Monthly Archives: July 2013

To your health!

It may seem counter-intuitive to some, but drinking spirits is good for you. Patrick Leclezio ponders the blessings of booze.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

During my adolescence one of my household tasks was to serve my father his daily libation.  This may have been the source of my affinity for whisky.  Back then however any such tendencies, if indeed they had been imbedded, were dormant.  I had no inclination to drink any alcohol, much less spirits (such were the misguided delusions of my youth).   I remember, as we went through the ritual, that he’d often attempt to instil in me the sentiment that a regular whisky was beneficial to one’s health.  The apparent authority behind this wisdom was his father, his father-in-law, and the family doctor – all three whisky drinkers too.  I was dubious.  Undoubtedly I was a cynical lad, given to questioning just about everything, but this seemed altogether too convenient.  I never quite believed it, and it slowly sunk into the recesses of my mind…until recently.

My wife works extensively with Russians.  A while ago, after a visit to the country, she mentioned that she’d been told that the average lifespan of a Russian man was 59.  In fact it’s somewhere in the late-fifties to early-sixties depending of the study consulted, and the date thereof.  A few years here and there notwithstanding this is a shockingly bleak situation; these guys are literally vodka-drinking themselves into an early grave.  Now clearly this is on the extreme end of the scale – no-one is suggesting that excessive drinking is anything but detrimental – but can this same substance, in more measured doses, actually do you good?

The answer is yes: a variety of scientific studies, one of the earliest (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) dating back to 1904, have repeatedly proved it to be the case, to the point where it is now undisputed. It seems that my collected male progenitors and the doctor were onto something (though whether they actually gave it any scrutiny is debatable).  Liquor drunk regularly in moderation does in fact have a myriad health benefits, reducing the risks of heart disease (in middle aged and older men in particular), certain cancers, diabetes and dementia amongst others; and given that the former is the principal cause of death in most industrialised countries this is no small endorsement. Alcohol achieves these impressive feats by impacting positively on cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin levels, by decreasing thrombosis (effectively thinning the blood), and by improving the heart’s response to stress (as those of us who’ve sunk a few after a hard day at work will gladly attest).

So how does one know good drinking from bad?  How can one separate one’s own habits from what the Russians are doing?  The (American) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderation as the consumption of four drinks on any day to an average of 14 drinks per week for men, with the corresponding numbers for women being three and seven drinks.  One drink in distilled spirit terms constitutes one and half fluid ounces, or roughly 45ml, so generous enough for this to seem more indulgence than regimen.  The important point to note is that this drinking should be regular and tempered.  I should also make it clear, at the risk of being obvious, that these guidelines apply to average persons, relaxing in the comfort of their homes; and that they would specifically exclude pregnant women, people on medication, people with a history of alcohol abuse, people intending to drive thereafter, and underaged people.

The studies also haven’t been able to find a significant difference in benefits attributable to the type of liquor consumed, so whether one is drinking red wine, beer, or hard tack doesn’t discernibly matter.  I had always been concerned that brown spirits, being less pure than their white counterparts, largely due to the presence of congeners (fatty acids) from the cask maturation process, might be at health disadvantage but gratifyingly there’s no evidence to suggest it.  This is great ‘news’ – we can all stick to our favourite tipple and responsibly drink ourselves to a longer, healthier life.

I’ve noticed (it seems to be my time for subconscious realisations) that toasts the world over are dedicated to health:  santé, gezondheid, sláinte mhath, l’chaim…the list is endless (and the origins of these toasts date back centuries).  These were conceived I’m sure to express an intention not a prescription, so the added meaning is an extraordinary coincidence.  Regardless, I’ll henceforth be toasting with extra vigour and gusto.  I wish you all the very best of health.  Bottoms up!

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Out and about with whisky

The Cape Town episode.  It’s much more than just a collection of whisky bottles – Patrick Leclezio checks out the bigger picture at the Bascule Bar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I first heard about the Bascule it was with reference to its impressive assortment of whiskies – 400 odd back then, supposedly the largest of any bar in the Southern Hemisphere.  Subsequently each mention of it, in the press in particular, fixated on this same angle; and whilst it’s admittedly worth the boast – what whisky lover wouldn’t be intrigued – it has also placed the bar in a bit of a one-dimensional pigeonhole: “Ah the Bascule, that’s the place with the large selection, right?”.  Things have moved on since then.  Firstly, any whisky bar worth its salt, and there are an increasing number available to us, should offer satisfyingly vigorous variety, and whilst the Bascule’s is now over 500 strong, there are others that come close to or even exceed it.  Secondly, the Bascule is far more than the sum of its whisky parts; it would be a grossly missed opportunity (and an injustice) to remain ignorant of its wider charms.  In this spirit I decided to dedicate an evening, some quality time, to get to know the place in-depth.

The bar takes its name – in case you were wondering – from the nearby bascule bridge (a type of moveable bridge that employs counterweights to open and close, hence giving access to naval traffic), the only one of its kind in the country.  It, the bar not the bridge, is ensconced in the Cape Grace hotel, amongst the Cape’s finest and a recent recipient of high accolades (from the TripAdvisor website – second best hotel in the world in their 2013 Travelers’ Choice Awards).  In a case of narrowly averted tragedy, a less travelled road (back then) almost not taken, the bar didn’t figure in the hotel’s original plans.  It was an afterthought – its existence indebted to the then-owner’s passion for whisky.  This may go some way to explain its position in the lower reaches of the structure.  As inadvertent as this might have been it doesn’t suffer as a result of it; actually quite the contrary – the subterranean floor level, the tunnel-like passages, the restricted natural light, the ship-type staircase (a “ladder” in nautical speak), and the direct access to the quayside all combine to give the place a certain unique cachet.  It’s cosy and intimate, elegant in a welcoming and comfortable manner, and, as I was to discover, infinitely interesting and engrossing.

My host for the visit was Bascule manager George Novitskas.  We sat down together – in the delightfully opulent high-backed chairs installed during the recent renovations – over craft draughts from the Cape Brewing Company (what better than some skilfully brewed barley to break-in the palate), a bottle of Highland Park 12YO (still in my opinion one of the most complete Scotch whiskies on the market), and a couple of mouth-wateringly delicious Wagyu burgers (the meat coming from cattle originating in Japan, and renowned for being the self-same source of the world famous Kobe beef) . This burger is the star attraction on a well-considered, elaborate, but mostly tapas-based menu, which is primarily intended as a snacking accompaniment for patrons.  George is very particular on this point: the Bascule is a bar, not a restaurant…although those seeking more extensive fare can always order from the hotel’s main eatery.

Inevitably, obligatorily, the whisky discussion began with the much lauded collection, which includes highlights such as the Glenfiddich 50YO, the Glenmorangie 1963, the Laphroaig 40YO, the Ardbeg 1975, the Glen Grant 1952, the Highland Park 30, and the Dalmore 1978 – enough to keep the more (most?) demanding connoisseurs well-satisfied – but this is only the beginning of the bar’s whisky attractions:  whilst the classics and some winter warmers are already available, a bespoke whisky-specific cocktail menu is being created for the Bascule by one of the country’s top mixologists;  customers can request to have their whisky served with a perfect ice-ball, made using a Taisin copper press, one of the few, if not the only one, in the country; and the bar also offers an extensive program of whisky tastings and a well-subscribed whisky club.

It’s worth dwelling on these last two offerings. 

Whisky tastings are all the rage at the moment – for corporate functions, for bachelor parties, or just simply for one’s general enjoyment and enrichment.  The Bascule provides two types of tastings.  The first is a self-tutored ‘flight’ of whisky – basically three related whiskies presented on a tasting mat that is inscribed with relevant information.  This strikes me as an ideal vehicle for musing over a couple of drams easily and on short-notice, whether in one’s own company or as a shared experience. The second is a tutored tasting – offered at three levels – the Introductory, the Intermediate and the Sommelier’s Choice – and conducted by one of the bar’s managers, each of whom, along with the rest of the staff, would have been trained on Dave Broom’s World Masterclass series.  These tutored tasting also feature the growing and (very) agreeable trend of pairing food with whisky.

The Bascule whisky club almost defies belief.  Members enjoy the place as if they’re in their own homes – and effectively that’s the whole premise of the thing.  One of the values of the Cape Grace hotel is to make visitors feel like they’re at home, and it has certainly succeeded with the club; for a nominal annual fee members are allocated a bottle locker which they can stock at much reduced prices.  To the gregarious, whisky-loving gadabout, and I know a few, this is like the proverbial manna from heaven.  Throw in six special, catered tasting events, an end-of-year members’ party, and the option to use the club for one personal function, and you’ve got a package that’s almost too good to be true.  The Bascule also gives each member a crystal tumbler with their name engraved on it – a discreet, understated symbol of their special status.

I may be under the influence of the Orkney peat buzz, the memory of that delectable marbled beef, or the lingering pleasure of an evening well spent, so dim my effusiveness down a notch if you will: the Bascule Bar is quite simply magnificent. The whisky community has embraced it, celebrities flock to it, and both locals and tourists are drawn to it persistently.  If you’re a South Africa-residing whisky lover then it is imperative that you should visit…often.  May the dram be with you.