without saying.

 The Quaich

A short stroll down the river and a bite of supper later I found myself at a bar named after Scotland traditional drinking vessel.  The Quaich, according to owner Khoon Hui, was Singapore’s first genuine whisky bar.  It also appears to be the most genuinely Singaporean whisky bar.  Whereas the other two I visited seemed somewhat expatified, this was refreshingly local – Khoon pointed out a radio celebrity and some government heavyweights enjoying the undisputable pleasures of his establishment.

The Quaich’s menu numbers a highly respectable 300 fine whiskies, with a focus on the distilleries that it represents as a distributor in Singapore.  These include Bunnahabhain, Springbank, Glenglassaugh, and Bowmore, amongst others.  I noticed, and was duly impressed, by a 1964 Bowmore 46YO and three dedicated single casks bottled by Springbank (Longrow) and Glenglassaugh for The Quaich.

My most lasting impression however was of the great hospitality.  Khoon and I chatted whisky over a Kavalan (a name with which the chaps at Macallan are none too pleased by the way), and then he insisted on giving me a lift to my next appointment.  The man is a gentleman and a scholar and his bar is a gem.

Auld Alliance

The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel created the Singapore Sling, and has since been regarded as the bar in Singapore, fads aside.  Well, now there’s a new king in town and its name is Auld Alliance (a reference to the close military relationship which existed between pre-Union Scotland and monarchic France).  Let me not mince words: in my opinion this may well be the king of all whisky bars worldwide.

To say that I was blown away is an understatement.  This whisky cathedral – to call it a bar seems inadequate – is utterly, utterly (repeated for good measure) magnificent.  Auld Alliance is the brainchild of Emmanuel Dron, a whisky expert of long standing, and, as I set about acquainting myself with his spot, his expertise became explicitly evident: it is quite simply a league apart from anything that I’ve ever experienced.

Located in Chijmes, a charming entertainment complex built within the grounds and amidst the architectural structure of an old convent, the venue offers a breath-taking bar area, an elegant lounge, and two private tasting rooms.  Its collection of whiskies currently numbers 1500; so many in fact that there’s just not enough space for all of them, thus requiring 500 odd to be rotated in and out of storage periodically.  The highlights include a mint-condition first-edition 1993 Black Bowmore (S$ 12 990 ≈ R84 955 per bottle), and a Yamazaki 50YO, of which there are only a handful of bottles accessible outside of Japan.  I was particularly captivated by a menu which offers flights of the “same” whisky bottled in different decades, allowing customers to explore the evolution of the style over time.  I could go on and on.  Quite simply Auld Alliance lacks for nothing…except for South African whiskies.  One has to leave room for improvement I guess.

The moral of this story, in case you haven’t arrived at the same conclusion already – a whisky pilgrimage to Singapore is well in order.  May the dram be with you!