Category Archives: Spirits column

My monthly spirits column in Prestige Magazine

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

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Rocking the repertoire

Entertaining with spirits.  A rough guide by Patrick Leclezio.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

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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.

The spirit of the game

A world cup is inevitably a time of reflection about how we approach our rugby.   Following this last iteration Patrick Leclezio prescribes how to get the most from your viewing.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2015 edition).

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I lost the plot during that fateful 2011 quarter-final. As in berserk. At the special viewing arranged for us by the hotel at which I was staying in Mauritius, attended by me and two Brits, I conducted myself in less than ambassadorial fashion. We lost both the game and a couple of potential tourists on that day. Reflecting on it now, I needed fortification. I needed the pleasantly tranquilising effect of a stiff drink. I don’t drink before 11am as a rule, so the time zones conspired against me on that occasion. This time I didn’t make the same mistake. The combination of rugby and liquor (enjoyed responsibly people…), apart from being a time honoured tradition, presents you, me and all bibulous fans with a win-win scenario. The highs are higher – oh that victory buzz! – and the lows are higher – the pain of defeat is cushioned in a warm haze. This year I set out to do it properly. I came up with a spirit pairing for some of the leading teams, so that I could enjoy the drink, the rugby, and a little slice of each country’s culture, all at the same time. It’s the ultimate rugby viewing template – for World Cups and for between World Cups. In the future, regardless of how we fare, I’m confident of some great memories, and being able to look back on tournaments and matches savoured to the fullest. Join me on my journey.

Argentina
There’s a bizarre category of drinks known as bitters, and, whilst the constituent products differ substantially one from another they’re typically a witch’s brew of herbaceous ingredients. One of the world’s best-selling bitters is Fernet Branca, for which the brand largely has Argentina to thank. The Argies love this stuff, knocking back millions of litres per year – with coke or soda, or neat as a digestif. These guys are a bit dodgy with their application of the laws – give them a clueless French referee and they’ll make hay till the final whistle blows – but one has to admire how their game has progressed, and the passion with which they play it. When they started bawling during the singing of their national anthem I was raising my glass of Fernet Branca to the West in salute.

Australia
“ I’ll have a Bundy mate”. Well, not exactly. I did want to make the effort for our Aussie cousins, and the fortuitous absence over here of their mainstay – the infamous Bundaberg Rum – greased this wheel for me. I’m not averse to the mix-with-coke variety of rum to which Bundaberg belongs, but I’d much rather partake of something a bit finer. So I joined them in rum-drinking rugby kinship with a few fingers of Ron Zacapa, the sugar-cane honey derived, high-altitude matured, petate-attired Guatemalan favourite. Now I just need to learn to sing Waltzing Matilda in Spanish…

England
After those feet in ancient times walked upon England’s mountains green they would have been grateful I’m sure for a cool, tall glass of Pimm’s – maybe on a pleasant pasture – to refresh and restore. There is no more quintessentially English drink. Garnished with strawberries to colour match the red rose on an England jersey, and entwined as it is with a setting of green English turf, it is an all-appropriate accompaniment to that country’s rugby endeavours.

France
French rugby is a bit hit and miss, much like the drink I’m advising for watching their matches. Pastis, an anise-flavoured (specifically using star anise as an ingredient), unmistakeably Mediterranean spirit, is one of France’s most popular drinks, particular in the south of the country – corresponding loosely (more east than west) to the area where rugby also predominates. It’s a cliché of French rugby that they either pitch up or they don’t. Similarly you either like the polarising anise flavour or you don’t. There’s limited choice in SA but Ricard pastis, bedrock of the eponymous liquor giant Pernod Ricard, is generally available in local stores. It’s usually mixed with chilled water and ice, resulting in an iconically cloudy, superbly refreshing liquid – best enjoyed whilst watching French rugby…or at a street-side café in Marseille.

Ireland
The most underrated style of whiskey, like its perennially underrated team, comes from Ireland. Single pot still is Ireland’s traditional style, a full bodied whiskey made from both malted and unmalted barley that inexplicably lost popularity at one time, but that’s now back with a test-match winning intensity. I recommend answering Ireland’s call with Green Spot, an orchard-in-a-bottle exponent that’ll transform your rugby viewing into a total sensory experience. It’s a great reason to catch as many of Ireland’s games as possible. The colour correspondence by the way is completely coincidental, but surprisingly pleasing nonetheless.

South Africa
Our flagbearing sports team and our signature spirit – it’s a union ordained by the sporting and spirituous gods. Rugby in this country is synonymous with brandy, particularly blended brandy, so I’ll signal my support accordingly – with one of the best blended brandies that I’ve yet had the opportunity to taste: the Carel Nel 15YO from Boplaas. Let’s hope we’ll be drinking it in more frequently victorious circumstances in the future.

The vodka phenomenon

Style over substance: how an unlikely, unassuming liquid took over the planet. Patrick Leclezio looks over the world’s most internationally popular spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

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It can be made from everything, it doesn’t look like anything, and it tastes like nothing. These aren’t attributes that you’d think would best recommend a drink. At least not at first glance. Looking more closely though they neatly explain both vodka’s success and its dominance. Originating in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, Europe’s “vodka belt” – Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Sweden and Finland have a particularly strong tradition – vodka is now made just about everywhere, and significantly drunk pretty much anywhere. Its popularity is unmatched. It beggars the question – how did this come to be?

Whisky is made from barley, bourbon is made from corn (primarily), rum from sugar cane derivatives (the molasses, the juice, the syrup), tequila from agave…I could go on. Most spirits are produced from a specific type of raw material, whatever was to be found in the area in which they originated, and to a large extent this has bound them to these regions. Vodka though differs in that it can be made from any vegetable matter. There is no legal restriction – although the “vodka war” of the early 2000’s pitted historic against new producers for this very reason, with the former seeking to restrict materials to the traditional: cereal grains, potatoes and sugar beets. The dispute was settled with a compromise that compelled vodkas made from other ingredients to declare it on the label, in Europe at least. The Cîroc label for instance follows the descriptor vodka with the words “distilled from fine French grapes”. In spite of this sideshow (and to a large extent having prompted the sideshow), there are significant, thriving vodkas made from all sorts of things. If it’s commercially viable you can be assured that somewhere someone is using it to make vodka. Equally, almost every territory has something within their agricultural resource base that can feasibly be applied to the production of vodka. The general upshot is that the spirit is cheap, plentiful and accessible, and wildly popular, wherever you might happen to be. If you make it they will come.

Sidebar

The stuff of leading vodkas

Belvedere – rye
Finlandia – barley
Ciroc – grapes
Skyy – wheat
Absolut – winter wheat
Grey Goose – wheat
Ketel One – wheat
Chopin – potatoes
Smirnoff 1818 – sugar cane

Moving then from inputs to the output, the results are similarly compelling. South African legislation dictates that vodka should not have “any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”. It’s a liquid that’s clear, and for the most part largely tasteless and odourless – those few vodkas that have managed to skirt this regulation have flavour profiles which it would be an overstatement to describe as subtle. I find it counter intuitive, paradoxical even, that a drink could be both banal and globally dominant, and yet this is precisely the case with vodka. Everything though is explainable, there logic to it:
Firstly, whilst it has the same (sometimes offensive) effects as any other spirit, of these vodka is the least inoffensive. It’s might not be politically correct to say it, but we drink liquor in large part for the effects of intoxication, although hopefully with a responsible rein on its extent. Vodka then is the consummate facilitator; with no edge – other than the alcohol, and no flavour funk, it’s smooth and universally palatable (if well distilled and filtered), and it’s easily masked – ease it into a mixer, or a cocktail and you won’t even know that it’s there. It’s a consistently reliable complement to your favourite flavours, and it’s crisp and fresh on its own. In a word – it’s easy.
Secondly, they say clothes maketh the man – I’m not sure I agree but clothes certainly maketh the vodka. It’s the ultimate branded spirit. With little to distinguish one vodka from another intrinsically, the attention has been very much focused on its extrinsic attributes – the name, the packaging, the image communication – which are out there for all to see and experience. Vodkas are explicitly and overtly designed to be loved by the demographic for which they’re intended, they are engineered. A cynical observation perhaps, but valid I think. And don’t knock it. People get satisfaction across all spirits and indeed all products from far more than just the raw product itself.

I consider whisky, rum and gin to be my favourite spirits. I’m also partial to brandy and cognac, and with a little more exposure I know I’d grow to love a Calva. I’m a flavour snob and these are diverse and interesting spirits. Vodka is not. And yet I buy it, I serve it and I drink it. On any given occasion there’ll be a bottle both behind my bar and in my freezer – ready for the versatile deployment of which it is uniquely capabable. It’s managed to find its way into even my unsympathic heart, such is its appeal. If it’s a rule that you can’t be all things to all people, then surely vodka must be the exception.

Painting the town red

The Mother’s Ruin episode. Patrick Leclezio reviews a seminal Cape Town nightspot.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

My ideal bar– if I could venture to describe it in these terms – would be something between the Korova milk bar from Clockwork Orange, and Cheers, the place where everybody knows your name: friendly and welcoming, but also interesting and verging towards the edgy. I’d obviously draw the line well before lacing drinks with narcotics, and the serving of minors, but you get the general drift… I hope. Anyhow, when a friend of mine started murmuring about opening a niche bar late last year, I felt that this might be the one. Mother’s Ruin was launched in December, to little fanfare, but in the space of a few short months it’s become one of Cape Town’s hottest bars.

You might have deduced from the name, especially if you have an interest in history, that this is a gin bar – notably Africa’s first specialist gin bar. Gin wasn’t always the high-brow drink that it is today – at one point in its less savoury past it was referred to as “mother’s ruin”, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. Mother’s Ruin the bar somehow isn’t hampered by this association, its harking back is quirky if anything, and a nod to the heritage of the spirit that it celebrates. Gin may have travelled a colourful road, but it has survived, it has flourished and, with its multitude of botanicals and flavour permutations, it has captured our contemporary imaginations. You could say circa 2015 that it’s the drink of the moment.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of Mother’s Ruin is what I’d also consider to be the most important feature of any bar focused on a particular drink – the selection (…in this case of gins, of course). The bar has racked up a still growing assemblage of some 90 odd varieties. The standards are all there of course – Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, and Gordon’s – but this is the type of place that offers an opportunity to cut loose and experiment. With exotic gins from all over Europe, from Kenya, from the United States, and with a fair few from within local reach, it’s got the makings a many a happy hour – you can read that any way you want – trying a bit of this and a bit of that.

Five gins to try at Mother’s Ruin:

1. Monkey 47
This fruity gin from the Black Forest in Germany chock-a-block with 47 different botanicals is as complex and layered a gin as I’ve ever tasted. A standout!

2. Gin Mare
With its principal botanicals being thyme, rosemary and olive, this is a Mediterranean gin indeed. Dirty martini baby.

3. Bombay Amber
Something strikingly different. Amber has been finished (in this case meaning matured for a short period) in French vermouth oak barrels, which is highly unusual for this typically unaged spirit.

4. Inverroche
The Inverroche gins from Stillbaai, Classic, Verdant and Amber, are the three best-selling gins at Mother’s Ruin. The people have voted – local is lekker. Be sure to also try Jorgensen’s gin and the gingery, spicy Musgrave gin.

5. No. 3
If you have classical taste then look no further. No. 3 strikes all the right juniper and citrus notes required in a great London Dry symphony.

Now, any gin bar worth its salt, no matter how good its collection, would need to engage in all the traditional deployments of this fine spirit: G and T’s, cocktails, and martinis (which I consider distinct from regular cocktails). Mother’s Ruin excels with each. The G and T’s are offered with a variety of tonics, from the standard (Schweppes, Fitch and Leedes) and the premium (Fever Tree, Fentimans), to the craft (Socks), and also with a variety of garnishes: if that means lemon or lime to you, then you’re clearly far too old school – the bar serves up mango (reckoned to be the pinnacle), grapefruit, cucumber, orange, rosemary, lemongrass, mint, and apple. Owner Mark Mulholland, a compulsive tinkerer with a food flavours background, has devised a cocktail menu that teams a few gin classics with his own imaginative creations – his “Klein Slaaitjie”, I won’t spoil the surprise, being the most popular. Last but not least, martinis are a serious business at Mother’s Ruin – twisted, dirty, perfect, the Vesper, they’re all represented, along with a constant stream of tweaks and experimentations. It’s a rich vein of conversation here – with suggestions and ideas welcome as they strive to create the ultimate martini. I should flag that they unfortunately subscribe to the Bond approach – minus points, so if you don’t want to risk an overdiluted, aerated affair, be sure to specify that you want yours stirred. On the plus side I spotted a few bottles of genuine French vermouth (Dolin) on my last visit – a rare treat in South Africa. Get some of it whilst stocks last.

Mother’s Ruin is nestled at the top of Bree Street, in an expanding, upmarket, vibrant nightlife district, where it’s kept company by Orphanage, Odyssey, and a few other bustling restaurants. It’s a must-visit venue for all gin loving gadabouts. See you there.