Category Archives: Whisky column

My monthly whisky column in Prestige Magazine

The return of Port Ellen and Brora

Rising from illustrious graves.  PATRICK LECLEZIO deconstructs the excitement.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).

The biggest news in whisky in the last few months has been the mouth-watering declaration that the Port Ellen and Brora distilleries are to be refitted, and reopened in 2020.  This is most whisky lovers’ (much conjectured) fantasy come true.  We’ve been living of late through a golden age of malt whisky in which the inception of new distilleries and the revival of previously terminated or shuttered distilleries (so-called silent stills) have been common occurrences:  examples range from the massive Roseisle and the boutiquey Wolfburn, Kilchoman, and Kingsbarn on the one hand, to forerunners like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, and more recently Tamdhu and Glengassaugh on the other.  But this is different.  Special.  Exceeding the “ok, cool” reaction that the others would have elicited, and tipping the scales at “yahoo!”.  New distilleries are unknowns, and reincarnates like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich have largely created their standing during this latest phase of their existence.  Port Ellen and Brora though are the Van Goghs of whisky, unregarded and mostly used as blending fodder whilst active, then garnering massive acclaim after their demise, and attracting followings during the interlude, Port Ellen in particular, that it would be trite to describe as “cult”.  With this gong still reverberating, let’s take a look at what these announcements really mean.

They boil down to three simple realities really:  we’ll have access to whisky that until now has been very expensive and limited, it may or may not be what we expect, and we’ll have to wait a long time still before getting our hands on any of it – a situation in totality that should both fire and temper our enthusiasms.

When time was called on Port Ellen and Brora in 1983 – part of a widespread series of closures by the Distillers Company Limited (Diageo, effectively),  including now heralded distilleries such as Dallas Dhu, St. Magdelene, and Rosebank, driven by flagging demand – whisky was at a low ebb, and bottled single malt was a small speck on a blended landscape.  In fact the first book featuring tasting notes, ubiquitous today, and the first magazine devoted to Scotch whisky (inconceivable in a media environment where we’re drowning in whisky commentary) were only published in 1986.  In the modern age Port Ellen’s production, predominantly, and Brora’s, entirely, during their active years had been allocated to blending, so they were to a large extent unknown quantities.  The only bottling of Port Ellen between 1967 and 1983 was a 12YO commemorating the Queen’s visit to the distillery in 1980, and the first known Brora bottling was released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989.  Independent bottlings became relatively common, but it was only with official bottlings in the late nineties and turn of the century (now a feature of Diageo’s annual special releases), and in Port Ellen’s case extended maturation, that the legends were created.  The quality of the whiskies and the fact that no more of it would be produced (ostensibly) combined to arouse messianic devotion – and pricing to match.  The Port Ellen First Release, a 22YO of which there were 6000 bottled and offered at £110 in 2001, sells for some £4500 in 2017.  Prices have escalated exponentially with each subsequent release, with Brora following a similar pattern.  The prospect thus of larger supply, of being able to access these fine liquids at reasonable prices, is undoubtedly cause for celebration.

But don’t pop your stoppers just yet.  Making the same whisky as was done 30 years ago is not a given – as conceded by Diageo in its press release of 9 October: “Port Ellen Distillery on the famous whisky island of Islay, and Brora on the remote eastern coast of Sutherland, will both be reinstated to distil in carefully controlled quantities, with a meticulous attention to detail, replicating where possible the distillation regimes and spirit character of the original distilleries”.  The strains of barley and yeast employed, and the calibrations of production – especially from a more manual era, may be difficult to duplicate and replicate.  There is an additional challenge too: whilst Brora was merely “mothballed”, the original buildings and stills left intact, Port Ellen was partly demolished, its equipment, the stills included, scavenged by other distilleries within the group.   The whisky will undoubtedly be wonderful, but whether it’ll have the same austere, pier head flavours (as redolently described by Dave Broom) that made its name is debatable.

Any celebration is also somewhat premature.  Production is anticipated to begin in 2020 once “planning permission and regulatory consents, detailed design, construction and commissioning work” have been secured and completed, although it seems logical that Brora should be ready ahead of Port Ellen.  Be that as it may the gain of a year or so in this initial period is of little significance.  As with any whisky the production will be just a small part of the overall time frame.  In various interviews on the subject Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, has disclosed an intention to release the two whiskies as 12YO’s, whilst also acknowledging that there may be preceding smaller releases.  A 12YO would put us at 2032 – a long wait indeed.   Any earlier release would likely mean NAS, perhaps playing with the maturation regimen (smaller casks, new oak) and perhaps vatting with (dwindling) pre-83 stocks – although I think they’d be hard pressed to take this risk, given the premium that these command unadulterated, and the higher purpose that they can serve in perpetuating the hype (now more useful than ever).   The Port Ellen’s and Brora’s to which we’ve become accustomed (those lucky few amongst us) are perceptible only on a distant horizon.

The order of the day then appears to be patience, in pursuit of a probable but uncertain payoff.   Our patience though is unlikely to be arduous.  One of the shining beacons of Scotch whisky, and whisky in general, drawing in and engaging people from far and wide, is its variety.   The number quite evidently will keep changing but at present there are 98 active malt distilleries in Scotland producing innumerable expressions, two of which, sharing certain similarities with a Port Ellen and a Brora, I’ll recommend to keep you company in the cold nights ahead, before your much anticipated rendezvous  with their future emissaries.  Lagavulin, a few kilometres from Port Ellen, produces a rich, peaty, and complex 16YO whisky of exceptionally elegant balance.   It is a defining Islay malt.  On the opposite coast to Brora but unmistakably its Highland brethren you’ll find Oban, and in multiple bars and liquor stores around the world you’ll find its popular 14YO, a gorgeously fruity, aromatic maritime malt, imbued with fine wisps of smoke.  Ask Santa to add these to your stocking.  May the dram be with you.

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An enduring love affair

PATRICK LECLEZIO sits down with the guys tending South Africa’s passion for Scotch whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2017 edition).

If you were ever searching for evidence that South Africans have good taste, you’d find a rich vein in our affection for Scotch whisky.  It’s a preference that says something about us: we’re discerning without being fussy, and cultivated but not pretentious.  We’ll connect over a glass of the good stuff, in silent nod to this shared understanding, whether we’re crusty old dogs, boardroom bigshots, or slinky models.   Like brothers-in-law married to a set of outstanding sisters, we’re bound together by our good judgement and common devotion.  In fact the extent and duration of our ardour has been impressive indeed: South Africa has for decades now been amongst the top ten export markets for Scotch whisky.  We might have had suspicions though, until not long ago, that this affection was unrequited.  No longer.  Thanks largely to the ministrations of companies like Intra and Distell it can now be confirmed jubilantly that we love Scotch and that Scotch also loves us – the relationship is unreservedly mutual, and richly reciprocated.  This commitment to one another is emphatically evident in Distell’s landmark investment in the industry – which wedded three distilleries (Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory) to South Africa.  I recently chatted to Andy Watts, their Head of Whisky Intrinsic (and an all-round whisky legend!), and Dino D’Araujo, the Spirits Category Marketing Manager, about the company’s role in these matrimonial developments.

PM: When did Distell first get involved with Scotch whisky beyond representation and distribution?

DD: Distell was initially involved with building the Scotch industry in South Africa as a distributor of a number of iconic brands. When these agreements ended in the 1990’s, Distell and Burn Stewart Distillers (BSD) formed a joint venture for Africa and distribution of the brands started in South Africa.  This was then extended with the purchase of BSD in April 2013.

PM: What was the rationale for the acquisition?

DD: Scotch whisky remains an exciting category globally and in South Africa so it made sense for Distell to move from joint venture to acquisition, building upon an already sound working relationship with BSD. The acquisition further strengthened our international portfolio and added scale and synergies.

PM: We’ve heard that Distell recently bought a stake in the Best brand.  Does this indicate an intention to focus (a) regionally within Africa on (b) value-for-money Scotch whisky?

DD: Distell has a long-standing focus on growing in Africa.  The acquisition of a 26% stake in Best Whisky opens the door for synergies as we progress towards taking a controlling stake. We also believe the combined portfolios will help to fast-track the portfolios of both Best and Distell in Africa across multiple value tiers.

PM: What are the next steps for Distell regarding Scotch whisky, both globally and particularly with regards to the South African market? 

DD: Whisky we believe will retain its inherent appeal with consumers around the world and South Africa is no exception, where the category is in excess of 4 million cases. We find that both our Scotch as well as our South African whisky portfolios are well poised for growth domestically as consumers become more discerning in their choices. We will be focusing our efforts between both portfolios.

PM: Andy, what is the scope of your involvement in BSD / Distell’s Scotch whisky operations?

AW: I was appointed into the newly formed Distell Centre of Excellence Intrinsics just over a year ago. My roles cover the overall quality of the whisky which goes into the bottle as well as looking at the production methods we are using across our different distilleries – identifying opportunities for synergy as well as standardisation of good practice. The timeframe is still relatively young but already projects are being implemented in Scotland at Tobermory, Bunnahabhain and possibly Deanston within the near future. These projects are being driven by the highly capable team which we have in Scotland so my involvement is not on a day to day basis.

PM: I’m guessing that Distell has a different approach to and a different vision for whisky making compared to BSD’s previous management.   Can you give us any insight into these differences – and specifically give us examples of how they have already and how they may impact the whiskies and the product range going forward?

AW: Distell’s approach to all of its operations is to produce world-class products in the most efficient and effective manner. The team in Scotland is a new team with the operations under the capable leadership of Alan Wright. Again my involvement is not on a daily basis but the immediate task is to produce consistent base malts which will allow us to grow the current malt range as well as apply innovation to continue to be at the forefront of whisky evolution.

The only real change between the old and new Burn Stewart / Distell International operations is a focus on cased own goods business rather than the bulk supply of whisky to third parties.

Remember we have whiskies that have already been produced and that were in maturation long before the acquisition took place, therefore the focus is on the future and how we do things going forward to achieve those goals.

PM: Related question: what changes / improvements has Distell made to the whisky making process at BSD, if any?

The changes are more in terms of an upgrade and improvement to some equipment and not one of changing time-honoured process. The legislation governing how whisky is produced in Scotland is very transparent, and we strictly comply to the laws. I am fortunate enough to taste all of the expressions before they go into the bottle and I am very excited at the work being done both on the blending front with Dr Kirstie McCallum, and on the production side under the guidance of Stephen Woodcock, the Distilleries Manager.

PM: You’ve been an SA whisky man for a long time. Some people and some companies can wear multiple hats, some can’t. Do you think the acquisition has enhanced / will enhance both categories within Distell, or do you think one will be favoured at the expense of the other?  What are the roles that each is expected to play?

AW: We make South African whisky, considered a ‘New World’ whisky region, as well as Scotch whisky, one of the most pedigreed areas for whisky production in the world.  For me, it is easy to wear the two hats as I don’t feel that the two categories compete with each other. I am still very involved with our SA marketing as the “face” of our South African whisky portfolio but I do not see that role spreading to our Scottish family. We with very capable distillers, blenders, ambassadors and marketers who will continue to grow the awareness of our Scottish portfolio as more and more of our whisky come on line in future years. We will continue to be innovative on both fronts whilst ensuring the core ranges grow accordingly.

PM: Lastly, what’s your favourite whisky within the BSD portfolio and why?

AW: Having not really being exposed to BSD whiskies before the acquisition it was fun when all of a sudden I could try just about anything! However I have come to enjoy Deanston 12-year-old, matured predominantly in ex-Bourbon barrels, un-chill filtered and bottled at 46.3%. I think Deanston is one of our hidden gems – one, which going forward, will appear more frequently on whisky lovers’ “to try” lists.

Nose: I enjoy the soft vanilla which gives way to some citrus notes as well as the oak of the cask.

Taste:  Again nice vanilla but with a creamy honey feel whilst holding in your mouth. Upon swallowing then spices begin to come through which makes it a very interesting whisky to me.

Overall: Possibly a little sweeter than the general Highland malts but one which really had me hooked from the first taste and one which I believe will make an exceptional entry level malt to anyone wanting to start their journey into the wonderful world of whisky.

Distell locally offers a range of Bunnahabhain whiskies, atypical, unpeated Islay malts, as well as the Black Bottle and Scottish Leader blends, the former a well balanced mix of peat and sherry influences, and the latter’s 12YO a light, accessible blend well suited to our climate (I’d recommend it in Mizuwari style).  We wait with bated breath for the arrival of Deanston, Ledaig and Tobermory to our shores.  May the dram be with you.

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Clash of the Titans

The battle for number one.   Patrick Leclezio checks out the biggest and most intense rivalry in the single malt universe.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2017 edition).

There’s probably no greater engine for progress than competition.  It has defined our existence.  What is survival, if not a competition?  What is evolution, the mechanism culminating in an ability to build distilleries and make whisky (we can stop now!), if not the act of competing?  Competition elicits some of the finest human qualities – invention, excellence, determination – but also some of the worst, luckily largely controlled in our civilised world.  Healthy competition, by all objective measures, renders us, as a community, enhanced, advanced, and improved, across a range of endeavours, both the more and the less consequential.  Amongst the former, definitely amongst the former, somewhere between curing cancer and developing clean energy, is the crafting of single malt whisky.   And in recent times the thrusting and parrying between Glenfiddich and Glenlivet (The Glenlivet, if you want to be proper about it) has lit up this universe.

Following an extended era of persistent domination by Glenfiddich, the margins have been tighter in recent times, with the honours changing hands on two occasions in the last three years.  It’s not surprising that the onset of this competitive fervour corresponds with a period of tremendous activity and dynamism for the single malt style; its share of Scotch whisky sales have been on a radical incline.  Despite these gains though it remains a comparatively small and niched style; for all that I’m styling them “titans” the Glens, whilst significant in volume, having each crested the million case mark, are not mass-market brands.   Single malts appeal to a discerning audience, and whilst it may not be unswayed by extrinsic influence, it is relatively more attuned to the liquid itself.  In my opinion this makes the competitiveness in the sector a lot more meaningful.  If attributes like product innovation and quality rather than those like advertising and distribution, have a greater hold on the keys to success, then this can only be of benefit to genuine whisky lovers.   When Glenfiddich regained the mantle in 2016 brand spokesperson Enda O’Sullivan commented: “We are delighted with the current performance of Glenfiddich, and rather than focus on the best-selling single malt, we are committed to leading the category through innovation and creativity”.  It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that this is a space where the two can be one and the same.

This competition in fact can’t really be understood in a brand context.  Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet?  Those are just words.  The actual, visceral fight is taking place out there on various fronts, between the whiskies:  liquid against liquid.  I recently ventured out onto these battlefields, amidst the popping of corks, the clinking of glasses and the venturing of “slainte mhaths”, to visit with a few of those that are making a difference.   It became immediately evident, if indeed it hadn’t been already, that the story of their mettle, of the iron within their fists, like the Roman legions of old, begins with their superb foot soldiers.

The 12YO’s in each stable are what you expect them to be and more: of broad appeal, and consequently of moderate flavour, exceptionally reliable, and universally enjoyable.  If any of this sounds underwhelming then bear with me as I elaborate.  I drink a lot of different whisky, much of it old, much of it uniquely flavoursome.  I guess you could say that I’m whisky spoiled.  Nevertheless, I’ll drink a Glenlivet 12YO, or a Glenfiddich 12YO, anytime, anyplace, following any other whisky, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I’ll savour every moment of it.  After work drinks, after dinner drinks, high society drinks, watching the rugby drinks, gala evening drinks, you name it, they’re up to it.  The nutty pineapple sponge flavour of the one, and the soft, melt-in-your-mouth fruitiness of the other guarantee satisfaction to almost any palate.  When I said exceptionally reliable, I meant just that.

The rest of their core ranges is faultless, there isn’t a middling whisky to be found.  Amongst the Glenfiddichs, the 14YO Rich Oak and the 15YO Solera Reserve deserve high praise.  The Rich Oak’s depth of flavour is a treat in such a young and affordable whisky, a testament to the casks employed, whilst the solera vat’s legendary status is well deserved, delivering a breadth and balance that’s virtually unparalleled in this whisky’s class.  On a rand for rand basis it makes a claim that is difficult to challenge, such is the value it delivers.   When I consider the Glenlivet stalwarts it’s the 18YO that immediately jumps out.  Here a prominent sherry influence pervades, powerful raisin flavours overlaying citrus fruits, apricots, and fudge, assembling into a whisky that’s quite simply marvellous; one of those that I’ve chosen to mark portentous moments in my life.

Faultless is one thing.  But you can’t expect to prevail only by not making mistakes.  The SAS has it right.  Who dares wins!  Both of the Glens have dared, both have reinvented battle strategy – with products that are bold and different.  Glenlivet’s  Nadurra range went back to its roots, its Guardians Chapters inserted consumers into the blending process, a result of which was the show-stopping Exotic, and its Alpha introduced a new style of cask to whisky.  Glenfiddich’s recent Experimental Series may well be partly responsible for the latest tilting of the scales, both the IPA Experiment and the Project XX are explicitly distinct and interesting.  I was mulling over the XX during the last few weeks, trying to put my finger on what made it and its stablemate (a bottle of which I polished off in short order last year) so standout and so quaffable: it’s the casks’ profile obviously, these having been handpicked by the brand’s ambassadors given free rein to the maturation warehouse, but also the vatting.  My guess is there are young whiskies significantly included, but unlike many other NAS products, these two have matched execution to the best intentions motivating this format.  The younger liquid adds, in this case an appealing husky robustness, but it doesn’t detract.

I have no doubt that we can expect more new and exciting products from both brands in the years to come.   The battle lines have been etched, but unlike the real thing, this is a war in which everyone wins – not least us whisky fans.  The competition between the two is bringing out their best, as they spur each other to new heights.   The only problem will be choosing which to splash into your glass as you kick up your feet tonight.  Make it one (or two) of each – and may the dram be with you.

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When nurture trumps nature

Putting their stamp on it.  PATRICK LECLEZIO ruminates on independent bottlings.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2017 edition).

The whisky industry is a strange and fascinating beast.  It is virtually unique, which is largely why its output inspires such passionate devotion (also because it’s tasty I guess).  Elsewhere, in more dour pastures, the usual expectation is for an organisation that puts out a product to have produced it itself, or at a minimum, in this specialising era, to have conceived and designed it and perhaps contracted out the actual production.  Not so with whisky.  Despite being rigidly conventional, and cosseted by tradition in many respects, the industry is also extraordinarily nimble in others, nowhere more so than with what’s known as independent bottling.  Tiny in volume, colossal in variety, it’s a microcosmic snapshot of how the industry operates, and of what whisky’s all about.

Independent bottling is the practice by one party of further producing, and then marketing and selling, whisky that was initially produced by another party.  This sounds a bit clumsy, but unavoidably so.  At this point, before throwing these terms about any further, it may be worth contextualising what is meant by “production of whisky”.  If one reduces this analysis to identifying discrete opportunities to add meaningful value to the final output – which is a must for any party like an independent bottler trying to insert itself into the process, then I’d suggest that there are three broad stages: distillation of the new make (being the entire process culminating in distillation), maturation, and vatting or blending or timing.  The independent bottler is not involved in distillation, in imbuing the liquid with its nature (at least not for its independent bottlings), but can be involved in the other stages to a greater or lesser extent, the grooming of the liquid into whisky.  Funnily enough, though a moot point in that it doesn’t influence the whisky, the actual bottling is in most cases done by another third party, or perhaps even by the producing party.

The origins of independent bottling date back to the dawn of Scotch whisky’s big blockbuster brands, when grocers bought liquid from distillers to create their own proprietary blends. Some of these evolved into the multiple-distillery-owning behemoths that dominate the industry today, others into what we’ve come to know as independent bottlers.  We owe a debt to many of the latter in particular for sheltering and nurturing the malt whisky flame along the way.  There was a time when single malts were only available, virtually, from independent bottlers, and it was probably their cultivation of this niche into something significant that prompted the big distillers to follow suit.  This prescient attentiveness, when no-one else was much interested, means that the older, more established independent bottlers have stocks of some of the oldest malt whiskies in existence.  In 2015 Gordon & MacPhail issued bottlings of a 75 year old Mortlach, the oldest whisky ever released, a record they had already held with the previous releases of two 70 year olds, a Mortlach and a Glenlivet.  If you’re in the market for old Scotch malt whisky, generally at much more reasonable prices than equivalent distillery offerings, independent bottlings will provide a rich potential source.

There are many other advantages aside from its aged stocks and favourable costs that independent bottlers proffer to the whisky lover.  The mechanisms by which liquid is traded amongst the big distillers (for their blends) and the smaller operators like independent bottlers are largely shrouded from public view, but certain deductions can be made.   Distillers sell to independent bottlers for commercial reasons of course, but also for whisky reasons; if, for instance, individual casks are judged to be excessively outwith the parameters of the house style it may be deemed preferable to get rid of them.  The ensuing independent bottlings play the same role as that often underlying the deployment of vintage malts: manifesting variations of standard expressions that can be both interesting and compelling.  The phenomenon of “teaspooning”, which is undocumented but popularly believed to be true, is an interesting corollary to these trading practices.  Distilleries wanting to sell their liquid without lending their names to the independent bottlers in the bargain are reputed to add a teaspoon of a different malt to the cask being transacted, a rather messy device considering that it also prevents the whisky from being sold as a single malt.  The Westport blended malt for instance is understood to be Glenmorangie with a hint of Glen Moray.

The biggest boon though of independent bottlings is that they are small by definition.  Whilst these organisations can and do accumulate for making blended malts and blended whisky, the similar stock to which they have access tends to be of relatively reduced quantity.  The implications are twofold: firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, they put out a lot of small volume expressions of differing styles, constitution and flavour.  An explosion of variety.  The big producers have their limited edition and experimental forays, but they’re by and large focused on their larger variants.  If variety is the spice of life, then independent bottlers are pivotal to extending the range of our whisky experience; secondly, with little to underpin their liquid, the romance and backing of the distillery is arm’s length at best, independent bottlers often live and die by the sword – there’s no cushion so they need to constantly be adding value, providing something more, something different, something unique.  It’s a huge stimulus for innovation and distinctiveness.  Compass Box’s Spice Tree is a great example, as is the company as a whole, of this observation in action. The liquid is bought ready matured (ten years old), but then extra matured for two years in varying bespoke casks (the key constituent being the heavily toasted French oak heads), and finally intricately woven together by their blender. It’s a cohesive injection of accelerated complexity and willed variety that is interpreted on the nose and palate as sweet, spicy and rich.

The beauty of the independent bottling continuum is the multiple layers of opportunity that it offers to add value and apply a core competence, thereby prompting the introduction of new players and products into the mix.    The Checkers Liquor Private Barrel Company has specialised in bringing elusive single casks, which would otherwise rarely be seen here, to the South African marketplace.   Single casks are a precarious business.  There’s no place to hide – as there could be in a vatting or a blend.  It’s either good or it’s not.  In this light even something as seemingly minor as the selection or timing of a cask for bottling by a private bottler represents pivotal value – especially when integrated into a holistic plan for the product.  The latest expression, a judiciously selected and well-timed Glen Scotia 10 year old, is very good indeed, with a juicy, bursting flavour of tropical fruits and sweet spices.  If credence is needed then this whisky delivers in spades.

In many senses the whisky industry, despite its conventions and traditions, has been ahead of its time, and nowhere more so than in the sphere of independent bottlers.  There is something very modern and vibrant about the focus and specialisation that they have demonstrated.  Without their existence the industry would be much diminished, and we’d be shy of many wonderful whiskies.  Let’s look forward to travelling the new paths they’re forging on our continuing whisky journeys.  May the dram be with you.

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Breaking the glass ceiling

Bourbon gets interesting. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the latest stage in the evolution of America’s home grown spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2017 edition).

It’s impossible not to compare different styles of whisky.  People will always be measuring one thing against the other, especially things with a similar purpose.  When weighing up American whiskey alongside the other big styles, I’d always felt that it was a bit limited in its range of flavour.  I justify this opinion objectively with reference to its casks in particular:  whereas Scotch in contrast (or Irish for that matter) uses new and refill casks, made from American and European oak, treated by charring or toasting, with sizes and shapes from barrels to butts, seasoned by bourbon or sherry typically, but a wide variety of other liquors as well (and draws on this wide scope for its flavour profile), straight American whiskey is legally restricted to new, charred, oak, commercially restricted to white oak, conventionally restricted to barrels, and inevitably constrained as a consequence to a tighter band.  It’s been the blue-collar worker, the enlisted man, the poorer cousin, of the whisky world.  But things are a-changing, and bourbon is moving on up.

When I take a deeper look at any product I like to refer to its definition, the essence that gives it its identity and its constitution.  These are usually found floating about on Wikipedia and in various other crevices, but I decided in this case to get as close to the source as possible. The site for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TBB) of the United States publishes those for bourbon and straight bourbon as follows:

  • Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers
  • (Straight bourbon is) bourbon whisky stored in charred new oak containers for 2 years or more
  • “Straight Bourbon Whisky” may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskies provided all of the whiskies are produced in the same state […will big straight bourbon blends become a thing?]

The exercise allowed me to make two interesting observations, one peripheral the other central, which I otherwise wouldn’t if I hadn’t sourced the original reference:  firstly, that the legislators in the US have used the “whisky” spelling rather than the conventional “whiskey” spelling.  This may be vestigial, having remained in place from the earliest laws governing production, before the Irish and Americans introduced the e to differentiate their products from Scotch; and secondly, that there is a huge variety of whiskey styles in the United States, the bar for most being very low.  This reinforced to me that the credibility of American whiskey as a broad category rests on straight whisky. The ability thus to generate complexity and variety within the scope of these definitions is critical.

The bourbon regulations allow more latitude with stills, and mashbills, relative to some other styles.  This is the reason why a brand like Woodford Reserve is able to employ a triple pot distillation to distinguish its product and flavour profile from most other bourbons, which are double distilled in column and doubler stills (essentially a combination of a column still and a pot still).  The still types and distillation techniques may promote flavour subtleties between one bourbon and another, but it’s a measured contribution, not a revolution – the stuff of a sergeant’s stripes, not a commission.  The mashbill is more impactful.   Corn must be predominant, but thereafter, in the selection and weighting of the secondary ingredient (known as the flavour grain, because of its pivotal influence), there is room to play – with three basic styles resulting: wheated, rye, and high rye.  The former tends to be softer and sweeter, with cereal and grass flavours prominent – and there’s a preconception that it matures more gracefully, largely on the back of the Pappy van Winkle legacy I would think – whilst the latter two are bolder, spicier and fruitier.  A bourbon becomes high rye when this component approaches and exceeds 20% of the mashbill.  These three styles are well populated but the inclination to further tap this ostensibly rich vein seems muted.  Buffalo Trace’s E.H. Taylor Four Grain, using corn, malted barley (the standard tertiary ingredient, there to assist with fermentation) and BOTH rye and wheat, is a recent rare iteration (although there have been others).  This is a transcending era though, so it’ll be interesting to see what else springs from this well in the next few years.  Maybe an entirely new grain could be attempted, like unmalted barley.

We don’t get many American whiskeys in South Africa – perhaps that’s indicative of my starting point in itself – so we’re a little behind on the latest developments.  Sadly too, the Buffalo Trace distillery, one of the more innovative producers, is not presently represented locally.  We’re unlikely therefore to be seeing any Taylor bottles on our shelves anytime son.  Interestingly however the heralds to our shores of bourbon’s new swagger are products exploiting the most restrictive aspect of the definition: that guiding the maturation.   New charred oak only?  It’s a hell of a limit, but one that absolutely had to be challenged if any headway was to be made – time and wood are whisky’s single most important sources of flavour.

The wonderful Knob Creek, one of the standout bourbons to which we have ready access, is evidence of the initial forays, pushing charring to its maximum to better access the flavours in the woods and to carve a route for the liquid to travel and make deepest possible contact.  Jim Beam’s Double Oak, one of the latest arrivals, takes a leaf from Scotch with its double maturation (albeit both in same barrel styles), producing a succulent whiskey that’s rich, sweet and oaky, and highly drinkable.  I cracked a bottle with some colleagues after work, intending a quick drink before ducking home, but before I knew it a few hours had passed and the bottle was done.  Most inspiring though is the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.  The distillery has become known in the past while for its innovative work with wood – their Maple Wood Finish in particular was ground-breaking, although like many of the other products in their Master’s Collection it can’t be called a bourbon, so probably destined to stay niched.  The Double Oaked is most certainly a bourbon, also double matured like the Jim Beam, with the second racking being in casks that were deeply toasted first then submitted to a light charring.  The resulting depth of flavour has put my notions about the constrained potential of bourbon to the sword.

There’s a lot more that’s happening, and that can and will happen: the use of other oak species, of larger casks (particularly for a spirit that overcooks easily), of White oak grown in different eco-systems, to name just a few possibilities.  We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg but it’s enough to convince me that maturation – ironically, bourbon’s more confined and restrained space – is where the vital play is being, and will continue to be, made.  The innovation that’s being wrought is its ticket to the big stage, to an eventual equal billing with its more fancied forerunners.  I look forward with eager anticipation to the fruits of the endeavour.  May the dram be with you.

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The land of the rising dram

Whisky, big in Japan.  Japan, big in whisky.  Patrick Leclezio separates his mizuwaris from his oyuwaris.

Whisky geeks have been on it for a while, but now it’s starting to explode in the mainstream.  Japanese, if you can get it, is the hottest thing in whisky.  And it’s been due for some time. Bill Murray memorably introduced (most of) us to it in 2003’s Lost in Translation: “For good times, make it Suntory time”.  After all when some paranormal publicity is required who you gonna call? Since then Suntory and Nikka, both the company and brand names of the two leading players, and their flagship single malts, Yamazaki and Yoichi, have rapidly established themselves in our collective consciousness, with the smaller marques following in their wakes.  Demand has grown to fever pitch, but with South Africa low on the list of supply priorities, the stuff is thin on the ground.  I wanted to know more and try more before writing this piece, so I sought out the country’s leading Japanese whisky distributor (and expert) Hector McBeth, to tap into his voluminous knowledge of the subject…and to sneak a few drams from his private stock.

Stranger in a strange land.  Five words that sum up the origins of Japanese whisky.  A Japanese man living and studying in distant Scotland in the early twentieth century.  A curious Scottish tradition taking root in Japan shortly thereafter.  These are the two intertwined threads, epitomising the unifying magic of whisky, that precipitated this industry.   Its watershed moment though came much later, in 2008, when Yoichi’s 20YO and the Suntory Hibiki were awarded the titles of world’s best single malt and world’s best blended whisky respectively by Whisky Magazine, one of the most credible of whisky authorities.  A deluge of awards have followed.

The face behind the liquid and its success, is somewhat inscrutable.  In fact Japanese whisky is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand there’s extreme rigidity.  The model and the basic techniques, and hence the flavours, are derived from Scotch.  I had always held out that the one tangibly identifiable feature distinguishing its whisky from others was the use of Japanese oak (mizunara), inserting the incense notes that are identifiable in some of its expressions.  Hector disavowed me of the notion, confirming that the proportion of these casks in any vatting or blend is minimal.  It’s a nice story, and it’s sometimes apparent (in Yamazaki in particular), but on the whole it’s not significant.  There just isn’t enough of the stuff (the wood).  Adding to its limitations, the various distilleries, already few in number, by and large do not trade stocks outside of their parent companies (of which there are fewer still), hence restricting the variety of product that’s available for vatting and blending.  This is a traditional convention, profoundly fixed in the Japanese ethic of company loyalty.  The result is a set of institutions that can appear deeply conservative, unimaginative and cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face inhibiting.

Then there’s the other hand, the contrast.  Paradoxically the same issues that have constrained Japanese whisky seem also to have driven it forward.  Starved of variety, Japanese distilleries began producing it for themselves.  A Scotch distillery will typically only produce one type of new make.  In Japan individual distilleries began experimenting with different barleys, different malting methods, different yeasts, different stills, and different distillation methods, to produce a wide variety of different single malts.  Bamboo charcoal filtration has been introduced.  High quality single malt has been made in a Coffey still. Necessity as they say is the mother of invention.  The narrow parameters of their setup – the adoption of the Scotch paradigm, the cultural issues – seem to have stimulated rather than restrained innovation – producing spectacular results.

The real impacts remain implicit rather than explicit.  It’s difficult to point out visible, significant distinguishing features.  Whereas other territories have made their mark with radical departures, the Japanese have made small tweaks, focusing on execution of the details.  Their work with yeast is supposedly industry leading, to the point, Hector tells me, that they legally register their strains.  My take-out is that they have taken vatting and blending to greater levels of dedication than anyone else.   Ireland and North America have their own very distinct styles.  Scotch is bound to provenance.   Japan is all about using their human resources to make the most of their limited physical resources – in whisky as in everything else really.  This is particularly evident in blended malts.   A neglected sector elsewhere the Japanese have embraced it, recognising and exploiting the extra dimension that it offers.  I’ve often maintained that blended malts have all the intrinsic advantages of single malts, and then some: they go beyond by providing the blender with an extensive palette of varying liquid, resulting in vatted potential that is undeniably superior (at least theoretically).   The Nikka portfolio in SA is a case in point: Nikka Pure Malts Red and Black, and the Taketsuru Pure Malt, along with Nikka from the Barrel, a high malt blend, being the most prevalent.

The industry has gone about things its own way, assiduously keeping the faith.  What it lacks in macro it has doubled in micro creativity, as growing legions of fans can bear witness.   If you’d like to be in that number, then march over to either Kyoto Gardens or Bascule Bar in Cape Town, or WhiskyBrother in Joburg, South Africa’s most assured purveyors of Japanese whisky.  May the dram be with you.

Sidebar:

Mizuwari: whisky with water and ice, served in a tall glass and stirred 13 and half times.

Oyuwaris: whisky with hot water, a custom that was borrowed from the drinking of sochu (the indigenous Japanese spirit).

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Treats from the top shelf

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

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

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

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

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

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

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

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

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

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

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

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

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

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