Monthly Archives: November 2013

Café culture classics

An exercise in acclimatisation.  Patrick Leclezio ponders the ultimate in acquired tastes.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I have this belief, a general life rule if you will – that some might interpret as masochistic, that anything worthwhile is not easy.  Perhaps this explains my fascination with acquired tastes.  The first time I ate an olive, as a child, I thought it vile, spitting it out in disgust.   My parents laughed and told to me that I’d have to eat lots of them before I started to understand them and enjoy them.  I think that’s what galvanised my resolve – the idea that I should earn this cultivated pleasure – rather than the detection of any promise in that initial experience.  Today I eat olives on a daily basis, devouring them like peanuts.  The turnaround has been complete, and pervasive; they’ve become one of my firm favourites.  It was an important lesson, I think – not life-saving, or anything quite that dramatic, but certainly life affirming.  We’re here so we may as well make the most of the varied delights on offer (within reason of course, I’m not advocating debauched hedonism), and in pursuit of such first impressions can sometimes get in the way.  But they call them that for a reason, because other, different impressions may well follow. Some spirits are burdened with this barrier – who can genuinely say that they enjoyed whisky from the very first sip, for instance? – none more so than the strange breed known as bitters.

Years ago, I enjoyed what I’d describe as an iconic Tuscan experience.  Ok, I should admit that it wasn’t actually in Tuscany, more like Lazio – a inconsequential distinction.  I had come across a small countryside town, a village really, called Sutri; built on a hill, a cobbled, hemmed-in street winding its way to the top, where it opened up onto a piazza, this was the traditional Italy of a past era.  I had wanted to soak up the scene with an appropriate aperitif – and when asked the local bartender recommended something called Crodino, which I soon discovered was a non-alcoholic version of bitters: astringent yes – to my uninitiated palate – but intriguing. It struck a chord; whilst I can’t say I’ve drunk much Crodino since, the encounter prompted me to persist with bitters, and I’ve kept a bottle in my cabinet ever since.

Ok, so hopefully I’ve convinced you now by that this is something worth some further consideration.  It’s a stretch though to refer to it as a unified drink.  Bitters are possibly the most fragmented category in classic spirits – the only common feature which they share is a broad, bitter (as the name suggests) flavour, created by either an infusion of the essences from one of or a combination of herbs, spices, roots, fruits and barks, or a distillation of these ingredients.  Since these recipes vary greatly from product to product the specific flavours can also be miles apart.  They’re also distinguished by significant variations in alcohol content and drinking formats. 

Here’s a quick run-down of the four types of bitters over which you’re most likely to trip in a local bar or bottle-store.

Jägermeister

This is one taste that I just haven’t been able to acquire.  It’s a hotchpotch concoction of an over-the-top 56 ingredients which continues to taste like cough syrup to me…but I must be in the minority.  All round the world people are chugging Jäger shots and Jäger bombs (a shot of Jägermeister depth-charged into a Red Bull), and the odd few might even be drinking it old school as a digestif.  In volume terms this stuff is the king of the bitters – some 80 million bottles are sold every year – and it packs a punch at 35% ABV, especially since it’s largely drunk neat.

Angostura

Originally intended as a stomach tonic way back at its inception in 1824, Angostura has now evolved into a pretty much unique (its imitators notwithstanding) style of spirits.  Whereas most are drunk neat or with a mixer added, this highly concentrated potion is used primarily as a drop-by-drop additive – for flavouring and / or colouring other drinks.   It is well-known for pink gin and the almost-teetotalling rock shandy, and it is easily distinguished from other seasoning bitters by its legendary, mistakenly-then-deliberately oversized label. 

Campari

The definitive Italian bitters has been given a run for its money in recent years, particularly by arch-rival Fernet Branca – which ironically counts South African aloe amongst its ingredients despite not being available here.  Synonymous with style and elegance, as epitomised by its annual (is that redundant?) calendar, the drink has garnered an anecdotal reputation (which I don’t have the data to quantitatively verify) for a distribution footprint that far outreaches its actual consumption.  If it’s true then this is good news for us aficionados – we’re unlikely to be disappointed, wherever we might be, in our quest for a Negroni, an Americano, or any other Camparied libation.

Aperol

The distinguishing feature of Campari’s little brother is its low alcohol content: it weighs in at 11% ABV, versus the former’s 25%, although I should note that it is bottled at 15% for the hard-core Germans, with whom it has become extremely popular; thanks to them its volumes have almost come to match Campari’s.  It has a similar flavour to Campari but is milder and not as bitter. So all round a moderate bitters.  It’s highly recommended in a Spritz: three parts Prosecco (a Cap Classique will do), two parts Aperol, and one part soda water.  Picture yourself in a little Mediterranean alfresco bar and let rip!

 

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Whisky progeny

Riding the coat tails of their forebears.  PATRICK LECLEZIO considers the world whisky phenomenon.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p2.

As it appeared p2.

In the past I’ve written about “world whiskies” in nothing less than glowing terms.  I’ve always felt that whisky is distinguished from most other fine spirits by three vital attributes, the first two being complexity and variety – towering pillars that have set this drink apart and above.  The array of flavours within a single whisky – as evidenced by browsing through any arbitrary enthusiast’s tasting notes (pretentious and overcooked, I’ll admit, as some of these might be, in true anorak style) – is astounding, almost incredible to the uninitiated; and the scale of the variation amongst whiskies is unrivalled in classic liquor (would chasmic be too strong a word?).  It is thus safe to assume one would think – a foregone conclusion! – that the relatively recent proliferation of world whiskies should be regarded as an exclusively positive development, adding as these do to this lexicon. Perhaps, perhaps not.  It’s sometimes worthwhile to challenge even the most assured assumption.  I decided to take another look at this new fringe with a more critical eye; the result: a few musings about why the situation might not be as unambiguous as first impressions might suggest.

First though, what exactly are world whiskies?  I’ve always misliked the expression because it pronounces a lumping together of disparate products often with little in common – much of which should not be tarred by each other’s brushes.  Anyhow, for the sake of expediency I’m going to persist with it, and I’ll define them as whiskies emanating from regions where no whisky-making heritage exists, and where the whisky-making tradition was imported – wholesale – from elsewhere.  Japan is an oddity in this paradigm – whisky is not organic to the country but it could be argued that a heritage of sorts has now come to exist; nonetheless I’m going to include Japanese whiskies in my thinking.

I’ll kick-off with the third of my attributes – integrity.  The standards that have been laid down by the collective, established industry are generally rigorous (although I note the odd lapse here and there, and some worrying recent trends – inevitable I guess when the interests of the consumer are being served only indirectly). Scotch whisky and American whiskey, in particular, have precise and exhaustive sets of governing regulations.  Whilst these might well be self-serving (and they are – make no mistake) they nonetheless offer us whisky lovers a certain guarantee: that we can part with our hard-earned lucre with the relative security that expectations – instilled over generations – will be met, and that certain important criteria will be respected.  This is not something on which we can necessarily rely elsewhere. 

In fact new territories may be tempted to distort and exploit the acknowledged whisky-making ethic to serve their own agendas, and some do.  Take India as an example (an obvious one, forgive me) – where even the basic rules, the fundamental foundations of whisky production, have been grotesquely violated.  Whisky by evolutionary definition (and legal definition, in most places) is a spirit distilled from cereal grains, yet the bulk of Indian whisky is made from molasses, which is often subsequently blended with various proportions of malt or other grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premiumness.  “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said industry guru Bill Lumsden of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. The conclusion to which I’m drawn is that a massive swath of drinkers, the largest whisky-drinking population in the world, is being deceived, and short-changed.  How can this be good? 

I’ll admit that this is a blatant extreme – the issue is not so facile. There are conceivable instances where departures may even benefit flavour. However, as with sports, meaning derives from a set of rules.  Rugby might arguably be more exciting if one could pass the ball forward, but then it wouldn’t be rugby, would it?  Whisky’s identity, and indeed its value, comes from its link to its past and its traditions.  A drink springing from anything other than this platform, good or bad, should not have the right to call itself whisky, or to tap into its goodwill.   I wrote some time ago that whisky is only whisky because five hundred years of documented history (and several hundreds more lost in the mists of time) have told us that that’s how it should be made.  Integrity is everything.

Some sophisticated whisky drinkers might be willing to overlook such risks – their knowledge and the price points at which they engage are largely insulating.  Their sometimes-very-transitory attention tends to focus on the shiny new toy – usually malt with some sort of cachet, and with its own “brand integrity”: the Japanese, yes of course, and others such as Mackmyra (Sweden), Amorik (France), Amrut (India), and Sullivan’s Cove (Australia).  I have no doubt that these new whiskies have enriched the variety in our whisky regimens, but the real value of this added diversity is questionable – its impact owing more to novelty than to genuine uniqueness.  We can point to some distinctly individual flavours – the incense acidity evidenced by the use of Mizunara casks in the maturation of Japanese whisky for instance – but this is by no means guaranteed.  And how much variety do we really need? Surely, at some point, there has to be a diminishing return – because like-for-like (I use the term loosely), generally (our own Three Ships is an exception), these whiskies tend to be significantly more expensive than those from established regions.   

Most damningly, to my sense of things, it’s worth noting that whilst there may be product-to-product variety, there is scant by way of collective style variety.  New whiskies have emulated Scotch whisky by-and-large – with a few tweaks (be they motivated by genuine passion or by business reasons) thrown in to claim some originality: sorghum or other eccentric mashbills, scrub-wood and juniper twig fragrancing, local oak casks, and unusual stills, to quote a few – rather than build a concertedly separate identity.  These experiments are not without merit but ask yourself: is there a new whisky territory that stands significantly distinct?  Have original new whisky styles emerged?  Not really.  Even in Japan (and South Africa, and elsewhere I’m sure), the most compelling contender, blended whiskies are still synthesised using Scotch malt.  This cannot be ignored.

Now, I grant you, this is a thin line – almost contradictory given that I earlier mentioned the need for a connection to the past (which is somewhat exclusive) – perhaps impossibly thin, but those are the challenges of a late entry.  Here in South Africa there’s no meaningful legal definition, of which I’m aware, for a South African style of whisky.  Does this betray the lack of an intention to create anything unique and proprietary, or is it something that just needs to evolve organically as it did with the now established styles?  If the latter applies I think we need to concede at the very least that it doesn’t exist yet, and that potentially that it may never exist.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should moderate our consumption or exploration of world whiskies, not at all – because many of them are exceptional.  The best Japanese whiskies, often internationally lauded and awarded, easily rival those from anywhere else, Scotland included, and unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past two years you’ll know that our own whiskies have also garnered a few global gongs.   I recently had the opportunity to sample a range of Kavalan whiskies, ahead of their imminent local launch.  These whiskies hail from Taiwan, a country that is quite special to me.  I lived there in the mid-nineties, which doesn’t seem so long ago, especially in whisky terms.  It’s incredible then to think that the first Kavalan whisky was only released some twelve years thereafter in 2008, and it’s even more incredible to experience what’s been wrought with such young liquid.  They’re still a bit raw, but there’s a symphony of activity: a musical arrangement of lilting flavours – I’ll defer to their orchestral theme – against a signature background of ripe tropical fruits.  It epitomises the best of the world whisky phenomenon. 

What I am suggesting – and I have little doubt that this will be an unpopular sentiment, one that may be perceived as unsupportive (although that’s not my intention) – is that our enthusiasm should be tempered with the awareness that these whiskies are imitators; great imitators in many cases, yes, often imaginative and innovative, but imitators nonetheless.  Originality, real originality, has an irreplaceable, unsubstitutable worth.  Authentic objects should always command greater prestige than derivative objectives – especially to discriminating and critical consumers – and world whiskies are undoubtedly derivative.  They will not – cannot! – truly come into their own until and if they stake a real claim. May the dram be with you.

 

Syrupy spirits

Can liqueurs be taken seriously?  Patrick Leclezio steps out of his comfort zone.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2013 edition)

As it appeared.

I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of liqueurs. They’re very sweet, they’re sometimes creamy – attributes which I can appreciate in a dessert but which seem frivolous in a drink – and they’re also usually undercooked; our legislation, likely a reflection of global standards, only stipulates a minimum 24% ABV for liqueurs and an even limper 15% for cream liqueurs. I still shudder from the residual effects of the many cloying, unavoidable ‘springboks’ that those of us growing up here would inevitably have drunk.  Hard tack is meant to be…well…hard, at least in my view of things. On reflection – and it can be rewarding to reflect on preconceptions – I have to concede though that mine is a rather narrow view, which deserves some reconsideration.  Many liqueurs have a deep and rich tradition, rivalling and sometimes exceeding some of the other classic spirits.  Others yet have remodelled the perception of spirits – and made them accessible to an otherwise resistant audience.  These attributes and this effort command enough credit to warrant a little exploration so I set out on a search and found four liqueurs which gave me pause for thought (albeit when limited to small doses).

Chambord

The little booklet hanging around this unusual, globular bottle (styled on the globus cruciger – a medieval Christian symbol) reads as follows: “According to legend Chambord was inspired by a luxurious raspberry liqueur produced for King Louis XIV during his visit to Chateau Chambord in the 17th Century”.  This is typical of liquor brands – the creation of a heritage, or appearance thereof, or association thereto.  Dubious, but no matter; the product itself stands quite securely on its own two feet. It seems to have taken the niche previously occupied by the poorly-branded, undifferentiated crème de cassis market and claimed it as its own.  Note that crème de cassis is a blackcurrant flavoured grape brandy (or sometimes neutral spirit) whereas Chambord is a cognac base infused with black raspberries, blackcurrant, and vanilla – similar enough to share a broad flavour profile but different and premium enough to be set apart.  Sipped neat (and chilled), partnered with a brut sparkling wine in an approximation of a Kir Royale, or indeed, if my small sampling is reliable indication, splashed into any one of their recommended cocktails (also to be found in the little booklet), it is simply a magnificent drink.

Magnum

Magnum, like all other cream liqueurs, owes a debt of gratitude to Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur – which in 1974 introduced people to the idea of a mix of liquor and cream (with the implied, utterly invented suggestion that such concoctions were part of Irish rural traditions). Today Bailey’s sells six and half million nine litre cases per annum, so clearly this is a format which has since enjoyed significant traction.  Magnum may be an imitator, the latest in a fairly long line, but it’s a damn good one.  It’s also local – developed and bottled right here in Cape Town.  From its exceptional milk-churn fashioned container, and its Scotch-malt-whisky content (distinct from Bailey’s, which is blended Irish whiskey), to its delicious, luxuriant flavour, it ticks all the boxes.  This drink might even tempt me to revisit the springbok…(I said might).

Cointreau

There’s an ice-cream parlour in Franschhoek that sells a delicious orange-chocolate ice-cream; I never miss the opportunity to pop in and savour a few scoops when I’m in the area.  My favourite pastry also happens to be the cannolo, a fried dough tube filled with an orange-zest ricotta cream.  I could go on but I’m sure the point is made – clearly I’m partial to citrus flavours.  So it’ll be no surprise that Cointreau, the king of Triple-Sec, is on my list (I could just as well have selected Grand Marnier – also orangey, also superb, great on crêpes – but its local distribution is a bit patchy, so why build up anticipation that may end in disappointment).  Cointreau is one of those liqueurs to which I had earlier alluded – boasting a long and proud (and genuine) history constituting some 150 palate-pleasing years.  It is notable for having produced one of the (if not the) first motion-picture liquor advertisements, featuring an iconic Pierrot character, and for its inclusion in one of the world’s most popular cocktail, the Margarita (any triple-sec might do, but life’s too short to settle for anything less than the best), but mostly it’s just notable for being downright delicious.

Frangelico

Ok, I’ll admit, you’re not going to catch me drinking much of this stuff, if any at all.  I find its nutty sweetness overpowering in the mouth.  But I do like its aroma, and, whilst smell might not be as satisfying as taste, it is in a sense a lot more interesting: there are 32 primary aromas and only five primary tastes.  One whiff and I can imagine that I’ve dunked my head in a bag of hazelnuts.  In typical fashion the brand harks back to ye olden times with its talk of legends and monks and past centuries, and with its Friar-Tuck-habit (or rather the Italian Franciscan counterpart) bottle – rope belt included.  Would it be cynical to suggest that the drink was probably synthesised in a Piedmontese laboratory not too long ago?  Snide remarks aside, it’s worth keeping a bottle in the liquor cabinet, if for nothing else other than dousing a bowl of ice-cream.

 

Whisky 101

Want to brush up on your whisky knowledge?  Why not take the Masterclass.  PATRICK LECLEZIO signs up for some tutelage.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

I grew up in whisky on the books of Michael Jackson, the leading whisky writer of the modern age.  His wealth of knowledge and his astute delivery thereof – striking, in engaging prose, a beautiful balance between the accessible and the meaningful – made a pleasure of my early education.  I’ve reached the age now when in a somewhat dismal turn of events I’m starting to look back on my journey, my experiences, and indeed my life as a whole with certain wistfulness.  New things sometimes just don’t seem to measure up to my rose-tinted view of the past. With the benefit of progress of course this is less than likely to be the reality, so I know in my rational mind that fixation on blissful bygones comes with the risk of missing out on something really good…which I nearly did. Enter MJ’s (yes, we were that close) erstwhile successor, Dave Broom, a prolific drinks journalist and writer of whisky and other books in his own right, who along with a team of intrepid South Africans has been ushering in a new era.

I’m not questioning MJ’s status as a top-drawer legend, or suggesting that the other great whisky writers should not be read – he is and they should; but times have changed, technology has proliferated, and the public is more demanding.  We now have another option – an online, audio-visual, interactive option – that’s just too compelling to ignore, and, indeed, that might just warrant being preferred: it’s quite aptly called The World Masterclass of Whisky – and to all appearances it is the most comprehensive, most definitive, most all-encompassing publicly available whisky education instrument ever created.

This is not a statement that can be made lightly, and it isn’t.  The Masterclass is quite evidently encyclopaedic, spanning 50 individual lessons (or chapters) structured across five levels (or sections), 150 video clips of distillers and distilleries (including both scenic footage and actual tutorials by industry experts), and over 100 tasting clips.  The action is focused on a “classroom”- with Broom stationed in front of shelves laden with enough variety and volume of whisky to motivate even the most delinquent of students – but it diverts to a rich panoply of whisky-related footage as and when required to enhance the presentation. 

Now this is not a slick Hollywood production: the camera occasionally seems distracted, I noticed a section where the video and audio are out of synchronisation, and Broom’s characteristic shaggy, wild-Scotsman look shows no evidence of hair-and-makeup; but then again I don’t think it’s meant to be. It is basic but competent – and I felt that any shortcomings did more to add to rather than detract from its charm.  The true value of this initiative is in the content and the context: it is jam-packed with everything from basic explanations for the novice to more advanced insights for the aficionado – all delivered by some of the most credible possible sources at the most credible possible sources.

One of the little nuggets that opened up a new vein of knowledge for me was the commentary about charring (and toasting).  This is a subject which whilst always mentioned in whisky literature is rarely interrogated – at least beyond trivialities about levels.  Why is it done? I had in my wanderings heard various interpretations: for the sterilisation of casks previously used for other purposes (such as storing pickled produce); for the imparting of colour to the spirit at an accelerated rate; for sealing pockets of sap (perhaps in the era before adequate seasoning); for caramelising the sugars in the wood; or, at least in the US, for attempting a smokiness redolent of the peat of the old country. Some or even all of these reasons might have triggered the practice but it wouldn’t have continued unless its contribution to flavour was worthwhile.  Broom’s explanation thus – as evidenced in the Masterclass – is spot on and gets to the heart of the matter: the carbonised wood acts as a sponge adsorbing unpleasant impurities from the base spirit, although I might have also added that it provides a passage for the spirit into the pores of the oak.

The tasting clips are equally meaningful and in-depth.  Broom deconstructs each whisky with gusto – delving into not only its flavour, at length, but also into its history and its peculiarities.  I’d suggest accompanying him in real time with the same whisky – it’s most enjoyable and instructive, and a damn sight better than looking over some tasting notes.  I joined him in savouring a Bunnahabhain 12YO and his repeated enunciation of the name’s pronunciation, his description of the distillery (its size its isolation), and his precise summation of the whisky reminded me of my visit to the site, and generally raised my appreciation of this fine whisky.

The Masterclass is also intended as a formal “course” in whisky for service staff – the force behind the project is a dynamic South African hospitality education company called Lobster Ink – and as such it’s accompanied by an assessment system (the interactive element that I mentioned earlier) which you can use to evaluate yourself, if inclined to do so.  I have different ideas about how to put new found whisky knowledge into practice (and a test is not it), but to each their own.

This impressive body of work can be accessed at www.theworldmasterclass.com.  Wherever you might be on your whisky journey I think I can safely say that there’ll be value in it for you.  Register, watch, learn, enjoy, and may the dram be with you.

The bourbon review

First published in MUDL Magazine (November 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

It’s the end of the week, a thank-God-it’s-Friday kind of Friday.  The shackles are off, it’s time to cut loose.  You walk into a bar (where else!).  The vibe’s electric…it’s calling to you.  First things first though.  Like a cowboy who’s crossed the badlands and made it to the other side you deserve to slake your thirst with a golden elixir.  Yep, you’re going get yourself a bourbon – a freewheeling all-American shot-glass charging party starting gullet lubricating liquid bullet of a bourbon (and a double at that!) – to kick the evening into gear, no question.  But which bourbon?  Experiment by all means, but don’t just be arbitrary.  Here’s what you need to know.

I recently gathered together a panel of esteemed whiskey experts – guys who can tell their Jim from their Jack, and who know the latter well enough to call him John (in the best Pacino tradition, hooah!) – to review most of the bourbons available to us on the local market, an array which included the following: Jim Beam White and Black, Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack, Slate, Blanton’s Single Barrel and Straight from the Barrel, Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, Eagle Rare, Maker’s Mark, WL Weller and Woodford Reserve, in no particular order (and not counting a few wildcards, about which more later).   At this stage though, before ploughing into our impressions of these dozen contenders, it might be useful to set the scene – context can be a game changer.  So then, what is bourbon, and how does it fit into the greater whisk(e)y family?

For a whiskey to be called bourbon it must be produced in the United States (anywhere, but usually Kentucky), be made from a mashbill (recipe of ingredients) containing at least 51% corn, and be aged in new, charred oak barrels, amongst other more technical statutory necessities.  This requirement for virgin wood has created a nifty symbiosis with the Scotch whisky industry – which purchases the once-used cast-offs for their own maturation purposes.   It also means however that the bourbon flavour spectrum is by regulatory definition more limited than many other whisky styles, which use casks seasoned with everything from the typical bourbon and sherry, to port, cognac, rum and just about anything else of which you can think.    It seems also to be the case that bourbon is restricted – by convention and commercial feasibility if not legislation – to the use of American white oak barrels (whereas others are using Spanish, French, Japanese and other types of oaks), thereby further inhibiting its range of flavours.  This is something we noticed during the review – bourbon is generally big and bold, but it plays within a much tighter flavour band than whiskies such as Scotch or Irish.

A straight bourbon – the only type with which those of us seeking to appreciate a fine spirit should concern ourselves – must additionally be aged for a minimum of two years (although four is the standard for the marquee brands), and have no added colouring, flavouring or other spirit added.  This is an important distinction.  Slate, for instance, is a blended bourbon – a separate category allowing for just under half of the liquid to be composed of an unaged spirit component.  Accordingly we found Slate to have a ‘spirity’ flavour redolent of new make.  Best disguised with a mixer.

The rest of the mashbill is usually made up of rye or wheat (known respectively as a rye-recipe or wheat-recipe, or alternatively as the flavour grain) and a small percentage of malted barley for fermentation purposes.  Rye recipes predominate (and are typically further defined as high rye or traditional depending on proportions), but some of the industry’s most iconic brands are wheat-recipes, notably Maker’s Mark and W.L. Weller. Typically these are more moderate, sweeter – the corn being allowed to dominate (WL Weller is all “fat” corn) rather than having to compete with the very distinctive, powerful flavour of rye in the background.  Maker’s Mark has a cereal character, perhaps the wheat exerting an influence, which makes it – we felt – the most malt-like of bourbons.  Whisky (or in this case whiskey) always has the ability to surprise (and delight) though: of two of our wild-cards, the first, Larceny, exhibited the spiciness which is typical of rye, despite being made with a wheat recipe, whilst the second, the rye-based George Dickel Superior no. 12, was butterscotch sweet.

You’ve probably noticed at this point that I’d earlier been writing about Jack Daniel’s and bourbon in virtually the same breath, when, as everyone surely must know, it’s a Tennesse whiskey and not a bourbon – the same, by the way, goes for George Dickel (also along with Maker’s Mark the only American whiskies i.e. not whiskeys).  The only differences between a bourbon and a Tennessee whiskey is the additional step of maple charcoal filtration (also known as the Lincoln County process) before maturation, and the fact that the latter must be made in the great state of Tennessee (if you’ll excuse my huckster-politician speak).  The first is significant, the second debatably so, but regardless, in my opinion, they remain bourbons with carbon twist, rather than a separate class of whiskey; I was pleased to discover that the definitions in NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – seem to endorse my point of view.   In the case of Gentleman Jack, the Jack Daniel’s variant we reviewed, there is a double charcoal filtration process employed – both before and after maturation – resulting in an exceptionally smooth, velvety, maple-sweetened, easy whiskey with a well-rounded almost peachy overtone.  It’s not particularly complex, but it’s highly drinkable.

The prospect of tasting 15 bourbons – the third wildcard was an outstanding Four Roses Small Batch: as complex and subtle a bourbon as for which one could hope – in one sitting was somewhat daunting, but we meandered our way through them with an it’s-a-tough-job-but-someone’s-got-to-do-it attitude (tongue in cheek of course – so actually with great relish).

A few notable observations:

Jim Beam hasn’t become the world’s best-selling bourbon by accident; the White Label is a solid performer – basic and dependable like vanilla ice-cream but with sprinklings of pepper and orange zest to add a bit of interest.  Selling at R150 odd this is just astonishingly good value for money.  Its Black Label big brother is similar, but, as you’d expect for an eight year old, more evolved – the peppery spice having now mellowed and sweetened, and transformed into peppermint or perhaps aniseed.

If you have any intention of taking bourbon seriously then you need to pay close attention to the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  These guys are prolific innovators who produce a range of high quality drinks – notably bourbon and rye whiskey.  We don’t have to their best stuff locally but don’t let this put you off: from the eponymously named Buffalo Trace, an excellent entry-level bourbon with a sweet prickle on the nose and an orange ice-lolly stick note on the palate (to keep you jolly), and the well-balanced, grassy-flavoured Eagle Rare, to the outstanding Blanton’s, there’s enough on offer for satisfaction aplenty.

Sight is arguably the most powerful of our senses, or certainly the one that makes the most impression.  Appearances then are always likely to influence us.  Whether that’s right or wrong is a matter for the philosophers and in my mind largely irrelevant.  It’s just how it is.  That’s why I always like to give some consideration to packaging.  In this regard the Maker’s Mark wax capsule, Blanton’s horse and jockey closure and its distinctive globular bottle, the vintage George Dickel label (reminiscent of the Wild West), and the flask-like Woodford Reserve bottle are all standouts.

On to the serious business then.  I promised earlier to tell you what you need to know, so here it is.  We singled out four of the dozen as our collective favourites.  Our little panel, after an objective assessment, came to the conclusion that the best bourbons commonly available in South Africa are (in no particular order once again):

Maker’s Mark – great flavour, great looks, it’s the full package.

Knob Creek – dusty nose, potent kick of spice, pronounced wood influence; small batch is not just a sales pitch.

Blanton’s Single Barrel – immediately popped its head out of the crowd, complex, a trifecta (haha, think about it) of sweetness, spiciness and wood.

Woodford Reserve – deep, fragrant nose, multi-layered, pronounced rye spice; a big bourbon brazenly bragging of its copper pot-still provenance.

South Africa is a Scotch whisky market through and through.  Jamesons, Jack Daniel’s and, dare I say it, Firstwatch have made an impact – on the back of their brand power and pricing more than anything else – but by and large these have been exceptions to the norm.  It’s a bit of a pity that our awareness of and appreciation for other styles of whisky seems underdeveloped.  Or perhaps, more optimistically, it’s bit of an opportunity.  We now have an encouragingly broad selection of bourbons on our doorsteps.  And, without underselling this fine drink, in those go-big-or-go-home moments there’s just no substitute.  May the dram be with you.

Big thanks to luminaries Marsh Middleton, Bernardo Gutman, and Hector McBeth.