Monthly Archives: February 2017

The land of the rising dram

Whisky, big in Japan.  Japan, big in whisky.  Patrick Leclezio separates his mizuwaris from his oyuwaris.

Whisky geeks have been on it for a while, but now it’s starting to explode in the mainstream.  Japanese, if you can get it, is the hottest thing in whisky.  And it’s been due for some time. Bill Murray memorably introduced (most of) us to it in 2003’s Lost in Translation: “For good times, make it Suntory time”.  After all when some paranormal publicity is required who you gonna call? Since then Suntory and Nikka, both the company and brand names of the two leading players, and their flagship single malts, Yamazaki and Yoichi, have rapidly established themselves in our collective consciousness, with the smaller marques following in their wakes.  Demand has grown to fever pitch, but with South Africa low on the list of supply priorities, the stuff is thin on the ground.  I wanted to know more and try more before writing this piece, so I sought out the country’s leading Japanese whisky distributor (and expert) Hector McBeth, to tap into his voluminous knowledge of the subject…and to sneak a few drams from his private stock.

Stranger in a strange land.  Five words that sum up the origins of Japanese whisky.  A Japanese man living and studying in distant Scotland in the early twentieth century.  A curious Scottish tradition taking root in Japan shortly thereafter.  These are the two intertwined threads, epitomising the unifying magic of whisky, that precipitated this industry.   Its watershed moment though came much later, in 2008, when Yoichi’s 20YO and the Suntory Hibiki were awarded the titles of world’s best single malt and world’s best blended whisky respectively by Whisky Magazine, one of the most credible of whisky authorities.  A deluge of awards have followed.

The face behind the liquid and its success, is somewhat inscrutable.  In fact Japanese whisky is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand there’s extreme rigidity.  The model and the basic techniques, and hence the flavours, are derived from Scotch.  I had always held out that the one tangibly identifiable feature distinguishing its whisky from others was the use of Japanese oak (mizunara), inserting the incense notes that are identifiable in some of its expressions.  Hector disavowed me of the notion, confirming that the proportion of these casks in any vatting or blend is minimal.  It’s a nice story, and it’s sometimes apparent (in Yamazaki in particular), but on the whole it’s not significant.  There just isn’t enough of the stuff (the wood).  Adding to its limitations, the various distilleries, already few in number, by and large do not trade stocks outside of their parent companies (of which there are fewer still), hence restricting the variety of product that’s available for vatting and blending.  This is a traditional convention, profoundly fixed in the Japanese ethic of company loyalty.  The result is a set of institutions that can appear deeply conservative, unimaginative and cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face inhibiting.

Then there’s the other hand, the contrast.  Paradoxically the same issues that have constrained Japanese whisky seem also to have driven it forward.  Starved of variety, Japanese distilleries began producing it for themselves.  A Scotch distillery will typically only produce one type of new make.  In Japan individual distilleries began experimenting with different barleys, different malting methods, different yeasts, different stills, and different distillation methods, to produce a wide variety of different single malts.  Bamboo charcoal filtration has been introduced.  High quality single malt has been made in a Coffey still. Necessity as they say is the mother of invention.  The narrow parameters of their setup – the adoption of the Scotch paradigm, the cultural issues – seem to have stimulated rather than restrained innovation – producing spectacular results.

The real impacts remain implicit rather than explicit.  It’s difficult to point out visible, significant distinguishing features.  Whereas other territories have made their mark with radical departures, the Japanese have made small tweaks, focusing on execution of the details.  Their work with yeast is supposedly industry leading, to the point, Hector tells me, that they legally register their strains.  My take-out is that they have taken vatting and blending to greater levels of dedication than anyone else.   Ireland and North America have their own very distinct styles.  Scotch is bound to provenance.   Japan is all about using their human resources to make the most of their limited physical resources – in whisky as in everything else really.  This is particularly evident in blended malts.   A neglected sector elsewhere the Japanese have embraced it, recognising and exploiting the extra dimension that it offers.  I’ve often maintained that blended malts have all the intrinsic advantages of single malts, and then some: they go beyond by providing the blender with an extensive palette of varying liquid, resulting in vatted potential that is undeniably superior (at least theoretically).   The Nikka portfolio in SA is a case in point: Nikka Pure Malts Red and Black, and the Taketsuru Pure Malt, along with Nikka from the Barrel, a high malt blend, being the most prevalent.

The industry has gone about things its own way, assiduously keeping the faith.  What it lacks in macro it has doubled in micro creativity, as growing legions of fans can bear witness.   If you’d like to be in that number, then march over to either Kyoto Gardens or Bascule Bar in Cape Town, or WhiskyBrother in Joburg, South Africa’s most assured purveyors of Japanese whisky.  May the dram be with you.

Sidebar:

Mizuwari: whisky with water and ice, served in a tall glass and stirred 13 and half times.

Oyuwaris: whisky with hot water, a custom that was borrowed from the drinking of sochu (the indigenous Japanese spirit).

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

The gin list

What to try before the summer fades.   Patrick Leclezio explores six of the best.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2017 edition).

Everyone’s making gin these days.  The world has rediscovered a taste for it, and in an era of educated consumption, this burgeoning appetite has provoked a plethora of options, ranging from the old and established (and their more recent offshoots), to a raft of new entrants that are both industrial and craft in scale.  Unlike brown spirits gin doesn’t need to be matured (although some are), so the barriers to entry are relatively low, and accordingly they are being vaulted in droves.  This is an exciting unfolding of events – there’s never been more variety than there is at present.   Ten years ago a local aficionado would have been scratching around amongst a handful of products, today you can board a ride on a virtually endless gin adventure.   But being swamped by an embarrassment of riches brings its own problems – what to choose?  It’s a first world problem I grant you, but let me nonetheless help out with some first class solutions.

Plymouth

If any gin can claim a legendary aura, then Plymouth is it.  Bottled at 57% ABV, the so-called “navy strength”, because that’s the proofing level at which alcohol ignites gunpowder, this is a big gin in every sense.  It has longstanding ties to the British Navy, and it even has its own geographical indication – Plymouth Gin is (somewhat bizarrely) both a brand, and a protected regional name (like Champagne).  The bold nose leads out a complex, tight spectrum of flavours onto a settled palate: juniper and pepper, hemmed in by a barky, earthy woodiness, and strong herbal cologne.   It may be a touch less dry than your typical London Dry Gin, but this is unequivocally masculine stuff nonetheless, projecting a tethered depth of power and an incredible balance.  There are no wild lurches or veering detours here – nothing is out of place, and nothing is arbitrary.  You get the sense that this is liquid that has been evolved to a state of military precision over many years, with any kinks that it may have had progressively chiselled away.  It’s expensive, but keep in mind that it goes a lot further than its lower-bottling-strength compatriots.  The label says “for almost 200 years the navy never left port without it”.  I’m hardly going to be setting off any cannons, but it’s a sentiment that I can take to heart, for the sheer drinking pleasure of it.

Musgrave Pink

Simone Musgrave’s eponymous gin now has a stablemate that despite not being an incendiary is setting the local craft scene alight.  It’s not a pink gin in the conventional sense, but it’s pink in colour and in intention.   This new variant adds rosehip to the signature botanicals and is further infused with rose water, resulting in a flavour that’s dominated by rich floral notes, with the spiciness and the muskiness of the original still evident, but receded into the background.  The common theme amongst new wave gins (in South Africa specifically but elsewhere too) is the demotion of juniper, with this one being a case in point.   This may not be traditional, and it may even flout regulations (the EU set for gin dictating that the predominant flavour must be juniper), but I for one like it (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one).  It represents an intrepid expansion in gin territory, giving us new and more varied landscapes to explore and vistas to enjoy.  The Musgrave Pink iteration is probably a gin that’ll appeal more to women than men, but regardless of your sex, it’s striking and distinctive, and it’s stirring things up, so it should be on your radar.

Wilderer

Wilderer has a reputation for creating delightful small-batch liquid, grappas, eau de vie’s and the like.  It’s a name that’s become synonymous with craftsmanship in the little liquor niche that it occupies.   The chaps have most recently turned their hands to gin, their first foray into a big, popular category of spirits, with predictably impressive results.  A menthol nose and a peppery palate poke out above a dense herbaceous canopy, with tendrils of liquorice injecting a fleeting sweetness.   This gin is a flavour window into an olde worlde apothecary, or so I imagine it: vaguely medicinal, herby aromas dancing one with the other, leading, following, then rotating, throwing off your perspective.  There’s a lot going on here – it’s entrancingly interesting, and demanding of your attention.   You’ll spend a lot of time with this gin without getting bored.

Inverroche

The Verdant and Amber have long been two of my favourite gins.  In these drinks the Inverroche crew at Stilbaai has forged some sort of an alignment of the stars, I kid you not.  The former evokes dried flowers, the latter a balance between boiled sweets (a lollipop nose) and bitter-ish tannins.  But this crude attempt at describing their superbly cohesive flavours leaves much to be desired; the finely wrought combinations of fynbos ingredients, both distilled and infused, defy facile interpretations.  Gin is a versatile drink, but let’s be honest – any pretender lives and dies on its rendition of a GnT, and to a lesser extent a martini.  Some gins fight with the tonic, others are overwhelmed.   These two, I want to say serendipitously but that would be disrespectful, are the perfect complements, enhancing the tonic whilst maintaining the integrity of their characters.  I happened to try them in martini recently for the first time – less dry, and atypical, but mouth wateringly delicious.  No one-trick-pony these.   It’s very simple: if you’re South African and you claim to like gin, then you’re doing yourself a gross disservice if you haven’t drunk from the Inverroche well.

Bombay Sapphire

Despite all of the recent activity the benchmark in gin remains the London Dry style:  large in juniper, dry – as the name suggests, and often tangy, with well-integrated, fully distilled botanicals, and in Bombay it has a beautifully representative ambassador.   This is the ideal everyday gin – premium of quality but affordable, complex in flavour but not challenging, tiring or polarising, and soft, versatile, and accessible but also full flavoured and interesting.   The sight of that electric blue bottle behind my bar gives me a certain sense of inner peace – I’d feel off-kilter without it.  Bombay Sapphire is a gem indeed.

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.