Monthly Archives: December 2014

Mad about Martinis

Wheat from the chaff, men from the boys. Patrick Leclezio steps up to the major leagues.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2014 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

It’s difficult to take cocktails seriously. They’re frivolous and insubstantial, and they’ve always struck me as a bit juvenile – equivalent to chocolate milk for children who won’t have it straight. Do you want a sippy cup for that Pina Colada, a squeezy bottle for that Daiquiri? Ok, I’m being harsh. Cocktails have their time and place – and, absolutely, there’s something orchestral, magical even, about marrying disparate ingredients into a harmonic and delicious whole. Most objectionably I’m painting all cocktails with the same brush and that’s just grossly unjust. There are some cocktails, few to be sure, but some nonetheless, that wear their spirituous authority like they were born to it, that lack for nothing in a measure of their gravitas (often oximoronically debauched it must be said, gleefully), and that in a contest of class concede to no other drink. First amongst these is the Martini.

The origins and originator of the Martini are a bit uncertain. The strongest claimant is probably the brand of the same name (dating to 1863), the Italian vermouth producers now forming part of the Bacardi-Martini group. The drink’s greatest proponent though, its unparalleled ambassador, is utterly without doubt: his name is Bond, James Bond. The source of Bond’s proclivities seems to have been the hard-drinking culture, as observed by Ian Fleming, which pervaded in MI6 in the period during and then after World War II: floating through the war on a river of booze was how one operative described it…or with words to that effect. The notorious double agent Kim Philby in particular was known to drink martinis in copious volume, and to serve them from a pitcher, as was the fashion in those days. Bond himself then was styled as an impressive drinker in the secret intelligence service mould – strong drinks, wide repertoire, steady legs, and cool demeanour – and one for whom the martini played an integral role.

Whilst I’m a great 007 admirer (aren’t we all), whilst I’m inclined to follow his lead in certain areas, and whilst I acknowledge his immense contribution to the Martini and its status, I hesitate to endorse his Martini preparation practices. Vodka? Really? It doesn’t make sense. Bond is nothing if not discriminating. So why would a man of such impeccable taste favour vodka over the vastly more interesting alternative – gin? In actual fact Book Bond drinks both vodka and gin martinis, almost equally, whilst Movie Bond, having clearly been forced to sacrifice his good sense to big product placement budgets, favours vodka. Or perhaps he just likes supersized vermouth. Bond’s technique is almost as questionable as his ingredients. “Shaken, not stirred” is arguably the dominant drinks related phrase in our collective consciousness. It’s a got an understated I-know-(precisely)-what-I-want cool about it. Unfortunately it’s also ill-advised. There are those who claim that shaking “bruises” the gin (and one would think the vermouth as well), but this has been disputed. And admittedly it does sound a little precious. It’s beyond argument however that shaking introduces aeration and additional ice-melt, and detracts in the presentation. So the alternative, seemingly, as Somerset Maugham was known to recommend, is that “a martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another”. This though would deprive us of the theatrical centrepiece of the Martini experience. Allow me to then to propose a remedy – neither shaken nor stirred, but swirled: languidly sophisticated (the best kind), and functionally sound. Done.

We’ve touched on the ingredients, but without really getting into the meat of it. The central requirements for a classic martini are gin (yes, movie Bond, yes), dry vermouth, and a garnish of either lemon peel (a twist) or olives, of which the most important, the bulk of what you’ll be ingesting, is the gin. I tend to favour a soft gin for a Martini. It’s strong in alcohol, like I said – serious, so you don’t want the flavour to be overpowering. I personally also want the vermouth get a shout – in contrast to Noel Coward who famously said that “a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy” (he clearly didn’t realise that the dry version used in the Martini is principally French). Something like Bombay Sapphire is ideal – velvety soft and smooth, and well-balanced with plump juniper and a slight citric edge. I can drink Bombay martinis all night without becoming bored with or tired of it. But this is a subjective choice and it may, and indeed should, change from person to person and mood to mood. We’re lucky to be living in a gin-loving era, as a result of which the marketplace is replete with many fine exponents with which to experiment and enjoy. Our ability to do the same with vermouth is unfortunately considerably more restricted, at least here in South Africa. There are no dry French vermouths commonly available, and no premium dry vermouths whatsoever. In the midst of this Martini drinker’s nightmare however, as you glimpse fleeting mirages of Noilly bottles during despairing moments, hang onto this little bit of hope. I recently learnt that Swartland winemaker Adi Badenhorst is reviving the old Caperitif brand, and will be producing a dry vermouth under its label sometime in 2015. Martini time baybee!

Book Bond, for whom I now have more respect than movie Bond, epitomises what the Martini is all about. It is utterly ruthless, unflappable, cultivatedly amusing, and effortlessly, all-encompassingly accomplished. It is the invitation to the ball, the inner circle, the reward on arriving. If you are what you drink, then I can’t think of much that’s more complimentary than a Martini.

Movie Bond on Martinis
From: Never Say Never Again
Fatima Blush: “Oh, how reckless of me. I made you all wet.”
Bond: “Yes, but my martini is still dry.”

From Die Another Day:
(At the party in the ice palace of Gustav Graves)
Bond: Vodka (Grrr…!) martini. Plenty of ice, if you can spare it.

From: Casino Royale
Bond: Vodka (sigh…) Martini.
Bartender: Shaken or stirred?
Bond: Do I look like I give a damn?

The WoW classic Martini

2 ½ tots Bombay Sapphire
½ tot dry French vermouth
Swirl over ice in a cocktail shaker
Strain into a martini glass
Twist a sliver of a lemon peel over liquid’s surface, coat the inner glass above the meniscus, and drop the peel into the glass

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The headline whiskies of 2014

PATRICK LECLEZIO toasts the standouts of a quality year

First published in the December 2014 edition of Prestige Magazine.

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

Whisky, amongst the many services it renders, often provides us with insight into the rampant consumerism of modern society – a view from which I take delight and despair in equal measure. This is a space in which new products are constantly clamouring for our attention, and whilst it’s exciting to discover and explore new things, there’s also a numbing futility to be repeatedly chasing after the shiny new toy. Here in South Africa we’re both unlucky to be isolated, and fortunate to be insulated, from the world’s whisky mainstream. Swings and roundabouts. We can’t get our hands on the hottest style in the market (read rye whiskey), but then again we’re shielded from a lot of the noise. I’ve started to look at the bright side. This enforced moderation gives us the opportunity for more considered appreciation. The last twelve months in particular have been relatively quiet but they’ve served up the four whiskies featured below – each different and distinctive, each exceedingly enjoyable, each memorable, and each deserving of and able to be given meaningful attention. Less is sometimes more. May the dram be with you.

Black Bottle

Black Bottle, the brand, is not new. It’s been around for a while – as evidenced by the large “Estd 1879” embossed on the bottle. I’m not going to go into its history, save to say that it has one and that it’s colourful, in obligatory whisky fashion. However, Black Bottle, the product, the one you’ll now find on the shelves of your local bottle store, is indeed new. There’s been an overhaul to the packaging and the liquid, both inspired. The bottle has returned to its roots – back in black glass for the first time since circa 1914. It was unveiled before us in a 1930’s era speakeasy (aka the basement of the Cape Town Club) – the launch taking the form of a striking piece of experiential theatre, conceived and co-ordinated by 3 Blind Mice’s Patrick Craig, with whom Black Bottle is also teaming on his legendary music events. These though – the robe, the showmanship – were distractions which pale in comparison to the monumental transformation undergone by whisky itself. Previously thin with a somewhat grating smoky dominance, it is now a rich and complex blend. Most interestingly, whilst the phenolic content is unchanged, the smoke is less apparent – being superbly counterbalanced by flavours of fennel, fruit and spice. This is a complete blended Scotch whisky that ticks all the boxes. Superb value priced in the mid R200’s

Glenfiddich 26YO

I’ve never tasted a Glenfiddich that’s disappointed me, and I don’t expect that I ever will. It’s the best-selling single malt in the world for good reason. The 12YO, my faithful long-haul flight companion (thanks Emirates), and the 15YO Solera, my anytime-anyplace companion, are personal favourites. In the malt whisky world Glenfiddich is as reliable as it gets. Reliability may not sound sexy, but when you’re shelling out R3500 odd, as you would for this whisky, it should need no persuasion that this is an attribute worth seeking. That the 26YO would be good then was a fait accompli. It was presented to us by Global Brand Ambassador Ian Millar during a fabulous launch function at the Pot Luck Club. Interestingly the whisky is exclusively matured in ex-bourbon casks. The result is a soft, sweet liquid with pleasing depth and hints of spice and sherbet. The litmus test of a great whisky though is its ability to make a connection with people. And if I’d had any doubts about Glenfiddich (I hadn’t) they would have been quickly dispelled when the whole restaurant accompanied Ian, unreservedly, in full voice, in a rendition of the Glenfiddich theme song – to the tune of “Volare”. Ignition baby! I can’t definitively say that it’s “better than all the rest” as the lyrics suggested, but it’s good, damn good.

Glenlivet Guardians Chapter: Exotic

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m suspicious of multi-vintage No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The concept – as it’s currently being applied – is an industry swindle. I’ve also not been shy however to shower praise on good NAS whiskies. This is one of those. It rates a mention not only because of its quality, but also because it’s a fascinating approach to whisky making. The brand reached out to its fans – via their Glenlivet Guardians program and at special events – and effectively invited them to participate in the blending process. I’d always thought that “ask the audience” was the best lifeline. This whisky proves it. The nose is spectacular, one of the best in recent memory, redolent of chocolate, cinnamon, zesty fruit, and moist cake. There are flashes of immaturity in the body, but not enough to detract from its thick juiciness. Well executed, and great value at approximately R1200. It’s a limited edition so don’t procrastinate. If you want it get it fast.

Single pot stills

Ok, so I misled you slightly when I alluded to four whiskies earlier. My fourth isn’t a whisky but a range of whiskeys. Much awaited, much anticipated, the Irish Distillers single pot stills headed by Redbreast, were finally made officially available in the country earlier in the year. These whiskeys come with a well-merited reputation – a cult status. I’ve enthusiastically sloshed and swigged each of the range at some point in time recently, abandoning myself to the pure pleasure of it on these occasions. When the opportunity came though for more reflective consumption I focused on the progenitors, the ground-breakers responsible for resuscitating this fine, uniquely Irish style of whiskey – these being Green Spot, Redbreast 12YO, and Redbreast 15YO. Apple flavours, progressing from ripe Granny Smiths in Green Spot (suggested by the label?…you tell me), to baked and then caramelised in the two Redbreasts, swim on a filmy, oily texture, amidst fainter appearances of cut grass, sultanas and apricot. Utterly outstanding! It’s insane that the style almost died out – a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions narrowly averted. If you’re limiting yourself to one new whisky during this festive season look no further than to the green hills of Ireland.

Whisky in the winelands

The collection at Cavalli

First published in Private Edition magazine (December 2014 edition).

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

It’s said that one should never mix one’s drinks. As an unashamed practitioner of these dark arts, I reject the idea in the strongest possible terms. There’s little that’s more satisfying than enjoying a broad repertoire, preferably one after the other (deferred gratification is overrated). Nonetheless, despite these tendencies, I was surprised recently to stumble upon a bit of an oddity at Cavalli Estate: a massive stash of whisky on a wine farm. What’s more blatant than mixing the grain with the grape?

Odd but not outrageous. Located not too far away are Asara and the Devon Valley Hotel, both boasting outstanding whisky selections, an indication that even here, in a region that has wine so tightly clutched to its bosom, whisky has begun to demand its rightful share of attention. This one though was something special – the private whisky collection of Cavalli owner Jerome Smith, stretching to over 400 carefully accumulated whiskies.

Almost 15 years ago I was privileged to “tour” (that’s how it felt – such was its extent) the whisky collection of the late Leslie Zulberg, probably the finest ever put together in the country. This was during my whisky nascency, and yes, while I knew that I was in the presence of something extraordinary, looking back now I realise that it was largely wasted on the younger, greener me. We are the sum of our experiences, and that visit played its part in my journey, but being more knowledgeable now after having visited distilleries in places as close as Wellington and as far-flung as Islay, and having tasted whiskies as illustrious as the John Walker Diamond Jubilee (a 60YO blend) and as unusual as the Michel Couvreur Spirale (an 18YO finished in Jura vin de paille casks), I saw the Cavalli visit as going some way to redeem me.

Whisky collections are a source of both excitement and discomfort to me. It’s a subject on which I feel genuinely conflicted. On the one hand there’s admiration, of course. The sight of all of those bottles, lined up like an army in formation, often in their hundreds, will unfailingly quicken the collective pulse of whisky lovers everywhere. This I think is a natural reaction to an object of desire – and any collection worth its salt will invariably amass serious desire in serious volume. These collections are also a testament to discipline and persistence of the collector, civilization-building virtues to which I can’t help but doff my hat. And yet, on the other hand – it must be said – they’re an exercise in thwarted purpose. There’s a significant fraction of the world’s finest whiskies – whiskies that are the culmination of generations of incremental expertise, whiskies that in many cases have spent decades patiently maturing in a cask, and whiskies that have been made and cultivated specifically to be the best of the best – that will likely never pass the lips, but instead will spend a lifetime, if not many lifetimes, locked away in glass. So whilst a great collection is beautiful, it is somewhat sadly beautiful. Whisky is meant to be drunk.

Smith divulged to me that when he drinks whisky he tends to stick to the Balvenie 12YO. It’s a delicious dram, no doubt, but how tempting it must be to reach a little higher when the facility to do so is so evidently at one’s disposal. Did I mention discipline?

The Cavalli collection is imposingly impressive. When I asked him for his standouts Smith mentioned his 50YO’s – Glenfiddich (of which he has two) and Glen Grant. They need no introduction. Interestingly the former comes with a certificate which allows the bearer to sample the whisky when visiting the distillery. If one considers that a tot sells for R18k at the V&A’s Bascule Bar, then this is very useful indeed, an added bonus which goes some way to tempering the pain of constantly contemplating but never opening this gem of a whisky.
My slightly morose reflection on collections should be further balanced by the value of whisky as an investment – not necessarily the raison d’être for collecting, but always playing a part. I don’t have a crystal ball and I hesitate to recommend whisky in general as an area of ongoing value growth, but it’s unarguable that its performance over the last decade has been exceptional – a case of dramatically rising demand that was, completely and critically, unanticipated by the industry. Under-supplied, highly-aged stock has consequently been selling for a fortune. This is the drawback to whisky production – it’s a slow and time consuming process. Any whisky is at least three years in the making, great whisky considerably more.

As I laboriously pored over the collection, one shelf after the other, I suddenly came to an abrupt standstill. There is one particular whisky that lives largest in the dreams of all whisky investors…(cue drumroll) the 1964 Black Bowmore (cue cymbals). My itinerant preoccupation with whisky has taken me to a few memorable places, Bowmore included. Funnily enough though my opportunity to see the Black Bowmore in the flesh came not at the Islay distillery but at Auld Alliance in Singapore, which at the time accommodated a first edition in pristine condition with a near-as-damn-it original fill level. These bottles had initially retailed for some £80 when they were first released in 1993 – they now fetch upwards of £6500. You don’t need to do the maths. It’s a staggering performance, by any standard. The second and third editions, which followed in 1994 and 1995, were similarly (if marginally less) spectacular. Together they created a dynasty. The Cavalli bottle is from the final edition (bottled in 2007 from what remained of those same casks, and sold for considerably more), but regardless it retains its claim as one of the most iconic products in the history of whisky. The collection’s other highlights read like Scotch whisky’s roll of honour (not that these whiskies are dead, far from it): Macallan 1937, Highland Park 1962, Bowmore 1968, and Macallan 1969. I was inclined to bow.

The Zulberg collection, when I had encountered it, was locked away in a basement in the declining Johannesburg suburb of Orange Grove. The discordance of it has stayed with me all these years. Luckily the Cavalli collection suffers no such obscurity. It’s not as loud as it is proud – viewings are by appointment only – but it is accessible to a wider audience and, being exquisitely presented in display cabinets, it sensibly fosters a look-but-preferably-don’t-touch appreciation.

As if the whisky wasn’t enough (it was), I was awed by Cavalli in its entirety. The only thing I can reliably inform you about its eponymous horses is which are the front and back ends. I like horses but the less I say about them the better. The rest of it though was in closer vicinity to my comfort zone, so I feel I can pass comment with some measure of assurance. The food is faultless, in fact my rib-eye was literally perfect, the wine is delicious, the sommelier having recommended the Warlord (the estate’s flagship red blend) to accompany my steak, the gallery and other scattered artworks are delightful, with Pierneefs aplenty, and the view is astonishing, taking in the full broad swathe of the Helderberg. Cavalli then is a close to perfect outing for the bon vivant with a whisky bent. May the dram be with you.