Slamming shots, filling flasks, cradling crystal and everything in between. Patrick Leclezio considers the contexts of consumption.
First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2014 edition).
On a trip to Zanzibar some time ago I brought with me two flasks, charged to their brims. The much anticipated contents, when I finally disgorged them, were undrinkable. Now I was entirely to blame – I hadn’t properly seasoned the one, and I’d left the liquor inside for far too long – but the experience left me with an aversion to these vessels. I’ve come to associate them with the potential for contamination. Yet, come rugby season every year, I bring out my flasks religiously. It’s a tradition, a custom, a ritual, a habit – call it what you will – that starts with the filling, progresses to the sneaking (past security), and culminates in the sharing and swigging (in the stands during the course of the game). I love it. It’s a routine that amplifies my pleasure, for both the drink and the game. Make no mistake – these contexts in which we drink are important. I’ve often maintained that our enjoyment (and interpretation) of flavour is psychosomatic i.e. influenced by factors external to the liquid itself. So whilst we should absolutely prioritise our picking – if we don’t get that right it’ll be a losing battle – we should also pay heed, increasingly, to the how, when and where the object of our selection will be consumed. Here are a few suggestions to heighten the appreciation of fine spirits.
I don’t drink coffee myself, but I have it on good authority – as misguided as it seems to me – that the majority of people find it delicious, so I’m going to take a leap of faith on this one. The caffè corretto is an espresso served with a shot of grappa, literally a “corrected” coffee, suggesting that this might be the best way, or at least the right way, albeit a conclusion attributed to a vague Italian terminological decree, to ingest this brew.
I’ve tasted grappa formally on several occasions, most recently during a comparative evaluation of the excellent Alexander range from Distilleria Bottega, and there’s no doubt, despite the musty-ish apparentness of the base pomace in its flavour, that it offers a distinct, varied and interesting consumption experience. I found the striking difference between variants using different varietals to be especially remarkable – considering that these are just the stems, skins, pulp and pips of those grapes, and not the fruit itself.
My intention here though is not to commend grappa, or even its pairing with coffee. We’d all surmise quite probably that this is an agreeable relationship – on the evidence of Irish coffee and coffee liqueurs. Rather, I’m laying this elaborate platform in homage to Italy’s coffee culture – borrowed from the world over – and to its influence on our engagement with the country’s signature spirit. When we drink a caffè corretto we’re not just enjoying coffee and grappa, we’re tasting a way of life, we’re imbibing a heritage, and we’re inheriting – if only for a few moments – a small measure of Italian chic.
I don’t often drink martinis – partly because finding good vermouth in this country is a futile exercise, and partly because it’s a drink that demands (well, almost) a certain attire and consequently a certain occasion. But earlier this year I found myself appropriately suited and booted – black tuxedo, dress shirt, bow tie, pocket square…the whole nine yards – and suddenly the moment was upon me. Nothing but a martini (I’m not even going to dignify that there might be a choice of which) would do. It defies the coldest logic, but it’s simply not possible to equate the pleasure of a martini with and without black tie. The former is infinitely superior. As I sipped my Hendricks martini (go bold or go home), flashed the cuffs of my Viyella jacket, and introduced myself surname first followed by first name and surname again, I lived the realisation that this was an indisputable conclusion.
I’m not a prolific brandy drinker but recently I’ve become increasingly inclined to partake of our local potstills. They’re generally excellent and they’re available in ever-widening variety – as I began to better appreciate at a sampling of the Mount Nelson’s brandy and tapas menu. Boutique or craft potstill brandies are the order of the day – with names such as Savingnac, Uitkyk, Tokara, and Joseph Barrie leading the charge. Whilst these and their more mainstream fellows are just fine all on their own (I remain dubious about pairing spirits with meals, little tapas snacks maybe…at a stretch), they’re propelled into the stratosphere when partnered with a good cigar. The intersection of a mild cigar (Davidoff Classic No. 2 for me, but stronger if you’re a veteran), a rich potstill (Van Ryn’s 15YO?) and a balloon glass (think swirling smoke), offers the perfect vantage point from which to contemplate life and sigh contentedly.