Monthly Archives: February 2015

The beating heart of brandy

Alive and well and making a comeback. Patrick Leclezio reports on a proud South African tradition.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.
I champion the mantra drink better not more. Admittedly this is hardly a ground-breaking proposition, but it’s a wise sentiment by which to live, and it warrants advocation even at the risk of being obvious. Occasionally, I’ll cut loose and tag on or more of better, but that’s another, less responsible story. If you’re in agreement or indeed you’re already following this approach in your consumption of alcoholic beverages, then let me inform you, in case you hadn’t noticed, that you’re living in an unprecedented golden age. We are happily awash with a greater choice of premium drinks than ever before – and that’s an observation that applies equally to our home-grown fare. Rousing stuff! The quality over quantity ethos is an easy sell if the quality is in abundant and varied supply.

A significant contributor to this agreeable state of affairs is the rise of “craft” – the term used to describe independent, small batch production. This is has been particularly evident in beer, where an array of brands such as CBC, Darling, Citizen Alliance, Birkenhead, and the ebullient Jack Black, to name just a few, are offering refreshingly varied, exceptionally flavoursome, and strikingly compelling alternatives to the bland, industrial lagers that have long dominated the market. It’s all the beer I drink now, and not because I’m a hirsute hipster who feels compelled (I’m neither) – but because it’s damned good and well worth the extra cost.

Now unless you’ve been living under a rock I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You may be less aware however that forging this new frontier shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines with its malted brethren is South Africa’s signature spirit: brandy.

South African brandy has taken a savage beating in the last decade; it’s saddled with significant problems, yet to be overcome. Things though may be starting to change. The calibre of our potstill brandies, on which increasing emphasis is being placed, is outstanding, and in craft producers, most of whom focus on the potstill style, we have a group of people that is committed to the cause, that is passionate about brandy and about its importance to our legacy, and that has the skill and impetus to make a difference.

I should perhaps rein myself in a touch at this point. Craft doesn’t necessarily mean better. Actually when you consider the comparison in resources between a craft and an industrial producer –a yawning chasm – it’s perhaps surprising that it has anything to offer. Micro-producers however enjoy decisive advantages in that they’re small and unconstrained, which translates into an ability to make something that is special and individual. If they want to use a specific, unusual varietal, grown on a particular patch of land, under the influence of a certain type of climate – no problem. If they want their maturation in first-fill Muscadel casks from a tiny boutique winery – done deal. They just go for it. Special and individual then. These are not insignificant attributes, as any fine spirits aficionado will attest.

A case in point is the Sumaré 5 year old, crafted at Wandsbeck in the Agterkliphoogste area of Robertson. This is as singular a brandy as I’ve ever tasted, spicy and fruity as one might expect, but more strikingly layered by an appealing and unusual (in my experience) coconut flavour. It’s soft and elegant, and whilst a bit thin, perhaps another few years in wood would benefit, it’s nonetheless an outstanding example of the distinctiveness, the individuality, offered by these craft brandies, and a delightful brandy in itself.

Craft brandies are usually associated with a farm, hence also referred to as estate brandies. They are special in both the flavour of the liquid, but also in the flavour that they provide to the brandy environment. Fine spirits are about so much more than the product. They are about the people who make them, about history and heritage, stories and anecdotes, about background, about a place and its visceral energy, the sights, sounds and smells, and about character. We as brandy drinkers and brandy lovers want to know what it is about a product that makes it special. Sumaré distiller Danie Erasmus regales in his story of a near-miss, when a still malfunction caused a fire that almost burned down the historic stillhouse building. The burn marks are still visible on the ceiling, there to be seen and touched and spoken of, a testament to the experience (that we can all enjoy, albeit vicariously) of creating this wonderful brandy. In fact tales of distillery fires and explosions abound. Craft distillation is clearly not for the faint hearted.

I’ve meandered my way through a small corner of this expanding universe. Kingna 5yo, a brandy made by a former diesel mechanic is maybe – I’m using some poetic licence – a reflection of its creator: solid, reliable, and satisfying. It’s not the most subtle or complex brandy, but I can see myself sitting around with friends, enjoying their company over its warm, hearty, full flavoured glow. Grundheim, a 9yo brandy from Oudshoorn, is matured in re-toasted port casks, as evidenced by its mahogany colour and its intense flavour. Mons Ruber, claimant to a history of distillation stretching back to the 1850’s, is old and bold, a 2003 vintage that I found a little unbalanced, but challenging and interesting. The Green Kalahari based Bezalel uses a variety of cultivars, including, rather unusually, red grapes, in making its brandy. It in particular epitomises the concept of terroir that largely defines these estate brandies and sets them apart, with the region’s climate and soils premised to have a deep influence on the product.

There are many others, in a growing list. South Africa has become home to a bona fide and comprehensive brandy route. Any discriminating drinker, any disciple of the better not more philosophy will not be disappointed. You’ve heard of three cheers? Allow me then to propose the brandy customised six cheers – as in clink drink, clink drink, clink drink…and hip hip hoorah.

Advertisements

The essentials of whisky

An often confusing navigation. PATRICK LECLEZIO cuts through the clutter

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

“We distill our whisky more slowly than any other distillery in Scotland”. This snippet is courtesy of Glengoyne. How about this one? (I bet you know it). “Triple distilled, twice as smooth, one great taste”. These are just two of innumerable promotional shots in an incessant barrage. The whisky industry monologue, as its brands clamour for your attention and, more importantly, for your hard earned lucre, is peppered with all sorts of often confounding claims. Buying whisky can be akin to taking an exam for which you haven’t studied, like trying to appreciate a tune that you like in a cacophony of noise. What matters and what doesn’t? A how-long-is –a-ball-of-string question for the ages really – one about which voluminous tracts can be written (I won’t, not here). It’s worth though taking the time to dip our feet.

So, why should you buy one whisky rather than another of the many available? There are a multitude of reasons, some of which are central to the product, and some not. The latter group, whilst ìt can be significant to enjoyment, featuring influences like branding, is not relevant for our purposes here, which is to focus on a few tangible and factual observations related to the liquid itself – the flavour, the texture, and even the colour – and thereby to objectively guide purchase. A whisky, in order to win you over, needs to resolve the question in its favour; and to do so it ideally needs to demonstrate meaningful differences from which the basis for preference might be inspired. You on the other hand need to interrupt the monologue – with a firm put up or shut up. Here’s how.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the beginning there was the grain, and the grain was with whisky, and the grain was whisky. The type of grain, usually barley, malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye, is significant, and will manifest differently, but it’s rarely a critical variable unless you’re deciding between styles of whisky, in which case many other factors encroach. There are exceptions though. Bourbon for instance must be comprised of minimum 51% corn, but can include either rye or wheat as a secondary grain (often called the flavour grain). Rye will typically give a spicy flavour, wheat a cereal biscuit flavour. More pertinently you’ll be entreated to believe that a variant of a particular grain sets a whisky apart. Optic barley, the original Golden Promise, organic, exclusively Scottish-grown barley, Islay-grown…whatever. In reality, whilst it impacts on issues like yield and raw material cost, too distant to be of any concern to us the apprehensive receptacles at the far end of the line, it makes little or no difference to flavour. The exception perhaps is peat smoke, which transmits itself impressively into the resultant whisky through malting (or specifically kilning). Consequently, the constitution of that smoke, the peat from which it emanates – be it coastal, in its many varieties, or inland – makes a mark, albeit subtle.

The grain then gets milled, mashed, and fermented, but there aren’t really enough differences between distilleries for these processes to have any kind of a pronounced impact. Wooden or metal washbacks? It’s nice of them to point it out on a visitors’ tour but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Bourbon and Japanese producers tend to make a lot of noise about their individual yeasts. I’m still in dreamland, although maybe because it has never been specifically demonstrated to me. Some whisky experts disagree, I’m still not sure that the average whisky lover would notice or should care.

The culmination of production, like a shining copper beacon in the night announcing its importance, is the distillation itself. And here’s where it’s time to wake up. Woodford Reserve is the only mainstream bourbon to be distilled in copper pots – affording its distillate a “conversation” that resonates in the final product. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland – the height of an adult giraffe. How do I know? They’ve ensured that I’ve absorbed this fact by repeatedly disseminating it to me. And it is indeed important. The type of still, the size of the still, the copper, and the shape of the still, are all critical to the individual taste of a whisky. Glenmorangie’s long slender stills foster a light, delicate spirit, Macallan’s short, rotund stills a richer, heavier spirit. I swear that I can almost taste their shape when I drink a Macallan. That may be a stretch but there can be no doubting that it sets the liquid apart. Every distiller will tell you that when they replace a still it’s copied to the last detail – if the original was dented, well then a near-as-damn-it identical dent is administered to its successor. As to differences (actual real differences) in length of distillation, and the number of distillations…apologies to Glengoyne and Jameson – as much as I enjoy both of their creations, I remain to be convinced.
Moving on. Whisky may be the water of life, but the role of the water used in its production and its reduction is pretty much equivalent regardless of the source. The former is distilled – I’ve yet to taste distilled water that distinguishable one from another. The latter is demineralised – rendering it as generic as generic gets. Yet whiskies often talk up their water, talk best digested with a liberal pinch of salt.

I’ve saved the most important for last. It’s generally acknowledged that up to 70% of the flavour of a whisky comes from the wood in which it’s aged. It follows then that maturation is a critical point of difference. Spanish, American or Japanese oak? Seasoned with sherry, bourbon, or something more exotic? First-fill, or refill? Duration of maturation? Double maturation or extra maturation (otherwise known as finishing)? As promised I’m sparing you the detail, save to say that there’s nothing that exerts more sway. Take careful note, and drink it all in.

There’s lots more, lots. But this brief guide hopefully should map out the areas that warrant exploration, and those that don’t. These are the questions on the exam paper, the noise-cancelling earphones to sift out the sweet music of whisky. Good luck, and may the dram be with you.

Hong Kong’s best bars

First published in Sawubona Magazine (February 2015 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

After a day of pounding pavements in the overcrowded sauna that is Hong Kong, you could be forgiven for contemplating a retreat to some sedate air-conditioned refuge. Or rather – that might be your expectation from afar. The electric reality though is that despite its tropical climate this city is overflowing with an infectious energy that the shirt-sticking, brow-slicking humidity just can’t restrain. You’ll soon be craving to paint the town a balls-to-the-wall shade of garish Chinese red. As my friend Jim, a legendary party guy, might have said: the east is a feast, get here and we’ll let out the beast.

Here are a few suggestions – tried, tested and trusted – for when (not if) the mood strikes. Brace yourselves.

Ozone, perched on the 118th floor of the fabulous Ritz Carlton in Kowloon, is apparently – not that I doubt it – officially the world’s highest bar. The mainland may be less fashionable but you wouldn’t think it here. With viscerally glam décor by Japanese design house Wonderwall, with a bar selection that commands both the premium and the niched, and with wrap-around views of the peninsula – the boats, the mountains, and the skyscrapers merging with the blue sky – that from this astronautical height are palpitating, sinking sundowners in this place is an indelible, knock-your-socks-off experience; no matter who you are or where you’ve been you will be impressed. I was particularly enamoured with their gin and tonic promotion, consisting of eight combinations of different gins and different tonics, and a variety of garnishes and additional ingredients ranging from Acacia honey to green tea syrup. Whiskies too feature in pleasing proportion – I counted 48, including six Glenlivets.

Alchemy, in the unhinged Central district of Hong Kong island, where it all goes down, has styled itself as a “gastronomic lounge”. An apothecaric alcove at the entrance appears to be a dead end, before a sliding panel opens to grant you access. It’s a nice touch that sets the chic tone maintained throughout. The emphasis is culinary, but that doesn’t mean you get short-changed elsewhere – quite the opposite. The bar is stocked with the usual generous assortment of premium spirits that I came to expect in Hong Kong, it demonstrates a passionate proficiency in the making of mojitos with its offering of ten different varieties, and it also holds a few surprises up its sleeve – notably a couple of options of Calvados, rare outside of France, and an uber-cool bottle of Chivas Revolve. Their “treble” notwithstanding, Alchemy is all about that bass. A three-star Michelin chef caters a tapas menu for the loungers, but the serious action takes place in the basement: dining in the dark (!), the idea being to augment your sense of taste by depriving you of your sight. Intriguing.

The evocatively named Angel’s Share is Hong Kong’s premier whisky bar. I’d heard murmurings about “secret” Japanese whisky bars, worth investigating further, but I can’t imagine that they’d top this venue on all-round appeal. The assemblage of whiskies is pleasing and considered (and indeed there’s a beefy-ish Japanese offering), with enough variety in provenance, style, and vintage to satisfy most whisky lovers, and the setting is plush and tasteful, with lots of the leather and wood that pairs so well with whisky. The centrepiece of Angel’s Share however is the cask, life-sized but not live (it has a stainless steel membrane), that dominates the entrance, and which they fill with private bottlings – on this occasion a 17YO Glenlivet, with punchy notes of citrus and spice. It may be a bit gimmicky but even as someone who’s drunk whisky in an actual dunnage warehouse it warmed the cockles to be served from a cask with a valinch.

I’m tempted to say that I’m showing you the way to the next whisky bar but whilst the Shangri-La’s Lobster Bar and Grill has a brown spirits bedrock it aspires to more than just whisky. This place is heady mix of the unashamedly masculine colonial – my stiff dram of Glenlivet (theme for the trip, 21YO this time) was served in a weighty gentleman’s club style crystal tumbler – and the majestically modern – on the adjacent roof terrace Hong Kong’s skyscrapers watch over you like towering sentinels. This is the type of place where you can listen to live music (six days a week), smoke a cigar, and have a few drinks with the friendly (and also naughty!) bar staff. Time beautifully filled.

Cocktails have become increasingly elaborate and nowhere more so than at The Envoy, whose concoctions are global award winners. This bar is so serious about its cocktails that it even has a rotary evaporator on site which is used to redistill spirits with a variety of added ingredients. I tasted an Absolut Vodka and pandan leaves distillation that demonstrated an incredible, integrated infusion of flavour. The bar offers cocktails ranging from barrel aged Negronis (which I think they consider ho-hum), and tea-centric cocktails (which they pair with their afternoon tea menu), to arrangements like the bizarrely spectacular True Blood (a deep red, ginseng flavoured liquid served in a blood bag on a metal “kill” tray).

Last but not least is Le Boudoir – a pulsing “speakeasy” for the trendy, in-the-know crowd. You’re virtually guaranteed to be one of the only tourists in the place. I walked past its unobtrusive entrance three times before identifying it. Inside you can party with a friendly throng – in my case some French and Russian expats – into the early hours to the insomniacal beat of various outstanding DJ’s, including South African Ryan Ashton.