Monthly Archives: January 2018

A clinking Christmas

Making spirits bright and laughing all the way.  Patrick Leclezio prepares for some festive season fun.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).

Another year is set to bite the dust.  This period always gets me thinking about the elapsing of time, and about how moments in life come and go with a disconcerting haste.  We can get melancholy about it of course, but what’s the point.  This passing is inevitable, it is beyond our control.  What we do with our time however is another matter, and something over which we should exert our most diligent influence, particularly in the weeks ahead, when we all-too-briefly get to shrug off our work obligations and focus on what really matters – our friends, our families, our loved ones, and ourselves.  This is a column about liquor though, so I’ll limit my counsel to the overall sentiment and more specifically to the decorative cherries to which it is dedicated i.e. the inspiring drinks that’ll add a finishing touch to your experiences and festivities this season.  Cheers, sláinte, l’chaim, gesondheid!  Make the most of it.

The Gin Box

The gin revolution, whilst much covered in these pages, especially as manifest in the country, and particularly in the Cape, keeps on keeping on, outstripping my ability to stay current; I always seem to be a few newcomers behind.  It’s worth considering, given this effusive flow, how gin is so prevalent over here.  The Cape Floristic Region is one of six worldwide, the only one entirely contained in a single country, and home to an incredible diversity of plant species, numbering some 9000, a large proportion of which (69%) are unique to the region.  It is a botanical paradise, generally, but for an aspirant gin-maker specifically – and it goes some way to explaining the rapid local propagation of new and interesting gins.    If you’re overwhelmed, as you’d unstintingly be forgiven for feeling, and unable to see the wood for the trees, then the Gin Box may be just the thing for you.  This enterprising concept delivers to your doorstep monthly, bi-monthly (each R650), or once-off (R750), a carefully selected small-batch craft gin, accompanied by all sorts of delicious treats and useful gin-related information, including tasting notes and cocktail recipes.

The December / Christmas box is a treasure trove.  The gins, there are three – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – each in a 200ml bottle, are bespoke limited editions developed for the Gin Box by the highly regarded Hope on Hopkins distillery.  Each is delightful in its own right, each I’d be happy to drink at any time of year, but its Christmassy flavours of spice, nuts, and soft citrus make it an ideal complement for the festive season.   It’s worth noting that the botanicals actually feature frankincense and myrrh, and that the gold version is lightly aged in oak to give the liquid its eponymous tinge.  The box is stuffed with all sorts of other goodies, including two bottles of Goldberg Japanese Yuzu tonic, distinctly different from the Indian version with its sweeter, citrus overtones; some dried fruit garnishes; and a few food items – notable amongst these being the decadent “Fat Santa Bar” from The Counter (yum!).

Louis XIII

Remy Martin’s flagship cognac is the ultimate luxury spirit, possessing a pedigree and an essence unmatched by any other drink.  Its inspirations date back to the Battle of Jarnac in 1569, to the discovery of metal flask on the battlefield that would serve as the model for its renowned, meticulously-crafted, Baccarat decanter.  The Louis “Treize” (French for 13), as it’s referred to, was launched in 1874 and has been continuously produced ever since, inexorably enhancing its reputation as it climbed to the presiding status that it enjoys today.  The liquid itself is a blend with up to 1200 distinct Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie, the youngest matured for a minimum of 40 years, the oldest, incredibly, for over a century.   When I first encountered it I was expecting an oaky character, being at a loss to understand how the cellar masters could restrain the wood on a product with such an extended maturation.  I was wrong.  There’s wood of course, but it’s one of many chimes in this multipart melody.   The “secret” is the tierçon, a special type of cask employed in the maturation.  Made from Limousin oak, with finer staves than typical casks, they are restored but never replaced.  These casks, in my view of it – the Remy people don’t use this term – are largely exhausted, having little of their oak elements left to impart – leaving the maturation to persist via the chemical reactions in the liquid and the interaction of the liquid with its environment as they breathe.   The result is tantalising and transfixing, a rare phenomenon of awe-inspiring depth and complexity – all the benefits of old age but without its drawbacks.  The Louis XIII earns its chops and then some.

Christmas cocktail

Our sunny alfresco South African Christmases demand a sunny alfresco cocktail, the kind that you mix up in a jug and serve under blue skies on a lawn.   Enter the ho-ho-ho merry Cointreau Fizz.   I’d never considered triple sec as anything other than a sidekick ingredient, Tonto to the Tequila Lone Ranger in my margarita, before chancing upon the Fizz – which promptly prompted me to revaluate my impressions.  It’s simple, delicious and healthy, the sweet spirit offsetting tangy lime for a perfect balance.

THE RECIPE

2 ½ parts Cointreau
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
5 parts sparkling water

Fill a jug with ice, add Cointreau and lime, top off with sparkling water, and garnish with an orange wheel or any sweet juicy fruit.

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The return of Port Ellen and Brora

Rising from illustrious graves.  PATRICK LECLEZIO deconstructs the excitement.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).

The biggest news in whisky in the last few months has been the mouth-watering declaration that the Port Ellen and Brora distilleries are to be refitted, and reopened in 2020.  This is most whisky lovers’ (much conjectured) fantasy come true.  We’ve been living of late through a golden age of malt whisky in which the inception of new distilleries and the revival of previously terminated or shuttered distilleries (so-called silent stills) have been common occurrences:  examples range from the massive Roseisle and the boutiquey Wolfburn, Kilchoman, and Kingsbarn on the one hand, to forerunners like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, and more recently Tamdhu and Glengassaugh on the other.  But this is different.  Special.  Exceeding the “ok, cool” reaction that the others would have elicited, and tipping the scales at “yahoo!”.  New distilleries are unknowns, and reincarnates like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich have largely created their standing during this latest phase of their existence.  Port Ellen and Brora though are the Van Goghs of whisky, unregarded and mostly used as blending fodder whilst active, then garnering massive acclaim after their demise, and attracting followings during the interlude, Port Ellen in particular, that it would be trite to describe as “cult”.  With this gong still reverberating, let’s take a look at what these announcements really mean.

They boil down to three simple realities really:  we’ll have access to whisky that until now has been very expensive and limited, it may or may not be what we expect, and we’ll have to wait a long time still before getting our hands on any of it – a situation in totality that should both fire and temper our enthusiasms.

When time was called on Port Ellen and Brora in 1983 – part of a widespread series of closures by the Distillers Company Limited (Diageo, effectively),  including now heralded distilleries such as Dallas Dhu, St. Magdelene, and Rosebank, driven by flagging demand – whisky was at a low ebb, and bottled single malt was a small speck on a blended landscape.  In fact the first book featuring tasting notes, ubiquitous today, and the first magazine devoted to Scotch whisky (inconceivable in a media environment where we’re drowning in whisky commentary) were only published in 1986.  In the modern age Port Ellen’s production, predominantly, and Brora’s, entirely, during their active years had been allocated to blending, so they were to a large extent unknown quantities.  The only bottling of Port Ellen between 1967 and 1983 was a 12YO commemorating the Queen’s visit to the distillery in 1980, and the first known Brora bottling was released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989.  Independent bottlings became relatively common, but it was only with official bottlings in the late nineties and turn of the century (now a feature of Diageo’s annual special releases), and in Port Ellen’s case extended maturation, that the legends were created.  The quality of the whiskies and the fact that no more of it would be produced (ostensibly) combined to arouse messianic devotion – and pricing to match.  The Port Ellen First Release, a 22YO of which there were 6000 bottled and offered at £110 in 2001, sells for some £4500 in 2017.  Prices have escalated exponentially with each subsequent release, with Brora following a similar pattern.  The prospect thus of larger supply, of being able to access these fine liquids at reasonable prices, is undoubtedly cause for celebration.

But don’t pop your stoppers just yet.  Making the same whisky as was done 30 years ago is not a given – as conceded by Diageo in its press release of 9 October: “Port Ellen Distillery on the famous whisky island of Islay, and Brora on the remote eastern coast of Sutherland, will both be reinstated to distil in carefully controlled quantities, with a meticulous attention to detail, replicating where possible the distillation regimes and spirit character of the original distilleries”.  The strains of barley and yeast employed, and the calibrations of production – especially from a more manual era, may be difficult to duplicate and replicate.  There is an additional challenge too: whilst Brora was merely “mothballed”, the original buildings and stills left intact, Port Ellen was partly demolished, its equipment, the stills included, scavenged by other distilleries within the group.   The whisky will undoubtedly be wonderful, but whether it’ll have the same austere, pier head flavours (as redolently described by Dave Broom) that made its name is debatable.

Any celebration is also somewhat premature.  Production is anticipated to begin in 2020 once “planning permission and regulatory consents, detailed design, construction and commissioning work” have been secured and completed, although it seems logical that Brora should be ready ahead of Port Ellen.  Be that as it may the gain of a year or so in this initial period is of little significance.  As with any whisky the production will be just a small part of the overall time frame.  In various interviews on the subject Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, has disclosed an intention to release the two whiskies as 12YO’s, whilst also acknowledging that there may be preceding smaller releases.  A 12YO would put us at 2032 – a long wait indeed.   Any earlier release would likely mean NAS, perhaps playing with the maturation regimen (smaller casks, new oak) and perhaps vatting with (dwindling) pre-83 stocks – although I think they’d be hard pressed to take this risk, given the premium that these command unadulterated, and the higher purpose that they can serve in perpetuating the hype (now more useful than ever).   The Port Ellen’s and Brora’s to which we’ve become accustomed (those lucky few amongst us) are perceptible only on a distant horizon.

The order of the day then appears to be patience, in pursuit of a probable but uncertain payoff.   Our patience though is unlikely to be arduous.  One of the shining beacons of Scotch whisky, and whisky in general, drawing in and engaging people from far and wide, is its variety.   The number quite evidently will keep changing but at present there are 98 active malt distilleries in Scotland producing innumerable expressions, two of which, sharing certain similarities with a Port Ellen and a Brora, I’ll recommend to keep you company in the cold nights ahead, before your much anticipated rendezvous  with their future emissaries.  Lagavulin, a few kilometres from Port Ellen, produces a rich, peaty, and complex 16YO whisky of exceptionally elegant balance.   It is a defining Islay malt.  On the opposite coast to Brora but unmistakably its Highland brethren you’ll find Oban, and in multiple bars and liquor stores around the world you’ll find its popular 14YO, a gorgeously fruity, aromatic maritime malt, imbued with fine wisps of smoke.  Ask Santa to add these to your stocking.  May the dram be with you.

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One night in Budapest

First published in Marie Claire (December 2017 edition).

The long nights of the European winter, if my delving into its extents is to serve as any indication, are perhaps at their longest in Budapest.   I’m not proposing that accolade for the time from dusk till dawn – clearly it’s trumped in this regard by the large continental swathe that enjoys a latitudinal advantage – but instead for the other more compelling (if less scientific) measure of a night’s duration: the time from dress till duvet.  On this score other contenders would be hard-pressed to compete such is the allure and volume of its nocturnal charms, evidenced during my visit.  I wanted to eat and drink fine things.  I wanted an excursion that straddled storybook romance and rampant revelry.  I wanted to suck out all the marrow, but without paying the earth…a tall order that the Hungarian capital, as it kept on keeping the day at bay, somehow contrived to deliver.

With the sub-zero temperatures and falling snow adding an exotic edge to our anticipation, we – my wife and I, intersecting trips allowing us to steal a weekend together in the city – set out from our hotel, glove in glove and scarves fluttering, headed for nearby Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), the beating heart of the city’s after-hours action.   I’d been vaguely aware that Hungary was a wine producing country, having been (presciently!) introduced to one of their renowned dessert wines at a recent dinner.  Accordingly, being both keen to broaden my experience and to get the ball rolling for the evening with a few mellow glasses,  we made our way to Doblo, the city’s premier wine bar.  Luckily I’d booked because the place was packed to its exposed rafters – with a young, stylish crowd seemingly cast for this backdrop, described to me as “Brooklyn loft style”.  Call it whatever, it’s a happy space for some relaxed appreciation, the unplastered walls in particular giving a warm, cellar-like ambience.  The two of us wandered our way through Kreinbacher Extra Dry, apparently the country’s best bubbles, the visceral Bull’s Blood, the national blend, the best examples coming from the Eger and Szekszárd regions, a Royal Tokaji, the sweet wine that put the region on the map (and on my radar), and a few others recommended by the venue, until eventually, reluctantly, departing, a little more cultured than when we’d arrived, and thoroughly primed for the night ahead.

Given a charged itinerary that depended on getting from one place to the next efficiently and making the most of things in the short time available I’d been worried that communication difficulties might hamper us.  It came as a relief then, the extent of my language preparation having been to add the h-sound to the pronunciation of “Budapesht”, to find that English is spoken widely and well.  In fact the waiters we encountered had an almost native proficiency.  At our next stop, the intimate Gettó Gulyás for a spot of dinner, this facility played out to delicious advantage, the staff taking us through the menu in detail, understanding our preferences clearly, and making astute recommendations, a pleasing contrast to some of my other travels when choosing dishes had been a roll of the dice.  The food managed to strike an unpretentious balance between the unusual, the interesting, and the accessible: a soup of beetroot, cheese, cream, pear and parsley to start, a satisfyingly central European main of wild boar, and the odd-sounding but sumptuous tasting goat’s cheese dumplings with cinnamon dressing for dessert.  Encouragingly the pricing was comparable to SA, here and elsewhere in Budapest, which was surprising for Europe, even this far east.  We left Gettó, fuel in our tanks to fire the festivity to follow, feeling like we’d found the holy grail of foreign eateries: small and authentic, trendy but comfortable, frequented by locals, and, most importantly, magnificent – in both quality and value.

The two features for which Budapest’s nightlife is most reputed are its Ruin Bars, and the fact that it has the cheapest booze in Europe, the latter sounding a tad dubious to me, initially at least.  I had it in mind to enjoy a few digestifs after my dinner, a natural opportunity then to explore this scene, and to check out what all the fuss was about.  The problem with cheap liquor of course is that it tends to attract certain types of people.  The streets by this time were thronging, the glacial temperatures notwithstanding.  I caught glimpses of Irish, American, and English accents, and scatterings of French, German, Italian, and other languages that I couldn’t identify.  The odd bachelor and hen party cruised past.  Groups of revelers spilled out of bars.  Whether it was the price of drinks or the city’s many fine attributes, or a combination of these things, people had come here from all over to party.  Unswervingly though, at that point and for the rest of our visit, the atmosphere in the district was festive rather than rowdy – with not a hooligan in sight.  By the time we arrived at Szimpla my misgivings had laid to rest.

A Ruin Bar, whilst not a ruin as such, is pretty much true to the name.  It’s an old, dilapidated building that’s been transformed into a nightspot.  Szimpla Kert was the first of its kind, the mother from which all other Ruin Bars sprang.  The site was originally a furnace factory, subsequently converted into a residential block before falling into disuse.  It couldn’t be demolished or materially redeveloped, having been assigned heritage protection, so an enterprising entrepreneur decided to make a bar of it, creating a Budapestian tradition in the process.  There are now Ruin Bars all over the city, and elsewhere.  Szimpla, and the similar Fogas, our next stop, are stalwart examples, exuding the dingy, grotto cool that’s come to characterise these places.  We found ourselves in a maze of stained, pitted walls, raw floors, and random fittings and furnishings, amidst a deluge of other patrons.  Their popularity – each can and regularly do take in over 1000 guests at any one time – stems I’d venture from their distinctiveness, and also because they offer something for everyone (without diluting each experience), from raging dance floors to quieter lounges, from live music and traditional dancing to silent movies, and so much else that I lost track of it all.  We sampled two local favourites, my wife the mulled wine, me a few palinkas (fruit brandy), whilst we explored and soaked up the rising vibe.  When I next looked up it was already eleven.  Budapest was only just beginning to hit its straps.

One of the attractions that drew me to this city was the Danube, the second largest river in Europe, and once the frontier of the civilised world.  It is undeniably one of the world’s great rivers, so the idea of incorporating it into the night’s activities was hugely appealing.  Enter the A38, an old stone-carrier ship, moored on the Buda side of the river, now enjoying a second life as the best club in the world (an honour bestowed by Lonely Planet three years ago).  Elizabeth Town being in Pest, this required a bit of a mad dash to catch a tram over before the system shut down for the night.  It’s a bit of a trek, but well worthwhile for this inimitable experience.  We boarded the ship, impressively protruding out of the ice floes covering the river,  just in time for a performance by the German electronic mega-band Tangerine Dream.  I can’t claim that this is my preferred style of music but we abandoned ourselves to it, the dreamlike communion with hundreds of devotees in the hull of this ship taking us there, making the occasion unforgettable.

Back in the heartland, in Pest, things were starting to reach high gear.  We had a little left in us and we decided to make our last stand at Tesla, a pulsing dance club that’s as electric as the name suggests.  I merged a bit of deep house with few shots of Oban, and found it to my liking.  By this stage I knew I was going to pay the price the next day but I just didn’t care.  Tesla’s energy buoyed us along for a few hours, pointing and popping, shuffling, neck bobbing, fist pumping and Saturday night fevering, until we had to concede defeat.  An honourable defeat though.

At about five in the morning we were done.  Budapest however was not, and neither were our new found friends at Tesla.  It’s somewhat counter intuitive for a country on the eastern fringe of a time zone to be on this kind of late night cycle, especially in winter, but there was no disputing it, seen with my own eyes, tried and tested.  If you’ve got what it takes, which they clearly have over here, I guess it doesn’t matter.  Party like a Russian, end of discussion?  I beg to differ Robbie Williams, you’ve obviously never been to Budapest.

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We didn’t twiddle our thumbs whilst waiting for our epic night in Budapest to begin.

Spa culture

Swimming in the mist-shrouded outdoors in minus seven degree temperatures is surreal – but good surreal, in fact great surreal.  Budapest is built on a chain of hot, mineral springs, giving rise to the preponderance of spas that have earned it the name ‘City of Spas’.  Locals make regular visits a habit, touting the health benefits of the waters, although the premise struck me as social more than medicinal.  Széchenyi, one of the best-known and the one to which we gravitated, is a massive, sprawling complex of pools, steam rooms, saunas, and other spa facilities.  We opted for a massage before trying a variety of the warmer pools, culminating in a dip in the large, cascading expanse outside.  If you happen to be around in the warmer months, be sure to attend a unique Budapest “sparty” – which is, as the name suggests, a party in a spa!

Cruising the Danube

Whilst these city cruise setups are admittedly a bit formulaic, they’ve got a lot going for them nonetheless, presenting the opportunity to see some unparalleled vistas of a city, sit down to a traditional meal (chicken paprikash amongst others in our case – Hungarians are particularly proud of their paprika!), and listen to some live music.  Our experience with Danube Cruise broke the mould though, made special by the stunning sheets of shifting ice through which we were being propelled.  We felt compelled to sneak up to the prow for a Titanic moment.

Eating out

Kiosk is an all-encompassing, envelope-pushing bistro, set on a square facing the river.  The fabulous location is fittingly complemented by spectacular (renovated) eighteenth century accommodations which boast generous space and high ceilings, divulging their origins as a high school gymnasium.  Old Hungarian black and white movies are projected onto a wall, and there’s a tree canopied over the central bar, adding quirky flair to the polished ambience.  It’s a place for all seasons. The menu offers vegan, vegetarian and lactose free options throughout, the drinks list accounts for 250 varieties of Hungarian wine (stocked in a large walk-in fridge separating it from its adjacent fine-dining sister restaurant) and a range of hyper-creative cocktails, and the desserts, a speciality, are all produced at the in-house patisserie.   Try the ampoule cocktail, the forest mushroom soup, and any given pastry – outstanding!

If you’re looking for something a little more casual, a quick bite whilst you’re taking in the sights, you won’t go wrong at Bors.  This ridiculously popular little food bar puts out, under the vigilant eye of its Darth Vadar mascot, a range of soups, baguettes and desserts, and the odd pasta and salad as well.  I normally wouldn’t recommend going over to the dark side, but I’ll make a delicious exception in this case.  May the Bors be with you.

Budapest on blades

Imagine a giraffe on ice and you’ll get an idea of my skating talent.  Having heard though that Budapest hosts the largest outdoor rink in Europe (Városligeti Műjégpálya), I was determined to give it a go regardless.  And I was glad I did.  The long stretches of crisp ice underfoot, the beautiful old castle in the background, the whizzing and whirling crowd all around make for a sensational outing.  Furthermore, the place is quick to access – it’s a short walk from the nearest metro station – and skates are easily and cheaply rented on site.  Even the spasmodic exertions of my boskak style couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. What a pleasure!

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