Author Archives: Patrick Leclezio

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.

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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.

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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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Is brandy bouncing back?

PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the recent exploits of South Africa’s signature spirit

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

After years of decline the popularity of local brandy has stabilised.  Ostensibly this is the product of fiscal policy, so to speak, but there’s cause for hope and optimism, and to believe in a real recovery beyond.  Shepherded by the South African Brandy Foundation, and driven by the contributions of a group of talented producers and an influx of fresh brands, the drink has taken on a new lustre and a renewed purpose.  There’s a mountain of good work that has been done, and is ongoing, in three areas in particular, and whilst only time will tell if it will be enough to revisit and exceed past glories, the fruits of this labour, deserving of a (pride of) place in any liquor cabinet, speak for themselves.

Brandy definitions

In a similar sense that you are a product of your DNA, so brandy is a product of its definitions, the rules that guide how it is to be made and matured.  I’ve been critical of these in the past, having considered them weaker than those of its peers, whisky and cognac specifically.  Since then though significant, concerted progress has been made in this area.  Brandy has three classifications: blended brandy, vintage brandy and potstill brandy.   The judicious excision of a dubious 10% allowance for spirits that were neither matured nor potstilled from the makeups of the latter two has been a major stride in the right direction.  Whether producers were exploiting it in the past or not, its removal happens to be coinciding with a bright era of excellence for potstills, and it gives us a measure of assurance that things should stay this way.  I wouldn’t be giving a balanced view though if I didn’t admit that problems remain.  The bar for blended brandy is staying comparatively low, stipulating a 30% minimum for matured (3 years or more), potstilled content, in excess of which it seems (I can’t know definitively, but my enquiries suggest as much) few or no producers are venturing.  And who can blame them in a price sensitive market – 3YO potstilled brandy being materially more expensive than the unmatured column-stilled wine spirit that makes up the balance.  It’s a situation though that’s inimical to the true greatness to which this drink aspires and which it deserves.  It means that on average, if you’ll forgive my crude analysis, the liquid in your typical blended brandy is less than a year old, and only one and half in a labelled 5YO.  Younger potstill brandies are available, such as the hearty, robust Kingna 5YO, but these are mostly of this age and its vicinity, and sold at a premium price.   My persisting conclusion is that a gap exists in the definitions, and in the market price-wise, for a fully matured, lighter style of young brandy.   Perhaps this is partly what created space for the precipitous growth of VS cognacs…

Awards

There must be acute despondency in the other brandy producing regions of the world.  Over the last three years, building on an already impressive award-winning track record, South African brandies have made a clean sweep at arguably the world’s two foremost competitions, the International Wine and Spirits Competition and the International Spirits Challenge, taking the best-in-class “Trophy” prizes in each case.   This year’s winner at the latter, the KWV 15YO, perfectly epitomises the evolution of local brandy at the upper end of the spectrum.   It is rich, oh-so-rich, full-bodied, and complex, with notes of husk fruits, oak and spice, delivering on and exceeding expectations for a fine, luxury spirit.  This is a bottle to enjoy at (m)any given moments (not quite any, close though), but pull it out in repose with friends after a fine meal, and you’ll be soon be ascending to an everything-is-right-with-the-world plane of satisfaction.

The industry is still young in marketing itself to the world, and in building and justifying stocks of mature enough liquid to go toe-to-toe with the big boys, but the momentum is gathering.  It’s just a matter of time.  In the interim we local admirers can relish our well-priced access to the world’s most outstanding brandies.

Craft

There’s one phenomenon that’s convincing me of brandy’s resurgence and of its potential to kick-on more than any other, and that’s the explosive proliferation in the “craft” sector of the industry.  There are now dozens of small producers who are putting out audacious, delicious, exceptional offerings, and who are weaving the magic of unique stories to be told, the adventure of new and flavoursome territories to be explored, and the romance of daring exploits to be tasted and experienced, into the tapestry of brandy’s landscape.  The lure of its call is being dialled up exponentially.  I’ve already mentioned Kingna, made by a diesel-mechanic who discovered a passion and skill for brandy-making and consequently turned distiller, but there are so many others.  The coco-nutty  Sumasaré 5YO and the fragrant Boplaas 8YO both made immediate, this-is-special impressions on me, and more recently I discovered the Ladysmith 8YO, a journey of garden aromas, with pods of sweet spice, and rakings of orchard fruits and velvet custard scattered on palate and finish.  The scene is replete with variety – different music each, but merging into a harmonious concerto.  Volumes are small, but that’s not the point.  This is the leading edge of the wedge, representing the wider product, and infusing it with an aura of amplified credibility, vigorous energy, and innovative thinking.  We have the sweet, exciting privilege of being able to embrace this revolution in its infancy.  Long may it last.

If you are or were a brandy drinker or had considered giving it a go this is the time to take another look.  Things are happening, and they merit your attention.  South African brandy has a new mantle, an evolved reputation that’s taken it from being referenced as “karate water” to the elegance of a dedicated drinks trolley, there by request, at the Test Kitchen.   It’s not for nothing.  This new style has a substance of iron to it.  I wouldn’t want to miss out and neither do you.

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Treats from the top shelf

PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends five fine whiskies to accompany the festive season’s feasting.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

The end of another year looms, so reassuringly close now.  We’re in the final straight, the finish line in sight and beckoning. There’s something about this period that’s exciting, in such a deep-seated sense that it’s more physiological than cerebral – a simmering exhilaration that gets you deep in the gut.   It’s a time to devote undistracted quality time to friends and family, to step away from the frantic pace of modern life, and to reward yourself for some sustained hard toil.  It’s that once a year culmination – and it should be fittingly anointed.   If there is ever a time to spoil yourself then this is it.  Life is short, this end-of-term hiatus even shorter; these are moments to be seized and savoured to within an inch of their existence.   In whisky terms – and revelling’s not revelling without great whisky – it’s the moment to let loose with the lucre, to drink something a little more special, to embrace some celebratory catalysts for sharing time with your favourite people.   Here are my five picks to fire the flame of your festive season.

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

It’s only recently that Irish Distillers renewed the Single Pot Still style, beefing up what had been – given its spectacular attributes – a criminally sparse offering.  The new range is still limited but it’ll get you on enthusiastically and it’ll keep you riding indefinitely.  Redbreast, the “Spots”, Power’s – these are heralds enough to convince us emphatically that this style is the equal of single malt, but for all their worth they are blunt instruments in comparison to the Barry Crockett, a whiskey of such subtlety and refinement as to leave you in awe.   Using an uncommon combination of both ex-bourbon and new casks, the Midleton distillery has a created an uncommon whiskey indeed.   I’m a sceptic when it comes to NAS whiskies, but this one honours all the justifications that are spouted on the subject.  There isn’t any indication of immaturity; the younger whiskies used in these vattings contribute to and complement the array within with no detraction whatsoever – and what an array it is!  It’s something you’ll have to keep revisiting: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, orchard fruitiness, and tangy candy the next, new twists layer after layer.  Drink it in slow reflection of a year well spent.

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

Great whiskies can grow on you gradually, or they can announce themselves immediately.  Black Art is unequivocally amongst the latter.  I came upon an earlier edition some three to four years ago at a whisky show, with no prior knowledge of it whatsoever.  There was no fuss.  I thought it was just another release from a distillery known for its prolific experimentation.  Until I tasted it.  It rocked me where I stood.  The universe suddenly came into focus – I kid you not.  I felt like I had unearthed genius, if you’ll allow me to be a bit liberal.  I’ve since sought out subsequent editions at every opportunity.  There is something particularly special about a series, whether it be vintages or editions.  You know what you’re getting in broad terms but each is a little different, carving out new nooks and crannies to explore, and offering fresh surprises to keep things interesting.   The wood profile is top secret – we’re told that there’s American oak and French oak (seasoned by “premium wine”) involved, but that could mean many things.  There’s no point hypothesising – it’s a sideshow.   The cascade of fruits, the hints of spice, the honey, toffee, chocolate and molasses, gather and swell into a sensational deluge of flavour that’ll keep you riveted from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day and well beyond.

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

I first experienced the Darkest sitting at the magnificent bar at Bowmore (my first stop on the island) looking out over the bay under a brooding sky.  Classic Islay.  It may have coloured my perceptions at the time:  how could you not enjoy the place’s peated whiskies with that weight of geography and heritage and atmosphere weighing upon you?  Well, after many further stops, with the passage of the years, and with a few other bites at the cherry since I’ll admit, the Darkest still lives large if not largest in my memory.  This is Islay as it should be – at least for my taste.  The unmistakeable smokiness is there, but it knows its place: as an equal not an oppressor.  The result is a rich and beautifully calibrated whisky – drifting, briny smoke with a balancing scale of raisins and dark, dried fruits, and butterscotch sweetness.  I can’t think of a better whisky with which to conclude the season’s typically banquetlike meals.

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

Johnnie Walker has its place and purpose, but on the whole I find its range of blends to be obvious, and somewhat overstated (appealing for many).   The Platinum is an exception.   It’s bold and big, yes, but there’s also a depth to be plumbed.  Candied cherries, nutty granola, and vanilla dance amongst dark chocolate crumbles and sparks of citrus and spice, with a fine smokiness, the traditional Scotch signature, playing a mellow music in the background.  There aren’t too many blended whiskies of this class and complexity on our local market – so I’d consider Platinum a get-in-the-festive-mood go-to:  something to “session” as you clink crystal tumblers with old mates, and regale each other with the highlights of your year.

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

I’m referencing this one as local, but let there be no misconception – this is a whisky that stands down to no other.  It is quite simply world class.  I was lucky enough to delve into some Pinotage experiments at the distillery about two to three years ago, and both the concept and the liquids intrigued and encouraged me hugely.  They spoke of a day when “we” would make a truly South African whisky, so both in provenance and style, and a truly great one to boot.  That day has now come.  The whisky that has materialised is full and well balanced, with fruits, sweet spice, dusted nougat, and mineral loaminess appearing and then disappearing like well-choreographed actors on a stage.  There’s peat smoke too, flitting around the edges of tongue and palate, clearly polished by a decade and half in wood, but still in burnished evidence.  Spend some time with this one.  It reveals more and more as you nurture it, the wine only showing itself directly to me when I nosed my emptied glass.  The whisky was finished in twelve Pinotage barrels for about two years, which makes it unusual in two senses: it’s the only mainstream (if not the only, period) release to have used this type of cask, and it’s one of a very few blended whiskies to have been either double matured or finished – so I’ll suggest that it’s a blend that’s been crafted with a level of attention, care and passion typically afforded only to single malts.  You’ll note from the number of casks I mentioned that supply is finite; only 3500 bottles are available, so don’t dawdle.   Stake your claim to a piece of whisky history whilst you can.

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