Monthly Archives: January 2014

Potstill pleasure

I mentioned in an earlier post about pairings that I had recently attended two lunches themed on this format.  The second of these – hosted at the fabulous Pot Luck Club by the SA Brandy Foundation and KWV – was a showcase for the latter’s core range of premium brandies.   I don’t think that they could have chosen a better venue.  The spectacular setting – the restaurant is perched at the “top” of Woodstock and enjoys wraparound views – was outdone only by the exquisite meal (and brandies of course), the highlight of which was a world-beating main course of pork belly with cured apple.  I’ve heard that this fare has become voguish – fully understandable if the general standard is within shouting distance of the Pot Luck Club’s tour de force.

The guys with whom I typically hobnob at most of the liquor events I attend were absent, this being brandy rather than whisky related, so I had the opportunity to make some new acquaintances, including Savile Row and Emily Post aficionado Neil Pendock, whom certain readers may remember fondly – I know I do – from this post, and the affable Alastair Coombe from the blog Brandy and Ginger.

The focus during the lunch seemed to be on the new 12YO, which is admittedly very good (a satisfyingly rich brandy, like its 15YO stable-mate), but my attention was drawn to the less fashionable 10YO – for various reasons: it’s a great, flavoursome brandy (I particularly enjoyed the tart apricot on the palate); it’s been selling at a ridiculously good price (good for us, not sure if it’s so good for KWV or for the standing of premium brandies – we’ll just have to trust that they know what they’re doing); and, most compellingly, it’s signalling a promising shift in the industry.

I’ve written in the past about how I believe that South African brandy is being hampered by the presence of unmatured wine spirits in its compositions.  Well done then to KWV for taking their 10YO and transforming it from vintage to potstill (100% pot distilled, matured brandy).  This is the direction in which the industry should be travelling.   The descriptor “vintage” however still remains on the bottles (and on the tasting notes provided to us at the lunch!) –  I’m told that “they have yet to effect a label change” – which I find puzzling (disquieting?); these types of changes don’t happen overnight and I would have thought KWV would want to shout this out.  Anyhow, stranger things have happened.  The selection – delicious throughout – was completed by the 20YO potstill, which I found to have a deep, layered nose that retreated to softer, more restrained flavours on the palate.

This KWV ensemble is an engaging, interesting range of potstills that demonstrates the excellence of South African brandy.  One day in the not too distant future we’ll be scratching our heads and marvelling at how it could ever have been possible in late 2013 – early 2014 to buy a 10YO and 12YO potstill brandy of such quality for under R200 and R250 respectively (despite having to bear in mind that at 38% ABV versus 43% for most other spirits they should be, simplistically, about 12% cheaper like-for-like).  Brandy might have been struggling of late but if producers can invest in the intrinsics and keep offering this calibre of liquid then the tide will surely turn.

I’ve previously remarked on the good work being done by the SA Brandy Foundation, the co-hosts and organisers of the lunch – which was another feather in their cap.  I may not agree with their emphasis on brandy cocktails (the basis for one of their promotional campaigns), but there’s no arguing with the vigour and dynamism that they’ve injected into the category.  I’d left the event impressed – as I’m sure was the intention, job deservedly done – and replete with positive sentiments, so it’s with some reluctance and discomfort (a mental indigestion – ironic because the lunch sank happily into my depths) that I’m now going to raise a few concerns; unfortunately it’s necessary if I’m to be objective and true to my observations.

I don’t pretend to be comprehensively aware of all of (or even most of) the Foundation’s activities.  I’m sure that there’s a lot of great (and vital) work being done about which I don’t have the slightest inkling – so keep this context in mind. I’ve kept an eye however on its efforts in the area of consumer education, which I had felt to be commendable.  It was sad thus to take note of a few (small, but important in my opinion) recent reversals.

Two matters in particular:

Firstly I noticed this call-out on page eight of the Summer 2013 edition of the Foundation’s magazine (called Angel’s Share).

Now, this is clearly false.  When I queried it, rather than retracting or admitting a mistake, I was told by the Foundation’s spokesperson that “Potstill brandy must be aged for a minimum of three years in casks no larger than 340 litres”.  Somehow the fact that they hadn’t mentioned the word “potstill” didn’t seem to enter the equation. Misleading? Definitely.  Deliberately misleading?  I sincerely hope not.  I think the latter, if it were the case – apart from being just plain wrong – would also be short-sighted and counter-productive in the long-run:  if I was told that a 1.6L car was a 2.5L I’d probably end up being disappointed with its performance.

Secondly I also noticed that the Foundation’s explanations of the classes of South African brandy, as stated on its website and in the magazine, had gone from being brilliantly specific (and to my mind very clear and easy-to-understand) a few months ago to vague-ish, lacking transparency, and, in one case – the definition for vintage brandy – a bit confusing.  With regards to the latter the magazine suggests that these “contain a minimum of 30% potstilled brandy, blended with matured and unmatured wine spirit” whilst the current version of website defines them as “potstill brandy blended with matured wine spirit” (I’ve since been told that the latter is accurate, following an agreement by the industry, but not yet enacted in law – so much like the improvement to potstill brandy that did away with its unmatured component). Now there’s obviously detail in these definitions that could be perceived as unflattering, however the Foundation’s purported reason for how it now portrays them, i.e. the stripping out of much of this detail (you can see this taking place even in the two excerpts I’ve just provided), was simplicity – to deal with “a crisis regarding consumer confusion and apathy”.  I disagree.  Surely the best way to tackle confusion and apathy is better not lesser education.  This is easier said than done of course – I realise that I’m shouting from the stands – but if South African brandy has aspirations to be world-class, which I think it rightfully does, then I don’t think there’s any other way.

These issues though don’t really matter when you’re sitting with a glass of the good stuff in front of you.  My message then to brandy lovers for the new year:  ditch your coke and take the step up to potstill, at least partially.  On the evidence of this showing, and others, you won’t look back.

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Single casks – on the knife’s edge

I mentioned in my last post that I’d recently attended a pairing lunch laid on by Checkers LiquorShop – for the launch of Private Barrel Co., a house label of single cask whiskies.    We were introduced to four private bottlings – a Glenlossie 15YO, a Benrinnes 15YO, a Glen Grant 17YO, and a Mortlach 14YO – each of which was paired with a separate dish.  The food was sumptuous – par for the course(s…) at the Cape Grace – and whilst I remain dubious about this manner of pairing for anything but the occasional there’s little doubt that it can (and did in this case) work spectacularly well as a promotional format.

Anyhow, I’m not going to linger on the finer details of the lunch itself.  It was enjoyable for those of us attending – who can argue with fine food in the company of whisky and the whisky brotherhood? – but it’s of little further relevance for my purposes here; apologies to any food voyeurs who might be reading.

Cape Town whisky brotherhood, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Members of the Cape Town whisky brotherhood seated and ready, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Onto the whisky.

Actually, wait.  Allow me a contextualising aside before I continue.

Single malts are considered to be pure and unadulterated whisky.  They are representative of a singular terroir and style, and they are rare and limited.  Many casual whisky drinkers though aren’t explicitly aware that there are in fact three broad categories of single malts.

The typical, regular single malt is in fact blended – or vatted to be more correct about it.  A variety of casks, sometimes filled in a variety of different years, are used to maintain flavour consistency from one bottling to the next. 

Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only liquid distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings.  Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded.  The appeal of vintages is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. 

Single casks are the apex:  one source, one style, one cask…(with a qualification for the latter – single casks can be double matured or finished).  The link to the past, always important with whisky, is particularly strong here – single casks define its origins.  This is whisky at its purest and most unadulterated.

There’s a persuasive basis thus on which to recommend both single casks in general and the Checkers range specifically:

          They epitomise the romance of whisky.

  –          They are tangibly and dramatically limited – whilst the precise volume depends (primarily) on the type of cask and the length of maturation, we know with certainty that each expression would be restricted to somewhat less than the capacity of the largest possible cask (a pipe or butt at a little under 500 litres – at cask strength).   The Checkers offerings are limited to no more than 600 bottles each at 46% ABV, so they present a golden opportunity to secure a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness.

 –          Single casks are uncommon on the South African market – our laborious liquor legislation making it cumbersome to import small batches of any one product – so these new entrants make a welcome addition to our repertoires.

          I’d expect to pay a premium for single casks given their rarity and distinctiveness, but the pricing on these offerings – ranging from R550 to R850 – suggest that they’re great value for money…at least in theory.

Checkers deserves substantial credit for identifying this gap, and, even more so, for filling it.  These guys may be new to the whisky game – as evidenced by their tasting mats which displayed the words “whiskey” (Checkers is only offering Scotch at this stage) and “palette” – but their flair for retail is undeniable.

You’re probably thinking that at this stage that I should be brimming with untempered enthusiasm.  Unfortunately – being a bit of a cynical bastard (both a curse and a blessing) – I retain some reservations.  Single casks are the only whiskies that are not vatted (ok, the grain versions too).  Quite simply, when making this type of whisky, there is nowhere to hide.  Other whiskies may be able to get away with sub-optimal components – camouflaged in the vatting – but with single casks everything is either good or it’s not.

So, in evaluating the merits of the Checkers range, the vital issues for me – which eventually detracted from an entirely favourable impression of these whiskies – was provenance and cask profile.  I wanted extensive and specific cask and producer information.  What kind of wood?  Seasoning?  First fill or refill?   Did these casks come from the distilleries (unlikely in this age of whisky shortages), or from an independent bottler?  Which independent bottler?  If the quality of a single cask is an inherent risk – as I’m suggesting it is – then this information would mitigate that risk to an extent.  It would give someone considering purchase a certain measure of assurance and direction, and a fair means to assess pricing.  R850 may not be a lot in premium whisky terms, but for gaping uncertainty it’s still a long outlay.

It turned out that the cask information was unavailable – other than some bare bones.  The producer information was initially also unavailable, and somewhat muddled.  I was told at the function that some casks emanated from the distilleries and some from a variety of (unnamed – because Checkers wanted to keep the focus on their own brand rather than an association) independent bottlers.  Fellow blogger Bernard Gutman, who’d attended the luncheon with me, was later told that the casks had all been sourced from Hart Brothers, a relatively little-known independent bottler.

(Correction 04/01/14:  Bernard has just informed me that the casks were sourced from Meadowside Blending, which is owned by Donald Hart of Hart Brothers).

What to make of all this?  I personally don’t believe that any organisation in the business of maturing casks of whisky – whether the distilleries themselves or independent bottlers – would offer its better casks for a private bottling in the usual course of business (there are always exceptions – especially where long-standing relationships are involved).  It would stand both to make more profit and to better enhance its reputation by bottling them under its own label.  So my educated, and perhaps ungenerous, but honest guess – and I stress that it is a guess given the patchiness of the information – is that these are second-choice casks from a second-tier bottler (or bottlers).

The range

The range.

The whiskies themselves were a mixed bag.  I enjoyed the Glen Grant, especially its stewed-pear nose – and I’d have to say that this is a good bet at its R799 price-tag; the Glenlossie and Benrinnes were pleasant, if middling; and the Mortlach was a touch disappointing – even more so given the Diageo overhaul that will likely project pricing of Mortlach offspring into the stratosphere.

The balanced view is that overall this is a great initiative – but with the potential to be even better given some transparency.  We live in an era when consumers are increasingly hungry for knowledge, and knowledgeable as a result.  It’s becoming counter-productive in my opinion to withhold critical information – just generally, or in an attempt to portray products as more than what they are…and there’s too much of that happening in the marketplace already.

I look forward to lots more (whiskies and information about the whiskies) from Private Barrel Co.  May the dram be with you!