Monthly Archives: November 2017

An enduring love affair

PATRICK LECLEZIO sits down with the guys tending South Africa’s passion for Scotch whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2017 edition).

If you were ever searching for evidence that South Africans have good taste, you’d find a rich vein in our affection for Scotch whisky.  It’s a preference that says something about us: we’re discerning without being fussy, and cultivated but not pretentious.  We’ll connect over a glass of the good stuff, in silent nod to this shared understanding, whether we’re crusty old dogs, boardroom bigshots, or slinky models.   Like brothers-in-law married to a set of outstanding sisters, we’re bound together by our good judgement and common devotion.  In fact the extent and duration of our ardour has been impressive indeed: South Africa has for decades now been amongst the top ten export markets for Scotch whisky.  We might have had suspicions though, until not long ago, that this affection was unrequited.  No longer.  Thanks largely to the ministrations of companies like Intra and Distell it can now be confirmed jubilantly that we love Scotch and that Scotch also loves us – the relationship is unreservedly mutual, and richly reciprocated.  This commitment to one another is emphatically evident in Distell’s landmark investment in the industry – which wedded three distilleries (Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory) to South Africa.  I recently chatted to Andy Watts, their Head of Whisky Intrinsic (and an all-round whisky legend!), and Dino D’Araujo, the Spirits Category Marketing Manager, about the company’s role in these matrimonial developments.

PM: When did Distell first get involved with Scotch whisky beyond representation and distribution?

DD: Distell was initially involved with building the Scotch industry in South Africa as a distributor of a number of iconic brands. When these agreements ended in the 1990’s, Distell and Burn Stewart Distillers (BSD) formed a joint venture for Africa and distribution of the brands started in South Africa.  This was then extended with the purchase of BSD in April 2013.

PM: What was the rationale for the acquisition?

DD: Scotch whisky remains an exciting category globally and in South Africa so it made sense for Distell to move from joint venture to acquisition, building upon an already sound working relationship with BSD. The acquisition further strengthened our international portfolio and added scale and synergies.

PM: We’ve heard that Distell recently bought a stake in the Best brand.  Does this indicate an intention to focus (a) regionally within Africa on (b) value-for-money Scotch whisky?

DD: Distell has a long-standing focus on growing in Africa.  The acquisition of a 26% stake in Best Whisky opens the door for synergies as we progress towards taking a controlling stake. We also believe the combined portfolios will help to fast-track the portfolios of both Best and Distell in Africa across multiple value tiers.

PM: What are the next steps for Distell regarding Scotch whisky, both globally and particularly with regards to the South African market? 

DD: Whisky we believe will retain its inherent appeal with consumers around the world and South Africa is no exception, where the category is in excess of 4 million cases. We find that both our Scotch as well as our South African whisky portfolios are well poised for growth domestically as consumers become more discerning in their choices. We will be focusing our efforts between both portfolios.

PM: Andy, what is the scope of your involvement in BSD / Distell’s Scotch whisky operations?

AW: I was appointed into the newly formed Distell Centre of Excellence Intrinsics just over a year ago. My roles cover the overall quality of the whisky which goes into the bottle as well as looking at the production methods we are using across our different distilleries – identifying opportunities for synergy as well as standardisation of good practice. The timeframe is still relatively young but already projects are being implemented in Scotland at Tobermory, Bunnahabhain and possibly Deanston within the near future. These projects are being driven by the highly capable team which we have in Scotland so my involvement is not on a day to day basis.

PM: I’m guessing that Distell has a different approach to and a different vision for whisky making compared to BSD’s previous management.   Can you give us any insight into these differences – and specifically give us examples of how they have already and how they may impact the whiskies and the product range going forward?

AW: Distell’s approach to all of its operations is to produce world-class products in the most efficient and effective manner. The team in Scotland is a new team with the operations under the capable leadership of Alan Wright. Again my involvement is not on a daily basis but the immediate task is to produce consistent base malts which will allow us to grow the current malt range as well as apply innovation to continue to be at the forefront of whisky evolution.

The only real change between the old and new Burn Stewart / Distell International operations is a focus on cased own goods business rather than the bulk supply of whisky to third parties.

Remember we have whiskies that have already been produced and that were in maturation long before the acquisition took place, therefore the focus is on the future and how we do things going forward to achieve those goals.

PM: Related question: what changes / improvements has Distell made to the whisky making process at BSD, if any?

The changes are more in terms of an upgrade and improvement to some equipment and not one of changing time-honoured process. The legislation governing how whisky is produced in Scotland is very transparent, and we strictly comply to the laws. I am fortunate enough to taste all of the expressions before they go into the bottle and I am very excited at the work being done both on the blending front with Dr Kirstie McCallum, and on the production side under the guidance of Stephen Woodcock, the Distilleries Manager.

PM: You’ve been an SA whisky man for a long time. Some people and some companies can wear multiple hats, some can’t. Do you think the acquisition has enhanced / will enhance both categories within Distell, or do you think one will be favoured at the expense of the other?  What are the roles that each is expected to play?

AW: We make South African whisky, considered a ‘New World’ whisky region, as well as Scotch whisky, one of the most pedigreed areas for whisky production in the world.  For me, it is easy to wear the two hats as I don’t feel that the two categories compete with each other. I am still very involved with our SA marketing as the “face” of our South African whisky portfolio but I do not see that role spreading to our Scottish family. We with very capable distillers, blenders, ambassadors and marketers who will continue to grow the awareness of our Scottish portfolio as more and more of our whisky come on line in future years. We will continue to be innovative on both fronts whilst ensuring the core ranges grow accordingly.

PM: Lastly, what’s your favourite whisky within the BSD portfolio and why?

AW: Having not really being exposed to BSD whiskies before the acquisition it was fun when all of a sudden I could try just about anything! However I have come to enjoy Deanston 12-year-old, matured predominantly in ex-Bourbon barrels, un-chill filtered and bottled at 46.3%. I think Deanston is one of our hidden gems – one, which going forward, will appear more frequently on whisky lovers’ “to try” lists.

Nose: I enjoy the soft vanilla which gives way to some citrus notes as well as the oak of the cask.

Taste:  Again nice vanilla but with a creamy honey feel whilst holding in your mouth. Upon swallowing then spices begin to come through which makes it a very interesting whisky to me.

Overall: Possibly a little sweeter than the general Highland malts but one which really had me hooked from the first taste and one which I believe will make an exceptional entry level malt to anyone wanting to start their journey into the wonderful world of whisky.

Distell locally offers a range of Bunnahabhain whiskies, atypical, unpeated Islay malts, as well as the Black Bottle and Scottish Leader blends, the former a well balanced mix of peat and sherry influences, and the latter’s 12YO a light, accessible blend well suited to our climate (I’d recommend it in Mizuwari style).  We wait with bated breath for the arrival of Deanston, Ledaig and Tobermory to our shores.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

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Spirits for the summer

A change of drinks for a change of seasons. PATRICK LECLEZIO gets set for some sunshine.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2017 edition).

There’s something primal about the anticipation of summer – maybe because we depended on it for our survival, or maybe because after long, bleak winters it’s what made life worth living.  Whatever the reason it’s an excitement that’s programmed deep within us.  Benson and Hedges tapped into this emotion with the soundtrack for their cricket commercials in the 1990’s.  I didn’t and never would smoke, and I didn’t really attend live matches at the time, but regardless I found that imploring incantation incredibly relevant and evocative.  It was a summons – for sunshine, freedom, and good times – that gripped me at the core.  I subscribe to the view that life is short and that we should enthusiastically make the most of any given moment, but it’s easy to get distracted, hypnotised by the tedium of everyday life.  Summer is the clarion.  A reminder that we should suck the marrow from every juicy bone presented to us – or more specific to our modest purposes here: drink the drinks that make the whole world sing.  So, as we hear that rousing chant all around us [come on summer], let’s fill our glasses with right stuff [come on summer], and get ready to celebrate the season in style [come on summer, come on!].

Wixworth Gin

Nothing says summer quite like gin – and it’s comforting to note, as we contemplate this sentiment, that the “gin boom” has furnished us with a magnificent selection, ready to be harnessed to the purpose.  One of the latest to emerge, after a long and considered development, is Wixworth.  Whilst there may be veritable flood, each gin, by virtue of its choice and combination of botanicals, has the potential to stand out and be distinctive – and Wixworth is no exception in this regard.  Ironically though I think it distinguishes itself most in its adherence to tradition (and regulations), rather than its individuality.  In an era of boundary pushing (and crossing!), juniper-recessive (if not absent) gins, Wixworth is a true London Dry Gin, out and proud brandishing its predominating juniper essence.  This is the style that in the sweltering outposts of the British Empire gave birth to the gin and tonic, so in equipping ourselves for the conditions that made its name, it’s clearly not to be taken lightly.  London Dry it may be, but it’s also avidly South African; its use of Renosterbos in particular, a local shrub that was historically added to river water to mask its brackish taste, unmistakably binds its identity to the country.  Wixworth’s style and substance, the latter evidenced in a crisp pine and citrus flavour, makes it an ideal gin on which to ride this summer’s rolling swells.

Symmetry tonic

With gin in play you’ll invariably need tonic, its trusty sidekick.  When I first started drinking GnT’s I was astounded and dismayed by the amount of sugar in tonic.  It’s there to check the bitterness of the quinine, but health-wise you may as well be drinking coke.   There’s further concern, because tonic is largely water, in that a disproportionate share of what you’re buying is invested in packaging (mostly disposable and environmentally unfriendly).  Enter the tonic cordial, and Symmetry in particular.  By using cinchona bark (the source of the quinine) instead of the quinine extract alone Symmetry balances its typical bitterness with the bark’s other components, mitigating the requirement for excessive sugar.  The pack delivers approximately 12 servings in concentrated form, as opposed to the four that you’d get from a litre bottle of the regular stuff.  The format has enabled both the bottle and closure to be significantly upweighted, each made from glass and reusable as a carafe and wine stopper respectively.  This is well and good, but if the flavour doesn’t measure up then it’s all for nothing – and it’s in this sphere that Symmetry arguably shines brightest, being constituted from a hand-picked selection of local botanicals that have been expertly crafted into a range comprising three variants: Citrus, Spice and Floral.  A word of caution: you don’t want these full-flavoured tonics to overpower your specific gin, so choose the one that’s most complementary.  Some experimentation may be required to get this right – luckily you’ve got a whole summer to work at it.

Snow Leopard vodka

Vodka is the world’s most internationally popular spirit: there are more people drinking it across a broad swathe of countries than any other.   It’s also the one drink where lack of flavour (or subtlety of flavour, as one would have it) has wrought a crushing advantage – defining a versatility that’s largely responsible for this widespread appeal.  This makes it the ideal summer spirit, a willingly assimilating partner for any number of tall, cool, refreshing mixers.  Whatever your preference, vodka will enhance it.  In Snow Leopard we have an exponent that straddles the fine vodka line between no flavour and too much flavour – it offers a little something when drunk neat, but it doesn’t interfere when mixed.   The unusual use of spelt grain, an expensive ancient wheat hybrid more commonly employed by jenever rather than vodka distillers, lends a rich and creamy mouthfeel, and everything about it from the concept to its packaging to the liquid itself, suggests a high quality, well-made vodka.  The clincher for me though is its commitment to nature conservation, dedicating a significant 15% of its profits to the preservation of the critically endangered Snow Leopard, and highlighting its plight.  I like the idea of kicking my feet back and watching a late sunset with glass in hand, I like it even more knowing it’s doing some good in the world.

Summer cocktail

My tastes run to strong cocktails.  And my favourite cocktail ingredient is lime, which happens to be perfectly suited to summer.  The Gimlet, neatly encompassing both those attributes, is a tried and tested classic that’s been persistently drunk for almost a century.   Most importantly it’s simple and delicious.  If you want to shake things up (no pun intended) and try something different, then look no further.

Add two and half tots of Wixworth gin, one tot of fresh lime juice, and half a tot to a tot of simple syrup (according to taste) into a cocktail shaker loaded with ice.  Stir or swirl, and strain into a coupe.  Garnish with a lime wedge or a cucumber wheel.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.