Monthly Archives: July 2015

The vodka phenomenon

Style over substance: how an unlikely, unassuming liquid took over the planet. Patrick Leclezio looks over the world’s most internationally popular spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

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It can be made from everything, it doesn’t look like anything, and it tastes like nothing. These aren’t attributes that you’d think would best recommend a drink. At least not at first glance. Looking more closely though they neatly explain both vodka’s success and its dominance. Originating in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, Europe’s “vodka belt” – Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Sweden and Finland have a particularly strong tradition – vodka is now made just about everywhere, and significantly drunk pretty much anywhere. Its popularity is unmatched. It beggars the question – how did this come to be?

Whisky is made from barley, bourbon is made from corn (primarily), rum from sugar cane derivatives (the molasses, the juice, the syrup), tequila from agave…I could go on. Most spirits are produced from a specific type of raw material, whatever was to be found in the area in which they originated, and to a large extent this has bound them to these regions. Vodka though differs in that it can be made from any vegetable matter. There is no legal restriction – although the “vodka war” of the early 2000’s pitted historic against new producers for this very reason, with the former seeking to restrict materials to the traditional: cereal grains, potatoes and sugar beets. The dispute was settled with a compromise that compelled vodkas made from other ingredients to declare it on the label, in Europe at least. The Cîroc label for instance follows the descriptor vodka with the words “distilled from fine French grapes”. In spite of this sideshow (and to a large extent having prompted the sideshow), there are significant, thriving vodkas made from all sorts of things. If it’s commercially viable you can be assured that somewhere someone is using it to make vodka. Equally, almost every territory has something within their agricultural resource base that can feasibly be applied to the production of vodka. The general upshot is that the spirit is cheap, plentiful and accessible, and wildly popular, wherever you might happen to be. If you make it they will come.

Sidebar

The stuff of leading vodkas

Belvedere – rye
Finlandia – barley
Ciroc – grapes
Skyy – wheat
Absolut – winter wheat
Grey Goose – wheat
Ketel One – wheat
Chopin – potatoes
Smirnoff 1818 – sugar cane

Moving then from inputs to the output, the results are similarly compelling. South African legislation dictates that vodka should not have “any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”. It’s a liquid that’s clear, and for the most part largely tasteless and odourless – those few vodkas that have managed to skirt this regulation have flavour profiles which it would be an overstatement to describe as subtle. I find it counter intuitive, paradoxical even, that a drink could be both banal and globally dominant, and yet this is precisely the case with vodka. Everything though is explainable, there logic to it:
Firstly, whilst it has the same (sometimes offensive) effects as any other spirit, of these vodka is the least inoffensive. It’s might not be politically correct to say it, but we drink liquor in large part for the effects of intoxication, although hopefully with a responsible rein on its extent. Vodka then is the consummate facilitator; with no edge – other than the alcohol, and no flavour funk, it’s smooth and universally palatable (if well distilled and filtered), and it’s easily masked – ease it into a mixer, or a cocktail and you won’t even know that it’s there. It’s a consistently reliable complement to your favourite flavours, and it’s crisp and fresh on its own. In a word – it’s easy.
Secondly, they say clothes maketh the man – I’m not sure I agree but clothes certainly maketh the vodka. It’s the ultimate branded spirit. With little to distinguish one vodka from another intrinsically, the attention has been very much focused on its extrinsic attributes – the name, the packaging, the image communication – which are out there for all to see and experience. Vodkas are explicitly and overtly designed to be loved by the demographic for which they’re intended, they are engineered. A cynical observation perhaps, but valid I think. And don’t knock it. People get satisfaction across all spirits and indeed all products from far more than just the raw product itself.

I consider whisky, rum and gin to be my favourite spirits. I’m also partial to brandy and cognac, and with a little more exposure I know I’d grow to love a Calva. I’m a flavour snob and these are diverse and interesting spirits. Vodka is not. And yet I buy it, I serve it and I drink it. On any given occasion there’ll be a bottle both behind my bar and in my freezer – ready for the versatile deployment of which it is uniquely capabable. It’s managed to find its way into even my unsympathic heart, such is its appeal. If it’s a rule that you can’t be all things to all people, then surely vodka must be the exception.

The Spanish Connection

They arguably own as much of the whisky heritage as any producer. Patrick Leclezio reviews a selection of whiskies owing their vital essence to the grapes of Spain.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

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Ay caramba, the Spanish have infiltrated! This is not breaking news – in fact it shouldn’t even be news at all – it’s been a good long while in the making. And despite my ambiguous exclamation, it’s a good thing; for many, like me, the very best thing. I’m talking about sherry, of course, that quintessentially Spanish fortified wine, that has become so important to so many people – us whisky lovers – who don’t drink it, who have no intention of drinking it, yet who wouldn’t want to live without it. I set out recently to review, with a little bit of help from some discerning friends, some of the more notable sherried malt whiskies on the market, and to learn a bit more about sherry’s epic contribution to my favourite tipple.

One is often told – cut to an industry emissary assuming a portentous tone – that whisky is made from only three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Deep (not really – I’m just paying homage to the pregnant pause that usually follows), but also misleading. It may be true in terms of direct ingredients, but that’s only part of the story, luckily, otherwise our noses and palates would be bored stiff. There are other ingredients that have come to play a part, peat and oak notably, and, acting in synergy with the oak, a variety of other drinks, of which bourbon and sherry are overwhelmingly the most significant.

It may be worth taking a moment to contextualise matters. The single most important factor influencing the flavour of a whisky, undisputed and empirically proven, is the maturation (or ageing) of the spirit, which itself, for the most part, is constituted of three essential, equally vital elements: time, wood, and the sherry or bourbon in which the oak was seasoned. It’s a subjective view on which some may differ – you have to make up your own minds – but I would venture that of the two sherry is by far the more interesting. By this reasoning then – I don’t think I’m being dramatic – it is critical to whisky.

Sidebar

The sherries in whisky

There are a few distinct sherries primarily used by the whisky industry for the seasoning of its casks, each of which imparts a different influence to flavour.

Oloroso: The most popular sherry for whisky maturation. An oxidatively aged sherry – which means that it matures in contact with air. Dark, nutty, often sweet.

Pedro Ximenez (PX): Increasing in popularity. Pressed from dried grapes, thereby concentrating its sugars. Intense raisin and molasses. Very sweet.

Fino: A biologically aged sherry, covered during maturation by a cushion of yeast known as flor, which prevents contact with air. Light, fresh and dry, with no oak influence.

Others: Amontillado and Manzanilla casks are also rarely but occasionally employed.

Strangely, having said this, the importance of sherry to whisky is not endorsed in the regulations (I refer to those for Scotch whisky), which only require whisky to be matured in oak casks. Its use exists purely on the basis of accident (like so much with whisky), convention, and its own considerable merits – enough in itself. The origins of the relationship lie in the reuse of the casks that transported sherry from Spain to Britain (an idea stemming from the prudent Scots no doubt), to hold and store whisky for merchants and wealthy customers, who subsequently discovered a beneficial influence on the liquid. The practice was accordingly perpetuated and by the end of the eighteenth century distilleries had begun to mature their whiskies in this fashion as a standard. Today these transport casks have been replaced by bespoke casks – casks seasoned with sherry on instruction, for a prescribed period of usually between one and half to two years.

The resultant variety of flavour is attributable to the different types of sherry, but also to the different types of wood being used. This is sometimes overlooked by much of the whisky community, which often refers to sherry casks and European oak interchangeably – a gross mistake. Casks seasoned with sherry are made from both American oak and European oak, and have been for much of history, the latter mostly of Spanish oak, but possibly of French oak or of other types. The same sherry in one or the other has a markedly different result for the whisky end-product. Even the same sherry in the same wood, being organic and imbued by nature with its own individuality, will produce varied results, albeit less markedly. It’s a truly synergistic process where sherry, wood and whisky interact in a process where the resultant cask will be absolutely unique.

These insights could be evidenced in much of the selection that we reviewed. The pool, not comprehensive by any means, but as representative a collection of reasonably priced sherried whiskies as was possible and practical, was as follows: Aberlour 16YO, Balvenie 17YO Doublewood Bunnahabhain 18YO, Glendronach 12YO, Glendronach 16YO Platinum, Glenfiddich 18YO, Glenmorangie Lasanta, Highland Park 12YO, and Macallan Sienna. There isn’t a whisky amongst the lot that I wouldn’t gladly drink on a daily basis, testament to sherry’s potency if well deployed.

The most intense were the two Glendronachs – I could literally feel the tannins tugging gently on my palate. Both exclusively sherry cask matured (combination Oloroso and PX), the 12YO is aged a few years in American oak, but spends most its life in European oak, whilst the slightly more restrained 16YO is entirely matured in European oak. Powerful indeed! They define the term sherry bomb. The most interesting (but also challenging – there’s a lot going on) of the selection is perhaps the Balvenie, matured in both American and European oak (seasoning not specified but I would imagine both bourbon and sherry) and then finished in Oloroso butts for six months. A marvellously complex interplay of the dark dried fruits and spices expected of sherry. Its stable mate, the Glenfiddich, is rich and flavoursome, but less ambitious. The Bunnahabhain 18YO always reminds me of a salted dark chocolate. It’s full flavoured, with notes of cocoa and a hint of salt so subtle that I sometimes think it’s suggested by my visit to the distillery’s spray flecked dunnage, located point blank on the ocean. The Sienna is undeniably a Macallan with all the rounded richness that this entails, offering enough of the Macallans of yore to keep us all interested I’d warrant. It’s fully sherry cask matured in a pleasing, well balanced mix of first-fill American and European oak. The Highland Park was the only peated whisky amongst those we tasted, and it reconfirmed to me the need for sherry as a counterweight to peat, at least for my taste. It remains one of the most complete Scotches on the market. Lasanta, essentially a Glenmorangie Original finished (or extra matured in Glenmorangie parlance) in Oloroso casks for two years, is a striking example of the sherry contribution in general, taking a light, citrusy whisky, and transforming it into something rich and full bodied.

I hesitate to use the word favourite with reference to whisky, so I usually don’t and I won’t now. Your appreciation and consequently your evaluation of a whisky can depend I feel on your mood, your environment, and your physiology at a moment in time. You may have noticed however that I omitted mention of one of the whiskies in the review. Why? Well, I have this thoroughly unscientific test that I’ve used to single it out. After a tasting I unconsciously drink (hmm…don’t make too much of this combination of words) what remains of the bottles over time. Every now and again I take stock of the inventory. In this case the Aberlour 16YO was the first to disappear. Read into it what you will. My simple conclusion is that it ticks all the boxes with a flourish. Rich, balanced, and interesting without being taxing, with wisps of redolent flavours weaved into the backdrop of a thick, hearty traditional, home-made fruitcake. It’s an exemplary whisky, the type I can imagine to have created the tradition, that had people nodding their heads in appreciation and in realisation, and that forever bonded Spain into the whisky bloodline. May the dram be with you.

Prague for the weekend

It may come cheaper than most of Europe’s flashier cities, but the Czech capital’s persisting popularity owes as much to pedigree as to price.

This article does not feature anything about whisky.  I just couldn’t bring myself to mention the dodgy bottle of Czech whisky (Gold Cock) that I happened upon and bought whilst on this trip.

First published in GQ (July 2015 edition).

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It’s difficult to know what to make of Prague unless you’ve actually visited the place. It has a mixed reputation. Both admired and somewhat maligned, luckily in unequal measures – otherwise I may have had second thoughts about my trip, by those whom I consulted as I did my planning, the only sensible conclusion to which I could come was that the city clearly has the capacity to inspire a range of impressions. I set off then with tempered expectations. Would its noted budget-friendliness serve up gangs of inebriated, bachelor-partying louts (along with great value for my Rands)? Would I be greeted by Praguers grown jaded and unamenable by the continued press of tourist hordes? These concerns, and others, had weighed on my mind, but they were quickly dispelled on arrival, whether by luck, or by the foreboding (but in reality delightful) winter season, or by a lack of merit I can’t rightly say – I was there all too briefly. What I can say, heartily, unreservedly, is that, glimpsing it like I did, this city exudes a magical olde worlde charm, resplendent with its cobbled streets and squares, its imposing medieval spires, and its quaint, ginger-bread architecture, of sufficient degree to offer the makings of a mesmerising weekend.

Stay
Intercontinental Prague
In a walking city, and Prague is most definitely a walking city, location is gold, especially during a short stay – when you don’t want to be wasting time waiting for taxis, figuring out the public transport system, or making long treks. The Intercontinental, perched smack bang at the heart of the Old Town, couldn’t be better positioned. Five minutes of leisurely strolling will get you either to the Charles Bridge or the Old Town Square, fifteen minutes to the Castle. Now this is not a boutique hotel by any means – if that’s what you’re after then look elsewhere – but it’s comfortably well-appointed and it provides all the amenities expected of an upmarket hotel, from an overnight shoe shining service and an impressively large and well-equipped gym, to a Sunday brunch that’s apparently considered to be the best in the city.
Pařížská 30, +420-296-631 111
http://www.icprague.com
Shop
Bohemian crystal
The Czech Republic is reputed for its exquisite glassware, referred to as Bohemian crystal. Note that the term crystal is used in the country to denote any high-quality glass, whereas “lead crystal” specifically defines glass containing a minimum 24% lead oxide. If you’re intent on going shopping in this city then let it be for the local crystal – it’ll be a fitting memento and you’ll be buying craftsmanship equivalent to the best in the world. Prague though – be warned – is a lot like Venice: the tourist hotspots are wildly overgrown with souvenir shops and stalls, most carrying glass and some specialising in glass, many of which hawk crystal that is overpriced and of dubious provenance. Tread carefully. And pack carefully – crystal pieces aren’t the most robust items to be lugging about.
Moser
If you’re feeling flush then head directly to Moser, the oldest and most iconic glass manufacturer in the country. They’ve been making their precision, hand-crafted, lead-free crystal creations for over 150 years; and whilst you’ll be paying a premium, you’ll do so in the confidence that you’re getting the best of the best.
Staroměstské náměstí 603/15, +420 221 890 891
http://www.moser-glass.com
Dana Bohemia
Those who prefer their crystal with lead, incidentally making it softer and hence easier to cut, can visit the long-established Dana Bohemia, which offers a wide variety of products ranging from tableware and chandeliers, to Christmas decorations and figurines.
Národní 43, +420 224 214 655
http://www.danabohemia.cz

Blue Praha
This chain of some nine stores is undoubtedly intended for tourists, with all its locations either in the Old Town or at the airport, but its products are interesting, its prices aren’t overly intimidating, and its scale confers reliability and authenticity.
Malé náměstí 14, +420 224 216 717
http://www.bluepraha.cz

Pastries
Trdelnik
I have a weakness for pastries, I have to admit. It’s a disturbing compulsion, especially in these sugar reviling times in which we live, but I’ve been unable to overcome it. I single-mindedly seek them out wherever I go – pains au chocolat in France, cannoli in Italy, churros in Spain, danishes here, strudels there…I could go on. During my time in Prague I happened upon the Trdelnik, a traditional pastry common to several central European countries, the Czech Republic amongst them. This hollow cylinder of rolled dough is typically grilled over coals or gas flames, covered in sugar, nuts and cinnamon, and served piping hot, either as is or smeared with Nutella. It’s a decadent treat that’s ideal for a chilly winter morning. Try it from a street stall where you can watch as it’s being made.
Music
Smetana Hall at Obecní dům
There’s arguably greater appreciation for classical music in central Europe than anywhere else in the world, so a visit to Prague represents an opportunity to partake in the region’s passion for this art form. The austere and cavernous, but acoustically well-endowed, Smetana Hall at the Municipal House hosts regular musical soirees, some as unimposingly short as an hour. There’s space to go around in my experience, but book early to avoid disappointment, especially in high season.
Námesti Republiky 1090/5, +420 222 002 130
http://www.obecnidum.cz

Beer
Pilsner
The Czech Republic is famous for its beer consumption, per capita the highest in the world, and, more flatteringly, for its beer heritage and culture, which is derived in large part from Pilsner – its very own home-grown style. Pilsner is in fact a specific type within the lager family, distinguished primarily by the use of “noble hops”, which is more aromatic and less bitter relative to other varieties. First brewed in the town of Pilsen in 1842 – at the Citizens’ Brewery (now Pilsner Urquell) – it was widely acclaimed for its flavour, and, most influentially, for its colour. The clear golden liquid was a dramatic departure from the dark brews prevalent at the time, thereby forging a new standard to which most of the lagers that we consume today are indebted.
Tanknova
To any beer connoisseur a Tanknova, or Tank Pub, is holy ground. Previously these were unique to Czech Republic but they’ve now started to spread elsewhere – by popular demand I’m sure. Prague though remains the mecca, with a Tanknova on every corner…well, just about. Most of the beer we drink – certainly everything in bottles or cans, and much of the draught too – is pasteurised, to stabilise it and extend its shelf life, and like any preservation this process takes a little something away from the fresh, unadulterated original. Tanknovas offer unpasteurised beer, kept fresh, and safe from contamination, at between 8 and 10°C (the optimal range) in large stainless steel tanks, and then pressed out for serving using a high-pressure air compressor. The result: a rounder, more complex, fuller-flavoured beer – and a bucket list experience! Try the tanked Pilsner Urquell at the rustic Bredovský Dvůr; it’s virtually impossible to reconcile with the stuff we get over here.
Bredovský Dvůr, Politických vězňů 13, +420 224 215 427
http://www.restauracebredovskydvur.cz

Bar hopping
Blah Blah Bar
During my trip Blah Blah was Prague’s number one rated bar on TripAdvisor, so I decided to put it to the test. A recent addition to the scene – the bar was opened some six months ago – it was clearly striking the right chord with locals, expats and tourists alike. The place is owned by a dynamic Khazak couple – I kept my Borat impressions in check – whose (well executed) vision was an idea of community, of people coming together to converse. From the eclectic decorations, including seventies style upholstered bar frontage, and the mix of niche and mainstream liquor, the reassuring and interesting both covered, to its excellent service, despite the obvious busyness the barmen made the time to chit-chat, and its animal friendliness, one of the guests was accompanied by a beagle, I found Blah Blah to be charming and friendly, but also edgy. It’s a bit out of the way but well worth the visit. Try the Omg (oh my gin) gin – or is it just Omg? – produced by the Zufanek distillery in Moravia, whilst you’re there.
Žitná 41, +420 777 169 977
http://www.facebook.com/barblahblah
U Zlatého Tygra
U Tygra may be somewhat polarising – you’ve been warned upfront. It’s one of the two most well-known, uber traditional bars in the city (the other is U Černého Vola), and it seems to find its way into every guidebook – so here I am doing my bit for the cult. My brief experience of it went something like this: I walked in, I was nearly asphyxiated by the heavy pall of smoke, and I was roundly ignored by the staff for what felt like some ten minutes before I eventually walked out in resignation. As I’d waited awkwardly though I’d managed to observe that the overwhelmingly male clientele was seated at big communal tables, and that everyone seemed to be eating and drinking the same thing – a throwback to the communist past perhaps…? Having said this I have it on good authority that their limited fare – the beer and the food – is outstanding, so if you’re prepared to brave a visit I’d venture that it would be as authentic a Czech experience as for which you could hope. Get your concierge to phone in advance and make a reservation.
+420 222 221 111
http://www.uzlatehotygra.cz

Cuisine
Klub Architektů
I’d been a little apprehensive about the food in Prague, which I’d been told was gristly and stodgy, and marginalising for non-red meat eaters. This though wasn’t my experience. I ate the quintessential goulash-with-dumplings on no less than three occasions (when in Rome you know) – alternating between beef and venison for the former, and potato and dough for the latter – with absolute relish, the highlight being the first, a steaming, hearty affair – absolutely perfect for the sub-zero evening, at Klub Architektů. This restaurant, a prime example of the admittedly cosy local predilection for locating bars and restaurants in cellars, offers a varied menu – varied enough to have entirely satisfied my notoriously difficult pollo-pescetarian wife and to have immediately eased my reservations.
Betlémské náměstí 169/5A, 110 00 Praha 1, +420 224 248 878
http://www.klubarchitektu.com

Remember
It’s a little known fact outside of the country that Prague has a significant Vietnamese population. In the iron curtain era the Russians brought in Vietnamese labourers, many of whom remained to establish themselves, their families, and their culinary heritage in the city. Take a break from the goulash with the light, flavourful summer rolls at Remember.
Biskupská 5, +420 602 889 089
http://www.rememberasianfood.cz

A cup of tea or coffee
Artisan Café and Bistrot
After a few hours of pounding Prague’s busy, buzzing, cobbled streets, you could be forgiven for seeking a temporary refuge. In such moments look no further than this little oasis of quiet, run by owner Krystof Polansky, where the sumptuousness of the teas and the deliciousness of the freshly-baked cakes cannot be overstated.
Vejvodova 1, +420 602 727 734
http://www.artisancafe.cz