Author Archives: Patrick Leclezio

Lies, obfuscation and contempt – an AirBnB story

I love AirBnB.   Please don’t let the title above convince you otherwise.  Actually, to better express my sentiments, I should probably say that I love the AirBnB concept.   The simple business genius of it aside, it’s done so much genuine good: prompting and enabling, for ordinary people on a vast scale, experiences and livelihoods that would otherwise not have been possible.  When it works, which is most of the time I’m sure, it works a treat.  I’d venture though that it’s in adversity that core truths are revealed, be it about a person, or an organisation.  If my story is anything to go by – and on the one hand that I’d concede it’s just one story, whilst on the other I’d question, as should you, whether it’s an aberration or an indication – the treat it seems can easily sour into a trick.  If you’re a prospective AirBnB user then stay with me as I tell my story.  Forewarned is forearmed.

The story begins rather well.  I booked an apartment in Rio de Janeiro – for three of us.  The host levies a surcharge of US$25 per person per night, for occupancy by more than two guests.  Fair enough.  The third person subsequently withdrew from the trip.  We advised the host of this late change shortly before arriving.  The trip then unfolded relatively pleasingly.  The accommodation was pleasant, if not ideal.  Specifically there were two points which bothered us:

Firstly this apartment was located immediately adjacent to a play school for young children, resulting in constant, excessive noise from just after 07h00.  There was no reference whatsoever made to this in the listing, which I felt was a somewhat disingenuous omission – especially for a holiday let:  who wouldn’t relish a little lie-in during their break?  This information would have been a material consideration for us and for most others I’m sure.

Secondly, the host offers access to “his driver”, free of any commission, for transits from the airport, elaborated as follows:  “I urge you to take advantage of this generous offer.  It is in your interest to avoid added costs and stress…”.  Our conclusion, reasonable I think if admittedly lazy, was that this was a competitive rate, so we took him up on it.  On returning to the airport via Uber, and after subsequent research, we learnt that we could have done the trip for 25% of the cost.  Whilst Uber and a driver with a placard are different types of services, we felt, given the scale of the difference, that most people would want to know about it, rather than succumbing to the same assumptions that we did.

These are the “perils” of this format, and this is what the review system is there for.  We mentioned both points in an otherwise and overall positive review.  The host reviewed us (we use my wife’s account) as follows: “Marni is a charming and experienced (URL HIDDEN) to host anytime!”.  Keep his review in mind as we continue with the story, particularly the fact that AirBnB redacted it.

The Review

On seeing our review the host went postal – a reaction, an attack really, that ranged haphazardly over a lengthy international telephone call, and then a series of emails, to eventually stalking us on Facebook, slinging mud and spewing lies.  The details aren’t relevant or important – this isn’t a story about unpleasant and vindictive people; they’re unfortunately just a part of life.  The gist of it, what you need to know, is that he wanted the review removed, which on principle we refused to do.

A month or so later I arbitrarily checked on the review.  It was gone.  We got in touch with AirBnB, to be told that our review had violated their content policy: “Reviews are the backbone of Airbnb’s community. In order to maintain this structure, we have guidelines in place that ensure that all reviews are fair, honest, and relevant to your travel and experiences.  The content of your review did not comply with these guidelines. It is therefore our responsibility to hide it from view. Your Host contacted us regarding this”.  Now let’s skip past a series of aggravating emails disputing this outcome, and being repeatedly stonewalled with non-explanations, to the end of this particular chapter.  After tweeting our discontent – it’s a little frightening that it takes public exposure to beg some common courtesy from a place where you’re spending your money – we were put in touch with “Jenny” at the head-office, who was slightly more forthcoming:  the reason our review had been deleted she said was that it had violated another policy that precluded reviews from mentioning company names (ours mentioned Uber).  A recent policy change also meant that reviews could no longer be edited under any circumstances, thereby neatly taking the option off the table for me to make a quick change to remove this offending mention.

But this explanation does not add up:

  • The review in fact was not deleted because of this Uber mention. This was only brought up much later, after our tweets, once Jenny got involved.  As quoted above we were clearly told that, motivated by the host, it was deemed by AirBnB to be unfair, dishonest and or irrelevant.  When we had queried how AirBnB could come to this conclusion without speaking to both parties (us as well as the host), and what it was about the review that did not meet these standards, we were told repeatedly, by two different people, without any further clarification, that the decision was final.  Medieval style justice, as dispensed to the peasantry.
  • The Uber mention at this stage (a stage which lasted weeks) had not yet been identified, or had not yet occurred to them (otherwise they would have referenced it). There would be no reason not to, as it later proved an easy out (the only out).  Yet in its absence despite having no valid substantiation for deleting the review, despite the process by which they went about it being flawed, and despite having both these points emphasized to its staff, AirBnB doggedly stuck to its position.  One has to wonder why.  Gross incompetence?    It seems less than likely with multiple parties involved.  The logic we were presenting was compelling and not difficult to grasp.  It seemed rather that the decision was predetermined.
  • Eventually, in the Uber mention, AirBnB found a rationale that could stick, at least in terms of the letter of their policies. But even this doesn’t make sense.  Why would an organisation that (in its own words) considers reviews to be the “backbone” of its community choose to delete one in its entirety, when a basic redaction would have brought it back in line?  It should, one would think, be bending over backwards to encourage and enable a preponderance of reviews.  Our host’s review was redacted (ostensibly for some sort of a policy violation), but it seems that we could not be afforded the same treatment.   This question, like most of our other questions (such impertinence!), also went unanswered.

The Surcharge

I requested a refund of the surcharge.  My understanding of this surcharge was that it was there to compensate for the incrementally heavier use of the facilities and utilities, and for any additional items provided, by way of toilet paper, soap and so forth.  There was no third person and we’d given a day’s notice, enough for the host to avoid any attendant costs (i.e. withhold said extra items).   But I was open to another explanation.  I conceded from the start that if there was good reason for the charge I would withdraw the request immediately.   As became a feature of my dealings with both the host and AirBnB these types of questions would not be answered.  I was again relentlessly stonewalled, and quoted policies that did not make sense.   I still have no idea how or why the surcharge is justified.  I paid US$25 for eight nights, US$200.  I may as well have been mugged in the backstreets of Rio, with the police stopping just short of cheering for the muggers.

The host responded that his policy (the AirBnB “Strict” cancellation policy) required cancellation (I guess notice in this case) seven full days in advance, which had not happened.   When I pointed out that the policy did not specify that it applied to the surcharge he changed tack to find something that would stick (a feature of this story), insisting now that another AirBnB policy required me to “make a claim” to AirBnB within 24 hours of check-in.  I was lost by all the policy talk – I am after all, like most, just a casual AirBnB user – and I’d learnt enough about this guy at this stage to be disabused of any faith that he’d be fair or reasonable so I pursued the matter further by requesting AirBnB intervention via their “Resolution Centre”.   When AirBnB denied the claim (the fourth different staff member I dealt with regarding this stay), it was on the grounds that I had not made an “alteration request” on check-in.

Now imagine for a moment that you’ve booked into a regular hotel on a similar basis.  On check-in you advise the staff of the change.  They say nothing.  On check-out you are charged nonetheless.  You protest.  You didn’t fill out the alteration form they tell you.  You didn’t tell me about this alteration form, you say.  Tough shit they say (effectively), it’s our policy.  It’s quite simply an inconceivable situation.  It would never happen with any ethical establishment.

Yet, with AirBnB, it has and it does.  I was charged for something that I advised upfront I wouldn’t use, that I then didn’t use, and that didn’t cost anyone anything.  And I was charged for it because I didn’t follow a process that wasn’t flagged to me, of which I wasn’t aware, and of which I’d suggest any awareness on my part could not be reasonably expected.  Why didn’t the host bring the alteration request to my attention when I advised him of the change in plans?  Surely this is where the responsibility belongs?  In this fiefdom of the fine print though, it seems that the law lords have deaf ears.

I acknowledged from the start that this is just one story.  It doesn’t prove anything beyond this single case of appalling service.  But it certainly musters justifiable supposition.  We transact with AirBnB, as we do with most apparently reputable companies, in good faith – in the belief that the company, if not the individual host, will treat us fairly and with respect.  That it certainly didn’t happen in this instance; that I’m out of pocket for no good reason, and that other guests will likely be misled when booking this apartment, is disconcerting.  But more worrying – for all of us – is that this might be the tip of a very large iceberg.  In the absence of sensible answers, for which multiple invitations have been proffered and rejected, we are left to our inferences.   The matter could be ascribed to a series of unfortunate mistakes, or to some truculent staff, or to something equally isolated; it could though feasibly also point to something more sinister, such as a systematic bias towards hosts, who effectively represent the income-generating assets of the business, or indeed a systematic bias to whatever happens to best serve the company’s interests in any particular given case.  But what do I know?  I just have my one little story.  Let’s then consider this to be just another review – a little bit of karmic balance for all those reviews that may have been deleted and those surcharges that may have been withheld, and a little cud to chew on as you’re deciding where (and how) to stay on your next holiday.

Update:

During August I submitted this article to a few media outlets for publication.  These outlets in turn approached AirBnB for comment.  Shortly thereafter we received an email from AirBnB (18/08/07) confirming that a (another) investigation had taken place, and concluding as follows: “we can confirm that there was no violation on the review and we can reinstate the review”.  I can verify that this has been done and that the review is back up on the site.

The same email went on to say: “Another part we want to address from your letter is the fact that it’s fully up to the host to refund you for the extra charges. The person surcharge is not included in the cancellation policy and if the host refuses to refund through the resolution centre, it’s up to him. I hope you understand our policy in this matter”.

I rejected this explanation – for the reasons I propounded in the article.

We then received another email later the same day, informing us that “a refund of R2436 ZAR” had been issued to our credit card, but that it would take 15 days to reflect.  No further explanation was given.  I take it in good faith that this is the surcharge and that it will be made good shortly.

Update 2:

An article by Georgina Crouth taking up the matter was published on 28/08 in The Argus, The Star, The Pretoria News, and the Daily News.  The Daily News version is shown below.  Small correction: the Uber was about 25% of the cost of the host’s taxi, not 25% cheaper.

 

 

 

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Clash of the Titans

The battle for number one.   Patrick Leclezio checks out the biggest and most intense rivalry in the single malt universe.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2017 edition).

There’s probably no greater engine for progress than competition.  It has defined our existence.  What is survival, if not a competition?  What is evolution, the mechanism culminating in an ability to build distilleries and make whisky (we can stop now!), if not the act of competing?  Competition elicits some of the finest human qualities – invention, excellence, determination – but also some of the worst, luckily largely controlled in our civilised world.  Healthy competition, by all objective measures, renders us, as a community, enhanced, advanced, and improved, across a range of endeavours, both the more and the less consequential.  Amongst the former, definitely amongst the former, somewhere between curing cancer and developing clean energy, is the crafting of single malt whisky.   And in recent times the thrusting and parrying between Glenfiddich and Glenlivet (The Glenlivet, if you want to be proper about it) has lit up this universe.

Following an extended era of persistent domination by Glenfiddich, the margins have been tighter in recent times, with the honours changing hands on two occasions in the last three years.  It’s not surprising that the onset of this competitive fervour corresponds with a period of tremendous activity and dynamism for the single malt style; its share of Scotch whisky sales have been on a radical incline.  Despite these gains though it remains a comparatively small and niched style; for all that I’m styling them “titans” the Glens, whilst significant in volume, having each crested the million case mark, are not mass-market brands.   Single malts appeal to a discerning audience, and whilst it may not be unswayed by extrinsic influence, it is relatively more attuned to the liquid itself.  In my opinion this makes the competitiveness in the sector a lot more meaningful.  If attributes like product innovation and quality rather than those like advertising and distribution, have a greater hold on the keys to success, then this can only be of benefit to genuine whisky lovers.   When Glenfiddich regained the mantle in 2016 brand spokesperson Enda O’Sullivan commented: “We are delighted with the current performance of Glenfiddich, and rather than focus on the best-selling single malt, we are committed to leading the category through innovation and creativity”.  It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that this is a space where the two can be one and the same.

This competition in fact can’t really be understood in a brand context.  Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet?  Those are just words.  The actual, visceral fight is taking place out there on various fronts, between the whiskies:  liquid against liquid.  I recently ventured out onto these battlefields, amidst the popping of corks, the clinking of glasses and the venturing of “slainte mhaths”, to visit with a few of those that are making a difference.   It became immediately evident, if indeed it hadn’t been already, that the story of their mettle, of the iron within their fists, like the Roman legions of old, begins with their superb foot soldiers.

The 12YO’s in each stable are what you expect them to be and more: of broad appeal, and consequently of moderate flavour, exceptionally reliable, and universally enjoyable.  If any of this sounds underwhelming then bear with me as I elaborate.  I drink a lot of different whisky, much of it old, much of it uniquely flavoursome.  I guess you could say that I’m whisky spoiled.  Nevertheless, I’ll drink a Glenlivet 12YO, or a Glenfiddich 12YO, anytime, anyplace, following any other whisky, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I’ll savour every moment of it.  After work drinks, after dinner drinks, high society drinks, watching the rugby drinks, gala evening drinks, you name it, they’re up to it.  The nutty pineapple sponge flavour of the one, and the soft, melt-in-your-mouth fruitiness of the other guarantee satisfaction to almost any palate.  When I said exceptionally reliable, I meant just that.

The rest of their core ranges is faultless, there isn’t a middling whisky to be found.  Amongst the Glenfiddichs, the 14YO Rich Oak and the 15YO Solera Reserve deserve high praise.  The Rich Oak’s depth of flavour is a treat in such a young and affordable whisky, a testament to the casks employed, whilst the solera vat’s legendary status is well deserved, delivering a breadth and balance that’s virtually unparalleled in this whisky’s class.  On a rand for rand basis it makes a claim that is difficult to challenge, such is the value it delivers.   When I consider the Glenlivet stalwarts it’s the 18YO that immediately jumps out.  Here a prominent sherry influence pervades, powerful raisin flavours overlaying citrus fruits, apricots, and fudge, assembling into a whisky that’s quite simply marvellous; one of those that I’ve chosen to mark portentous moments in my life.

Faultless is one thing.  But you can’t expect to prevail only by not making mistakes.  The SAS has it right.  Who dares wins!  Both of the Glens have dared, both have reinvented battle strategy – with products that are bold and different.  Glenlivet’s  Nadurra range went back to its roots, its Guardians Chapters inserted consumers into the blending process, a result of which was the show-stopping Exotic, and its Alpha introduced a new style of cask to whisky.  Glenfiddich’s recent Experimental Series may well be partly responsible for the latest tilting of the scales, both the IPA Experiment and the Project XX are explicitly distinct and interesting.  I was mulling over the XX during the last few weeks, trying to put my finger on what made it and its stablemate (a bottle of which I polished off in short order last year) so standout and so quaffable: it’s the casks’ profile obviously, these having been handpicked by the brand’s ambassadors given free rein to the maturation warehouse, but also the vatting.  My guess is there are young whiskies significantly included, but unlike many other NAS products, these two have matched execution to the best intentions motivating this format.  The younger liquid adds, in this case an appealing husky robustness, but it doesn’t detract.

I have no doubt that we can expect more new and exciting products from both brands in the years to come.   The battle lines have been etched, but unlike the real thing, this is a war in which everyone wins – not least us whisky fans.  The competition between the two is bringing out their best, as they spur each other to new heights.   The only problem will be choosing which to splash into your glass as you kick up your feet tonight.  Make it one (or two) of each – and may the dram be with you.

Prestige Aug 2017 whisky p1.jpg

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Aug 2017 whisky p2.jpg

As it appeared – p2.

When nurture trumps nature

Putting their stamp on it.  PATRICK LECLEZIO ruminates on independent bottlings.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2017 edition).

The whisky industry is a strange and fascinating beast.  It is virtually unique, which is largely why its output inspires such passionate devotion (also because it’s tasty I guess).  Elsewhere, in more dour pastures, the usual expectation is for an organisation that puts out a product to have produced it itself, or at a minimum, in this specialising era, to have conceived and designed it and perhaps contracted out the actual production.  Not so with whisky.  Despite being rigidly conventional, and cosseted by tradition in many respects, the industry is also extraordinarily nimble in others, nowhere more so than with what’s known as independent bottling.  Tiny in volume, colossal in variety, it’s a microcosmic snapshot of how the industry operates, and of what whisky’s all about.

Independent bottling is the practice by one party of further producing, and then marketing and selling, whisky that was initially produced by another party.  This sounds a bit clumsy, but unavoidably so.  At this point, before throwing these terms about any further, it may be worth contextualising what is meant by “production of whisky”.  If one reduces this analysis to identifying discrete opportunities to add meaningful value to the final output – which is a must for any party like an independent bottler trying to insert itself into the process, then I’d suggest that there are three broad stages: distillation of the new make (being the entire process culminating in distillation), maturation, and vatting or blending or timing.  The independent bottler is not involved in distillation, in imbuing the liquid with its nature (at least not for its independent bottlings), but can be involved in the other stages to a greater or lesser extent, the grooming of the liquid into whisky.  Funnily enough, though a moot point in that it doesn’t influence the whisky, the actual bottling is in most cases done by another third party, or perhaps even by the producing party.

The origins of independent bottling date back to the dawn of Scotch whisky’s big blockbuster brands, when grocers bought liquid from distillers to create their own proprietary blends. Some of these evolved into the multiple-distillery-owning behemoths that dominate the industry today, others into what we’ve come to know as independent bottlers.  We owe a debt to many of the latter in particular for sheltering and nurturing the malt whisky flame along the way.  There was a time when single malts were only available, virtually, from independent bottlers, and it was probably their cultivation of this niche into something significant that prompted the big distillers to follow suit.  This prescient attentiveness, when no-one else was much interested, means that the older, more established independent bottlers have stocks of some of the oldest malt whiskies in existence.  In 2015 Gordon & MacPhail issued bottlings of a 75 year old Mortlach, the oldest whisky ever released, a record they had already held with the previous releases of two 70 year olds, a Mortlach and a Glenlivet.  If you’re in the market for old Scotch malt whisky, generally at much more reasonable prices than equivalent distillery offerings, independent bottlings will provide a rich potential source.

There are many other advantages aside from its aged stocks and favourable costs that independent bottlers proffer to the whisky lover.  The mechanisms by which liquid is traded amongst the big distillers (for their blends) and the smaller operators like independent bottlers are largely shrouded from public view, but certain deductions can be made.   Distillers sell to independent bottlers for commercial reasons of course, but also for whisky reasons; if, for instance, individual casks are judged to be excessively outwith the parameters of the house style it may be deemed preferable to get rid of them.  The ensuing independent bottlings play the same role as that often underlying the deployment of vintage malts: manifesting variations of standard expressions that can be both interesting and compelling.  The phenomenon of “teaspooning”, which is undocumented but popularly believed to be true, is an interesting corollary to these trading practices.  Distilleries wanting to sell their liquid without lending their names to the independent bottlers in the bargain are reputed to add a teaspoon of a different malt to the cask being transacted, a rather messy device considering that it also prevents the whisky from being sold as a single malt.  The Westport blended malt for instance is understood to be Glenmorangie with a hint of Glen Moray.

The biggest boon though of independent bottlings is that they are small by definition.  Whilst these organisations can and do accumulate for making blended malts and blended whisky, the similar stock to which they have access tends to be of relatively reduced quantity.  The implications are twofold: firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, they put out a lot of small volume expressions of differing styles, constitution and flavour.  An explosion of variety.  The big producers have their limited edition and experimental forays, but they’re by and large focused on their larger variants.  If variety is the spice of life, then independent bottlers are pivotal to extending the range of our whisky experience; secondly, with little to underpin their liquid, the romance and backing of the distillery is arm’s length at best, independent bottlers often live and die by the sword – there’s no cushion so they need to constantly be adding value, providing something more, something different, something unique.  It’s a huge stimulus for innovation and distinctiveness.  Compass Box’s Spice Tree is a great example, as is the company as a whole, of this observation in action. The liquid is bought ready matured (ten years old), but then extra matured for two years in varying bespoke casks (the key constituent being the heavily toasted French oak heads), and finally intricately woven together by their blender. It’s a cohesive injection of accelerated complexity and willed variety that is interpreted on the nose and palate as sweet, spicy and rich.

The beauty of the independent bottling continuum is the multiple layers of opportunity that it offers to add value and apply a core competence, thereby prompting the introduction of new players and products into the mix.    The Checkers Liquor Private Barrel Company has specialised in bringing elusive single casks, which would otherwise rarely be seen here, to the South African marketplace.   Single casks are a precarious business.  There’s no place to hide – as there could be in a vatting or a blend.  It’s either good or it’s not.  In this light even something as seemingly minor as the selection or timing of a cask for bottling by a private bottler represents pivotal value – especially when integrated into a holistic plan for the product.  The latest expression, a judiciously selected and well-timed Glen Scotia 10 year old, is very good indeed, with a juicy, bursting flavour of tropical fruits and sweet spices.  If credence is needed then this whisky delivers in spades.

In many senses the whisky industry, despite its conventions and traditions, has been ahead of its time, and nowhere more so than in the sphere of independent bottlers.  There is something very modern and vibrant about the focus and specialisation that they have demonstrated.  Without their existence the industry would be much diminished, and we’d be shy of many wonderful whiskies.  Let’s look forward to travelling the new paths they’re forging on our continuing whisky journeys.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky 2

As it appeared – p2.

 

 

Breaking the glass ceiling

Bourbon gets interesting. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the latest stage in the evolution of America’s home grown spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2017 edition).

It’s impossible not to compare different styles of whisky.  People will always be measuring one thing against the other, especially things with a similar purpose.  When weighing up American whiskey alongside the other big styles, I’d always felt that it was a bit limited in its range of flavour.  I justify this opinion objectively with reference to its casks in particular:  whereas Scotch in contrast (or Irish for that matter) uses new and refill casks, made from American and European oak, treated by charring or toasting, with sizes and shapes from barrels to butts, seasoned by bourbon or sherry typically, but a wide variety of other liquors as well (and draws on this wide scope for its flavour profile), straight American whiskey is legally restricted to new, charred, oak, commercially restricted to white oak, conventionally restricted to barrels, and inevitably constrained as a consequence to a tighter band.  It’s been the blue-collar worker, the enlisted man, the poorer cousin, of the whisky world.  But things are a-changing, and bourbon is moving on up.

When I take a deeper look at any product I like to refer to its definition, the essence that gives it its identity and its constitution.  These are usually found floating about on Wikipedia and in various other crevices, but I decided in this case to get as close to the source as possible. The site for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB) of the United States publishes those for bourbon and straight bourbon as follows:

  • Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers
  • (Straight bourbon is) bourbon whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more
  • “Straight Bourbon Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state […will big straight bourbon blends become a thing?]

The exercise allowed me to make two interesting observations, one peripheral the other central, which I otherwise wouldn’t if I hadn’t sourced the original reference:  firstly, that the legislators in the US have used the “whisky” spelling rather than the conventional “whiskey” spelling.  This may be vestigial, having remained in place from the earliest laws governing production, before the Irish and Americans introduced the e to differentiate their products from Scotch; and secondly, that there is a huge variety of whiskey styles in the United States, the bar for most being very low.  This reinforced to me that the credibility of American whiskey as a broad category rests on straight whisky. The ability thus to generate complexity and variety within the scope of these definitions is critical.

The bourbon regulations allow more latitude with stills, and mashbills, relative to some other styles.  This is the reason why a brand like Woodford Reserve is able to employ a triple pot distillation to distinguish its product and flavour profile from most other bourbons, which are double distilled in column and doubler stills (essentially a combination of a column still and a pot still).  The still types and distillation techniques may promote flavour subtleties between one bourbon and another, but it’s a measured contribution, not a revolution – the stuff of a sergeant’s stripes, not a commission.  The mashbill is more impactful.   Corn must be predominant, but thereafter, in the selection and weighting of the secondary ingredient (known as the flavour grain, because of its pivotal influence), there is room to play – with three basic styles resulting: wheated, rye, and high rye.  The former tends to be softer and sweeter, with cereal and grass flavours prominent – and there’s a preconception that it matures more gracefully, largely on the back of the Pappy van Winkle legacy I would think – whilst the latter two are bolder, spicier and fruitier.  A bourbon becomes high rye when this component approaches and exceeds 20% of the mashbill.  These three styles are well populated but the inclination to further tap this ostensibly rich vein seems muted.  Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor Four Grain, using corn, malted barley (the standard tertiary ingredient, there to assist with fermentation) and BOTH rye and wheat, is a recent rare iteration (although there have been others).  This is a transcending era though, so it’ll be interesting to see what else springs from this well in the next few years.  Maybe an entirely new grain could be attempted, like unmalted barley.

We don’t get many American whiskeys in South Africa – perhaps that’s indicative of my starting point in itself – so we’re a little behind on the latest developments.  Sadly too, the Buffalo Trace distillery, one of the more innovative producers, is not presently represented locally.  We’re unlikely therefore to be seeing any Taylor bottles on our shelves anytime son.  Interestingly however the heralds to our shores of bourbon’s new swagger are products exploiting the most restrictive aspect of the definition: that guiding the maturation.   New charred oak only?  It’s a hell of a limit, but one that absolutely had to be challenged if any headway was to be made – time and wood are whisky’s single most important sources of flavour.

The wonderful Knob Creek, one of the standout bourbons to which we have ready access, is evidence of the initial forays, pushing charring to its maximum to better access the flavours in the woods and to carve a route for the liquid to travel and make deepest possible contact.  Jim Beam’s Double Oak, one of the latest arrivals, takes a leaf from Scotch with its double maturation (albeit both in same barrel styles), producing a succulent whiskey that’s rich, sweet and oaky, and highly drinkable.  I cracked a bottle with some colleagues after work, intending a quick drink before ducking home, but before I knew it a few hours had passed and the bottle was done.  Most inspiring though is the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.  The distillery has become known in the past while for its innovative work with wood – their Maple Wood Finish in particular was ground-breaking, although like many of the other products in their Master’s Collection it can’t be called a bourbon, so probably destined to stay niched.  The Double Oaked is most certainly a bourbon, also double matured like the Jim Beam, with the second racking being in casks that were deeply toasted first then submitted to a light charring.  The resulting depth of flavour has put my notions about the constrained potential of bourbon to the sword.

There’s a lot more that’s happening, and that can and will happen: the use of other oak species, of larger casks (particularly for a spirit that overcooks easily), of White oak grown in different eco-systems, to name just a few possibilities.  We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg but it’s enough to convince me that maturation – ironically, bourbon’s more confined and restrained space – is where the vital play is being, and will continue to be, made.  The innovation that’s being wrought is its ticket to the big stage, to an eventual equal billing with its more fancied forerunners.  I look forward with eager anticipation to the fruits of the endeavour.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige APR 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige APR 2017 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

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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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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A Cheers salute to men in skirts

First published in Cheers Magazine (January / February 2017 edition).

It actually makes more sense, anatomically at least, for men to be wearing skirts rather than women.   The momentum of history however has denied us this breezy freedom.  The prevailing aesthetic of men’s fashion dictates, and has for a long time now rather jeeringly, against our adoption (re-adoption would be more accurate) of this versatile garment.  In today’s world you might get away with wearing a sarong, at a push, but for aspirant skirt wearers wanting to project their robust manliness there’s only one unambiguous refuge.

What

The kilt.  Even the sound of it is comfortingly masculine.   A kilt is a knee level skirt (or a type of skirt) made from a single length of wool pleated at the rear, which is wrapped around the waist to navel height, and secured with straps. Its usage originated in the Highlands of Scotland in the early eighteenth century, evolving thence to become one of that country’s most iconic symbols.  More recently it has been adopted in other places as a unifying sign of Celtic identity.  The wool from which a kilt is made would usually display a tartan pattern, which typically has some sort of meaning to the wearer – either an association to a Clan or to a region.  Most importantly though – they’re great fun to wear.  Say it with me now, you know you want to:  “Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!” It sounds even better in a kilt, if that can be imagined…

How

A kilt is the central item in the Highland Dress set of formal attire.  There are various degrees and permutations, but the gist of it, from top to toe, is as follows: a dress shirt with bow tie; a jacket, of which a variety are acceptable, from the old-school Prince Charlie to the more modern Argyll, and an optional waistcoat; the kilt itself, along with a kilt pin, a sporran and sporran belt – the sporran is an elaborate pouch employed ostensibly (its aesthetic appeal notwithstanding) to compensate for the absence of pockets – and a belt, the latter only donned in the absence of the waistcoat; knee length socks (kilt hose); garter flashes (in the same tartan as the kilt); and smart, laced leather shoes.   You can further choose to carry a sgian-dubh (pronounced skee-an doo), a small ceremonial knife which is tucked into the hose.  And why not indeed – just watch yourself when you’re boarding an aircraft, or scrapping (good naturedly of course) with an Englishman.  Kilts are also worn more casually, traditionally with a ghillie shirt, but increasingly with rugby jerseys and the like, as suits the occasion.  Critically, you should be able to answer the question: “is anything worn under your kilt?” with this response: “no, nothing, everything is in perfect working order”.

Where

In South Africa kilts are strongly connected to Scotch whisky, so you’ll see them swishing about at whisky festivals, Burns suppers, and other whisky functions.  They’re also popular at weddings and various celebrations – at least those with Scottish links.  The most epic local kilt-wearing event though is undoubtedly the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich in early November.  The Keepers as an organisation is only about 30 years old, established circa 1987 – by a South African no less, James Espey – to promote the interests and the fellowship of Scotch whisky, but it gives the deep impression that it has accumulated centuries of venerable existence.  The organisation is exclusive – there are only 53 Keepers in the South African “Chapter”, each having served a minimum of five years in the industry, having been nominated to join and seconded by two existing Keepers, and having been inaugurated at the magnificent Blair Castle in Scotland – but it is not elitist – the organisation simply does not recognise rank.   Attendance at the banquet is by invitation only, so you’d need to cultivate a relationship to crack the nod.   And make no mistake – it’s a golden invitation.  There are few things to compare with feasting on haggis and fine whisky in the boisterous company of kilted-up whisky folk.  May the dram be with you!

Sidebar – Kilts and the accompanying dress can be purchased or rented from Staghorn, the country’s only Scottish outfitters, based in Plumstead, Cape Town.  021 761 4853.  http://www.scottishoutfitting.com/.

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