Monthly Archives: February 2013

A nosing with Gordon Motion

Every now and again life treats you to a glorious surprise.  I was privileged during a recent visit to The Edrington Group’s head office in Glasgow to get to meet Gordon Motion and to be invited into his sample room for a nosing session.

Gordon amidst the tools of his trade,

Gordon amidst the tools of his trade.

This was my first foray into a Master Blender’s domain, so I was a little uncertain about what to expect beyond the obvious.  It proved to be a sensory feast.   I was told that the space was a re-creation of the sample room from their bygone offices of a bygone era – and indeed it exuded the old-style elegance of a Victorian library…that had substituted bottles for books.

Wood panelled splendour.

Wood panelled splendour.

Whilst the aesthetics were undeniably appealing and worth a linger, the focus soon shifted from the visual to the olfactory.   We nosed a variety of samples – those that happened to be on Gordon’s menu of tasks for the day – including new make spirit from North British, the grain distillery jointly owned by Edrington and Diageo, and Ruadh Maor, a peated Glenturret intended for Black Grouse.  It was particularly interesting to learn (or to be reminded, I had an inkling of it) that North British is the only grain distillery in Scotland using (more expensive) maize rather than wheat in its mashbill – the purpose being to achieve a buttery flavour and mouthfeel (similar to that of Bourbon).

Grain of a different sort.

Grain of a different sort.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the experience though was the opportunity to nose the same original spirit of equivalent age from various different casks.  The massive influence of wood on the character of whisky doesn’t really need reinforcement, but in this case there was an added twist.  People often refer to European casks and Sherry casks interchangeably, as if they were the same thing.  The wood from which the cask was made, and the liquid which seasoned the cask are two different elements, and it’s worth bearing in mind that each makes distinct contributions to flavour.  Whilst most Sherry casks are made from European oak, this is not a universal rule; Edrington in particular has been seasoning American white oak casks with Sherry, and consequently producing whisky with a different category of flavour.  If I ever had any doubts about the scale of this variation they were quickly dispensed by the nosing, conducted side-by-side with a traditional Sherry cask sample (and a Bourbon cask sample for good measure).

The wood factor.

The wood factor.

I’ve always been a Macallan and a Highland Park fan.  The whiskies are sensational of course, but that’s just part of it; I generally like the way they go about their business.   You might have noticed, tangentially, that almost every whisky drinking moment in an influential movie or television series seems to involve a Macallan – not by random chance I’ll warrant.  These guys are a class act, and this visit served to confirm my impressions.

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Brave new world

The most special of South African special releases was launched last year.  I went to the source to take a look. 

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Amusing signage at the Van Ryn's distillery.

Amusing signage at the Van Ryn’s distillery.

The ability of luxury whiskies and cognacs to command top dollar is a long-established reality, but these days, and actually for quite some time now, everyone seems to be getting in on the act.  I was at Hediard some time ago, the famed épicerie on the Place de la Madelaine in Paris, and I noticed bottles of armagnac and calvados with price tags well into the tens of thousands of Rands.  Why should the Scots and the French be cornering all of this lavish lucre for themselves?  We make a noble aged spirit right here, the finest exponents of which have repeatedly won international awards.  So why have we not been partaking? Wait though.  It had to come and it has come indeed – behold AU.RA, a ground-breaking South African brandy created by Van Ryn, probably the most celebrated distillery in the country.

I should start by qualifying my rallying – my feelings are less gung-ho than they appear.  Who would benefit from brandy at sky-high prices?  The distillery and brand owners?  The economy as a whole – via its contribution to our tax coffers?  The implications for the brandy drinker are not quite so conclusively positive.  It’s quite likely that this type of a top tier would drag the rest of the market upwards, or parts of it at the very least, resulting in higher prices largely across the board.  On the other hand, compensatingly, it may also amplify the scrutiny applied to quality and innovation – as the industry comes under added pressure to justify incremental premiums.  Every cloud has a silver lining, and every silver lining also has a cloud.

Anyhow, onto AU.RA.  The unusual (looking if not sounding) name is explained as follows: “an amalgamation of the symbol of gold (Au) and Ra, the ancient Egyptian sun god”.  Cute.  In attempting to live up to its name AU.RA does indeed radiate with a certain brilliant amber…aura.  And I guess that at R14k odd a bottle so it should, maybe with a bit of singing and dancing thrown in too.  Well, whilst it may not be able to strike up a tune or do a little jig, AU.RA does have a few tricks of its own.  I could argue that the 20YO Van Ryn’s and its KWV counterpart sell for less than a tenth of that price, but that would be neither here nor there.  In this league it’s all about rarity and exclusivity, and this fine brandy seems to hold its own:  most compellingly it is the oldest South African brandy ever bottled – the youngest component in the blend is 30 years old (the spirit was all distilled between 1972 and 1982) – and the release has been limited to a scant 107 decanters.

On a visit to the Van Ryn’s distillery, where I was hosted to a tour (well worth the trip for the aromas in the maturation cellar alone) and a tasting by the charming Brandy Master Marlene Bester, I decided to look a little further into AU.RA’s supposed rarity and exclusivity.  The press release calls it a “once-off editon” that “cannot be repeated”.  This is true, but tenuously so.  Yes, only the claimed 107 units of this specific blend have been released, but an undisclosed volume of brandy remains in the several casks that were used – to be employed quite likely to create a similar product in the future, depending on AU.RA’s success.  This point is worth keeping in mind as one weighs up the purchase, but it doesn’t change the fact that AU.RA is a damned rare, first-of-a-kind, pioneering creation.

It’s almost an inevitability with luxury spirits that one needs to reserve a fair share of the attention for the packaging; in this case as in many others these elements are a bespoke work of art.  I was particularly taken with the crystal decanter, hand blown by David Reade – probably because I’m partial to his Murano-style creations, a range of which I recently had the pleasure of viewing at the startlingly impressive Robertson Art Gallery.  A solid oak presentation box, and a teardrop neckpiece complete the beautiful ensemble.  The only liquor packaging that I’ve seen produced in this country that’s remotely as elaborate was for Malus, an apple spirit produced in Elgin that whilst interesting definitely doesn’t have the same chops as AU.RA.

It’ll be interesting to see how AU.RA performs and whether South African brandy can stake and sustain a claim in this sector of the market.  On reflection the initiative can best be described as a courageous foray.  The obscure spirits that I mentioned earlier have well developed niches, and the rest of this market is made up of powerful, internationally renowned brands such as Remy Martin, Macallan, Martell and the like.  Van Ryn for all its heritage and all its awards is simply not in this class.  AU.RA is being targetted at the local market, where the brand has the most traction, but conversely where people are less accustomed at paying these types of prices.  Whatever happens it’ll be a watershed initiative.

A sad note in conclusion.  During my visit I was given a little booklet which refers to AU.RA somewhat ambitiously as “the epitome of pure perfection”. I am, to my great disappointment, unable to comment on this statement with any authority whatsoever because I never got to taste it.  I was informed that there was exactly enough spirit available only for the bottling.  Hmm…until the next release that is.

Whisky heaven

This labour of love, the first of its kind, offers a whisky experience beyond that of just shopping.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2013 edition).

As it appeared - page 1.

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared - page 2.

As it appeared – page 2.

 

It’s rare that I lament being in Cape Town rather than Joburg. Recently however I experienced one of those moments, because my brother in whisky (and yours), Marc Pendlebury, opened South Africa’s first dedicated, speciality whisky store.  Located in Hyde Park Corner shopping centre (Hyde Park, Johannesburg) this gem of a shop is a mouth-watering development for local whisky lovers.  Marc is best known on the whisky scene as WhiskyBrother, one of the most established and prolific South African whisky bloggers.  I caught up with him long distance to ask him about the venture and about his whisky journey.

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When did you become passionate about whisky and how did it happen?

I was a “whisky drinker” for several years before the passion took hold, which was about 8 years ago. It began when I received an 18yo Speyside single malt. It was unlike anything I ever had drunk up and it sparked my curiosity and a desire to understand how and where the differences arise with regard to flavour and whisky styles.

What’s been the most magical moment on your whisky journey?

I’ve shared many memorable moments with various whisky friends quietly savouring a pour of something spectacular, but my trip to Islay a few months back definitely qualifies as the most magical. The whole island is shrouded in whisky magic, and to have had the opportunity to meet the people behind the wonderful Islay malts and taste whiskies directly from the casks in the warehouses was a moving experience for a whisky geek like me.

WhiskyBrother was originally (and still is) your blogging persona.  How did you come up with the name?

Knowledge is a life-long pursuit, and as a whisky enthusiast I am continually learning and experiencing new aspects of whisky every day.  I didn’t think that I qualified for a moniker like Dr Whisky or Whisky Guru. The brother extension was about showing my intermediateness, as well as the camaraderie I so often find among my fellow enthusiasts. Also, I thought brother was much more approachable and accurately reflected my personality.

Can you share with us a bit about your background and your life away from whisky?  What are some of your other pastimes?

I like to keep busy, so it’s a constant challenge to try to balance my work and personal life. I’m currently finishing my MBA – I probably should have done so before starting on the shop but you can’t keep a passionate idea supressed!

Time with my family and friends is important to me. I’m a bit of a news, tech and social media junkie so I’m often flipping through the various news channels/sites/magazines or engaging on various social platforms. I also play touch-rugby once a week and try squeeze in a run, gym session or walk in the park with my dogs whenever time allows.

Tell us about that moment (or perhaps it was a process) when you decided to pack it all in to start a whisky shop.

It was very much a process! As a serious enthusiast I wanted to frequent a store that specialised in whisky, and so, about five years ago, I thought it would be something great to create, if the time came and it still didn’t exist. Well the years passed and no store appeared, so in mid-2011 I considered it more seriously and started playing with the numbers and scribbling business plan ideas. One thing led to another, and once I was successful in raising the capital in early 2012 it was full-steam ahead.

You stock an extensive selection of whiskies and whisky-related items.  What are some of the highlights?  Is there anything that’s particularly special to you?

My first highlight is the extensive collection! Seeing so many brands under the same roof is a special sight to behold. If I had to name a few of which I’m particularly fond, I would have to include: Macallan Fine and Rare 1989 (the only one in the country), Dalmore 1978 31yo, Glenmorangie Pride (now sold) and Glenfiddich 40yo.

Apart from these more exclusive and limited items, I am equally pleased to stock the ranges from smaller, independent producers including BenRiach, Springbank, GlenDronach, Kilchoman, Compass Box and Michel Couvreur.

What makes the WhiskyBrother store different from other liquor speciality stores that focus (albeit not exclusively) on whisky?  What can whisky lovers expect that would delight them when they visit your store?

The fact that it is strictly whisky, and only whisky. Whisky is a specialty drink and it deserves a specialty store. The store was built intentionally to showcase the amazing whiskies available and the design has included many components of whisky production and history – from the use of copper and untreated oak staves, to the presence of used whisky casks and images of distilleries.

Next would be the large selection on offer. It’s not about only stocking the big brands with the big marketing budgets. I’d like to think all whiskies are equal on the WhiskyBrother shelves; it is up to the consumer to decide on preference. I have as many brands and expressions as is available in our market, as well as a whisky or two you won’t find anywhere else in SA.

Lastly, a specialty store must provide specialty service. I am personally working in the store for the foreseeable future. The whisky consumer deserves to be assisted by someone who has solid whisky experience and can recommend, engage and inform.

My intention is to provide an experience, not just retail whisky.

What’s on top of the list for your next whisky adventure?

I’m currently organising a group tour to Scotland (and plan to make it a quarterly activity), and I’m working on getting a cask bottled that I personally selected.

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Nice guy, great whiskies, impressive store.  Get over there and check it out.  May the dram be with you!