Category Archives: Spirits column

My monthly spirits column in Prestige Magazine

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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The roads less travelled

A world of liquor.  A world in liquor.  PATRICK LECLEZIO unearths a few lesser known spirituous gems.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Drinks are more than just drinks.  The typical person doesn’t really think about it but one’s enjoyment of a drink goes beyond the liquid itself, and the value that this offers in isolation.  Context is important, the intangible elements with which it is associated are important, which is why untold millions are spent on engineering and augmenting context, on creating these little worlds in which you the drinker experiences the drink – from its story and its rationale, and its packaging and its advertising, to the perception of yourself that it frames for you.  These machinations though often take inspiration from what is already there. I take great relish from a drink’s pure and natural context.  All over the world drinks have evolved in response to and in harmony with their environment, to become a portal into a history, a culture, and a way of life.  The pleasure in a drink is often irrespective of the liquid.  So put aside your regular beverage, step out your routine, and open yourself up to a different world, to a holiday abroad every time you have a drink.  Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Anise liquors

Anise (or Aniseed) is a flowering plant native to the Eastern Mediterranean, the fruit of which, or rather its essential oil – called anethole, is used to flavour a variety of spirits indigenous to the region.  The best known and most widely consumed are pastis, ouzo and raki, in France, Greece, and Turkey and Greece respectively.   The distinctive licorice-like flavour is somewhat polarising, but even if you don’t have a ready affinity for it (and I count myself in that number) it can be immensely satisfying.  The typical serve – diluted with water over ice – is a revelation:  I would struggle to find something to compete on the basis of sheer refreshment.  These are drinks that obviously evolved to douse the throat and quench the thirst during the hot summer months in the Mediterranean basin…perhaps when sitting in a little family-owned café, overlooking the sea, eating a few dolmades whilst waiting for a freshly caught fish to be served.  Or at least that’s the world you’ll experience when you sample these drinks.  Their other, equally distinctive feature is a transformation in appearance to a cloudy, milky colour when mixed with water.  This reaction is known as spontaneous emulsification or, more memorably, as the Ouzo effect.  This Lion’s Milk (as the raki version is known in Turkey) notwithstanding, these drinks have some versatility: I was recently in Crete, where raki is also served a digestif shot, complimentary (!) at the end of a meal in many places.  A great way to end to a Greek meal.

Baijiu

I must confess that when I hear the word “byejo” (as it is pronounced) it strikes fear in my heart.  I first encountered the stuff at dinner with a supplier in central China.  I was incited to throw it back to loud shouts of “gan-bei”, the Chinese equivalent of cheers, which literally means drink it all.  At 48 to 56% ABV (and sometimes even higher), with a flavour that needs protracted acquisition to an uninitiated Western palate, and when introduced to you with frenzied drinking, baijiu can be intimidating.  But it’s worth persisting.  Chalking up an estimated half a billion nine-litre cases in sales, it is easily the world’s biggest spirits category, so with millions upon millions of Chinese drinking it, and having drunk it or its antecedents for thousands of years, it’s clear that it’s something worthwhile.  And yet it’s almost unknown outside of that country, even now in the post isolation era.  How ironic that the world’s most plentiful spirit is also one of its most obscure. The stuff is made using a variety of grains, primarily sorghum, although rice is also used in some regions, and it is categorised by fragrance, with varieties ranging from the “sauce”, with a character resembling soy sauce, to “phoenix”, which is earthy and fruity.  It is served warm or at room temperature and usually as an accompaniment to a meal.  Interestingly Baijiu is aged in large earthenware pots, a process which I would think is of dubious value for distilled liquor.  So whist you shouldn’t be fooled into buying the older, premium priced varieties – do keep a bottle at hand for raucous, banqueting celebrations, Chinese style!

Cachaça

There are few cocktails that compare to Brazil’s caipirinha.  The exquisite taste both belies and credits the simplicity of the ingredients – lime, sugar and cachaça.  I find many cocktails to be frivolous, but then there are those that bring such weight of tradition and meaning to bear as to be undeniable.  If you haven’t had one, then make it your mission to correct the oversight.  Despite its similarity to rum and specifically to rhum agricole, both are made from sugarcane juice, cachaça is its own unique spirit with a distinctive, funky, evocative flavour.  It’s a beach, a party, and a party on a beach (in the best Brazilian style), all inside the confines of nine ounce rocks glass.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect to cachaça and a hint to its one-of-a-kind flavour profile is that it’s matured in a variety of woods, including the exotic sounding amendoim, jequitibá and umburana, unlike other fine spirits which employ oak exclusively.  It’s thin on the ground in South Africa, but the excellent Germana, an artisanal, pot distilled cachaça in a distinctive banana leaf wrapped bottle, can be found here and there.

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The full kit

Primed and ready for action.  PATRICK LECLEZIO gets to grips with stocking the right spirituous gear.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

I don’t consider myself to be a materialistic.  I don’t covet for the sake of it.  I’m not a shiny new toy type of person.  I do subscribe though to the philosophy that I must have what I need for what I want to do.   There is a certain comfort, a fulfilment, a confidence in being properly equipped.   Maybe it’s a lingering impetus from Boy Scout times – Be prepared! – or maybe it’s a harking back to that first-day-of-school, new-uniform-and-stationery (full set!), ready-to-face-the-world feeling that made such a deep impression, or  maybe it’s just an innate striving for completeness.  It just is – and if attended to it makes the endeavour more enjoyable.  When I’m out running on a cold and wet Cape winter morning, I find that it’s more agreeable if I’m wearing my dedicated rain jacket, rather than trying to get by with something makeshift.  If you’re going to do something, be ready to do it properly – this goes for drinking and entertaining, like anything else.   Here’s how you go about it.

Your personal repertoire will dictate what you need, but I’m going to steer a course suited to the well-rounded, gregarious bon vivant.

Strategy

You’ll want to be able to serve beers and ciders, wines, sparkling wines, fortified wines, a range of spirits, and a few cocktails.  Our focus here will be on what you need for spirits, but I mention the others because there’s no point in being well fortified (no pun intended…well maybe a little bit) over here, and leaving your defences gaping over there.  Your equipment requirements will need to cover bar tools and glassware, and, whilst not equipment in the strict sense of it, the drinks and their ingredients shouldn’t be overlooked.

Bar tools

Tot measure

Even if you’re a free pour type of person you’ll need this for controlling proportions when mixing up a cocktail.  You might also find that the occasional guest will want regulated portions, especially in these days of heightened awareness about drink driving.  I recommend the version with both single and double measure combined – it’ll save time and hassle with continued use.  In bar speak these things are known as jiggers.

Cocktail shaker

There are two common types: the regular three-part Cobbler shaker and the two-part Boston shaker.  The latter is more theatrical but also more messy and difficult to use – especially as intended without a strainer.  The third option for cocktail preparations is a mixer, where you would use a large, robust glass (effectively one half of the Boston shaker), a spoon, and a strainer.  I favour the latter option, the stirred-not-shaken style of cocktail execution, particularly for my favoured drinks: there’s less risk of over-dilution or aeration (i.e. lots of bubbles on the surface).

 Spoon

The typical bar spoon is of an extended length, to enable you to easily reach to the bottom of a cocktail shaker or a tall glass.  This can make it cumbersome to wash and store.  I would recommend a telescopic spoon, which can be extended to the desired length for any conceivable purpose, and then contracted to store easily.

Ice-crusher

If you like ice with your spirits then this is an essential bit of kit.  One of the problems with ice is that it introduces uncontrolled dilution into a drink, which is stronger when the ice is added, and gradually weaker as the ice melts.  Crushed ice allows the addition of a measured volume of ice (conveniently using a measuring spoon), and it melts far quicker than cubed ice, giving a more consistent drinking experience.

Muddler

Optional, depending on what cocktails you’ll be making.  I’m contracting myself (as far as the use of makeshift equipment goes), but for occasional use you can get away with a heavy spoon in its absence.

Squeezer

Also optional, if your concoctions call for lemon or lime juice in particular, the former being better fresh, the latter being almost impossible to find.

Ice-buckets

You’ll need two sizes: a small one for dispensing ice, and a large one for chilling a bottle (wine of course, but also useful for vodka and tequila).

Jugs

Two sizes also needed here: a small one for dispensing water for spirits, and a large one to mix cocktails in party batches.

Glassware

Styles

These are the basic requirements: tumbler, highball or zombie (tall glass), and nosing, balloon, and shot glasses, and optionally martini and margarita glasses.  It’s all in the mind of course but it just feels better to be drinking the right drink from the right glass.  If you’re a GnT fan you may also want to consider copa de balon glasses (the Spanish style balloon glass on a long stem).

Quality

I have two sets of martini glasses:  one that’s from one of the local homeware stores, undoubtedly of Chinese provenance, perfectly serviceable but uninspiring, and one that’s made by the German manufacturer Schott Zwiesel.  I remarked the other day than unless I’m hosting a large gathering the former remains unused.  I just unconsciously gravitate towards the other.  The shape, the balance, the surface texture and the general glass quality are all superior, and it makes a difference to my enjoyment of the drinking experience.  I’ve subsequently bought their wine and whisky glasses, with similar results in satisfaction.  You don’t need labour-intensive crystal necessarily, unless that’s your thing, but it’s worth investing in quality glassware.

Drinks and ingredients

Spirits

The stocking principle which I’d advise is to achieve a good balance between choice and excess.  You should try to have at least two options of all the major spirits, but a depth of selection for at least two types, specifically those where flavour diversity is expected – such as whisky and gin.  Over and above I’d also suggest you also have a few exotic spirits available – cassis, amaretto, calvados, and cachaça for instance are both intriguing and delicious.

Mixers

You’ll almost certainly need tonic, soda and cola, and obviously others may be required depending on your particular taste and that of your guests.  I’d recommend keeping a supply of tomato juice (bloody mary / virgin mary), ginger ale (versatile for brown spirits), lemonade (rock shandy), and bottled water (unchlorinated water for adding to brown spirits) at hand.

Other ingredients

The last considerations are garnishes and cocktail ingredients.  The most versatile garnishes are lemon and lime, which can be used in drinks ranging from a GnT and a martini to a cuba libre and a tequila shooter.  So they’re critical.  The rest will be driven by the cocktails that you intend to mix and offer.  You should specialise in a few cocktails, which will come to represent your own particular signature style.  My personal favourites are the martini (vermouth and olives or lemon needed) and the margarita (triple sec, sea salt and lime), but I’m also partial to the odd caiparinha (sugar and lime) and mohito (mint, lime and sugar).   Let the fun begin.

 

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Maturing tequila

An everlasting youth.  PATRICK LECLEZIO touches base with an old friend.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

In the movie Betty Blue, there’s a memorable scene in which Zorg, one of the principal characters, mixes shots of alcohol with a carbonated beverage in a glass, that he then wraps in a napkin and pounds on the table, inducing an explosion of fizziness, before downing the mixture.  It was a slammer of course, one of the many epically, vigorously festive drinks which tequila has bestowed upon us, and at the time it struck a deep chord; I had to get out there and give it a try at the soonest opportunity.  And so began my tempestuous friendship with tequila.  Twenty odd years later I feel that I’ve grown up (somewhat), but that tequila hasn’t – all dressed up it can look the part, but at heart it’s still stuck in its twenties, ready to tear it up given the faintest nudge.  We’re still friends, we still indulge in the occasional big night (and still there’s no-one who’s more fun in these instances!), but I’m reluctant to invite tequila to an elegant adult gathering for fear of intimidating my other friends or for risk of trashing the event?  Its illustrious, outrageous exploits may just have pigeonholed it for life.

The success of tequila is hinged in my opinion on three factors.  Firstly, the incipience of the mythical “tequila buzz”, a widely believed-in phenomenon despite having with no scientific basis –alcohol is alcohol, differing only in flavour so this can only be explained psychosomatically, as a self-fulfilling prophecy – has been a powerful influence on the cult of the drink.  Secondly, tequila has cornered the market on ritualised drinking.  Shots with lemon, lime and salt, body shots, shots with oranges segments, “no hands no faces”, slammers, and all manner of other customised practices – I’ve even participated in some involving raw eggs and physical abuse (don’t ask).  These all form a largely universal party language that everyone wants to speak and can only be understood with tequila.  Thirdly, tequila is the base of one of the world’s most popular cocktail: the margarita, an incredibly tasty, versatile drink, made with tequila, lime juice, triple sec and salt, that seems to suit just about every moment – lunch, dinner, smart, casual, summer, winter, and everything in between.

These forces have propelled tequila into our consciousness, where it lives a large but limited life.  It is a party drink, a carousing, revelling, raucous, rioting drink.  Yet, the older tequila, that friend who never quite grew up, has all the potential, the proven potential, to be a responsible, sophisticated member of society.   Tequila is made using the heart of the blue agave plant, an unusual medium for alcohol, which tends to be made from grains or fruits, and then distilled primarily in alembic stills made from copper or with copper components. There are five basic types of tequila which result: Blanco, unmatured or minimally matured tequila – which is what is mostly used for margaritas; Gold, effectively Blanco with some colouring, the stuff that created the legend; Reposado, aged a minimum of two months (in oak barrels); Anejo, aged a minimum of a year (in small oak barrels), and Extra Anejo, aged a minimum of three years.  These latter categories, the Extra in particular (added in 2006 for this very purpose), are the face of respectable tequila.  The guy who has trimmed his hair, put on a good suit, and gets to work on time in the morning, and whose rough edges have been smoothed away (in multiple senses).  I like him, I like that he’s trying, I can’t fault his efforts, but somehow I just can’t take him seriously enough in this alternative guise.

I recently took two tequilas out for a spin.  I relived some youthful moments with Sauza Blanco, a couple of slammers for old time’s sake, and a margarita, to which I’m still partial.  This is the tequila I know and love.  There’s a certain magic to the flavour, general to tequila, and faithfully represented by the Sauza – it’s repulsively attractive on its own (after you get to know it better), and outright delicious in thoughtful combinations, as in a margarita.  There’s a uniqueness to it that you just won’t come close to finding with any other spirit.  My second outing was with Patron Anejo – from the cleverly crafted range Patron Spirits, which you may or may not know was founded by shampoo-guy Paul Mitchell.  Yes, you can sip it.  You can see that this is the direction in which it’s going.  The richness and mellowness of the cask maturation is apparent, but I still found myself shooting it, albeit without the need for any kind of fruit to follow.  The Anejo is still a bit on the young side, but it shows enough to validate tequila’s claim to the status of fine spirit.  Habits are habits though, and this is the nub of it:  whilst the fundamentals may be in place the perception will take longer to shift.

Given enough time you can reinvent yourself.  I’m not sure though that I want my friend tequila to change though.  In fact I think I need this friend to stay true to what I know it to be as a connection to that part of myself that might otherwise get lost.  We may not hang out as often as we used to but it’s good to know that we can if we want to.  Everyone has to have a friend like tequila.  Adios for now amigos.

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A diamond in the rough

Prospecting in rum.  Patrick Leclezio tracks a spirituous revelation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2016 edition).

In 2005 whilst living in Italy I discovered rum.  I’d been stumbling over it for a while of course, drinking mixed rums – typically in the fabled Cuba Libre style – but I’d never picked it up, dusted it off, held it to the light and given it proper consideration.  My prior experience of it had pigeonholed the spirit as something agreeable but limited, like a friend with whom you have just the one thing in common, which once exhausted leaves nothing much else that’s engaging.  My awakening, in the little bars of Trastevere in Rome, where the forerunning Latin appreciation for the drink had already been given unrestrained expression, exposed me to a sleeping giant.  In products like Appleton’s 21YO, Pampero Anniversario, Barbancourt, and Zacapa Centenario (these were the days before Diageo’s misguided attempt to fashion the thing into a cocktail base), I felt I’d seen a glimpse of the future.  Ten odd years later this future has finally arrived in the country.   Stay with me as I draw open the curtains.

Rum is a spirit with a colourful history, but with associations I feel that have held back its graduation to the upper echelons attained by its peers.  The reference to pirates, sailors, navvies and the like has evoked images of adventure, fun and daring-do, dominant themes in how rums have portrayed themselves and been perceived, but the potential for elegance and style has been largely overlooked, ignored, and overshadowed in the process.  No longer. The era of “sipping rums”, rums that have been judiciously produced and significantly matured, that can be drunk neat or with a dash of water, and that would not be amiss if served in a gentleman’s club, has been dawning, albeit slowly.  It’s been a bit of a drawn out, extended, impatient wait but today there is a satisfying-enough number of these rums available on the South African market.  This is great news, dare I say cause for raucous celebration (ok, refined celebration) for those of us who love fine spirits, in that it both confers a previously unknown abundance and variety of flavour to our drinking repertoires, and in that it does so for remarkable value; that the price of rum compares favourably with that of whisky and cognac is a gross understatement.

There are challenges certainly: rum, to be blunt, is all over the show.  The industry is fragmented; there are no unifying standards (often even within individual territories); there is no concerted and coordinated effort at consumer education, worrying at a time when consumers are thirsty (yes, sorry) for information and more discriminating than ever before; access to and depth of information, for those aficionados who are looking to self-educate is sketchy; and, for many of the reasons listed, the perceived integrity of rum in relative terms is sorely lacking – why, as an example, does Zacapa get to label a rum with the age of its oldest component when Appleton denotes theirs with the age of the youngest?  Surely this can’t be good for the wider category?  The flip side is that rum producers have incredible freedom.  Column stills, pot stills, both, liberal maturation – almost anything goes, all without constraints.  With a sparsity of rules and regulations comes both the risk of consumer confusion and frustration, and scope for incredible creations.

I had the opportunity recently to evaluate side by side all the major players contesting our attention locally.  The standard bearers for rum have long been the historically intertwined Bacardi and Havana Club, although the latter has only more recently manifest itself as a global brand.  The former’s 8YO and the latter’s 7YO are both plump, juicy drinks, ironically quite similar, with a pleasing fruitiness, perhaps pineapple, on the palate, and a long finish.  They may not be intricately complex, which I’m pretty sure is not the intention anyhow, but they’re solid, dependable and, most importantly, enjoyable.  From stalwarts to upstarts.  My guiding principle in analysing global spirits is that a premium brown spirit cannot be successful without heritage.  One of the most striking and impressive exceptions is the barrier-breaking Patron Spirits Company.  They’ve again broken the mould with Pyrat – its liquid has such a pronounced orange flavour that some rum commentators suspected added flavouring.  In fact the rum is finished in casks that had previously held orange liqueur, the only such instance of which I’m aware.  It may not be everyone’s ration of grog but its two strokes of silky citrus and bitter tang are simple and effective, at least for my taste.  Pair it with a few squares of dark chocolate as a digestif.  Also out of ordinary is Inverroche’s 7YO rum.  Next time I’m drifting down the coast I’ll stop in specifically to explore how this is put together.  All rums are made with cane (forgetting a few beet derived freaks) – either molasses or juice, so you’re pretty much be expecting a sugary profile.  The Inverroche rum is less sweet and more herbaceous – it is as distinct a rum as is available in the country.  Appleton, the venerable, long established Jamaican distillery, conversely, produces liquid that as typical as rum can be imagined to be.   Both its X/V and its 12YO display pungent molasses on the nose and ripe cane on the palate, as if you’d sunk your teeth into a stalk on the cusp of fermentation.   A rum’s rums, so to speak.

My favourites though, each of which glittered with the best of rum’s new sparkle, were those from Mount Gay, with which I could imagine myself to have endless entertaining conversations – the Black Barrel, syrupy and rich, maybe a factor of its heavily charred casks, with a peppery surprise on the finish, and the XO, subtle and sophisticated with notes of caramelised sugar and a juicy, mouth-coating fullness – and then, inevitably, the much beloved, and somewhat maligned Zacapa.  The suggestion has been made that Zacapa has declined in quality of late, since the reins changed hands, but if this is true then I wasn’t able to detect it.  It remains the complex, layered, gripping rum, brimming with sweet oak and sultanas, that I first tasted all those years ago.  The virgin press juice, the solera process, the variety of four different casks including Pedro Ximenex sherry, and the high altitude maturation constitute a winning formula.  It is outstanding, and it continues to be the herald of rum’s progressing journey to the pantheon.  Salud!

 

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Gindigenous

Hot on its heels. Patrick Leclezio tracks the local response to the global gin explosion.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2016 edition).

If there was even a slight hint of doubt about how searingly hot gin has become in the last few years it would be persuasively quelled by the extent of the local craft gin industry. I’d set out late last year with preparations for a review, which I’d hoped would be comprehensive, but my ambitions were thwarted by sheer numbers, and by what seemed like a constant stream of new entrants. My selection was eventually limited to nine, resulting in a mix of the more established, the new, and the brand new – in practical, manageable proportions; but keep in mind that there are a lot of others out there, with more joining by the day. There’s a gin heaven manifesting itself in South Africa and the gates are wide open. Join me for a quick tour.

It can be difficult to make any kind of systematic sense of gin. There are so few objective rules, and so much potential for variation. Juniper is ostensibly intended to be the dominant flavour – the word gin is in fact a derivative of juniper – but this has become doubtful (and somewhat controversial) in recent times, as new gins have been increasingly pushing the boundaries in attempts to carve out distinctive niches for themselves. Resistant purists claim that without the strong juniper a gin is simply a flavoured vodka. It’s a classic conflict between innovation and tradition. In fairness this was a regulation that was crying out of be trampled. How do you legislate flavour? Action may need to be taken though to tighten things up, such is the pace of developments – a subject for another time. Our local legislation is less prescriptive, simply calling for the presence of juniper amongst the botanicals, but not specifying anything further. The result is a whole new style of “African” gins – based on the use of indigenous ingredients – in which juniper is either receded into the background, or in fact entirely undetectable. I’ve had my nose in a big pot of juniper extract on more than one occasion so I’m confident that I’m familiar with its pine-y flavour – enough to identify its reticence. Anyhow, despite this departure, these gins are nonetheless is unmistakeably gin, in the nature and composition of its other botanicals.

The two most long established brands are the well-tractioned Inverroche, which has entrenched itself as the country’s flagship craft gin, and the more reclusive Jorgensen’s. The three variants of the former – Classic, Verdant and Amber – and two variants of the latter – its eponymous gin and saffron gin, were assessed for this review. The Inverroche Classic sets the benchmark for the profile of a fynbos based gin. Its base of cane spirits redistilled with limestone fynbos botanicals imparts peppery and savoury flavours – creating an interesting, edgy drink that’s likely to find favour with those who prefer their gins in the Beefeater mould. Jorgensen’s by comparison has a fuller, richer flavour – with hints of its grape base peeking through. I used it in a martini on whim, yielding impressive results, the only detraction being that it maybe lacks the “sessionability” (the dubious advisability of sessionable martini drinking is noted) of something softer. But that’s a question of personal taste. The other Inverroche variants use different recipes of botanicals, mountain fynbos for Verdant, coastal fynbos for Amber, whatever these might mean, as well as undisclosed fynbos infusions, resulting in gins that are substantially contrasted to the Classic and to each other. Most importantly both combine astoundingly well with tonic – not something that I say lightly. Jorgensen’s Saffron is a more subtle deviation from its parent – likely because the distillate used is the same, or very similar. Distillation is a dark art, one which I don’t pretend to fully understand, but what knowledge I have has made me partial to copper pot distillation – the method used by both Jorgensen’s and Inverroche – as a superior attributor of flavour. Whether this is justified or not it’s a preconception that’s certainly borne out by the well-crafted depth of flavour in these two gins.

The other bookend comprises newcomers to the scene in the form of Musgrave and Blind Tiger gins, the latter yet-to-be-launched. Musgrave is a bold gin that is African in both theme and flavour. Its broad and pronounced ginger flavour is derived from its use of African ginger as a prominent botanical. Less pronounced but discernible nonetheless is the cardamom – I’m a big fan of spicy tea, so I was particularly pleased with its inclusion. Blind Tiger occupies what seems like a separate space from its local peers, and from the defining local style. It is softer, sweeter, and more classical, more international. It also packs some additional value at 46% ABV, which shouldn’t be overlooked.  The in-betweeners are two variants from the Woodstock Gin Company. I found them to be little spirity, with flat flavours, but this may be unfair, especially since they were evaluated alongside more premium priced gins. Apples and oranges. The one is made from barley spirit and the other from a grape spirit – but both from the same recipe, offering fascinating insight into the influence of that base spirit. Worth checking out on that basis alone.

This burgeoning story of local gin is vibrant and inspiring, and hopefully it’ll continue to instil interest and gather momentum. The scene has been set, and the narrative has been populated with an expanding cast of compelling characters – refer to the handy table adjacent for a plot summary. It’s safe to say I’d venture that you can look forward to a persisting and varying injection of quality liquid for your GnT’s and your martinis. May the botanicals be with you.

Craft gin - MASTER information sheet v2

Prestige Feb 2016 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Feb 2016 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.

Rocking the repertoire

Entertaining with spirits.  A rough guide by Patrick Leclezio.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

Prestige Spirits Dec 2015 p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Spirits Dec 2015 p2

As it appeared – p2.

So you’re hosting a dinner and you’re fussing over the wine. Chenin with the fish. Or maybe a Chardonnay. And then a robust Shiraz with the fillet. Cool, sorted. Well, no, not really. Don’t feel bad though. This is a trap into which you’re easily ensnared. It’s become bizarrely commonplace to spend time and effort (and money!) selecting great wines for our guests, whilst then at the same time absentmindedly relying on whatever happens to be around, or perhaps just grabbing a six-pack or two, for the balance of the beverages. I’ve lost count of the occasions during which I’ve been disappointed by an absence of whisky, or gin, or been elated to find some gin, only to be told that there’s no tonic (vermouth – forget it!)…and that’s without even delving into the less popular drinks. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

And that’s that it doesn’t make sense. It is illogical, for three reasons. Firstly, the time spent eating is actually in the minority. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy wine before or after the meal – but there are so many spirits out there that are considerably more interesting for the purpose. It brooks no argument that more attention can and should be devoted to making your guests happier during the larger part of their time with you. Secondly, if you harbour ambitions as a good host, a complete and cultivated host, then you should be encouraging a repertoire in tastes, or at least catering for a variety thereof. We have an incredibly diverse heritage of drinks from which to draw, established over centuries, tried and tested, and evolved to suit a multiplicity of occasions and a range of palates. It seems positively uneducated to act in ignorance of these traditions. Lastly, very simply, without being silly about it, spirits are simply more fun than wine. There’s a reason they call it a dinner party. Don’t let yours get stuck on the first word.

Freddie Mercury memorably sang: I want it all and I want it now. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. You don’t need to open a bar. And for that matter you don’t need to do it my way. This isn’t rocket science though, and I’ve given it some thought, so why reinvent the wheel. There are four easy considerations: what you should serve before, during and after the meal, and what wildcards you should hold (apologies for being coy, an explanation will follow). This is how you should play it.

The drinks served before the meal are called aperitifs. You’ll be serving these on arrival, and typically with snacks, so they need to be both refreshing and lubricating. The primary (but not exclusive) focus then should be on drinks that are typically consumed with a mixer of some sort. An aperitif is usually dry for classical tastes, but there’ll also be preferences for sweet. Keep an array of the more popular spirits: gin, vodka, rum, brandy, and whisky, along with these mixers: tonic, soda, coke, lime cordial, ginger ale, and a juice, perhaps cranberry. Water of course, preferably bottled, so that your fine spirits aren’t tainted by the chlorine in tap water. I personally don’t opt for garnish, but many people do, so it’s advisable have lime and lemon available. These are only the basics of course. I’d further recommend that you offer some depth of choice for at least one of these spirits – any other than vodka, where intrinsic variety is close to meaningless, and that you be prepared to mix a cocktail or two – caipirinhas and martinis are less frivolous options. This opening period sets the tone for the evening – first impressions count as they say – so it’s essential that it be effective.

The opportunity may now present itself to throw a wildcard on the table – a round of shooters. This may sound juvenile, but how it’s received is all in the context and the execution. Who’s in the mix? What’s the prevailing mood? Is there cause for celebration? Shooters are your firestarter – be ready to deploy, but don’t do it unnecessarily. Read the situation. And as for the choice of shooter: frozen vodka. Its curious texture and its innocuous taste should find universal appreciation.

With the meal – wine, as rule with few exceptions. It’s become quite trendy to pair fine spirits such as whisky and brandy with food, but whilst this is plausible for experimental or promotional purposes, it’s not self-perpetuating. These spirits should only be marginally diluted (or you’ll lose their flavour) and as a result they’re not lubricating enough to accompany anything heavy. Dessert is an exception, with rich spirits serving well both as an accompaniment to the sweet flavours; try a well-matured brown spirit in particular, and as an ingredient, try a liberal dash of Chambord or crème de cassis – with just about anything.

Last but not least, the digestif, and the moment to cast a final impression, to seal the approval of those present, and, more importantly, to continue their enjoyment of the proceedings (as well as your own!). The obvious fare is cognac (or brandy) and whisky, but this is a chance to pull out another wildcard – something exotic. Offer your guests “un petit Calva”, or a sipping rum, or even an aged tequila.

You’ve now successfully avoided the wine tunnel-vision trap. Hopefully, as they’re reluctantly leaving, your partygoers would now be reflecting on the rich repertoire, on your superior hospitality, and on having shared an entertaining and fulfilling evening. You’ve unleashed the enormous spirituous potential. Let the good times roll. Chin chin.