Monthly Archives: August 2013

A phoenix from the ashes

From expired discard to fine spirit. Patrick Leclezio indulges in some renaissance culture.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

If you’re a fan of fine but obscure spirits or spirit brands, then residing in South Africa can be frustrating.  The coinciding of limited niches (of demand) and Machiavellian import regulations conspire to deprive us to a large extent of the variety available in many other countries.  Shopping for premium rum, cachaça, calvados, various Asian spirits, ouzo, I could go on indefinitely, is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Luckily – che culo! – there are some exceptions; Italophiles, bon vivants, and discriminating drinkers can relax: if you’re looking for a good digestivo or a hit for your caffè corretto then you can bask in the assurance of steady supply, and even more encouragingly – of local supply.  I’m talking about grappa of course, and in the course of my exploration I made a few surprising observations about this iconic Italian spirit.

I’m regularly struck by the realisation that events, be they minor or epic, are often slaves to circumstance.  History is littered with examples – none more so than the specific history of distilled spirits.  Those with which we are familiar today evolved in response to their environment.  Single pot still Irish whiskey for instance exists only because of excessive taxation on the malting of barley.  It seems so arbitrary.  In Mediterranean countries the plentiful waste from wine production, known as pomace – the skin, seeds, and stem of the grape – was employed, probably by peasants who couldn’t afford anything else, to make a pomace brandy, of which the Italian version is what we know as grappa; and hence the birth of a magnificent tradition, a culture, from the casual whim of circumstance.

My impression of grappa had been of a harsh, bitter spirit.  I lived in Italy for some time, but in a country replete with bountiful treasures in cuisine, art, architecture, and history, I’d been too busy and too distracted to engage with this drink beyond the occasional – grimacing – after-dinner shot of likely low-quality, industrially-produced fare; so my knowledge and experience were somewhat lacking. As I alluded to, despite its position on the fringes of mainline spirits, grappa has achieved decent local traction – thanks to the relatively large Italian-South African population.  I headed out to Dalla Cia – a producer of wines and artisanal grappa – to begin my education.

It’s always a source of a certain comfort to me to know that there’s a depth of heritage standing behind a brand.  The production of great spirits often hinges on small nuances which are absorbed over time and with experience, and passed down from generation to generation.  Dalla Cia grappa – whilst only some 16 years old in its present form (starting out under the Meerlust name) – actually dates back to the 1920’s when the grandfather of present distiller George Dalla Cia owned one of the biggest grappa distilleries in Italy.  You get the sense that some 90 years of accumulated knowledge has been made to count: as we inspected his beautiful Cadalpe still – clearly engineering from the same country that produces Ferraris and Ducatis – George explained that they distil their skins strictly within 48 hours of pressing (after fermentation) in order to best capture the primary aromas.  These skins are furthermore ideally from their own wine production, but if they do use those from other estates, then they apply equivalent criteria to the selection – using only batches from low-yield cultivation.  And so it continued.  Made with specific cultivars.  Single cultivars! No sugar – sugar is often used to disguise the taste of burnt skins.  Second fill chardonnay casks to mature the spirit. I was taken aback by the level of sophistication, and by the attention to detail.  Whilst I was not so naïve as to expect a moonshine operation this seemed a far cry from the rough spirit with which I was familiar.

We finished with a tasting – Dalla Cia offers an extensive and exciting tasting menu which includes grappa chocolates, grappa ice-cream, grappa paired with coffee (of course), and grappa drizzled over the almond-and-polenta Sbrisolona tart (a unique treat), quite aside from the grappas themselves – which included two cabernet-sauvignon merlot variants, one aged (six to nine months), the other unaged, and a single cultivar pinot noir.   The former – following in the footsteps of local olive oil producer Morgenster – bested some of Italy’s top grappas in a blind tasting conducted by Rome’s Sommelier Association.  Sad then that if Italy has its way the name grappa may become geographically protected – an initiative long in the making but not yet finally ratified (as I understand it).

I was amazed during the tasting of these three variants, and on reflection afterwards, by both their smoothness and their variety of flavours – and I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit my prejudices, and to expand my spirits drinking repertoire: an Italian meal will no longer be properly complete without a little chase at the end.  Grappa may have had humble beginnings but then again so did single-malt whisky, so who knows where its continued evolution may end.  It truly does endorse the concept of la dolce vita.  Salute!

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What’s in a glass?

It may not be as important as what’s in the glass, but choice of glassware will materially influence the whisky drinking experience.  Patrick Leclezio reviews the options.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

If you’re a whisky cowboy riding about out there and exploring the range the weapon that you’re likely to be wielding more than most is a whisky glass.  A glass, if you think about it, is as basic as it gets: used for displacing liquid from bottle to mouth.  Is this worth worrying about?  Surely just about anything will do.  Well, actually, no. As with any of a wide array of ordinary, day-to-day products the features that distinguish one type of glass from another make only a subtle difference to its functioning; yet these can be sometimes be enough to both transform our experience of their use, and in many cases to command a substantial premium.  I recently assembled a panel of whisky luminaries – seasoned campaigners who’ve drawn just about every which glass from their holsters – to evaluate the various options available to us.

Our analysis focused more on casual drinking and less on professional tasting, where the opaque copita is king, but having said that we nonetheless gave due and full recognition to the appreciation of flavour.

The features that matter are both tangible and intangible; enjoyment, pleasure, even flavour are psychosomatic, so it’s important not to overlook or undervalue that latter class in a glass.  This notwithstanding in order of apparentness the conclusions from our review are as follows:

Shape

Some (many) whisky drinkers, much to their disadvantage, often overlook the aroma or nose (to use the proper parlance) of a whisky – which happens to be the most enabling medium through which to best appreciate the finer nuances of flavour, given that there are some 32 primary aromas but only five primary tastes.  A good whisky glass should taper inwards towards its rim, concentrating the rising vapours, hence promoting and focusing a person’s ability to savour the nose. Scottish manufacturers Glencairn produce the ideal glass for nosing – a bulbous receptacle at the base graduating into a narrow funnel towards the top; if I’ve had enough to drink I can almost swear that I can see the aromas swirling within it like an inverted tornado.  Doubters can employ a simple test to verify the significance of shape: stand a nosing-friendly glass side-by-side with a straight-walled tumbler and add equal measures of the same whisky (in our case we used the delicious Dewar’s 12YO) and water to both.  Nose one after the other and repeat – the difference is immediately palpable.

Rim

There are three factors relating to the rim about which we should be concerned: diameter, thickness and shape. 

The rim diameter should strike a harmonious balance between being too wide – thereby introducing sufficient area for vapour dispersal – and too narrow – obstructing the transition from nose to palate, especially for those of us with protruding proboscises (i.e. large schnozzes).  We found the Libbey 21cl L’Esprit du Vin glass to have the perfect dimensions – the inner rim measuring 45mm.

In terms of thickness there’s also a middle ground where drinking comfort becomes optimal, but this may be a matter of personal taste.  We tested a set of Normann Copenhagen rocking glasses whose chunky and cumbersome rims were almost suggestive of drinking out of a bowl.  Conversely the Glencairns are just too thin, too fine…whisky drinking requires a certain robust masculinity after all.

Lastly the shape of the rim can substantially enhance the experience of glass on lip, and subsequently of the introduction of the whisky into the mouth.  Riedel’s Vinum Single Malt glass is magnificent in this respect – a flared rim allows the whisky to pool at the lips before cascading over the teeth and onto the palate.  This glass does have its various drawbacks however: its curvature, its fragility, and its jaw-dropping cost combine to seriously inhibit one of whisky drinking’s greatest, most joyous rituals – that of toasting. 

Aesthetics and other intangibles

Design, clarity, weight, innovativeness, novelty, size and tradition all have a strong appeal; often this may not be explicitly and objectively explainable, but it is undeniable regardless.  I once owned a Mont Blanc pen (before I lost it, much to my chagrin); the shaft was ornate and substantial, the ink thick and lustrous, and the sight of it, well, it was arresting – I can still picture it perfectly now, in my mind’s eye, years later.  It was a beautiful, superbly-crafted instrument; still is I’m sure, to whoever found it.  But if I were to be measurably scientific, I’d have to say that I can write, and have subsequently written, with other pens – arbitrary, run-of-the-mill items – with much, if not exactly, the same observable results.  Yet, I definitely enjoyed writing with it, holding it, displaying it, impressing with it, far more than any of those others – for reasons that had nothing to do with its functional performance.  The experience of using it was special.  Similarly, even more compellingly – because its functional performance is undisputedly inferior – the straight-walled whisky tumbler, particularly its crystal incarnation, still occupies a certain pride of place amongst whisky lovers.  The guys at Spilhaus sent us a few of their finest examples – from Atlantis, Waterford and RCR – and we regaled in their use.  Their weight, or more descriptively, their heft, makes the suggestion of substance – of the glass, of the drink, and of the person.  It’s a serious glass for a serious drink – the badge of the gentlemen’s club tradition of whisky drinking, conveying affluence, power, civility and status.

And the winner is…

Once all these factors had been considered one glass towered above the others like a tippling titan: the Bowmore thistle glass.  It ticks all the boxes: a wide bowl, sitting on a thick, heavy base, curving pleasingly inwards before flaring to a well-proportioned rim.  It is not too small, not too large, sitting comfortably in the hand, and whilst its design may be deemed a bit tweed by younger, more modern enthusiasts, the thistle shape has a certain classic Scottish authenticity that will never be amiss for true adherents.  May the dram be with you – and in a damned good glass at that! 

Special thanks to Bernardo Gutman, Marsh Middleton, and Hector McBeth.