Monthly Archives: July 2014

The king of white spirits

It’s gin of course, but who will win its crown? Patrick Leclezio casts an eye over the claimants.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I ascribe no small measure of my attraction to gin to its ability to hold my interest. Whisky stands tall amongst spirits for the variety and complexity encompassed within its broach reach – and whilst gin could never hope to match this scale, being largely unmatured, in a sense it can be considered to be the whisky, and consequently the king, of white spirits. Gin is gin because of its botanicals – ingredients or infusions, potentially limitless in number (virtually), which give individual gins their complex flavour, and which very distinctly differentiate one gin from another. I recently gathered up some of the more prominent gins available on the local market and invited a panel of hard tack luminaries to review them with me – a serious analysis, sure, but also, admittedly, an opportunity to indulge. And indulge we did. I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or misrepresentations – rather I blame them on some large measures of unstoppable deliciousness. As a friend once memorably responded when I offered him a g & t: “ooh, talk dirty to me”. It’s that exciting.

The gin repertoire is fairly extensive: it’s drunk neat, with a citrus garnish of some sort, in cocktails (in fact it’s the original cocktail base), with a mixer, and in martinis (I feel I need to separately mention and emphasise this particularly legendary gin cocktail). Most commonly though, it’s drunk with Indian tonic: a quinine-laced carbonated beverage that was conceived, as the name suggests, and as is the case with the evolution of many other popular drinks, for purposes other than epicurean titillation. This mosquito neutraliser struck a chord, and became entrenched for its flavour rather than its original function. So any gin review would not be complete without evaluation in combination with its running mate. Of course there are tonics and there are tonics. Schweppes is passable, but why settle for passable – life’s too short. The best to which we have access in this country is the delightful Fitch & Leedes, made by a small producer in Stellenbosch. I guess you could call it craft tonic. It’s a bit more expensive but worth every cent. Needless to say our tasting was conducted using this excellent option.

Gin flavours are very particular – and different gins will appeal to each individual to varying degrees of preference. Juniper, certainly, and also citrus seem to be the most widespread botanicals. I’d venture the opinion that these are the traditional signatures, perhaps best represented in gins like Tanqueray, and the under-the-radar, more muted (or subtle), but no less worthy Boodles. In fact Tanqueray marries so well with tonic that it’s become a standard for that purpose; it’s smooth and easy, but still interesting. Supercharge it and you get Tanqueray No. 10, or, once you’re better acquainted, Tanq 10 – same smooth integrated effect but bursting with additional flavours. If you’re inclined towards “traditional” gins and you’re willing to pay the premium then you probably don’t have to look too far beyond its impressive, faceted visage.

If the Tanqs occupy the London Dry Gin middle ground, then on either side you’ll will find Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater, the former soft, open, and fragrant, the latter savoury and edgy. These three gins are a striking exhibition of gin’s diversity. They have clearly distinct flavour profiles and I can see each having particular appeal to different drinkers: Beefeater and Bombay in my opinion are unlikely to be substitutable for one another to most gin lovers. Beefeater has pulled back from its extremities with its premium expression, the new-ish Beefeater 24, which is considerably more moderate; I wonder how it’s been received by hard-core fans of the mainline variant. It’s wonderfully enjoyable but it feels like a departure from what makes Beefeater Beefeater – in my opinion.

Now it’s worth noting some extrinsics at this stage. I firmly believe that flavour, and, relatedly, the appreciation of a fine spirit, is psychosomatic – by which I mean that external influences beyond aroma and taste play an important role. This extends from contextual elements such as setting and mood, to visual cues such as presentation and packaging. Bombay is a standout in this regard – a compelling mix of the classic and contemporary: Queen Victoria mixing it up in electric blue (or maybe a few shades shy). I can’t help but be drawn to it and luckily it doesn’t disappoint – anything but! – on cracking the seal.

The other gin that’s making a splash at the moment is Hendrick’s. This isn’t London Dry, so the flavours are created partly from infusions rather than only distillates, as a result of which the drink seems relatively less balanced and integrated but also bolder and more visceral. It’s also a step away from the traditional – cucumber and rose petal predominate making it significantly unlike anything else I’ve tasted; it’s rich, round and racy.

We were also privileged to have included in our review a local craft gin, made in Stillbaai, called Inverroche – epically South African in that fynbos constitutes its botanicals. It’s a well-presented, well-made product, with a strong, unique flavour. I prefer my gin more restrained and traditional, but I’d urge you to give this a try. There’s a little bit of the Cape in every bottle.

Last, and unfortunately least, in our estimation was Seagram’s Gin, the eponymously named gin of a now defunct liquor company accommodated in an iconic frosted bottle. Spirity and obvious, it’s best left to the formula which made it famous in the States – mixed with juice.

It would be an understatement if I were to tell you that I’ve become a fan of gin. My appreciation of this fine spirit is legion. It has become my aperitif of choice. At the risk of sounding like a tedious Capetonian – a risk I’ll take – I can think of little to compare with the experience of sitting on my veranda on a warm summer’s evening, and contemplating the mountain (and my day and life in general) whilst sipping on a stiff gin and tonic. Glorious! This is my special gin moment, as I’m sure you have yours. As the bible sort-of advises (and who would argue) – go forth and multiply it. Chin chin!

Special thanks to Marsh Middleton and Bernard Gutman.

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State of the nation 2014

South African whisky. PATRICK LECLEZIO visited Wellington to take a reading.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I wanted to get a gauge on the health of the whisky of this country there was really only one man I needed to see. Andy Watts is synonymous with South African whisky; in some 23 years at the helm of the James Sedgwick distillery he has steered the ship (all three of them if you will) from plonk to virtual perfection. His two prodigies, Three Ships and Bain’s, over the past two years, have come of age and earned their stripes, seizing the prestigious World Whisky Awards titles for best blended whisky and best grain whisky respectively. The scale of these achievements cannot be overstated, especially for young, previously unfancied whiskies from the foot of Africa. I sought him out to chat about the journey and about plans for the future.

There was a time not so long ago when Three Ships was sneered at and put down with all manner of disparaging names. That was the era of our whisky’s infancy, a time during which Sedgwick’s output was of such low priority to its owners that the distillery was thwarted with old, discarded casks that nobody else wanted. Those days have well and truly been consigned to the past. Andy attributes the turnaround to a new, more serious, and more professional approach to whisky-making, particularly to wood management, instilled during the merger that created the Distell group. The whisky boom, which has been a hallmark of the past ten plus years, helped to justify and sustain the increased investment, with new stills, various other upgrades, and a resplendent facelift further transforming the distillery. It has become a jewel, both in style and substance, of which South Africans can be genuinely proud.

I think it’s explicitly apparent to any educated observer that the quality of product has been dramatically elevated, and that it’s now beyond doubt. Three Shits? Not for a long time now, and never again. Ok, that’s great, but is it enough? And if not, where to from here? I recently expressed some concerns about “world” whisky (whisky from emerging producer territories, of which South Africa is one); these and others will be the challenges facing Sedgwick’s and other aspiring local producers as they seek to take their next steps.
My main concern hinges on the question of what makes our whisky particular to its region; the answer – nothing, other than the obvious geographical provenance…at least in my view of things. Sedgwick’s produces whisky based on the Scotch model. Accordingly there’s nothing about Three Ships and Bain’s that identifies them as distinctly South African. In fact most of the blends sold under the Three Ships label, including the award-winning 5YO, are constituted with a Scotch component – not just the malted barley, which goes without saying, but actual distilled-and-matured-in-Scotland liquid; this is a policy set to persist for the immediate future (although to be fair the proportions have been diminishing). Even Bain’s, which can at least claim to be entirely indigenous (locally produced only from locally grown raw materials), doesn’t seem to differ conceptually from the whisky of a Scotch distillery like North British, which also makes grain predominantly from maize.

Now there may well be divergence of opinion on this issue depending on one’s individual interpretation of what constitutes distinctiveness. When I put the question to Andy, he suggested that the difference was one of focus: whereas grain whisky is considered a filler, subservient to malt, by the industry in Scotland – receiving the short end of the resource stick as a result – here in South Africa it is lavished with the type of care and attention (first-fill casks et al) expected for an heir to the kingdom…which is exactly what it’s considered to be. Bain’s is styling itself as a whisky for emerging markets – light, flavoursome, accessible and easy-drinking – which is set to conquer South Africa, the rest of Africa, and beyond. I liked what he had to say but his response addresses quality rather than style – at least at this stage; who knows what a purposeful dedication to grain may inspire in years to come. For now though even the promising descriptor “Cape Mountain Whisky” is nothing more than a Distell trademark, with no particular definition of its own. It’s a pity, but my guess is that these guys are too busy making and selling exponentially increasing amounts of their whisky to worry about this very much. Perhaps in the future.

More promising, at least in this vein, are the new single malt styles being explored by Three Ships. It’s unusual that the brand serves as an umbrella for both single malts and blends – I can’t think of many prominent whisky labels that do the same (Bushmills and…?). Rather the trend is to move in the opposite direction – note Green Label’s relegation to black sheep status in the Johnnie Walker family. I was told that this structure was motivated by the brand’s pioneering nature, manifest in a drive to experiment with different whiskies and styles of whisky. I’m not so sure that this intention has publicly graduated into reality quite yet, but things seem to be percolating behind closed doors. Andy introduced me to a few special, recent creations: two styles of new-make malt (the distillery makes four) – one heavily peated, the other unpeated – matured (or rather finished) in Pinotage casks. South African whisky aged in a South African cask – very encouraging! This is the type of thing that needs to be pursued, and pursued vigorously, if the local product is going to be set apart. The flavours too give cause for belief: robust peat well-balanced with a sweet spot in the one, and a delicious spicy sweetness – the defining feature of Pinotage casks I’m told – shining through to full effect in the other.

Three Ships has only released three limited edition single malt bottlings to date – interestingly each distinct from the other as is the convention with vintages, although if these were vintages they were weren’t marketed as such – but there are plans afoot for a permanent malt program in the near future. Let’s hope that these two singular whiskies are included. They may just be the beginning of a genuine, ownable, inimitable South African whisky tradition. May the dram be with you!