Author Archives: Patrick Leclezio

Two days as a Tsar

What to do with 48 hours in St. Petersburg

First published in Sawubona Magazine November 2019 edition

The holy grail of travel is the destination that delivers a big bang for a bargain.  St. Petersburg exemplifies this rare bird in all its splendour.  Moscow may dominate in scale and gravitas, but Russia’s second city thrives in its shadow, its beauty, legacy and charisma generating their own glittering light.  The grandeur of its days as the seat of an empire may be somewhat faded, but it’s re-emerging, and its reinvigorated and reimagined modern incarnation – in which electric bands busk on the boulevards – is every bit as compelling.  Here, now, you don’t need to earn like a Tsar to live like a Tsar…for a few days at least.

STAY

You may well choose to lodge in one of the city’s numerous grand hotels, a thrifty opportunity to lather yourself in bit of luxury, and indeed some of these may be worth a visit regardless, for “Tchaikovsky nights” at the Belmond as an example; however in a country where banyas (steams baths) are integral to the culture, a boutique hotel offering this facility makes for an authentic alternative.  Fitting the bill handsomely is the Rossi Hotel & Spa – long on olde-worlde charm, short on unnecessary posturing, it’s a quaint and intimate establishment, the type where the veteran doorman takes personal pride in extending hospitality and sharing his local knowledge. It’s conveniently located, satisfyingly comfortable, and unobtrusively atmospheric, with lavish spreads for breakfast, but its highlight though must be the spa itself.  If you like the idea of setting your day into gentle motion with an hour divided between the sauna and the (turbo powered!) jet pool, then this is just the place for you.

SEE

The priority when arriving in a new city should be to get the lay of the land, which in St. Petersburg, ironically, is best accomplished off the land.  Its network of canals, feeding in and out of the Neva, offers a magnificent vantage point from which to conduct a quick (or leisurely, as you would have it) exploration. There is a plethora of providers, routes, tours and formats – which can be overwhelming.  A specialist operator, such as Red Sun Tours, whose high-quality offerings range from customised private excursions to small group tours, might be a useful place to start making your arrangements.

Once orientated, the sight-seeing, as you’d expect for one of the great capitals of Western culture, is replete with possibilities, some of the most noteworthy being: the Hermitage, the world’s second largest art museum (after the Louvre), housed largely in the legendary Winter Palace, with its love-it-or-hate-it green pigmentation; the Peterhof, Peter the Great’s sprawling, keeping-up-with-the-joneses response to the Palace of Versailles; the Fabergé Museum, home to the largest private collection of the eponymous eggs and a palaceful of other exceptional  designware; and the Mariinsky Theatre, one of the iconic stages and spiritual homes of ballet.  This ball of string though is as long as you want it to be.

DINE

If the way to a traveller’s heart was through their stomach (probably the case for many of us), then St. Petersburg would be in for the win, hitting a trifecta of quality, variety and tradition.

The uber-cool Mansarda, boasting a mesmerising view onto the enormous gold plated dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, is a case in point, crafting a combination of classic dishes, including delicious renditions of local staples such as borsht and stroganoff, and modern fusion cuisine.  Its expansive menu is accompanied by an even broader 450-strong wine list stewarded by one of Russia’s top sommeliers, featuring the regular cast of course, but also exponents from more obscure regions such as Georgia, Hungary, Israel and Russia itself.  A singular dining experience!

Less flash, but every bit as delightful is Makaronniki, a trattoria that’ll have you questioning your location in the world.  In a field as dense and competitive as the purveying of Italian food, it’s a tall order to stand out, but stand-out it does…and then some.  The pesto focaccia, the tomato cappuccino with ricotta froth, and the pork stracotto with BBQ ice-cream in particular are of the highest calibre.  Throw in a rooftop courtyard, a well-considered Italo-centric drinks menu, and the most imaginative desserts you could hope to eat, and you’ve got a lock for your schedule.  “Buon appetito” has just been appropriated to Russian.

DRINK

If you’re in the market for a few mellow cocktails, you’ll be hard pressed to find better satisfaction than with Apotheke and its master barman – whose prodigious skill seems its reason for being.  There’s a chalked-up cocktail list, comprising both universal and house recipes, to guide your selecting, but Apotheke also subscribes to the entertaining trend of taking orders by flavour, with damn fine results.

SAVOUR

One of the great joys of travel is the prospect of sampling local traditions and local delicacies in situ, where they’re usually at their best.  Arguably this doesn’t get more exquisite than in Russia, the home of caviar.  A Tsar would simply order a kilogram of albino beluga, but for the rest of us St. Petersburg’s ArtCaviar presents an outstanding alternative.  This caviar boutique with its adjoining caviar inspired fine-dining restaurant offers the ideal setting for acquainting yourself with this delicacy.  The knowledgeable staff, whose passion and zeal are undoubtable, and the sublime culinary creations, witness pressed caviar in straciatella cheese with strawberries, expertly paired with Russian (or other) wines, make for an indelible experience.  When people advise you to spend your money on experiences rather than things, this is what they mean.

For those with a sweet tooth the Russian afternoon tea at the Astoria is a special treat.  The hotel has been host to some of the world’s most recognisable names, so a visit represents a chance to rub shoulders, and to linger in its aristocratic setting listening to live piano and enjoying Russian pastries such as pirosky (which is savoury), sguschenka, and medovik cake.   Go hungry.

MOVE

Ride hailing applications such as Bolt, Gett and Yandex make the best means for moving about in St. Petersburg.  Make sure you get yourself a Russian SIM card on arrival – it’s an essential requirement for accessing WIFI in most places.

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48 hours in Hong Kong

First published in Sawubona Magazine – July 2019 edition

Twenty years ago and before, at a time when an incursion into the Mainland was too forbidding for most, Hong Kong offered a précised and sanitised ‘Chinese experience’.  For travellers and traders alike it was a window to China.  This view of things is now a footnote in history, completely outdated, redundant: the world has shrunk and liberalised China is on our doorstep, readily accessible.  The territory’s days as a cheap destination are similarly long gone – the shopping’s still good, but don’t expect the fabled knock-down prices of the past, and as for the rest – food, accommodation, entertainment – you’ll by and large be paying top dollar.  But despite these changes, or maybe because of them, Hong Kong is a sexier and more rollicking ride than ever before.  Its essence, as a confluence of East and West, continues to define its course, but not in any cartoonish sense.  Instead it has evolved into an established hybrid, both reflective and independent of its progenitors – an inimitable, compelling amalgam of cool sophistication, warm hospitality, and vibrant energy.  The place just keeps raising its (gripping!) game.  For a visitor with a few days to fill there’s little to beat it.

Stay

Your lodgings can make or break a trip, so ensure the former with an astute selection.  You’ll struggle to find a better choice than the Island Shangri-La, the pre-eminent scion of a home-grown group, and the epitome of unpretentious refinement.  The typical benefits of a great hotel are superbly delivered – large rooms, lavish breakfasts, premium facilities, with the skyscraper-surrounded pool-deck a splendid highlight, especially in a city known for having more of them than any other in the world – but it’s with the finer touches that the hotel really excels: from the traditional welcome tea on arrival, beautifully presented in an insulated tea caddy, and the uber-comfortable mattresses and linen, developed by Simmon’s and Frette specifically for Shangri-La, to the day-of-the-week inscribed carpets in the lifts, and the L’Occitane and Acqua di Parma toiletries, they amplify the accommodation to an indulgent celebration.   The hotel houses eight restaurants on site, including the Michelin-starred Summer Palace, but it’s Restaurant Petrus that’s perhaps the star attraction.  Set on the 56th floor, in elegant, conducive surroundings (the ceiling frescoes and piano-accompanied strings live large), with breathtaking views over Victoria Harbour, the place offers classical fine dining, fine wining fare, but with just enough of an edge to stir the imagination.  Sample the green pea tart with yoghurt, meringue and coriander for dessert.

Island Shangri-La, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Rd, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2877 3838

Move

Taxis are plentiful and relatively affordable, but it’s often quicker and more convenient, especially when crossing from island to mainland and vice-versa, to use Hong Kong’s outstanding public transport system, one of the most effective and user-friendly worldwide, encompassing buses, trains, trams, and ferries.  The Octopus card, which you should definitely invest in on arrival, is probably the world’s leading fare collection and contactless smartcard payment system (and the model upon which London’s Oyster card was based), allows you to breeze on and off for the duration of your visit without worrying  about buying individual tickets.

See

Hong Kong is intense.  Visually spectacular, with a compact frame of sea, city, and mountain, and densely constituted, with its bustling population of enterprising people on the go, there is no shortage of things to see and do.  In geography there are some resonating parallels with Cape Town.  Victoria Peak, like Table Mountain, offers a spectacular vantage point from which to view and contemplate the city, and indeed the whole of Hong Kong Island on the walks around its circumference.  It’s accessible by foot for the fit and energetic, or otherwise by tram.  The Southern District, like our Southern Peninsula, is dotted with picturesque day-tripping towns – Aberdeen, Stanley and Repulse Bay notably – all easily accessible via the excellent public transport network.  Aberdeen in particular is something unique.  Historically the channel separating its settlements was home to a floating village of fisherfolk.  The boats remain, a ragtag but impressive fleet numbering in the hundreds and bearing testimony to this heritage, although fewer and fewer people still reside aboard permanently.  The area is also renowned for its cheap and cheerful fish ball noodles – test your chopsticks technique on the rendition at Nam Kee Noodle on Main Road.

 The Peak Tram Lower Terminus, Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2522 0922

 Exchange Square Bus Terminus, Ground floor, Exchange Square, 8 Connaught Place,

Central (Bus 70 to Aberdeen, from Aberdeen Bus 73 to Stanley via Repulse Bay)

 Nam Kee Noodle, Shop 1-3, G/F, 208 Aberdeen Main Rd, Aberdeen

+852 2552 2731

 Drink

A dark passage, a nondescript staircase, and an unmarked door.  This is the low-key entranceway to Stockton, one of Hong Kong’s coolest bars – a pre-emptive measure maybe against intrusion by the roving bands of Jack the Lads from neighbouring Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s notorious party district.  Or other random arrivals.  If you’re not in the know, clearly you shouldn’t be here.  Named for Hunter Stockton Thompson, reporter, writer, reveller, the place is inspired by literary themes and influences, from its seasonal cocktail menu, the latest being a dive into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (featuring drinks such as “The Berry Picker”), to its eclectic collection of vintage furniture and decorations, allusions to a private library or a reading room.  You get the sense that everything here has been well thought-out and deeply considered: it’s a place of substance for people of substance.  There are intimate crevices and alcoves, a thronging bar, a “secret” cigar den (known as the “Rake Room”), a discerning selection of fine liquors, a toilet with a two-way mirror (!!), and a menu featuring unusual delicacies like duck scotch eggs and cauliflower fritters.  Treat yourself to an exceptional Old Fashioned, hit repeat, and spend a rewarding evening at this superb, atmospheric venue.

Stockton, 32 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2898 3788

Eat

You can get the best of pretty much anything you want in Hong Kong, but it’s always a good idea to eat local.  The speciality here is Cantonese, the style of Chinese cuisine most internationally prevalent:  chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and dim sum being typical dishes. There’s a gaping chasm though between what you get at your local Chinese, and the finer exponents available in situ.  Duddell’s, an eatery-cum-art-gallery in the heart of Central on the island, gives you exactly that, the finer if not finest exponents of the style, but with a modern interpretation.  Their dim sum is off-the-scale, the scallop dumplings with caviar and asparagus good enough to break the gauge, whilst their use of non-traditional ingredients such as Wagyu beef and ibérico pork exemplifies Hong Kong’s flair and individuality.  Other highlights include the a double-boiled mushroom, bamboo and cabbage soup, shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice sheets, a vegetarian ensemble of asparagus, mushrooms, lily buds and black truffles, and their signature chicken dish: marinated, air dried and then deep fried.  The best approach though might be to explore their unlimited Weekend Salon Brunch, with an option for free-flow Veuve.  Go hungry (and thirsty)!

Duddell’s, Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central

+852 2525 9191

Over the bay, in Kowloon, you’ll find the pinnacle of an unpretentious, uniquely Hong Kongese speciality being served from a tiny, humble outlet.  Whilst the physical structure belies the presence of something special, the constant queues give it away.  Mammy Pancake serves egg waffles, a base batter of eggs, sugar, flour and evaporated milk, supplemented with various other ingredients, such as chocolate, peanut butter, and banana, according to taste, prepared on a waffle iron which moulds interconnected little pods (which you break off and eat by hand), and served in a brown bag.  Simple and delicious.  Try it as a breakfast snack, or at any time of the day.

Mammy Pancake, G/F, Carnarvon Mansion, 8-12 Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

 

 

 

Small batch, big patch

Four craft spirits to try before you braai

First published in Sawubona Magazine (March 2019).

The last five years have seen a mushrooming proliferation of craft products on the local liquor scene.  It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to contend that we are experiencing something of a spirituous golden age.  Taking inspiration from wine and beer, and moving from early rumblings in brandy, South Africa’s signature spirit, to the heady days of the ongoing gin boom, this momentum is now being felt across a variety of sectors and styles.   Our brandy heritage reaches back centuries, but it’s only in recent years that smaller producers have been re-emerging.  Backsberg, Boplaas, and Joseph Barry, were and still are some of the standout frontrunners, issuing interesting, distinctive small-batch brandies of international quality, and forging the path for a chasing pack, with the result that we’re awash today in these amber riches.  Gin may not be home-grown, but we’ve made it our own – what is South Africa if not a melting pot of vibrant, varied and sometimes adopted influences.   The resources of the Cape Floristic Kingdom, accounting for the greatest non-tropical concentration of higher plant species in the world, served as both input and catalyst for local gin production.  Pioneers like Roger Jorgensen, and Lorna Scott of Inverroche, the latter perhaps more than anyone else, showed that fynbos botanicals have the potential to create extraordinary, unique gins.  The distillery’s “Amber Gin” made infusions and local ingredients sexy, elevating this style into the popular imagination.  The quality and creativity of these trailblazers, their warm reception by the drinking public, and the surge of the rising tide which brought them about in the first place, seem to have generated a perfect storm.  A plethora of South African craft spirits is now taking the expression ‘local is lekker’ to a whole new level.

The appeal of this exciting new landscape is unfortunately also its drawback – there are, as an example, 250 plus gins being manufactured locally.  It’s getting difficult to see the wood for the trees.  Those that have already made their names stand out, but those that haven’t yet, the new generation, can be lost in the growing clutter.  We got stuck in, did a bit of homework, and identified a few which we thought might be worth your attention.

Pimville Gin

Styled by its four founders – Yongama Skweyiya, Thami Banda, Nkululeko Maseko, and Francois Bezuidenhout – as an African gin, made for Africans, with African flavours, an African story and an African home, and named after one the original towns that formed what was later to be called the South Western Townships (contracted to Soweto – who knew! ), this gin is intended as celebration of the charm and energy of African townships.

The outcome has been a robust gin, instilled with juniper, marula fruit, baobab, and, most prominently in our reckoning, African ginger, that is faithful to and a tribute to its mandate.  There is a flavour continuum for gins that ranges from retiring wallflower to life-of-the-party.   Pimville marches to the boisterous beat of an African drum, asserting its presence in martinis and with tonic.  A bold gin for a bold era.

Copeland Rum

James Copeland is a character study of a craft entrepreneur.   An internationally-renowned, globetrotting Trance DJ, he became inspired by rum during trips to Mauritius.  Armed with a burning passion he decided to make his own…in Kommetjie (which thinking about it just seems like a place where rum should be made – and drunk!).  We met him during the recent Rum Festival in Cape Town, slinging drinks from his “rum shack” (a beach bar fashioned stall) and bringing the message to the masses.

Copeland Rum is a white exponent distilled from a brew of blackstrap molasses, surprisingly polished for an unaged spirit, and exuding a full, rounded fruitiness, notably banana in our estimation.  Although he has plans for aged variants – with various trials currently in maturation – Copeland’s ethos and focus is about and on creating definitive, fermentation-driven rums, bursting with concentrated flavours.  This may be a drink that nimbly straddles rum’s penchant for unruly fun on the one side, and elegant enjoyment on the other.

BoPlaas Whisky

The chaps at Boplaas have some serious ambition, and from all evidence, the skills to go with it.  Wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, brandies, gins, and “now” whiskies; it seems nothing is too much for this Calitzdorp clan.  Whisky is tricky beast, which is probably why it’s one of the least prevalent spirits in the craft arena.  The production can be complex, the maturation extended, and the market extremely competitive, making it challenging to put out an affordable product that strikes the right balance, and that is sufficiently distinctive to resonate.

The Boplaas 6YO is a creditable single grain whisky finished in Cape Tawny (port) casks that have exerted a significant influence on its flavour.  It’ll appeal we’re sure to fans of wine-casked whiskies.  Most importantly it’s a distinct drink with a strong identity, speaking of the region, the estate, and of the people who created it – and transforming consumption into exploration.  We’ll look forward, as we sip at it contentedly, to more of the same from this industrious outfit.

Agua Zulu Cachaça

If you’re familiar with Brazil’s national cocktail – the caipirinha, served just about everywhere in that country – then you’ll be enthused with this selection, and if you’re not then it’s something you’d be advised to remedy.  A masterpiece of delicious simplicity, it’s made from sugar, lime, ice, and, most importantly, cachaça: a distillate of sugar cane juice, similar to the rhum agricole of the French Caribbean.   What we should ultimately want from the local craft industry are products that go beyond the obvious, that cater for niched, overlooked needs, and that provide the type of diversity and particularity not feasible on a mass scale.  The fact that this speciality spirit is now being produced locally is an encouraging signal that this aspiration has come to pass.

Distillery 031’s Agua Zulu, made in the Brazilian style from local cane and with a local touch, is bursting with the distinctively funky, pot-stilled cachaça flavours that guarantee a rousing caipirinha.  This initial incarnation is unaged, but with luck it’ll be succeeded by matured variants in the future, perhaps borrowing from the tradition and being casked in unusual, local wood.  As they say in Brazil: there comes a time when no matter what the question is, the answer is caipirinha.

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Two whiskies to reaffirm your faith

First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (March 2018).

During the course of my relationship with whisky I’ve rarely been disappointed.  Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs, but the troughs are usually my fault, isolated to occasions where I’ve abused its good graces.  More typically, over the years, it’s treated me to a series of wonderful encounters and experiences, nurturing between us a warm glow of contentment.  It has invigorated me when I’ve flagged, rewarded me when I’ve risen, encouraged my friendships, and made for good company at pretty much any time in between.  Most impressively, it keeps surprising me.  We’ve known each other well, for a long time now, so this is no mean feat.  They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it can obviously breed more positive regard as well – like delight.  I’ve had a few of those moments of late, brought on by two newcomers, which, if you’d like to instil a bit of fresh life into your bond with whisky, might be worth your attention.

Glenmorangie Allta

The tenth and latest in the unfailingly interesting, envelope-pushing Private Edition series, Allta fiercely perpetuates the spirit of this campaign.  I was lucky enough to “sense” this whisky along with a few others, Original, Cadboll and Lasanta, at the Glenmorangie HQ in Edinburgh, in an enthralling circular space known as “The Snug”, which showcases pretty much every whisky produced by the company in the modern age – wow!.  It was my first hit of Cadboll, and my first of Lasanta since the the finishing casks were changed from exclusively Oloroso to Oloroso and PX some four years ago.  The former, post-graduating from Muscat and Semillon casks, is a delicious sponge cake of sweet, polished flavours that’ll appeal to a broad range of palates, but especially to fans of Nectar d’Or.  It’s a Travel Retail exclusive so look out for it next time you’re going abroad.  The latter is a personal favourite, but I detected something on this occasion, a burnt flavour, somewhere between toasted sugar and an extinguished match, that I hadn’t previously noticed.  Whether this observation is derived from the new cask profile, or a function of my past inattention, is less important than the additional layer it ostensibly bequeaths to my perception of an already full flavoured whisky.  I won’t be waiting another four years.  The main show though was Allta, gaelic for ‘wild’, a nod to its raison d’être, a strain of wild yeast growing on the ears of Glenmorangie’s own cadboll barley identified by none other than the company’s whisky chief Dr. Bill Lumsden, and now catalysing this whisky’s fermentation.  An aside: the yeast was cultivated for production by South African-affiliated yeast supplier Lallemand.  The underlying rationale for Allta is that yeast variations are an unfortunate rarity in Scotch whisky.  In Dr. Bill’s words: “Yeast’s influence on taste has been overlooked for years, but it’s an area ripe for exploration”.  Perhaps taking a leaf from the Japanese whisky play book, which prescribes prolific experimentation with yeast, he’s created (yet another) whisky worthy of its place in this hallowed collection.  The liquid has much in common with The Original, its half sibling of similar age and cask profile, but is palpably fuller and more robust, bristling on the palate like a Rioja.  Earthy and herbaceous on the nose, waxy, bready and floral, with hints of mint and corn, it relaxes into a sweet, typically vanilla finish.  The distinctions pedestal yeast’s contribution to flavour, as I’m sure was the intention.  This in my opinion is a whisky to be bought and appreciated for three reasons: for its own innate value, for its place in this riveting Private Edition whisky story (to be enjoyed like a series of riveting, unmissable novels), and for making tangible the role of yeast in whisky creation.

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The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

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The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

Arbikie Highland Rye

Estate producers Arbikie are liquor all-rounders, better known for producing vodkas and gins.  How then, with no relevant credentials, do you get noticed on your first foray into an arena as crowded as Scotch whisky?  The answer: do something no-one’s ever done before (or at least, not for a long time).  The Arbikie Highland Rye’s premise is that it’s the first Scotch rye whisky produced in the last hundred odd years.  I guess that this makes it just a single grain in the Scotch Whisky Association classification, but unofficially I’ll happily concede that it’s rather unique and special.  Now let’s get the bad news out of the way upfront – this is a one-of-its-kind product, with a limited bottling of 998, factors driving a unit price of some R4.5k, which is clearly excessive for a young, barely legal whisky.  Then again, there’s no pretence of value for money – that’s not the idea.  There’s also lots of good news to even things out.  My experience of Arbikie Highland Rye left me with some striking impressions.  Firstly, rye brings something to the Scotch party – there’s enough here to persist and forge onwards with this experiment, which I believe Arbikie is doing; Secondly, this is one of the richest, fullest three year old whiskies I’ve ever tasted.  Whether it’s the rye, the casks, the small batch craftsmanship, or a combination that’s responsible can be debated, but the result is remarkable regardless.  Lastly, rye and sherry do great bedfellows make.  This is an unusual combination, which I’d never encountered before.  American straight rye whiskey is legislated to be aged only in new oak, and although the industry is increasingly breaking these shackles, variations are not commonplace.  But they should be.  Going by Arbikie Highland Rye – which has been “enhanced” in PX casks for 3-6 months – there’s evidence that this partnership works a treat.  If you’re in the fervent niche that’s dedicated to exploring new whisky horizons you may just have to throw pecuniary caution to the wind.

As it appeared: https://whiskymag.co.za/two-whiskies-to-reaffirm-your-faith/

 

Ignition 2019

Fortifying yourself for the festive season and the year ahead?  PATRICK LECLEZIO finds three excellent candidates to do the job.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).

Off the overly beaten track

Lesser known but exceptional.  Patrick Leclezio reviews three to-be-sought-out whiskies.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).

Fiddling with flavour

PATRICK LECLEZIO trains a straining spotlight on the invisible ingredients inside your drink.

First published on WineMag.co.za (November 2018).

If you’ve never encountered the term “bonificateur” you’re not alone.  Until last year I hadn’t, and I’d reckon the same goes for most.  Loosely translated from French as “good maker”, prompting the unfortunate inference that some sort of rectification is needed, it denotes a slug of additives introduced into brandy during blending, to influence its flavour or colour or both.  I’d long believed South African brandy to be made only from three ingredients: grapes, yeast, and water – and of course whatever it extracted from its casks during maturation, perhaps better defined as flavouring agents than ingredients – so this sudden edification made me question my convictions, about brandy and beyond.  My purist naiveté was in need of an overhaul.

Brandy casks

The dearth of available information is a telling place to start in weighing up the matter.  Bonificateurs have not been referenced on any packaging, in any promotional or educational materials I’ve come across – with the solitary exception of a fleeting mention in the official industry compendium “Fire Water”, nor during any brandy presentations I’ve attended.  They don’t even feature in the Van Ryn’s Advanced Brandy Course – described in some media as “the most thorough and sophisticated of its kind…” covering “…in-depth all the steps involved in brandy-making…”.  And by this absence I mean of the process and its existence, never mind any specific detail.  When I started with my enquiries one leading distiller told me that the practice was a “very, very sensitive matter “that was “kept as a secret by all manufacturers”.   I needed to get to the nerve centre for further insight.

In this pursuit I was privileged to be hosted recently by Johan Venter and Mare-Loe Prinsloo, Heads of Product and Brandy respectively at Distell (i.e. two leading heavyweights working for the country’s largest brandy producer), for a wide-ranging discussion on the matter during which I questioned if the industry might be hiding this process from consumers, by omission if not actively.  Despite a comprehensive denial, and despite an enjoyable and informative session, the disclosure went so far and no further.  When I asked for an indication of which of their brandies used bonificateurs and which didn’t, I was given some satisfaction on the latter, more on this later, but none on the former, other than being told that it was a minor percentage.  My impression was that they were concerned that this constituent would taint those products identified.  If I’m right then this would explain, if not justify, the perceived silence.

Before going any further I need to clarify, at the risk of being pedantic, that the use of additives, within certain parameters, is entirely legal.  Table 6 of the Liquor Products Act titled “SUBSTANCES WHICH MAY BE ADDED TO LIQUOR PRODUCTS” clearly regulates the practice.   I’ve summarised the additives for brandy in the following list (taken from the latest update of the Act, issued on 2/05/2014): bentonite, caramel, carbon dioxide, concentrated must, dessert wine (seemingly also encompassing fortified wine in practice), filtering aids of inert material, flavourants of vegetable origin or extracts thereof (prune and vanilla extracts being two examples), gelatine, honey, must, potassium ferro cyanide, silicasol, sugar of vegetable origin, tannin if it is not foreign to wine, water, and wood.

I should also stress that this practice is hardly limited to South African brandy.  The use of additives and flavourants is pronounced in many of the classic spirits.  Rum is maligned for its use of added sugars and colourants in particular.  Cognac and Armagnac prolifically use a substance called boise, an oak extract, to mimic additional maturation.  Canadian whisky allows an injection of other wines and spirits of up to 9.09% and in certain cases even more, depending on the nature of the deployment.  Scotch whisky often touts that it doesn’t allow any additives, other than flavourless caramel colouring, but in a sense this is hypocritical: it permits peat smoke, and bourbon, sherry, and all sorts of other wines and spirits to be imbued into its product during malting and maturation respectively, the latter in largely uncontrolled proportions; though, to be fair, whilst they’re not acknowledged as additives these flavouring agents are widely communicated to consumers.

That additives are allowable however, is not the issue.  They are – full stop.  The real questions are whether they’re desirable firstly, and whether their presence and use should be made (more) explicitly transparent.

Let’s tackle the last question first.  Yes!  Undisputedly and emphatically – yes.  There’s a real, growing thirst amongst modern consumers to be educated about their consumption, the denial or manipulation of which would be obstructive and disingenuous.   More importantly direct access to this information is a fundamental right underpinning our freedom.  We should be presented, without having to search for it, with the content and composition of any foodstuffs we consider buying and ingesting, because this awareness has an essential bearing on our ability to protect our health and our interests generally.  I have the right quite simply to know what’s in my drink – whether it’s because of potential allergens, or because I may, for instance, be inclined to pay more for conventionally matured than boise-augmented cognac.

Unfortunately when it comes to alcohol the letter of the law is yet to catch up to its spirit.  Whilst it’s legally required of most foodstuffs, liquor is exempt from having to disclose a list of ingredients (or, quite incredibly, even the presence of “foreign” matter), for seemingly unfathomable reasons.    It may be challenging to consistently define certain elements, such as those deriving from the oak – although the exemption applies to most liquor, whether cask matured or not – but it’s clearly not impossible: the European Commission stated in a March 2017 report that “objective grounds have not been identified that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutritional information on alcoholic beverages or a differentiated treatment for some alcoholic beverages”.  The report concludes that change to this effect is imminent.  In fact it is already mandatory to display consumer information about calories, additives, vitamins and microelements on the labels of spirits containers in 13 member states of the EU.

When I questioned an official at our local Department of Agriculture on the topic I was given this response:  “At the moment this is optional, you can indicate the ingredients on the label but it is not compulsive (sic).  The reason for this is that there is not yet any international guideline or requirement for wine or other liquor products.  South African legislation follows international requirements to make sure that we stay up to date, that our labels still complies with the requirements of the overseas countries when we export … If it should become an international requirement to indicate the ingredients on a label, the Liquor Products Act, Act 60 of 1989, will be amended accordingly.”  So whilst the industry has been remiss in respecting our right to this information of its own accord, it ostensibly will to be forced to do so in the medium term.   Good news!  How everyone’s going to react to the sudden appearance of all sorts of unexpected things in their drinks is another matter.

Once transparency is assured, the debate then becomes about whether an allowance for additives is of benefit or detriment: a thorny and complicated matter to unpack.  There is no right or wrong in my opinion, there are only varying perspectives.  One perspective is that if it’s able to contribute positively to flavour, with a result improving what it would otherwise have been, then it must be of benefit.  Another contrasting perspective is that it masks inadequacies, and fosters low standards.  Johan Venter voiced Distell’s brandy-making philosophy as endeavouring to get things right from the start rather than correcting mistakes at the end.  The existence of this recourse though – for any spirit, not just brandy – provokes the exact opposite motivation: you can bet that any short-cuts on offer will be exploited by less principled producers.  The knowledge that shortfalls can be corrected may limit ambition, or may engender the wrong kind of ambition.  Further perspectives concern identity and purity.   Additives introduce the potential for widely varying flavours, narrowing the boundary between diversity, which we want, and divergence, which we don’t.  When I buy yoghurt (read brandy), I want something that tastes and feels like yoghurt, not like milk or cream (read grappa or pisco).  It gives me the context in which I can root and understand my appreciation.  South African brandy regulates its additives precisely, sufficiently one would hope to preclude this risk, but it may not be the case elsewhere.  Canadian whisky’s only real limit to the extent to which permitted additives can be used is a clause stipulating that it should have an “aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky” i.e. it depends on an organoleptic evaluation, which can’t be objective or consistent.

During my meeting at Distell, I was given five brandies to nose and taste: Flight of the Fish Eagle, the potstill component from Klipdrift Premium, Oude Meester 12YO, Van Ryn’s 12YO unfiltered, and a Van Ryn’s 47YO, none of which employ bonificateurs, the intention being to show me these aren’t necessary to make great brandies.  If I needed any convincing, then this did the trick in spades, the experience of the two Van Ryn’s being a particular privilege.  The 12YO is not available for purchase unfiltered, which is a shame, its usual bold fruity flavours being amplified to gigantic, and the 47YO, an intense, dead-in-your-tracks eruption of  nuanced complexity, is not marketed at all…yet.  I had not long before also tasted the Van Ryn’s 27YO, a big, boisterous, irresistible hug of toasted oak and dried fruit, which was also confirmed additive-free.   A pattern was beginning to emerge – from these Distell learnings and from elsewhere.  Potstill brandies and more mature brandies typically don’t use bonificateurs.  When I asked Johan Venter if he wished this allowance didn’t exist, his response was “horses for courses”.  Whilst it’s a deduction supported by constrained information – I’m entirely aware that I haven’t tasted this Pierian spring – it makes sense that these horses would be most needed on courses where the muscle of pot distillation and maturation is inhibited i.e. blended brandies.

VR27YO

The best will always be the best, and with additives, in some cases like Scotch (and its flavouring agents), maybe even more so. There’s also no doubt that our best brandies are exceptional.  The additives allowance – on the face of all available evidence – has not been necessary for this splendid outcome.  It may be the case however that the worst may be worse than would have been the case.  Like my hosts at Distell I personally don’t like the idea of papering over cracks that shouldn’t be there in the first place.  Equally, it may mean that pleasant brandies are available to us more cost effectively than would otherwise be possible.  You’ll have to take your own perspective.  One thing’s for sure though – most of my misgivings would be decisively expunged if (and will be when) the curtain is drawn back just a little further.

As it appeared: http://www.winemag.co.za/patrick-leclezio-how-widely-are-flavouring-agents-being-used-in-your-brandy/