Monthly Archives: October 2016

Back to its roots

Whisky finds new inspiration from within.  PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along.  Familiarity is fickle lens.  Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you.  Until you do.  And even then it can be a while until it takes hold.  The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start.  Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently.  It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long.  Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future.  That future was in fact the elemental past.  The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.

There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”.  The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer.  These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time.  More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.

The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale.  This intuitively feels right.   What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself?  The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.

The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly.  In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer.  Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer.  The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness.  Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first.  Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer.   A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it.  The flame is now starting to flare.

With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed.  The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale.  I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours).  This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints.  A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours.  The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal.  This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures.  It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.

The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst.  We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment.  There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours.  In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service.  May the brew be with you.

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The full kit

Primed and ready for action.  PATRICK LECLEZIO gets to grips with stocking the right spirituous gear.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

I don’t consider myself to be a materialistic.  I don’t covet for the sake of it.  I’m not a shiny new toy type of person.  I do subscribe though to the philosophy that I must have what I need for what I want to do.   There is a certain comfort, a fulfilment, a confidence in being properly equipped.   Maybe it’s a lingering impetus from Boy Scout times – Be prepared! – or maybe it’s a harking back to that first-day-of-school, new-uniform-and-stationery (full set!), ready-to-face-the-world feeling that made such a deep impression, or  maybe it’s just an innate striving for completeness.  It just is – and if attended to it makes the endeavour more enjoyable.  When I’m out running on a cold and wet Cape winter morning, I find that it’s more agreeable if I’m wearing my dedicated rain jacket, rather than trying to get by with something makeshift.  If you’re going to do something, be ready to do it properly – this goes for drinking and entertaining, like anything else.   Here’s how you go about it.

Your personal repertoire will dictate what you need, but I’m going to steer a course suited to the well-rounded, gregarious bon vivant.

Strategy

You’ll want to be able to serve beers and ciders, wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, a range of spirits, and a few cocktails.  Our focus here will be on what you need for spirits, but I mention the others because there’s no point in being well fortified (no pun intended…well maybe a little bit) over here, and leaving your defences gaping over there.  Your equipment requirements will need to cover bar tools and glassware, and, whilst not equipment in the strict sense of it, the drinks and their ingredients shouldn’t be overlooked.

Bar tools

Tot measure

Even if you’re a free pour type of person you’ll need this for controlling proportions when mixing up a cocktail.  You might also find that the occasional guest will want regulated portions, especially in these days of heightened awareness about drink driving.  I recommend the version with both single and double measure combined – it’ll save time and hassle with continued use.  In bar speak these things are known as jiggers.

Cocktail shaker

There are two common types: the regular three-part Cobbler shaker and the two-part Boston shaker.  The latter is more theatrical but also more messy and difficult to use – especially as intended without a strainer.  The third option for cocktail preparations is a mixer, where you would use a large, robust glass (effectively one half of the Boston shaker), a spoon, and a strainer.  I favour the latter option, the stirred-not-shaken style of cocktail execution, particularly for my favoured drinks: there’s less risk of over-dilution or aeration (i.e. lots of bubbles on the surface).

 Spoon

The typical bar spoon is of an extended length, to enable you to easily reach to the bottom of a cocktail shaker or a tall glass.  This can make it cumbersome to wash and store.  I would recommend a telescopic spoon, which can be extended to the desired length for any conceivable purpose, and then contracted to store easily.

Ice-crusher

If you like ice with your spirits then this is an essential bit of kit.  One of the problems with ice is that it introduces uncontrolled dilution into a drink, which is stronger when the ice is added, and gradually weaker as the ice melts.  Crushed ice allows the addition of a measured volume of ice (conveniently using a measuring spoon), and it melts far quicker than cubed ice, giving a more consistent drinking experience.

Muddler

Optional, depending on what cocktails you’ll be making.  I’m contracting myself (as far as the use of makeshift equipment goes), but for occasional use you can get away with a heavy spoon in its absence.

Squeezer

Also optional, if your concoctions call for lemon or lime juice in particular, the former being better fresh, the latter being almost impossible to find.

Ice-buckets

You’ll need two sizes: a small one for dispensing ice, and a large one for chilling a bottle (wine of course, but also useful for vodka and tequila).

Jugs

Two sizes also needed here: a small one for dispensing water for spirits, and a large one to mix cocktails in party batches.

Glassware

Styles

These are the basic requirements: tumbler, highball or zombie (tall glass), and nosing, balloon, and shot glasses, and optionally martini and margarita glasses.  It’s all in the mind of course but it just feels better to be drinking the right drink from the right glass.  If you’re a GnT fan you may also want to consider copa de balon glasses (the Spanish style balloon glass on a long stem).

Quality

I have two sets of martini glasses:  one that’s from one of the local homeware stores, undoubtedly of Chinese provenance, perfectly serviceable but uninspiring, and one that’s made by the German manufacturer Schott Zwiesel.  I remarked the other day than unless I’m hosting a large gathering the former remains unused.  I just unconsciously gravitate towards the other.  The shape, the balance, the surface texture and the general glass quality are all superior, and it makes a difference to my enjoyment of the drinking experience.  I’ve subsequently bought their wine and whisky glasses, with similar results in satisfaction.  You don’t need labour-intensive crystal necessarily, unless that’s your thing, but it’s worth investing in quality glassware.

Drinks and ingredients

Spirits

The stocking principle which I’d advise is to achieve a good balance between choice and excess.  You should try to have at least two options of all the major spirits, but a depth of selection for at least two types, specifically those where flavour diversity is expected – such as whisky and gin.  Over and above I’d also suggest you also have a few exotic spirits available – cassis, amaretto, calvados, and cachaça for instance are both intriguing and delicious.

Mixers

You’ll almost certainly need tonic, soda and cola, and obviously others may be required depending on your particular taste and that of your guests.  I’d recommend keeping a supply of tomato juice (bloody mary / virgin mary), ginger ale (versatile for brown spirits), lemonade (rock shandy), and bottled water (unchlorinated water for adding to brown spirits) at hand.

Other ingredients

The last considerations are garnishes and cocktail ingredients.  The most versatile garnishes are lemon and lime, which can be used in drinks ranging from a GnT and a martini to a cuba libre and a tequila shooter.  So they’re critical.  The rest will be driven by the cocktails that you intend to mix and offer.  You should specialise in a few cocktails, which will come to represent your own particular signature style.  My personal favourites are the martini (vermouth and olives or lemon needed) and the margarita (triple sec, sea salt and lime), but I’m also partial to the odd caiparinha (sugar and lime) and mohito (mint, lime and sugar).   Let the fun begin.

 

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