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From one whisky to another

Painting the town a golden amber. Patrick Leclezio looks back at 2015’s whisky calendar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

Prestige Whisky Dec 2015 p1

As it appeared – p1 (except with whisky spelling corrected).

Prestige Whisky Dec 2015 p2

As it appeared – p2.

It’s been another lively period on the scene. Year-in year-out South Africa offers a wide variety of interesting diversions to the whisky devotee, from festivals and shows, to dinners and launches, with fanciful and sometimes extravagant events in between. We are one of the world’s largest (and still growing) markets for Scotch whisky. This pretty much ensures a continuous cycle of activity. There’s little I enjoy more than drinking whisky, but one of those things is drinking whisky with other people who enjoy little more than drinking whisky. If you’re one of those then it’s worth keeping your eyes and ears open, and staying abreast of the possibilities. These were the highlights from 2015. May the dram be with you.

The Wade Bales Wine & Whisky Affair

This is one of my not-to-be-missed favourites. I’m almost never ill, but in 2013 I managed to contract a 24-hour virus concurrent to this event, and I was absent as a consequence. The regret still hangs over me like a pall. Its eponymous founder is a wine specialist, but he’s fluently extended the “affair” into whisky, and he gives it enough focus for the result to be meaningful. It is an outstanding show in every respect: well-catered, I particularly enjoy the enormous parmesan wheel which makes an annual appearance (I hope I’m not jinxing it), relaxed and elegant, it draws a fun-loving but refined crowd, and diverse, the association with wine is natural, beneficial, and convenient, giving you the rare advantage most especially to attend with friends who may not particularly like whisky (yes, there are such people, unlikely as it may seem). I love the ambiance of the occasion – it affords the opportunity to engage, with the various whiskies’ representatives, and with other whisky lovers, without having to battle a crowd.

Checkers single casks

Earlier this year the retail juggernaut launched the latest batch in its series of single cask whiskies. Single casks, as the name implies, are single malts drawn from a single cask. One style, one source, one cask – they epitomise the romance of whisky. With each expression limited to no more than some 600 bottles, the Checkers range represent a golden (and in SA virtually unique) opportunity to sample a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness. I had a few reservations about some of the previous offerings but these latest few variants are a step ahead, mostly sourced directly from the distillery owners, which is a good indication both of quality and of the group’s expanding influence in the industry. Expect more in the years to come.

Three Ships PX finish

It’s been an open secret for some time that Three Ships (and Bain’s) Master Distiller Andy Watts has been busily cultivating some extra special whiskies. This year, prompted by a Twitter campaign – #DistellAreYouListening – orchestrated by blogger Mark Hughes and whisky luminary Marsh Middleton, distillery owner Distell duly stepped up and decided to release one of these onto the market. We were witness thus to a shot across the bows of whisky’s big boys (ok, maybe not quite that dramatic) with the launch of the heraldic Three Ships single cask PX finish – a vatting of Three Ships whiskies finished in a single Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The whisky is deliciously well crafted of course, but, more importantly, it signals the advent of a brave new era in South African whisky-making.

Whisky Live

Albeit under new management this year, and having weathered some challenges in the past this whisky extravaganza continues unabated, testament to the value of the concept, the skill of the organisers, and the substantial public appetite for whisky and whisky entertainment. There have been events in Cape Town, Durban and Soweto (and plans for the smaller cities as well) but the flagship event in Sandton is a beast of a spectacle that dwarfs all the others; it is reputed to be the single biggest whisky show in the world. I was invited this year to host The Glenlivet’s Dram Room, a quiet-ish (nothing escapes the bagpipe music!) pod set apart from the throng, where I had the privilege of talking whisky with small groups of fellow enthusiasts. It kept me busy but on my occasional excursions into the main hall the pulsing heartbeat of whisky love was overwhelmingly in evidence. If you haven’t attended before (or even if you have) then make a point of it next year. It’s a scarce chance, for relatively little outlay, to taste a wide range of top class whiskies, speak to the experts, and share in the communion.

Keepers of the Quaich banquet

After years of deliberation I finally decided to take the plunge and get a kilt. It was made for me by Staghorn, South Africa’s only Scottish Outfitters, in the tartan I’m proud to say of the Breton town from which my ancestors originated. Kilt in hand I now needed an occasion to wear it, and there’s no better time and place, the baking late-November weather notwithstanding, than at the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich. The Keepers is an invitation-only society, intended to serve the interests of Scotch whisky, and into which members are inducted on the basis of their service to Scotch whisky. With its convocation of Highlands attired guests, its pipe bands, its haggis, its Burns recital and its generous lashings of whisky, this is truly the feast of feasts for South Africa’s whisky folk. The guest of honour at this year’s function was industry legend James Espey, the founder of the society, and the man behind landmark products such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Malibu, a special treat.

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The song of the single cask

How bias governs the malt universe, and why it doesn’t matter. Patrick Leclezio runs the rule over blended malts, single malts, vintages and single casks.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2015 edition).

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p2.

As it appeared p2.

With whisky there is the spirit and then there is the story. And make no mistake the story is important. In his bestselling book on cognitive biases: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli explains that people have an innate need to seek the meaning in or the understanding of a thing through the vehicle of a story – something he calls the ‘story bias’. A narrative – a suggested meaning – that may be irrelevant or inconsequential to the underlying matter, such as the concept of single malt is to the actual, real quality of the whisky for instance, can nonetheless be found to be irresistible and compelling. Whisky lovers, as much as we’d want to deny it, are not immune to this logical lapse – but whether it’s a problem in this sphere, ignoring the ostensible exploitation of pricing by producers, is less evident. I’ve always found that even if certain factors don’t affect the liquid they may well indirectly influence a person’s perception of the liquid. This is whisky after all, not the Matrix – we’re not being deceived so much as inspired.

Have you thought about the differences between blended malts and single malts? I mean really thought about it. The malt whisky universe is categorised into four types: blended malts and single malts, as a start, and then the latter further into “regular” single malts, vintages, and single casks. Typically, all other things being equal, pricing tends to correspond to the order that I’ve listed, because that’s the order in which they’re valued by whisky buyers. Yet, as much as we see these types as distinct, there’s no actual physical difference between any of them. They’re all made from the same ingredients (malted barley), using much the same production and maturation processes (specifically the copper potstills and oak casks that are so important to the flavour). The difference is only in the story – and what a lyrical story it is.

The concept of single malt is rooted in its unique source and single point of origin. This is the theme that drives its story – although, as an aside, it’s worth nothing that some have strayed slightly from the script: many distilleries don’t mature on site. It goes something like this (in my own words, no insincerity meant, the tangible reality notwithstanding, I believe it and I intend it). These whiskies embody a singular terroir and style: their unique stills, their local water, their people, focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part multiple generations in the making, their heritage, and indeed their very air, the breath in their casks, set single malts apart from other whiskies. They are pure, distinctive, rare and limited – and bound to their birthplace – and each individual single malt is a critical point, one of many, on the map that makes whisky the great, complex, varied, and much-loved spirit that it is today.
These are the melodic sounds that have catapulted single malts deep into the popular imagination. It’s not much considered by the casual whisky drinker but in fact most single malts are in fact blended (or, more correctly, “vatted”) – different casks of different wood from different years can be and are typically used, to give the blender enough range to maintain flavour consistency from one bottle to the next. The succeeding verses, whilst more specialised, are in much the same vein. Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only whisky distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings. Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded. The appeal of the vintage plotline is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. The outstanding Balblair distillery offers outstanding exponents of vintage whisky – with subtle, interesting variations of their primary philosophy of bourbon cask maturation, to the odd wild deviation, such as the excellent sherry matured 1990. The final type, the single cask, is the apex, the chorus: one source, one year, one cask…(although these can be double matured or finished). The ties to its heritage, always important if not definitive with whisky, are particularly strong here – single casks explain its history. They are the origins of the story, whisky at its  purest and most unadulterated.

All of this though is pure romance. There is nothing that a single malt can do, that a blended malt cannot do better. In fact as one moves up the value trajectory, from blended malts to regular single malts, and then to vintages and single casks, as a whisky maker one becomes increasingly limited. In terms of the hard science this inflating status is counter intuitive. Blended malts can summon all of the intrinsic advantages of the others, and then can add to these – by calling on its blender’s palette, at least in theory – an unlimited potential for variety and complexity.

I challenge you however to name ten blended malts, off the top of your head. You’ll struggle. Five? The fact is that there’s just no story. No quaint distillery, no home in a craggy corner of Scotland, and no shiel-wielding old-timers, working the same malt as their grandfathers, and their great-grandfathers before them. They just don’t have the same ability to inspire. This might afford us a new appreciation for the potential of blended malts but it shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for single malts, vintages or single casks in the slightest. The story counts for something. Enjoyment does not need to be rational. The single cask serenade may influence my appreciation of the sumptuous Private Barrel Company GlenDronach 20YO that’s currently cradled in my hand, but it’s a positive influence, so why fight it. We’re human, and these are two hand-in-hand human vices – whisky and whimsy – that we should be able to enjoy without restraint. May the dram be with you.

Prague for the weekend

It may come cheaper than most of Europe’s flashier cities, but the Czech capital’s persisting popularity owes as much to pedigree as to price.

This article does not feature anything about whisky.  I just couldn’t bring myself to mention the dodgy bottle of Czech whisky (Gold Cock) that I happened upon and bought whilst on this trip.

First published in GQ (July 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Prague unless you’ve actually visited the place. It has a mixed reputation. Both admired and somewhat maligned, luckily in unequal measures – otherwise I may have had second thoughts about my trip, by those whom I consulted as I did my planning, the only sensible conclusion to which I could come was that the city clearly has the capacity to inspire a range of impressions. I set off then with tempered expectations. Would its noted budget-friendliness serve up gangs of inebriated, bachelor-partying louts (along with great value for my Rands)? Would I be greeted by Praguers grown jaded and unamenable by the continued press of tourist hordes? These concerns, and others, had weighed on my mind, but they were quickly dispelled on arrival, whether by luck, or by the foreboding (but in reality delightful) winter season, or by a lack of merit I can’t rightly say – I was there all too briefly. What I can say, heartily, unreservedly, is that, glimpsing it like I did, this city exudes a magical olde worlde charm, resplendent with its cobbled streets and squares, its imposing medieval spires, and its quaint, ginger-bread architecture, of sufficient degree to offer the makings of a mesmerising weekend.

Stay
Intercontinental Prague
In a walking city, and Prague is most definitely a walking city, location is gold, especially during a short stay – when you don’t want to be wasting time waiting for taxis, figuring out the public transport system, or making long treks. The Intercontinental, perched smack bang at the heart of the Old Town, couldn’t be better positioned. Five minutes of leisurely strolling will get you either to the Charles Bridge or the Old Town Square, fifteen minutes to the Castle. Now this is not a boutique hotel by any means – if that’s what you’re after then look elsewhere – but it’s comfortably well-appointed and it provides all the amenities expected of an upmarket hotel, from an overnight shoe shining service and an impressively large and well-equipped gym, to a Sunday brunch that’s apparently considered to be the best in the city.
Pařížská 30, +420-296-631 111
http://www.icprague.com
Shop
Bohemian crystal
The Czech Republic is reputed for its exquisite glassware, referred to as Bohemian crystal. Note that the term crystal is used in the country to denote any high-quality glass, whereas “lead crystal” specifically defines glass containing a minimum 24% lead oxide. If you’re intent on going shopping in this city then let it be for the local crystal – it’ll be a fitting memento and you’ll be buying craftsmanship equivalent to the best in the world. Prague though – be warned – is a lot like Venice: the tourist hotspots are wildly overgrown with souvenir shops and stalls, most carrying glass and some specialising in glass, many of which hawk crystal that is overpriced and of dubious provenance. Tread carefully. And pack carefully – crystal pieces aren’t the most robust items to be lugging about.
Moser
If you’re feeling flush then head directly to Moser, the oldest and most iconic glass manufacturer in the country. They’ve been making their precision, hand-crafted, lead-free crystal creations for over 150 years; and whilst you’ll be paying a premium, you’ll do so in the confidence that you’re getting the best of the best.
Staroměstské náměstí 603/15, +420 221 890 891
http://www.moser-glass.com
Dana Bohemia
Those who prefer their crystal with lead, incidentally making it softer and hence easier to cut, can visit the long-established Dana Bohemia, which offers a wide variety of products ranging from tableware and chandeliers, to Christmas decorations and figurines.
Národní 43, +420 224 214 655
http://www.danabohemia.cz

Blue Praha
This chain of some nine stores is undoubtedly intended for tourists, with all its locations either in the Old Town or at the airport, but its products are interesting, its prices aren’t overly intimidating, and its scale confers reliability and authenticity.
Malé náměstí 14, +420 224 216 717
http://www.bluepraha.cz

Pastries
Trdelnik
I have a weakness for pastries, I have to admit. It’s a disturbing compulsion, especially in these sugar reviling times in which we live, but I’ve been unable to overcome it. I single-mindedly seek them out wherever I go – pains au chocolat in France, cannoli in Italy, churros in Spain, danishes here, strudels there…I could go on. During my time in Prague I happened upon the Trdelnik, a traditional pastry common to several central European countries, the Czech Republic amongst them. This hollow cylinder of rolled dough is typically grilled over coals or gas flames, covered in sugar, nuts and cinnamon, and served piping hot, either as is or smeared with Nutella. It’s a decadent treat that’s ideal for a chilly winter morning. Try it from a street stall where you can watch as it’s being made.
Music
Smetana Hall at Obecní dům
There’s arguably greater appreciation for classical music in central Europe than anywhere else in the world, so a visit to Prague represents an opportunity to partake in the region’s passion for this art form. The austere and cavernous, but acoustically well-endowed, Smetana Hall at the Municipal House hosts regular musical soirees, some as unimposingly short as an hour. There’s space to go around in my experience, but book early to avoid disappointment, especially in high season.
Námesti Republiky 1090/5, +420 222 002 130
http://www.obecnidum.cz

Beer
Pilsner
The Czech Republic is famous for its beer consumption, per capita the highest in the world, and, more flatteringly, for its beer heritage and culture, which is derived in large part from Pilsner – its very own home-grown style. Pilsner is in fact a specific type within the lager family, distinguished primarily by the use of “noble hops”, which is more aromatic and less bitter relative to other varieties. First brewed in the town of Pilsen in 1842 – at the Citizens’ Brewery (now Pilsner Urquell) – it was widely acclaimed for its flavour, and, most influentially, for its colour. The clear golden liquid was a dramatic departure from the dark brews prevalent at the time, thereby forging a new standard to which most of the lagers that we consume today are indebted.
Tanknova
To any beer connoisseur a Tanknova, or Tank Pub, is holy ground. Previously these were unique to Czech Republic but they’ve now started to spread elsewhere – by popular demand I’m sure. Prague though remains the mecca, with a Tanknova on every corner…well, just about. Most of the beer we drink – certainly everything in bottles or cans, and much of the draught too – is pasteurised, to stabilise it and extend its shelf life, and like any preservation this process takes a little something away from the fresh, unadulterated original. Tanknovas offer unpasteurised beer, kept fresh, and safe from contamination, at between 8 and 10°C (the optimal range) in large stainless steel tanks, and then pressed out for serving using a high-pressure air compressor. The result: a rounder, more complex, fuller-flavoured beer – and a bucket list experience! Try the tanked Pilsner Urquell at the rustic Bredovský Dvůr; it’s virtually impossible to reconcile with the stuff we get over here.
Bredovský Dvůr, Politických vězňů 13, +420 224 215 427
http://www.restauracebredovskydvur.cz

Bar hopping
Blah Blah Bar
During my trip Blah Blah was Prague’s number one rated bar on TripAdvisor, so I decided to put it to the test. A recent addition to the scene – the bar was opened some six months ago – it was clearly striking the right chord with locals, expats and tourists alike. The place is owned by a dynamic Khazak couple – I kept my Borat impressions in check – whose (well executed) vision was an idea of community, of people coming together to converse. From the eclectic decorations, including seventies style upholstered bar frontage, and the mix of niche and mainstream liquor, the reassuring and interesting both covered, to its excellent service, despite the obvious busyness the barmen made the time to chit-chat, and its animal friendliness, one of the guests was accompanied by a beagle, I found Blah Blah to be charming and friendly, but also edgy. It’s a bit out of the way but well worth the visit. Try the Omg (oh my gin) gin – or is it just Omg? – produced by the Zufanek distillery in Moravia, whilst you’re there.
Žitná 41, +420 777 169 977
http://www.facebook.com/barblahblah
U Zlatého Tygra
U Tygra may be somewhat polarising – you’ve been warned upfront. It’s one of the two most well-known, uber traditional bars in the city (the other is U Černého Vola), and it seems to find its way into every guidebook – so here I am doing my bit for the cult. My brief experience of it went something like this: I walked in, I was nearly asphyxiated by the heavy pall of smoke, and I was roundly ignored by the staff for what felt like some ten minutes before I eventually walked out in resignation. As I’d waited awkwardly though I’d managed to observe that the overwhelmingly male clientele was seated at big communal tables, and that everyone seemed to be eating and drinking the same thing – a throwback to the communist past perhaps…? Having said this I have it on good authority that their limited fare – the beer and the food – is outstanding, so if you’re prepared to brave a visit I’d venture that it would be as authentic a Czech experience as you could hope for. Get your concierge to phone in advance and make a reservation.
+420 222 221 111
http://www.uzlatehotygra.cz

Cuisine
Klub Architektů
I’d been a little apprehensive about the food in Prague, which I’d been told was gristly and stodgy, and marginalising for non-red meat eaters. This though wasn’t my experience. I ate the quintessential goulash-with-dumplings on no less than three occasions (when in Rome you know) – alternating between beef and venison for the former, and potato and dough for the latter – with absolute relish, the highlight being the first, a steaming, hearty affair – absolutely perfect for the sub-zero evening, at Klub Architektů. This restaurant, a prime example of the admittedly cosy local predilection for locating bars and restaurants in cellars, offers a varied menu – varied enough to have entirely satisfied my notoriously difficult pollo-pescetarian wife and to have immediately eased my reservations.
Betlémské náměstí 169/5A, 110 00 Praha 1, +420 224 248 878
http://www.klubarchitektu.com

Remember
It’s a little known fact outside of the country that Prague has a significant Vietnamese population. In the iron curtain era the Russians brought in Vietnamese labourers, many of whom remained to establish themselves, their families, and their culinary heritage in the city. Take a break from the goulash with the light, flavourful summer rolls at Remember.
Biskupská 5, +420 602 889 089
http://www.rememberasianfood.cz

A cup of tea or coffee
Artisan Café and Bistrot
After a few hours of pounding Prague’s busy, buzzing, cobbled streets, you could be forgiven for seeking a temporary refuge. In such moments look no further than this little oasis of quiet, run by owner Krystof Polansky, where the sumptuousness of the teas and the deliciousness of the freshly-baked cakes cannot be overstated.
Vejvodova 1, +420 602 727 734
http://www.artisancafe.cz

The boys are back in town

First published in MUDL Magazine (September 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I find it difficult to believe, in moments when I reflect on it, that until this year we did not have access locally to one of the most prominent whiskey styles in the history of the drink. It was a sad reality – at the risk of being melodramatic – which we’ll hopefully never have to face again. It’s sadder still that there were many long bleak years during which its very existence hung in the balance. This dismal state of affairs is luckily now a thing of the past. Redbreast and Green Spot, previously just names wishfully, wistfully spoken by this country’s whiskey lovers, are now beautifully tangible, bottles of the stuff being firmly ensconced in our bars and liquor cabinets.

You’ll have realised by now that I’m referring to that most uniquely Irish of whiskeys known as the Single Pot Still, whiskey made in a pot-still (obviously) from a combination of malted and unmalted barley, a range of which was launched in South Africa by Pernod Ricard in January during a would-be-elegant (if not for certain of my table-mates) dinner hosted by their global whiskey ambassador – and epic Irish toast master – John Ryan. If ever there was a whisky moment worth celebrating this was it.

The last time that a Single Pot Still was brought to our shores by an official importer is lost to the record – but needless to say it was a long time ago, and a diminishing hiatus at that. In many ways the story of Irish whiskey reflects that of Ireland itself: tragic, principled, enduring, resurgent, and throughout it all, ebullient, lyrical and embracing. It is a bittersweet story, having travelled a course of buoyant victories and bitter setbacks. It led the charge of whisky in the nineteenth century, dominating the market with its rich, full-flavoured pot stills – it was during this time that their industry changed the spelling of their product from whisky to whiskey, to distinguish it from Scotch, which they perceived to be inferior – but then it passed on the trend to blend, much to its commercial detriment. Independence and secession from the Empire deprived it of vast markets. Scottish corporate interference later stunted the industry’s capacity to produce grain whiskey. One hindrance followed another. They shunned bootleggers and then were insufficiently prepared for the revocation of Prohibition, leading to severe reversals in one of their most successful markets. Post-war government policies further limited development, reducing the once flourishing industry to a ravaged state, limping along with, until recently, only two operational distilleries.

The Irish though are survivors, and so is their single pot still whiskey. These boys hung about in blends, notably Jameson, for much of the dark times, but they’ve re-emerged to claim their rightful place in the whisky pantheon – which is important, not only because Ireland is the birthplace of whisky (or so the Irish claim) and because single pot stills are the truest of Irish, the very heart of its tradition, but more so because they offer us whisky lovers an astonishingly good, meaningfully distinct style of whiskey. There’s whiskey in the jar again people – may the dram be with you!

The single pot stills available to us here in SA are the following: Green Spot, Redbreast (12YO, 12YO Cask Strength, and 15YO), Midleton Barry Crockett, and Powers John Lane (my personal favourite).  Watch this space for a more detailed evaluation of these fine whiskeys.

Big on brandy

I don’t think that the emphasis on cocktails is the right way to restore faith in South African brandy. They’re easy-come easy-go, not fostering a relationship with the base spirit itself. And if the barmen serving them are clown incompetent and tortoise slow, it doesn’t help. This was the principle drawback – said and out of the way now – to an otherwise outstanding Brandy Festival 2014 (officially Fine Brandy Fusion), held at the Cape Town Convention Centre recently.
The most encouraging feature of the Festival was the increasing emphasis on pot still brandy. This stuff is the real deal – made in copper pots, as the name suggests, fully matured, and entirely credible. It is as it should be the flag-bearing style for the industry. Brandy is our signature spirit, a spirit that we can claim to be ours more than any other, and in pot still we have an expression of which we can be truly proud.
It became apparent to me as I was touring the exhibitions that there are now four strong mainstream brands each producing a significant range of excellent pot still brandies – not to mention the growing array of boutique creations, which hopefully will be better represented at the Festival in future years. In Van Ryn’s, KWV, Oude Molen and Oude Meester the style is being manifest in a manner befitting its tradition.
My introduction to Oude Meester was perhaps was the most encouraging experience of the evening. This was a brandy to which I hadn’t paid much attention in the past. Despite the Jamie Foxx-fronted reinvention it had always struck me as a bit stale and “ou doos”. Anything but! Oude Meester is the sipping brandy for a new generation. The 8YO “Demant” was perhaps the greatest revelation; bold, fresh and flavoursome, it is an easy-drinking and affordable entre to the genre – a welcoming gateway to the world of pot stills. The brand offers a graduated transition to a 12YO and then to its amazing 18YO – also bold and flavoursome, but evolving a generous measure of complexity that was missing in the more obvious Demant. I highly recommend a lingering acquaintance with these brandies, for novices and aficionados alike.
Oude Molen, since our last interaction, has doubled the size of its family – the impressive René Single Cask and Solera Grand Reserve joining the legendary VOV and the stalwart 100 Reserve – giving brandy lovers an added variety of terrain for exploration. I believe that their distillery in Elgin is well worth a visit too so that’s something to remember next time you’re in apple country and looking for an agreeable diversion.

Maturation at Oude Molen.

Maturation at Oude Molen.

Whilst I’m more familiar with both Van Ryn’s and KWV, which offer similarly structured portfolios of pot stills each consisting of 10, 12, 15 and 20 YO’s, than any other brandies this was nonetheless a rare opportunity (and privilege) to taste and compare their ranges side by side. The former’s aggressive flavour profiles contrasted with the more subtle, restrained character of the latter, but both are undoubtedly excellent, and deserving of their positions at the head of the pack.
The Brandy Festival is still in its infancy, so it may well have escaped your notice – if so then make sure you schedule it in your agenda for next year. It’s a must for anyone with so much as a passing interest. Its purpose is evidently to promote education about and consequently the appreciation of brandy, and in that regard it packs a punch – I particularly liked the nosing beakers isolating some of the more typical brandy flavours – but it does so with a velvet glove: the delicious food (really impressive for this type of large public event), the atmospheric décor, and the supplementary entertainment all contribute to make it a big brandified blast of an evening.

Meeting your match

I love whisky events – I get to drink interesting whiskies, with my whisky friends, whilst learning a little more about whisky. They tend to occur at cool venues, serving delicious food and playing great music, and usually I’ll leave at the end of these things with an enhanced ability to write meaningfully about whisky and the goings-on in whisky. What’s not to love? Some are better than others of course but on the whole – nothing. Okay okay, push me and I’ll reluctantly admit that many (the majority – tastings excepted) follow a formula of favouring style over substance, enjoyment over education if you will, form over function if I must.
It was refreshing thus, upon accepting an invitation to the launch of Johnnie Walker’s (JW) online profiler, to see that emphasis reversed. Not that this wasn’t fun – it was, but there was a real intent here to impart something more.
JW has for some years now been tilting its “king of flavour” platform. This ostensibly intrinsics-centric approach is sometimes communicated in a somewhat extrinsics-centric manner and could be considered at odds with JW’s other glitzy activities, but there can be no arguing its relevance. To you the whisky lover flavour should be the single most important feature to seek out in a whisky. Do you like it, and if so, what is it about it that you like? The online profiler attempts to answer these questions for you, albeit within the narrow confines of the JW universe.
I was treated to a somewhat upweighted experience – although the general principles are the same as the one you’d find online. It works like this: one is tasked to select two preferred aromas and two preferred tastes (online it’s three) from a wide-ish range of each. My real-life version provided small vials for nosing and small morsels for tasting, whilst online these selections need to made conceptually. An algorithm then processes the selections to determine a match to one of the JW whiskies. There’s also a choice of “vibe” in the form of a music snippet (online you’ll be asked for mood, setting and serving) but I was told that this makes little to no difference to the outcome.

Intriguing.

Intriguing.

So does this really work? Is the result valid? My match was JW Black Label, which I’d be hard-pressed to agree as my favourite whisky in the JW range; not necessarily a failing on the part of the profiler I guess; its output can only be as good as my inputs, and these types of preferences, for me at least, are not definitive in isolation. Do I prefer the taste of figs or cherries, or the aroma of oak or cut wood in whisky? It’s really impossible to say. I’m as likely to prefer one whisky’s manifestation of fig as I am another’s of cherry. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
I was struck by a few other concerns. A brand promotion is and should be self-serving by definition, but this facet of it can sometimes be achieved better indirectly. I would have been more grateful to JW for a steer beyond its own products and into the wider world of whisky, but maybe this is something for the next generation profiler. It can also be frustrating (rather than aspirational) to be matched to something that’s beyond your budget – yet there’s nothing to guard against this eventuality.
Where does that leave us? In the real world I suppose – where nothing is perfect. The profiler may not be pin-point precise, and it may have some minor drawbacks, but don’t let this put you off. It is pioneering tool – a great, genuinely value-adding effort, and hopefully the first foray of many, at solving the problem of how to make a whisky purchase decision that’s right for you. Give it a spin at www.meetyourmatchsa.co.za, and may the (right) dram be with you.

The art of dramming

A few simple tips to get the most from your whisky

First published in MUDL Magazine.

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Questions about whisky don’t come more vital, or more common, than this one – how should you drink it? The response will likely have an immediate and direct impact on your enjoyment of this fine spirit. Much of it comes down to personal preference, but here are a few guidelines which should help you to get the most from your whisky:

– Add a measure of water (bottled, not the chlorinated stuff from the tap). Water breaks down the congeners (flavour bearing fatty acids) in whisky thereby opening up its flavour, a phenomenon known amongst whisky lovers as “releasing the serpent”. The rough rule of thumb is to add the same volume of water as whisky, or less. If you want to do it right then beg yourself this nifty device – called “The Tilter” – from Bowmore Distillery; it’s a water dispenser issuing either drops from one spout or a gentle flow from the other.

– Use ice (made using bottled water) with circumspection. Cold, with its numbing, mildly anaesthetic properties, is a flavour inhibitor. Ice also results in rapid, uncontrolled dilution. If you must have ice then I’d suggest you favour ice-balls – with their reduced surface area relative to a block these are characterised by a slower melt.

Scottish folklore suggests that we should drink our whisky at the temperature of an old-fashioned parlour room. Here, under the hot African sun, where temperatures differ from Scotland somewhat, I’ve found that the addition of a small measure of cold water is enough to compensate quite nicely.

Postscript 18/05/2014: New suggestion – crushed ice. Great control over portion size, teaspoon by teaspoon. Melts quickly. Perfect for the hot summer.

– Don’t mix whisky. Actually, let me qualify this – don’t mix premium or aged whisky. Even the most expert tasters can’t appreciate the nuances of a great whisky if it’s been doused by coke, lemonade and the likes. Stick to the less expensive fare when mixing whisky and making cocktails; anything else is a waste.

– Nose your whisky. There are 32 primary aromas, as compared to only four primary tastes. A good whisky has so much more to offer than what can be enjoyed on the palate alone. You should seize the opportunity to explore this “hidden” dimension. Use a glass with a tapered rim to concentrate the vapours and leave your mouth open to enhance your olfactory abilities.

Postscript 18/05/2014: I’ve recently learned that this idea of 32 primary aromas is an invention – a plausible fabrication that has gathered momentum and been repeated so often that it’s somehow entrenched itself as the conventional whisky wisdom. My recent discovery comes courtesy of former whisky blogger Kevin Erskine.  In this case it doesn’t really matter – it doesn’t change the principle that I’m trying to substantiate; whether it’s 32, 20, 89 or any other significant number…the point is that aromas offer additional insight into and enjoyment of the flavours of a whisky. I say that to defend my advice, but not to defend myself. The lesson here is to question the facts and challenge assumptions. Is that as trite as it sounds? I think I need to add – to a reasonable extent. I should, strictly speaking, actually be verifying all of Erskine’s assertions as well, but that’s not realistic; if I had to do this consistently I’d never get anything done. It’s a lesson to stay alert nevertheless and engage a bit more common sense in sniffing out what is and is not legitimate.

Enjoy and may the dram be with you!

Potstill pleasure

I mentioned in an earlier post about pairings that I had recently attended two lunches themed on this format.  The second of these – hosted at the fabulous Pot Luck Club by the SA Brandy Foundation and KWV – was a showcase for the latter’s core range of premium brandies.   I don’t think that they could have chosen a better venue.  The spectacular setting – the restaurant is perched at the “top” of Woodstock and enjoys wraparound views – was outdone only by the exquisite meal (and brandies of course), the highlight of which was a world-beating main course of pork belly with cured apple.  I’ve heard that this fare has become voguish – fully understandable if the general standard is within shouting distance of the Pot Luck Club’s tour de force.

The guys with whom I typically hobnob at most of the liquor events I attend were absent, this being brandy rather than whisky related, so I had the opportunity to make some new acquaintances, including Savile Row and Emily Post aficionado Neil Pendock, whom certain readers may remember fondly – I know I do – from this post, and the affable Alastair Coombe from the blog Brandy and Ginger.

The focus during the lunch seemed to be on the new 12YO, which is admittedly very good (a satisfyingly rich brandy, like its 15YO stable-mate), but my attention was drawn to the less fashionable 10YO – for various reasons: it’s a great, flavoursome brandy (I particularly enjoyed the tart apricot on the palate); it’s been selling at a ridiculously good price (good for us, not sure if it’s so good for KWV or for the standing of premium brandies – we’ll just have to trust that they know what they’re doing); and, most compellingly, it’s signalling a promising shift in the industry.

I’ve written in the past about how I believe that South African brandy is being hampered by the presence of unmatured wine spirits in its compositions.  Well done then to KWV for taking their 10YO and transforming it from vintage to potstill (100% pot distilled, matured brandy).  This is the direction in which the industry should be travelling.   The descriptor “vintage” however still remains on the bottles (and on the tasting notes provided to us at the lunch!) –  I’m told that “they have yet to effect a label change” – which I find puzzling (disquieting?); these types of changes don’t happen overnight and I would have thought KWV would want to shout this out.  Anyhow, stranger things have happened.  The selection – delicious throughout – was completed by the 20YO potstill, which I found to have a deep, layered nose that retreated to softer, more restrained flavours on the palate.

This KWV ensemble is an engaging, interesting range of potstills that demonstrates the excellence of South African brandy.  One day in the not too distant future we’ll be scratching our heads and marvelling at how it could ever have been possible in late 2013 – early 2014 to buy a 10YO and 12YO potstill brandy of such quality for under R200 and R250 respectively (despite having to bear in mind that at 38% ABV versus 43% for most other spirits they should be, simplistically, about 12% cheaper like-for-like).  Brandy might have been struggling of late but if producers can invest in the intrinsics and keep offering this calibre of liquid then the tide will surely turn.

I’ve previously remarked on the good work being done by the SA Brandy Foundation, the co-hosts and organisers of the lunch – which was another feather in their cap.  I may not agree with their emphasis on brandy cocktails (the basis for one of their promotional campaigns), but there’s no arguing with the vigour and dynamism that they’ve injected into the category.  I’d left the event impressed – as I’m sure was the intention, job deservedly done – and replete with positive sentiments, so it’s with some reluctance and discomfort (a mental indigestion – ironic because the lunch sank happily into my depths) that I’m now going to raise a few concerns; unfortunately it’s necessary if I’m to be objective and true to my observations.

I don’t pretend to be comprehensively aware of all of (or even most of) the Foundation’s activities.  I’m sure that there’s a lot of great (and vital) work being done about which I don’t have the slightest inkling – so keep this context in mind. I’ve kept an eye however on its efforts in the area of consumer education, which I had felt to be commendable.  It was sad thus to take note of a few (small, but important in my opinion) recent reversals.

Two matters in particular:

Firstly I noticed this call-out on page eight of the Summer 2013 edition of the Foundation’s magazine (called Angel’s Share).

Now, this is clearly false.  When I queried it, rather than retracting or admitting a mistake, I was told by the Foundation’s spokesperson that “Potstill brandy must be aged for a minimum of three years in casks no larger than 340 litres”.  Somehow the fact that they hadn’t mentioned the word “potstill” didn’t seem to enter the equation. Misleading? Definitely.  Deliberately misleading?  I sincerely hope not.  I think the latter, if it were the case – apart from being just plain wrong – would also be short-sighted and counter-productive in the long-run:  if I was told that a 1.6L car was a 2.5L I’d probably end up being disappointed with its performance.

Secondly I also noticed that the Foundation’s explanations of the classes of South African brandy, as stated on its website and in the magazine, had gone from being brilliantly specific (and to my mind very clear and easy-to-understand) a few months ago to vague-ish, lacking transparency, and, in one case – the definition for vintage brandy – a bit confusing.  With regards to the latter the magazine suggests that these “contain a minimum of 30% potstilled brandy, blended with matured and unmatured wine spirit” whilst the current version of website defines them as “potstill brandy blended with matured wine spirit” (I’ve since been told that the latter is accurate, following an agreement by the industry, but not yet enacted in law – so much like the improvement to potstill brandy that did away with its unmatured component). Now there’s obviously detail in these definitions that could be perceived as unflattering, however the Foundation’s purported reason for how it now portrays them, i.e. the stripping out of much of this detail (you can see this taking place even in the two excerpts I’ve just provided), was simplicity – to deal with “a crisis regarding consumer confusion and apathy”.  I disagree.  Surely the best way to tackle confusion and apathy is better not lesser education.  This is easier said than done of course – I realise that I’m shouting from the stands – but if South African brandy has aspirations to be world-class, which I think it rightfully does, then I don’t think there’s any other way.

These issues though don’t really matter when you’re sitting with a glass of the good stuff in front of you.  My message then to brandy lovers for the new year:  ditch your coke and take the step up to potstill, at least partially.  On the evidence of this showing, and others, you won’t look back.

Single casks – on the knife’s edge

I mentioned in my last post that I’d recently attended a pairing lunch laid on by Checkers LiquorShop – for the launch of Private Barrel Co., a house label of single cask whiskies.    We were introduced to four private bottlings – a Glenlossie 15YO, a Benrinnes 15YO, a Glen Grant 17YO, and a Mortlach 14YO – each of which was paired with a separate dish.  The food was sumptuous – par for the course(s…) at the Cape Grace – and whilst I remain dubious about this manner of pairing for anything but the occasional there’s little doubt that it can (and did in this case) work spectacularly well as a promotional format.

Anyhow, I’m not going to linger on the finer details of the lunch itself.  It was enjoyable for those of us attending – who can argue with fine food in the company of whisky and the whisky brotherhood? – but it’s of little further relevance for my purposes here; apologies to any food voyeurs who might be reading.

Cape Town whisky brotherhood, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Members of the Cape Town whisky brotherhood seated and ready, including Dave Allardice, Karen Chalenor, myself, Bernard Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

Onto the whisky.

Actually, wait.  Allow me a contextualising aside before I continue.

Single malts are considered to be pure and unadulterated whisky.  They are representative of a singular terroir and style, and they are rare and limited.  Many casual whisky drinkers though aren’t explicitly aware that there are in fact three broad categories of single malts.

The typical, regular single malt is in fact blended – or vatted to be more correct about it.  A variety of casks, sometimes filled in a variety of different years, are used to maintain flavour consistency from one bottling to the next. 

Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only liquid distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings.  Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded.  The appeal of vintages is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. 

Single casks are the apex:  one source, one style, one cask…(with a qualification for the latter – single casks can be double matured or finished).  The link to the past, always important with whisky, is particularly strong here – single casks define its origins.  This is whisky at its purest and most unadulterated.

There’s a persuasive basis thus on which to recommend both single casks in general and the Checkers range specifically:

          They epitomise the romance of whisky.

  –          They are tangibly and dramatically limited – whilst the precise volume depends (primarily) on the type of cask and the length of maturation, we know with certainty that each expression would be restricted to somewhat less than the capacity of the largest possible cask (a pipe or butt at a little under 500 litres – at cask strength).   The Checkers offerings are limited to no more than 600 bottles each at 46% ABV, so they present a golden opportunity to secure a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness.

 –          Single casks are uncommon on the South African market – our laborious liquor legislation making it cumbersome to import small batches of any one product – so these new entrants make a welcome addition to our repertoires.

          I’d expect to pay a premium for single casks given their rarity and distinctiveness, but the pricing on these offerings – ranging from R550 to R850 – suggest that they’re great value for money…at least in theory.

Checkers deserves substantial credit for identifying this gap, and, even more so, for filling it.  These guys may be new to the whisky game – as evidenced by their tasting mats which displayed the words “whiskey” (Checkers is only offering Scotch at this stage) and “palette” – but their flair for retail is undeniable.

You’re probably thinking that at this stage that I should be brimming with untempered enthusiasm.  Unfortunately – being a bit of a cynical bastard (both a curse and a blessing) – I retain some reservations.  Single casks are the only whiskies that are not vatted (ok, the grain versions too).  Quite simply, when making this type of whisky, there is nowhere to hide.  Other whiskies may be able to get away with sub-optimal components – camouflaged in the vatting – but with single casks everything is either good or it’s not.

So, in evaluating the merits of the Checkers range, the vital issues for me – which eventually detracted from an entirely favourable impression of these whiskies – was provenance and cask profile.  I wanted extensive and specific cask and producer information.  What kind of wood?  Seasoning?  First fill or refill?   Did these casks come from the distilleries (unlikely in this age of whisky shortages), or from an independent bottler?  Which independent bottler?  If the quality of a single cask is an inherent risk – as I’m suggesting it is – then this information would mitigate that risk to an extent.  It would give someone considering purchase a certain measure of assurance and direction, and a fair means to assess pricing.  R850 may not be a lot in premium whisky terms, but for gaping uncertainty it’s still a long outlay.

It turned out that the cask information was unavailable – other than some bare bones.  The producer information was initially also unavailable, and somewhat muddled.  I was told at the function that some casks emanated from the distilleries and some from a variety of (unnamed – because Checkers wanted to keep the focus on their own brand rather than an association) independent bottlers.  Fellow blogger Bernard Gutman, who’d attended the luncheon with me, was later told that the casks had all been sourced from Hart Brothers, a relatively little-known independent bottler.

(Correction 04/01/14:  Bernard has just informed me that the casks were sourced from Meadowside Blending, which is owned by Donald Hart of Hart Brothers).

What to make of all this?  I personally don’t believe that any organisation in the business of maturing casks of whisky – whether the distilleries themselves or independent bottlers – would offer its better casks for a private bottling in the usual course of business (there are always exceptions – especially where long-standing relationships are involved).  It would stand both to make more profit and to better enhance its reputation by bottling them under its own label.  So my educated, and perhaps ungenerous, but honest guess – and I stress that it is a guess given the patchiness of the information – is that these are second-choice casks from a second-tier bottler (or bottlers).

The range

The range.

The whiskies themselves were a mixed bag.  I enjoyed the Glen Grant, especially its stewed-pear nose – and I’d have to say that this is a good bet at its R799 price-tag; the Glenlossie and Benrinnes were pleasant, if middling; and the Mortlach was a touch disappointing – even more so given the Diageo overhaul that will likely project pricing of Mortlach offspring into the stratosphere.

The balanced view is that overall this is a great initiative – but with the potential to be even better given some transparency.  We live in an era when consumers are increasingly hungry for knowledge, and knowledgeable as a result.  It’s becoming counter-productive in my opinion to withhold critical information – just generally, or in an attempt to portray products as more than what they are…and there’s too much of that happening in the marketplace already.

I look forward to lots more (whiskies and information about the whiskies) from Private Barrel Co.  May the dram be with you!

Are pairings here to stay?

The relatively nascent trend of pairing food with whisky (and now brandy) is all the rage at the moment.  I for one am delighted – a burgeoning friendship between one’s great friends, what could be better?  Moreover chocolate, sincerely one of my very dearest friends, seems to be a popular pairing partner – hooray!  But are pairings just a passing fad or do they have the legs to become a classic consumption ritual?

My two BFF's.

My two BFF’s.

The basic idea with a pairing is synergy.  The flavours of the whisky or brandy (or whatever – other spirits will surely follow if they’re not doing so already) and the food should complement and enhance each other, thus creating a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts.  Interesting, but hardly so revolutionary that I spilled my drink as I jumped up in excitement. Wine has obviously been doing the same thing for millennia.

Pairings fall into two distinct groups – at least in my view of things:  the drink is paired with a meal, and more elaborately, a separate drink is paired with each course of the meal, or food is paired with a drink.  The distinction is a reversal of the primary and subsidiary roles.

My forecast for the former is pessimistic.  Wine, as a meal-accompanying beverage, also plays a lubricating role, which spirits, with their higher alcoholic strength, can’t really hope to fulfil, at least not without a level of dilution that compromises flavour.  I suppose that one could supplement with water, but that’s unwieldy.  People gravitate towards the simple and the natural, and personally I can’t see this becoming habitual – although at the very least it offers an alternative in good company: my uncle’s tut-tutting when I’ve drunk beer instead of wine comes to mind…water off a duck’s back.   Nonetheless, these musings certainly don’t suggest that one couldn’t and shouldn’t enjoy an occasional meal pairing experience.  I recently attended two lunch functions – Checkers LiquorShop at the Bascule and KWV-Brandy Foundation at the Pot Luck Club (more on these shortly) – where the hosts used this platform, quite superbly, to exhibit their offerings.

More promising to me though, as a sustainable, long-term “ritual”, is the latter style of pairing, where the food accompanies the whisky or brandy, not the other way around.  This is effectively a jumped-up, better-thought-out version of snacks-with-drinks. It just works – no further thought required.   I’m still a pairing novice but I can recommend the following:

          cheese and crackers (with almost any whisky depending on the cheese – other than the heavily-peated variety)

          chocolate (also works with a broad base of whiskies)

          oysters (roll out the island whiskies, Islays and Talisker in particular, and hold off on the Tabasco)

          salmon sushi (light, fruity whiskies with a bit of spice – Edradour 10YO would work, as would, funnily enough, Yamazaki 12YO)

          cake (sherry cask whiskies such as Macallan, Glendronach and Aberlour)

I would continue but I’m drooling all over my keyboard.  May the dram be with you!