Monthly Archives: August 2016

The wood in whisky

A phenomenon called maturation.  PATRICK LECLEZIO bows respectfully but unflinchingly to one of the great forces in whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

The use of wood in crafting whisky is enormously important.  Many years ago – almost all the players seem to have their own quaint, romantic story about how it occurred – someone put their spirits into an oak cask, ostensibly for storage or transport, left it for longer than intended, and realised that the resultant, conditioned liquid had been considerably enhanced.  I can only imagine the joy of that discovery, the whisky equivalent of fire, or the wheel, or penicillin (or maybe that’s me imagining what I would say after appropriately celebrating the discovery).  Anyhow, in the aftermath of this happy accident (or these happy accidents, if we’re to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) laying spirits in wood gradually became a deliberate practice, utilised across the board.  It is now of such importance that the makers of fine spirits, and other drinks too (wines and fortified wines in particular), dedicate massive resources to what is known as maturation.  In asserting and validating the extent of its influence I’m going to delve into some the critical factors, but I also want to counter myself with a cautionary voice, because maturation is the one issue in whisky that tends to be over-aggrandised – so I’ll attempt to debunk the glib statements that are sometimes used to stress its importance, but that often misrepresent and mislead.

I’ve repeatedly been told that the most important influence on the flavour of a whisky is its maturation, or, similarly, that maturation contributes 60% (or 70%, or 80% – depends to whom you’re listening) of the flavour of a whisky…and I’ve probably passed on these same suppositions myself.  No longer, or at least, not in these terms.  I have no problem with the direction of the sentiment (there’s no doubting that maturation is important, enormously so, as I’ve already said and will say again, and in many or even most cases of majority importance), but I find it tenuous to reduce it to a fixed, universal, and absolute point.  Firstly the effect of maturation on different whiskies is variable: most obviously because of its duration, the weightings of its input into a 3YO and a 25YO will be dramatically different, but also because wood is a natural substance, and therefore not consistent in its impacts, and further because the relative scale of other influences will also vary.  In the Ardbeg 10YO for instance I could make the (not unreasonable) contention that it is peat smoke and not maturation that commands the single biggest impression in the flavour.  Secondly, flavour is subject to interpretation – it simply can’t be factually referenced in quantitative terms (when this is done in scoring it’s an opinion), or even in definitive terms.  I may be predominantly captivated by the biscuit notes in Maker’s Mark, which I attribute to the wheat in the mashbill, but someone else, sitting drinking the identical whisky opposite me, may be more captivated by the sweet vanilla derived from the casks.  The reason I’m labouring this point is that flavour is suggestive.  If you believe that maturation is the be-all, end-all, that’s often what it will be, perhaps to your detriment. During a business trip with two seasoned industry professionals we were served a cognac which we were told was a Scotch whisky.  We proceeded to debate amongst ourselves whether it was a blend or a single malt (I went for single malt, at least I got the copper distillation right).  In retrospect (blushes notwithstanding) I knew I had identified something funky, but I had simply ruled it out of my mind before even picking up the glass that this was anything other than whisky.  Question assumptions, about this and about anything else really (life rule).

When we talk about maturation, we effectively refer, in very simplistic terms, to the process over time where a liquid resting in a cask absorbs (and relinquishes) certain characteristics, primarily from (and to) the cask itself, and to a lesser degree from the environment in which the cask is accommodated, which permeates as the cask expands and contracts (breathes) with temperature fluctuations, and where the liquid further evolves as the result of chemical reactions between its component compounds and those being absorbed.  The cask itself plays the pivotal role, both intrinsically, by contributing the natural elements of the wood from which it’s made, and by passing on “second-hand” flavours that it has absorbed in its previous maturations, typically of bourbon or sherry, but increasingly of other drinks as well.  I recently worked my way through a bottle of the Glenfiddich 21YO (“raised in Scotland, roused by the Caribbean”…classic), finished in rum casks, with the molasses underpinning that spirit startlingly and deliciously evident in the final liquid.  Glenmorangie has just released Milsean, a whisky finished (extra matured in their parlance) in Portuguese red wine barriques.  Michel Couvreur, a brand with which I was previously associated, produces Spiral, which is finished (double matured might be more apt given the duration) in Jura vin de paille casks and which is one of the outstanding whiskies of my experience.  William Grant, and now Jameson (and possibly others), make whisky finished in ale casks.  And on it goes.  This aspect of maturation has created a model where the possibilities for flavour diversity are almost endless.  It is the sexy face of maturation.  Ex-sherry, ex-bourbon! Oloroso, Pedro Ximinez, manzanilla!  Port, sauternes! And whilst it’s undeniably interesting and alluring it’s important not to forget that much of the body of the whisky comes from the wood itself.

The wood in whisky is the mighty oak – as is the case for most spirits.  There are indigenous Brazilian trees that are used for maturing cachaça, the odd, old, arbitrary chestnut cask has turned up here and there in Scotland, and I’ve read of an American whiskey using maple for finishing, but these are strictly exceptions.  Somehow, out of all the trees in all the world, it’s curiously only oak that works properly (mighty indeed!), and furthermore only oak that has been grown in the right climate and conditions. The attempt to grow Quercus Alba (American white oak) in South Africa was a disaster; the wood was of such poor quality as to be unusable.  This is the reason why a company like Glenmorangie pays such close attention to wood cultivation, to the point where Bill Lumsden, their whisky supremo, flies out to the United States to individually select the trees that’ll be used to make their casks; and why a brand like Glenfiddich celebrates the intricate role of the wood in its whisky – as evidenced by the beautiful “Journey of the Cask” photo essay, from which I’ve chosen images to accompany this piece.   I’ll spare you a detailed knowledge the actual chemistry – because it’s above my pay grade I’ll admit, but also (I say somewhat conveniently) because it’s unnecessary if your objective is to better understand whisky for the purpose of its enjoyment.  The basics of it though are as follows:  The wood performs two functions. The charred or toasted inner layer, like the charcoal that it is, absorbs impurities from the raw spirit, making its smoother and more palatable.   It also gives the spirit a pathway into the wood, from which it absorbs vanillins, lignins and tannins – the elements that make such a central contribution (the second function) to flavour.

Lost to this simplistic explanation are a multitude of other considerations, that all stake a claim:  the seasoning of the wood – the process and time governing the drying of the cut wood (to be distinguished from the seasoning of the casks with liquid); the toasting and charring levels; the skill of the cooperage; the selection and proportion of virgin casks, first fills or refills; and, very importantly, the species of the wood – the most common being the Quercus Alba already mentioned, and Quercus Robur, the European oak.  I had the privilege of attending a nosing with Edrington (Macallan, Highland Park) heavyweight Gordon Motion, during which we compared the same whisky matured for the same period in the same warehouse in American oak and European oak casks, both seasoned with the same sherry for the same period.  From the number of times I’ve used the word same in that sentence you’ve obviously worked out by now that I’m setting you up.  Yes, the whiskies were dramatically different.

Maturation then is a critical lever for flavour.  Even today it retains a sense of that natural world mystique that must have astonished the first person to have stumbled upon it.  Its influence on whisky is both broad and deep.  It’s an easy trap to fall into though to think that it is all-important.  Look at a whisky, nose a whisky, taste a whisky and the first thing that dominates your thinking is a consideration of the casks from which it’s made.  As with all things that are imposing and extraordinary though, it’s worth taking a measured perspective to keep from being overawed.  If I can leave you with only one guiding sentiment about maturation it’s this: appreciate it but don’t exaggerate it.  Leave room for other things.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

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Amsterdam in brief

Familiar and foreign both, Holland’s metropole strikes a poised balance as the ultimate place for a short city break.

First published in GQ Magazine (September 2016 edition).

I find myself in the fortunate position, courtesy of my work commitments, to be able to intermittently sojourn in a European city, typically for a long weekend.  The choice of destination is critical in this endeavour.  Given that these trips only manifest about once a year, so regularly but not often, and given the parlous state of the currency, I simply can’t face the prospect of disappointment.  The chosen city must therefore meet certain conditions – it must be convenient, distinctive, and interesting.  This year I opted for Amsterdam.  The conclusion, first – before you read on any further:  wau!  Or so the Dutch would say it.  The visit left me struggling to imagine any alternative that would have more emphatically fulfilled my criteria.

Convenient

If your time is limited you don’t want to be dealing with multiple transfers and contorted logistics.  Amsterdam Schiphol is a direct flight on KLM, a single stop on a host of other airlines, and an easy connection from all the major (and many of the minor) European cities.  It’s then a short journey of 20-odd minutes from the airport to the city’s central station by train.

Foreign languages are part of the charm of a holiday abroad, a charm particularly poignant in Amsterdam because of the filial relationship between Dutch and Afrikaans.  But they’re also an impediment, especially during a short stay when you’ll have neither the time nor inclination to wrestle with a language barrier.  The Dutch, and probably Amsterdamers in particular, speak the best English in Continental Europe.

The city’s tourism organisation IAMSTERDAM offers cards for purchase which include all public transport, canal tours, museum visits, and discounts at shops and restaurants.  They’re handy, although I found that I rarely needed to use the trams and the buses – the city centre is condensed enough that if you’re at your leisure anything other than walking is largely unwarranted.

Distinctive

The places that etch their mark most profoundly on our consciousness, that live longest and most vividly in our memories, are the ones with their own, unique, individual character.  If you were wake up here with no recollection of where you were – this city, with its canals, bicycles and winching beams…and its “coffee” shops and red light district, would immediately reveal itself to you, and impress itself (favourably!) upon you.

Interesting

Amsterdam has it all.  A deep and rich history.  A heritage of arts and innovation.   A broad culture encompassing food and drink, music and theatre, fashion and sports.  It’s a place of vibrant energy and unpretentious cool, endowed with a seemingly endless supply of things to see and do.

 Stay

The Conservatorium

Taking its name from the music school previously resident, the Conservatorium Hotel occupies a heritage building, renovated and extended by Piero Lissoni.  The result is a blend of the traditional and the contemporary that creates a reassuring, luxurious elegance.  The place is a spoil, be warned, but it delivers throughout: from the unusual split level rooms, the superbly well-equipped gym, the sumptuous spa with its watsu pool, and the Asian restaurant (Taiko) with its certified sake sommeliers to the quirky decorations, the shopping gallery with its cigar club, and the host department, which gets in touch with you ahead of your visit to assess your requirements and offer advice. The highlight perhaps is the flagship I love Amsterdam suite, nudged from the spectacular that you would expect to the outrageously sublime by a viewing deck, accessed by a spiral staircase to the roof of the hotel, which offers wraparound views of the city.  My only caution would be that its location is set slightly outside the thick of things, but the hotel offers bicycles to guests (naturally!) as a remedy so this is a negligible concern.  If it’s beyond your budget to stay then stop in at the excellent brasserie – with its community table for solo travellers, what a simple but beautiful idea – for a meal of duck breast or pikeperch, both exquisite, washed down with a Petit Chablis, to take in the charm of the place.

Paulus Potterstraat 50 – 1071 DB Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 570 0090

http://www.conservatoriumhotel.com

Dine

In a city that is both rooted in its traditions and that pushes the boundaries I thought it was important to experience both ends of the spectrum.

Supperclub

This restaurant seemed so avant garde to me that I was taken aback to learn that it had been operating for some 25 years.  Patrons recline at tables set on large beds, whilst being entertained by DJ’s and a variety of unconventional performers – imagine a fusion of Madame Zingara’s and the Blue Oyster Bar.  I don’t think I was successful in bringing out my “inner travolta” as they urged me to do, but I made a great time of it nonetheless.  It goes without saying too that the food was sumptuous.  An iconic Amsterdam experience!

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://supperclub.amsterdam/en

Haesje Claes

This family-run restaurant is an institution, having maintained persistent popularity since its inception some 40 years ago.  It’s a large place, but with its multiple dining areas enclosed into smaller separated spaces, with its decor of authentic Dutch furnishings, and with its friendly, chatty staff, an intimate atmosphere prevails.  Haesje Claes is a window to the past, to the old Holland of the seafaring age – I imagined myself a sailor, freshly stepped off a ship from the Indies, as I devoured a much anticipated meal of my favourite pea soup and stamp potten (a stew of sorts), whilst my wench, delighted at my return, celebrated with a dish of the local weaverfish with prawns and mussels.   Hearty and delicious.

Spuistraat 275 – 1012 VR Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 624 9998

www.haesjeclaes.nl

Drink

Wynand Fockink

With a name that made me smile every time I articulated it I was enjoying this place – a working distillery in the very centre of town – long before I actually got there.  Tours of the distillery are available on weekends, offering the ideal opportunity to learn about Holland’s traditional spirit, jenever (pronounced ye-nay-va).  It’s an ancestor of gin, but I found it more related to blended whisky, especially the premium Korenwijn style.  The accompanying bar is small but hugely popular, and incredibly fascinating.  Its knowledgeable barman schooled me in Dutch drinking habits:  the “buigen voor de borrel” ritual, which involves bending over to drink from an overfilled glass in order to avoid spillage (the Dutch are known to be thrifty), and the “kopstouter”, the traditional manner of drinking jenever, which is beer accompanied by a chaser of the stuff.   The real highlight though is a stupefying range, shelf after shelf, of sensational liqueurs and fruit brandies.  I’m not a huge fan of liqueurs but the flavours of the “half and half”, the “singelburger” and the “hansje in de kelder” blew me away.

Pijlsteeg 31 – 1012 HH Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 639 2695

http://www.wynand-fockink.nl

Hoppa

I love the concept of craft beer, so when I learnt that Amsterdam had a bar entirely dedicated to the genre I inked it on my itinerary immediately.  The beers were hit and miss, as one might expect from microbrews, but the array of flavours was impressive, living up easily to the promise suggested by their colourful names: Tropical Ralfie, Howling Wolf, and Thai Thai, to name a few.  I was particularly pleased to be served from a growler tap, one of only two in the city, a device which I was encountering for the first time and which apparently controls the level of carbonation (to prevent over-foaming) – and indeed it was a superlative pour.  Hoppa is the perfect place to while away a few hours, enjoying great beer and charcuterie, whilst gazing on the adjacent canal and contemplating this enthralling city.

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://hoppa.amsterdam/en

Snack

If a Dutch person were stranded on a desert island and given a choice of two foodstuffs as sustenance, it would undoubtedly be cheese and pastries.  And I wouldn’t argue with it.

Reypenaer

If you thought like me that great cheese was in the making then you stand corrected.  The people at Reypenaer don’t even make their own cheese, they’re entirely focused on maturation because they believe that it contributes 80% of the eventual flavour.   Based in Woerden, Holland’s cheese capital, with its conducive microclimate, Reypenaer cheese is matured in a wooden warehouse, allowing it to absorb flavours from the wood over time, much like a fine spirit.  The shop in Amsterdam offers a tasting of six cheeses paired with wine, ranging from a light, tangy four month-old goat cheese, to the rich and potent three year-old gouda XO.  Yum?  An understatement!

Singel 182 – 1015 AJ Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 320 6333

www.reypenaercheese.com

Pastries

You couldn’t throw a croissant in Amsterdam without hitting a bakery or a patisserie, and you’d probably be locked up for callous wastage if you did.  There’s a bit of everything – Amsterdam after all is one of the world’s great cosmopolitan centres – but the local fare, the moreish stroopwaffels and poffertjes, should be foremost in your attentions.   Inexplicably they haven’t travelled; you’re unlikely to get them easily elsewhere, so make hay whilst the sun shines.

Listen

Café Alto

Holland is home to the North Sea Jazz Festival, so the country’s a bit of a hub for this style of music.  Café Alto is one of Amsterdam’s foremost live jazz venues,  with a reputation for hosting top quality acts – and, for the most part, somehow, not charging couvert.   No second invitation required.

Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 115 – 1017 PX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 626 3249

www.jazz-cafe-alto.com

Shop

De Bijenkorf

I was in Amsterdam during the late-January sales, which were so compelling that purchases made sense even in beleaguered Rand terms.   The city centre is replete with a wide variety of shops and stores, including those of reputed Dutch labels such a G-Starr and Whisky and Soda – which is brilliant if you’re inclined to expedition about, but for a quick one-stop shop head to De Bijenkorff, an all-singing, all-dancing department store usefully located at the epicentre on Dam Square.

Dam 1 – 1012 JS Amsterdam, 0800-0818 (Netherlands) or +31 (0)88 245 3333 (other countries)

www.debijenkorf.nl

  Chill

All that walking around might up your shares on Fitbit, but it also parches the throat and piques the appetite.  Take a break at these enchanting cafes.

Ivy & Bros

This place screams hipster at the top of its voice, which I’ll confess had me in two minds.   My fears though were unfounded.  Whilst the pricing was a touch liberal, and the service a little off-beat, predictably so, the value of the experience could not be faulted.  I was held in rapt by the Ismael Lo soundtrack, by an excellent, original smoothie, and by décor which included a replica of the jaws of a megladon – something you don’t see every day.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal 96A – 1012 GH Amsterdam, +31 6 1192 4244

https://www.facebook.com/ivyandbros

De Laatste Kruimel

I kept walking past this quaint little eatery at inappropriate times but it made such an impression on me, its windows almost bursting with home-style baked goods, that I committed myself to returning.  And I’m glad I did.  The fare is simple – quiches, sandwiches and cakes – but it’s wholesomely delicious.  In case you’re wondering I did polish off my order of a turkey sandwich and a raspberry frangipane tart…to the last crumb.

Langebrugsteeg 4  – 1012 GB Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 423 0499

http://www.delaatstekruimel.nl

See

Rijksmuseum

This marvel is everything that you’d anticipate from the national museum of a country as pioneering, energetic and prolific as Holland.  The art collection (I use the term broadly) is astounding for its own intrinsic value – there are Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s aplenty, including the breath-taking, outsized Nightswatch, and much, much more besides – but also because it tells the story of a captivating history.  Not to be missed.

Museumstraat 1- 1071 XX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 674 7000

www.rijksmuseum.nl

Anne Frank House

A visit to this memorial is both emotional and, in my opinion, necessary.  There are certain things that should never be forgotten.  The horror and absurdity of Nazism is excruciatingly vivid, and haunting, when seen through the eyes of a child whilst sharing the very same space in which it was experienced.  You’ll want to brace yourself but this excursion is well worthwhile if you want to add some meaning to the fun of your trip.

Prinsengracht 267 – 1000 AS Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 556 7105

www.annefrank.org

GQ Amsterdam 1

As it appeared – p1.

GQ Amsterdam 2

As it appeared – p2.