Category Archives: Whisky column

My monthly whisky column in Prestige Magazine

The essentials of whisky

An often confusing navigation. PATRICK LECLEZIO cuts through the clutter

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

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“We distill our whisky more slowly than any other distillery in Scotland”. This snippet is courtesy of Glengoyne. How about this one? (I bet you know it). “Triple distilled, twice as smooth, one great taste”. These are just two of innumerable promotional shots in an incessant barrage. The whisky industry monologue, as its brands clamour for your attention and, more importantly, for your hard earned lucre, is peppered with all sorts of often confounding claims. Buying whisky can be akin to taking an exam for which you haven’t studied, like trying to appreciate a tune that you like in a cacophony of noise. What matters and what doesn’t? A how-long-is –a-ball-of-string question for the ages really – one about which voluminous tracts can be written (I won’t, not here). It’s worth though taking the time to dip our feet.

So, why should you buy one whisky rather than another of the many available? There are a multitude of reasons, some of which are central to the product, and some not. The latter group, whilst ìt can be significant to enjoyment, featuring influences like branding, is not relevant for our purposes here, which is to focus on a few tangible and factual observations related to the liquid itself – the flavour, the texture, and even the colour – and thereby to objectively guide purchase. A whisky, in order to win you over, needs to resolve the question in its favour; and to do so it ideally needs to demonstrate meaningful differences from which the basis for preference might be inspired. You on the other hand need to interrupt the monologue – with a firm put up or shut up. Here’s how.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the beginning there was the grain, and the grain was with whisky, and the grain was whisky. The type of grain, usually barley, malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye, is significant, and will manifest differently, but it’s rarely a critical variable unless you’re deciding between styles of whisky, in which case many other factors encroach. There are exceptions though. Bourbon for instance must be comprised of minimum 51% corn, but can include either rye or wheat as a secondary grain (often called the flavour grain). Rye will typically give a spicy flavour, wheat a cereal biscuit flavour. More pertinently you’ll be entreated to believe that a variant of a particular grain sets a whisky apart. Optic barley, the original Golden Promise, organic, exclusively Scottish-grown barley, Islay-grown…whatever. In reality, whilst it impacts on issues like yield and raw material cost, too distant to be of any concern to us the apprehensive receptacles at the far end of the line, it makes little or no difference to flavour. The exception perhaps is peat smoke, which transmits itself impressively into the resultant whisky through malting (or specifically kilning). Consequently, the constitution of that smoke, the peat from which it emanates – be it coastal, in its many varieties, or inland – makes a mark, albeit subtle.

The grain then gets milled, mashed, and fermented, but there aren’t really enough differences between distilleries for these processes to have any kind of a pronounced impact. Wooden or metal washbacks? It’s nice of them to point it out on a visitors’ tour but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Bourbon and Japanese producers tend to make a lot of noise about their individual yeasts. I’m still in dreamland, although maybe because it has never been specifically demonstrated to me. Some whisky experts disagree, I’m still not sure that the average whisky lover would notice or should care.

The culmination of production, like a shining copper beacon in the night announcing its importance, is the distillation itself. And here’s where it’s time to wake up. Woodford Reserve is the only mainstream bourbon to be distilled in copper pots – affording its distillate a “conversation” that resonates in the final product. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland – the height of an adult giraffe. How do I know? They’ve ensured that I’ve absorbed this fact by repeatedly disseminating it to me. And it is indeed important. The type of still, the size of the still, the copper, and the shape of the still, are all critical to the individual taste of a whisky. Glenmorangie’s long slender stills foster a light, delicate spirit, Macallan’s short, rotund stills a richer, heavier spirit. I swear that I can almost taste their shape when I drink a Macallan. That may be a stretch but there can be no doubting that it sets the liquid apart. Every distiller will tell you that when they replace a still it’s copied to the last detail – if the original was dented, well then a near-as-damn-it identical dent is administered to its successor. As to differences (actual real differences) in length of distillation, and the number of distillations…apologies to Glengoyne and Jameson – as much as I enjoy both of their creations, I remain to be convinced.
Moving on. Whisky may be the water of life, but the role of the water used in its production and its reduction is pretty much equivalent regardless of the source. The former is distilled – I’ve yet to taste distilled water that distinguishable one from another. The latter is demineralised – rendering it as generic as generic gets. Yet whiskies often talk up their water, talk best digested with a liberal pinch of salt.

I’ve saved the most important for last. It’s generally acknowledged that up to 70% of the flavour of a whisky comes from the wood in which it’s aged. It follows then that maturation is a critical point of difference. Spanish, American or Japanese oak? Seasoned with sherry, bourbon, or something more exotic? First-fill, or refill? Duration of maturation? Double maturation or extra maturation (otherwise known as finishing)? As promised I’m sparing you the detail, save to say that there’s nothing that exerts more sway. Take careful note, and drink it all in.

There’s lots more, lots. But this brief guide hopefully should map out the areas that warrant exploration, and those that don’t. These are the questions on the exam paper, the noise-cancelling earphones to sift out the sweet music of whisky. Good luck, and may the dram be with you.

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The headline whiskies of 2014

PATRICK LECLEZIO toasts the standouts of a quality year

First published in the December 2014 edition of Prestige Magazine.

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Whisky, amongst the many services it renders, often provides us with insight into the rampant consumerism of modern society – a view from which I take delight and despair in equal measure. This is a space in which new products are constantly clamouring for our attention, and whilst it’s exciting to discover and explore new things, there’s also a numbing futility to be repeatedly chasing after the shiny new toy. Here in South Africa we’re both unlucky to be isolated, and fortunate to be insulated, from the world’s whisky mainstream. Swings and roundabouts. We can’t get our hands on the hottest style in the market (read rye whiskey), but then again we’re shielded from a lot of the noise. I’ve started to look at the bright side. This enforced moderation gives us the opportunity for more considered appreciation. The last twelve months in particular have been relatively quiet but they’ve served up the four whiskies featured below – each different and distinctive, each exceedingly enjoyable, each memorable, and each deserving of and able to be given meaningful attention. Less is sometimes more. May the dram be with you.

Black Bottle

Black Bottle, the brand, is not new. It’s been around for a while – as evidenced by the large “Estd 1879” embossed on the bottle. I’m not going to go into its history, save to say that it has one and that it’s colourful, in obligatory whisky fashion. However, Black Bottle, the product, the one you’ll now find on the shelves of your local bottle store, is indeed new. There’s been an overhaul to the packaging and the liquid, both inspired. The bottle has returned to its roots – back in black glass for the first time since circa 1914. It was unveiled before us in a 1930’s era speakeasy (aka the basement of the Cape Town Club) – the launch taking the form of a striking piece of experiential theatre, conceived and co-ordinated by 3 Blind Mice’s Patrick Craig, with whom Black Bottle is also teaming on his legendary music events. These though – the robe, the showmanship – were distractions which pale in comparison to the monumental transformation undergone by whisky itself. Previously thin with a somewhat grating smoky dominance, it is now a rich and complex blend. Most interestingly, whilst the phenolic content is unchanged, the smoke is less apparent – being superbly counterbalanced by flavours of fennel, fruit and spice. This is a complete blended Scotch whisky that ticks all the boxes. Superb value priced in the mid R200’s

Glenfiddich 26YO

I’ve never tasted a Glenfiddich that’s disappointed me, and I don’t expect that I ever will. It’s the best-selling single malt in the world for good reason. The 12YO, my faithful long-haul flight companion (thanks Emirates), and the 15YO Solera, my anytime-anyplace companion, are personal favourites. In the malt whisky world Glenfiddich is as reliable as it gets. Reliability may not sound sexy, but when you’re shelling out R3500 odd, as you would for this whisky, it should need no persuasion that this is an attribute worth seeking. That the 26YO would be good then was a fait accompli. It was presented to us by Global Brand Ambassador Ian Millar during a fabulous launch function at the Pot Luck Club. Interestingly the whisky is exclusively matured in ex-bourbon casks. The result is a soft, sweet liquid with pleasing depth and hints of spice and sherbet. The litmus test of a great whisky though is its ability to make a connection with people. And if I’d had any doubts about Glenfiddich (I hadn’t) they would have been quickly dispelled when the whole restaurant accompanied Ian, unreservedly, in full voice, in a rendition of the Glenfiddich theme song – to the tune of “Volare”. Ignition baby! I can’t definitively say that it’s “better than all the rest” as the lyrics suggested, but it’s good, damn good.

Glenlivet Guardians Chapter: Exotic

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m suspicious of multi-vintage No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The concept – as it’s currently being applied – is an industry swindle. I’ve also not been shy however to shower praise on good NAS whiskies. This is one of those. It rates a mention not only because of its quality, but also because it’s a fascinating approach to whisky making. The brand reached out to its fans – via their Glenlivet Guardians program and at special events – and effectively invited them to participate in the blending process. I’d always thought that “ask the audience” was the best lifeline. This whisky proves it. The nose is spectacular, one of the best in recent memory, redolent of chocolate, cinnamon, zesty fruit, and moist cake. There are flashes of immaturity in the body, but not enough to detract from its thick juiciness. Well executed, and great value at approximately R1200. It’s a limited edition so don’t procrastinate. If you want it get it fast.

Single pot stills

Ok, so I misled you slightly when I alluded to four whiskies earlier. My fourth isn’t a whisky but a range of whiskeys. Much awaited, much anticipated, the Irish Distillers single pot stills headed by Redbreast, were finally made officially available in the country earlier in the year. These whiskeys come with a well-merited reputation – a cult status. I’ve enthusiastically sloshed and swigged each of the range at some point in time recently, abandoning myself to the pure pleasure of it on these occasions. When the opportunity came though for more reflective consumption I focused on the progenitors, the ground-breakers responsible for resuscitating this fine, uniquely Irish style of whiskey – these being Green Spot, Redbreast 12YO, and Redbreast 15YO. Apple flavours, progressing from ripe Granny Smiths in Green Spot (suggested by the label?…you tell me), to baked and then caramelised in the two Redbreasts, swim on a filmy, oily texture, amidst fainter appearances of cut grass, sultanas and apricot. Utterly outstanding! It’s insane that the style almost died out – a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions narrowly averted. If you’re limiting yourself to one new whisky during this festive season look no further than to the green hills of Ireland.

Whisky in the winelands

The collection at Cavalli

First published in Private Edition magazine (December 2014 edition).

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It’s said that one should never mix one’s drinks. As an unashamed practitioner of these dark arts, I reject the idea in the strongest possible terms. There’s little that’s more satisfying than enjoying a broad repertoire, preferably one after the other (deferred gratification is overrated). Nonetheless, despite these tendencies, I was surprised recently to stumble upon a bit of an oddity at Cavalli Estate: a massive stash of whisky on a wine farm. What’s more blatant than mixing the grain with the grape?

Odd but not outrageous. Located not too far away are Asara and the Devon Valley Hotel, both boasting outstanding whisky selections, an indication that even here, in a region that has wine so tightly clutched to its bosom, whisky has begun to demand its rightful share of attention. This one though was something special – the private whisky collection of Cavalli owner Jerome Smith, stretching to over 400 carefully accumulated whiskies.

Almost 15 years ago I was privileged to “tour” (that’s how it felt – such was its extent) the whisky collection of the late Leslie Zulberg, probably the finest ever put together in the country. This was during my whisky nascency, and yes, while I knew that I was in the presence of something extraordinary, looking back now I realise that it was largely wasted on the younger, greener me. We are the sum of our experiences, and that visit played its part in my journey, but being more knowledgeable now after having visited distilleries in places as close as Wellington and as far-flung as Islay, and having tasted whiskies as illustrious as the John Walker Diamond Jubilee (a 60YO blend) and as unusual as the Michel Couvreur Spirale (an 18YO finished in Jura vin de paille casks), I saw the Cavalli visit as going some way to redeem me.

Whisky collections are a source of both excitement and discomfort to me. It’s a subject on which I feel genuinely conflicted. On the one hand there’s admiration, of course. The sight of all of those bottles, lined up like an army in formation, often in their hundreds, will unfailingly quicken the collective pulse of whisky lovers everywhere. This I think is a natural reaction to an object of desire – and any collection worth its salt will invariably amass serious desire in serious volume. These collections are also a testament to discipline and persistence of the collector, civilization-building virtues to which I can’t help but doff my hat. And yet, on the other hand – it must be said – they’re an exercise in thwarted purpose. There’s a significant fraction of the world’s finest whiskies – whiskies that are the culmination of generations of incremental expertise, whiskies that in many cases have spent decades patiently maturing in a cask, and whiskies that have been made and cultivated specifically to be the best of the best – that will likely never pass the lips, but instead will spend a lifetime, if not many lifetimes, locked away in glass. So whilst a great collection is beautiful, it is somewhat sadly beautiful. Whisky is meant to be drunk.

Smith divulged to me that when he drinks whisky he tends to stick to the Balvenie 12YO. It’s a delicious dram, no doubt, but how tempting it must be to reach a little higher when the facility to do so is so evidently at one’s disposal. Did I mention discipline?

The Cavalli collection is imposingly impressive. When I asked him for his standouts Smith mentioned his 50YO’s – Glenfiddich (of which he has two) and Glen Grant. They need no introduction. Interestingly the former comes with a certificate which allows the bearer to sample the whisky when visiting the distillery. If one considers that a tot sells for R18k at the V&A’s Bascule Bar, then this is very useful indeed, an added bonus which goes some way to tempering the pain of constantly contemplating but never opening this gem of a whisky.
My slightly morose reflection on collections should be further balanced by the value of whisky as an investment – not necessarily the raison d’être for collecting, but always playing a part. I don’t have a crystal ball and I hesitate to recommend whisky in general as an area of ongoing value growth, but it’s unarguable that its performance over the last decade has been exceptional – a case of dramatically rising demand that was, completely and critically, unanticipated by the industry. Under-supplied, highly-aged stock has consequently been selling for a fortune. This is the drawback to whisky production – it’s a slow and time consuming process. Any whisky is at least three years in the making, great whisky considerably more.

As I laboriously pored over the collection, one shelf after the other, I suddenly came to an abrupt standstill. There is one particular whisky that lives largest in the dreams of all whisky investors…(cue drumroll) the 1964 Black Bowmore (cue cymbals). My itinerant preoccupation with whisky has taken me to a few memorable places, Bowmore included. Funnily enough though my opportunity to see the Black Bowmore in the flesh came not at the Islay distillery but at Auld Alliance in Singapore, which at the time accommodated a first edition in pristine condition with a near-as-damn-it original fill level. These bottles had initially retailed for some £80 when they were first released in 1993 – they now fetch upwards of £6500. You don’t need to do the maths. It’s a staggering performance, by any standard. The second and third editions, which followed in 1994 and 1995, were similarly (if marginally less) spectacular. Together they created a dynasty. The Cavalli bottle is from the final edition (bottled in 2007 from what remained of those same casks, and sold for considerably more), but regardless it retains its claim as one of the most iconic products in the history of whisky. The collection’s other highlights read like Scotch whisky’s roll of honour (not that these whiskies are dead, far from it): Macallan 1937, Highland Park 1962, Bowmore 1968, and Macallan 1969. I was inclined to bow.

The Zulberg collection, when I had encountered it, was locked away in a basement in the declining Johannesburg suburb of Orange Grove. The discordance of it has stayed with me all these years. Luckily the Cavalli collection suffers no such obscurity. It’s not as loud as it is proud – viewings are by appointment only – but it is accessible to a wider audience and, being exquisitely presented in display cabinets, it sensibly fosters a look-but-preferably-don’t-touch appreciation.

As if the whisky wasn’t enough (it was), I was awed by Cavalli in its entirety. The only thing I can reliably inform you about its eponymous horses is which are the front and back ends. I like horses but the less I say about them the better. The rest of it though was in closer vicinity to my comfort zone, so I feel I can pass comment with some measure of assurance. The food is faultless, in fact my rib-eye was literally perfect, the wine is delicious, the sommelier having recommended the Warlord (the estate’s flagship red blend) to accompany my steak, the gallery and other scattered artworks are delightful, with Pierneefs aplenty, and the view is astonishing, taking in the full broad swathe of the Helderberg. Cavalli then is a close to perfect outing for the bon vivant with a whisky bent. May the dram be with you.

Hobnobbing with the scions of Scotland

First published in Compleat Golfer magazine (November 2014 edition).

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My earliest memories of golf are of the Open. The sights and sounds of Turnberry, Carnoustie, Muirfield, and, naturally, St. Andrew’s – the infamous road hole in particular – ring clear amidst the echoes from my childhood. I seized the opportunity to visit Troon some years ago, but it was just for a quick lunch before catching a flight from nearby Prestwick (ironically home to the first ever Open); so my connection to the tournament has remained regrettably removed…until this year. Timings coincided, distances contracted, and fates converged when I was invited on a monumental tour to celebrate the launch of Glen Grant’s 50YO whisky – a tour featuring the final day’s play of golf’s foremost competition.

Golf and whisky share a common bond – a familial bond. The Irish may dispute it but history officially pronounces whisky to have first emerged in Scotland in 1494, when mention of it was recorded in the country’s Exchequer Rolls for that year. Less than 40 years earlier, the first reference to golf was noted when it was banned (in vain, clearly) by the King of the Scots. Fruits of the same loins, and not too far apart; it’s small wonder then that these veritable twins often keep the same company – in this case fifteen avid South Africans, raring to spend time with both.

Ensconced in the Champions Club, our lavish hospitality area at Hoylake, we embarked on frequent sorties – cheering Charl Schwartzel, who played well but failed to ignite a real challenge, Sergio Garcia who was looking good until he floundered at the 15th, and finally Rory McIlroy, who held his nerve to clinch the title. It was a day long in the making. And whilst I registered the absence of the links weather which had coloured my recollections – I would not get to trudge lashed and sodden in the footsteps of this era’s Tom Watson – it lived up to all expectations.

Later in the tour, as I raised a snifter of the majestic whisky that we’d travelled all this way to honour, I called to mind the image of McIlroy with Claret Jug aloft. There was no need for any kind of envy. He was tight with one sibling and I with the other. All was right with the world. May the dram be with you.

Out and about with whisky

The Speyside episode. Patrick Leclezio toasts the highlights from a tour to end all tours.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2014 edition).

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I remember my first trip to Scotland like it was yesterday – partly because if fell over 11 September 2001 (I heard the news at a little pub on the banks of Loch Ness), but also, more cheerfully, because it introduced me to the world’s ultimate whisky destination. The area on either side of the Spey River in the Highlands of Scotland – a span located approximately between the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness – is undoubtedly the most special place in the whisky world. Scotch whisky divides its formidable universe into five official regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and Speyside. The latter, the object of my current affections – colloquially known as Strathspey, is by a Scottish country mile the most prolific, being home to some 49 malt whisky distilleries. I was recently gifted the privilege of return visit, as part of a tour to celebrate Glen Grant Single Malt’s just-launched 50YO. It was a trip to remember. Here are a few highlights of the region for the whisky pilgrim. May the dram be with you.

The Craigellachie Hotel

Their website claims 750, their staff told us that it’s now over a thousand. That’s the number of whiskies they offer at their bar (The Quaich), and whatever the precise figure might be it’s a lot – something about shaking a stick comes to mind. The hotel, despite its renown, or maybe because of it, is completely unobtrusive – the generic “Hotel” lettering being the only signage advertising its presence. There’s a deep sense of rustic Scotland that resides here, from the copper light fittings at the front door, to the preponderance of wood: wooden bar, wooden chairs, tables, and shelves – all that was missing was a couple of casks. It’s an undeniably special place at which pause in a journey to enjoy a few drams. Ironically enough our barman was South African, more ironic still, he’s the son of one of the owners of Wild about Whisky, South Africa’s answer to the Craigellachie Hotel. It’s a small and strange world.

Loch Ness

The Monster might be a laughable concoction, but you’ve got to give it to those canny Scots – they’ve taken an ordinary, albeit picturesque, lake and transformed it into a tourist attraction of global repute. The upshot is that tour boats ply the waters regularly, transporting the gullible, the cynical and all paying customers in between over this “mystical” expanse of water. And so it was that I found myself lazily basking on a deck, sipping whisky with my fellow tour-mates in the soft Scottish sunlight, and watching castles, ruins, and other pleasant sights of little consequence as they drifted past. In short it’s a brilliant way to spend an afternoon – just for a lark. Here too, as almost everywhere else in Speyside, the connection to whisky is never far away; the loch’s waters owe their murkiness to dissolved peat, the same stuff that’s burnt to impart a distinct smoky flavour to certain whiskies.

Glen Grant

The stills, the mash tuns, the washbacks, and even the quaint stone buildings are much the same as at other distilleries in the area, but the spectacular gardens, set in a glen carved out by the Black Burn, ensure that the distillery lives in a league all of its own. We meandered through them at leisurely pace, stopping for a picnic under a pagoda, before eventually reaching the “Dram Hut”, a yonks old structure accommodating a whisky safe fixed into the rock – not some sort of decorative spirit safe mind you, an actual metal strongbox containing whisky (you can’t make up this stuff!) – where we were treated to a few drams of the Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grant 25YO. This whisky dates back to an earlier era, some of it being as old as 37 years, when the distillery still made a peated malt, so it seemed like quite a fitting drink to facilitate our pursuit of a deeper acquaintance with the place – and the more of it we drank, the more facilitated we felt.

Scottish cuisine

The Scots are not known for their food but it turns out that some of it is pretty damn good. Aberdeen Angus, the breed of cattle exalted in Argentina and other meat-loving locales, originates from nearby, and quality steaks of this fine beef are in ready supply all over Speyside. We did not desist in our appreciation. Likewise we filled our boots with local scallops, Scottish salmon – smoked over wood chips made from old whisky casks – and most notably, haggis, served in the traditional manner, with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), both mashed. The customary breakfasts in these parts – similar to the English version but with the addition of baked beans and black pudding – is also well worth trying. And to those apprehensive at the thought of haggis and black pudding let me say this – don’t think about it, just go for it, they’re both delicious.

A Scotch major

Patrick Leclezio harnesses his big dram temperament as he goes in pursuit of the title

First published in Golf Digest (September 2014 edition).

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“To see a world in a grain of sand”. I was reminded of Blake’s words – perhaps in a less metaphorical sense than he had intended – as I watched Sergio Garcia visit the 15th hole bunker at Hoylake during the final day of the 2014 Open Championship. It was a portentous moment. I joined the surge to the green, knowing, like everyone else in that gallery, that the fate of the title might well rest on whatever happened next. This was golf appreciation at its pinnacle – the decisive period at the game’s home major. The atmosphere was simply electric.

The rest of course is history. Garcia fluffed his trap shot and his challenge disintegrated. Instead of holding infinity in the palm of his hand, there was probably just a fist clenched in frustration. I was disappointed, but only mildly so; my horse might not have come in but it had been an epic day on a fantastic links course (luckily with distinctly unlinks-like weather – my British fellow course-goers were for the most part tinted bright red). I returned to drown my sorrows, such as they were, at the Champions Club, our opulent (remember that word) hospitality area, with the rest of our major-going party – actually, let me qualify that: our double-major-going party. A group of us had flown to Britain, less for the golf than for another major – a whisky major.

In whisky the equivalent of a major, the prizes to which most patrons of the golden nectar aspire, are the old and the rare – most conventionally manifest in the form of a 50 year old. These are the “big shows” of the whisky world, eagerly awaited and widely publicised.

It might be useful at this point to consider what the age of a whisky entails, and why 50 years of it might be regarded to be so special. The ageing phenomenon is called maturation and it occurs through contact with wood, in casks made from oak. A whisky can only age in maturation – once it is decanted from a cask it is in a sense frozen in time. During maturation the whisky absorbs flavour from the cask itself (vanillins and tannins naturally present in the wood), from the liquid that preceded it and that remains impregnated in the cask (most commonly Bourbon or Sherry), and, less overtly, but in many cases distinctly nonetheless, from the cask’s environment as it breathes. The whisky also reduces in alcoholic strength during this ageing process – a result of evaporation (the twee-named Angel’s Share). The broad (and very important) result is a mellowing and flavouring of the liquid. In fact it’s widely acknowledged that maturation is the single factor that makes the greatest contribution to the flavour of any whisky. So it stands to reason, on a very simplistic level, that more ageing, more mellowing and more flavouring, must be desirable…up to a point. 50 years for many whiskies is well past that point, so when a cask continues to improve as it marches onwards towards that magical milestone, it’s cause for a celebration of top tournament proportions.

Which explains (but not really) how a crew of enthusiastic South Africans came to be at Royal Liverpool for the culmination of golf’s greatest major: we were on route to Scotland for one of whisky’s greatest majors – an unveiling of the Glen Grant 50YO. Sixteen men, an unlimited drinks budget, and a fierce love of whisky: all the makings of an unforgettable adventure.

Our base in Scotland was the town of Elgin (that’s with a hard-g good people), the very one from which ours in the Cape takes its name. There were no apple orchards here, but this was more than compensated for by a preponderance of whisky, nowhere more so than at our lodgings. The Mansefield Hotel is an unassuming place; it is comfortable and hospitable – we were frequently, and graciously, attended to by the owner and his family – but in most respects it gives the impression of being quite middling…an impression that is dramatically arrested and turned on its head at sight of its bar. The Mansefield bar is quite simply a showstopper, boasting a selection of whiskies that would put all but a paltry few of the world’s best hotels to shame. A Glenfiddich 50YO in alliance with various 40YO’s, including a Dalmore, a Balvenie, and some 60 odd from the Glenfarclas Clans collection, holds sway over a substantial, entrancing host. Whisky porn. It was near impossible to look away. The hotel has quite rightly as a result become the accommodation of choice in the area for whisky tourists from all over the world. We shared the place, and a few drinks naturally, with a festive band of whisky “ambassadors” who’d made the long pilgrimage from Hong Kong – an impromptu coming-together of the whisky brotherhood in one of whisky’s truly special places.

The highlight of the trip, indeed the purpose for which we’d teed up at the start, was of course -and I say “of course” with some contemplation, not because I’m doubtful of its veracity, but rather because it demanded something exceptional to qualify so obviously for the accolade – our visit to the Glen Grant distillery, to crown this much anticipated champion dram. The other contenders clamouring for the honour had included a personalised tour of Old Trafford, a cruise on Loch Ness, a round of golf at Castle Stuart, clay pigeon shooting, the aforementioned attendance at the Open, and a one-after-the-other succession of exquisite meals – we’d gorged ourselves on Scottish salmon, scallops, steaks of Aberdeen Angus, and haggis with neeps and tatties, accompanied by a repeating roll-call of delicious Sancerres, Barolos and Chateauneufs du Pape with which to wash it down. Did I say opulent? These though were all about to take a back seat.

We’d prepared for the visit by topping up our Glen Grant education at the Mansefield. No-one in their right mind plays a major without substantial practice – and then a bit of loosening up on the range before the start of the round. Back home we regularly get to enjoy the Glen Grant Major’s Reserve, the 10YO and the 16YO. This is the distillery’s core range – incidentally representing some of the best value single malt drinking on the market – with which we wasted no time in reacquainting ourselves. Occasionally, it also releases a few limited editions, most recently the 170th Anniversary edition, last seen in SA some two years ago, and the Five Decades, which came and went in a blur last year. I’d lamented the latter’s brief existence. It was an outstanding whisky: rich, creamy and full-flavoured – but I’d resigned myself to its expiry. So it was with no small measure of joy – a high-five dispensing type of joy – that I noticed a few bottles behind the bar, accompanied by the 170th no less. We sipped these drams into the wee hours with a it’s-hard-work-but-someone-has-to-do-it stoicism, retiring only when we felt ready to tackle the big one.

Now, I’ll be perfectly honest with you. Once you’ve seen the inner workings of one distillery, you’ve almost seen them all. A few have their own maltings, all but a few have their own unique stills, and there’s always a bit of variation here and there, but for the most part it’s more of the same. I’ve visited a dozen odd in my time, and whilst it’s always interesting to delve into the processes, there’s a limit to how excited I can get about it. In this respect however the excursion to Glen Grant – the 50YO moments not even counted – was an absolute exception, for two reasons.

Firstly, for any whisky loving layman, a distillery is less about its industrial functioning than about the setting (and the stories). Atypically for what are essentially factories, they tend to be quaint structures located in pretty surroundings – much like a clubhouse and its golf course. In that sense Glen Grant is the Augusta National of distilleries – its charismatic beauty is nothing short of exceptional. The bubbling burn, the stone buildings, and coach-house-cum-visitors-centre paint a picture of olde worlde elegance, that is then elevated to fine art by a glen of elaborate, splendorous gardens. And even there amidst the trees, flowers and birds, the presence of whisky is never far away – we were delighted to stop for a dram at the “secret” whisky safe set into the rock in the upper reaches of the garden.

Secondly (two reasons, remember), our tour of the distillery was conducted by the man who runs the place and makes all of its important whisky decisions – Scotland’s longest-serving Master Distiller, straight-talking Glen Grant supremo Dennis Malcolm. It puts a different spin on things when the guy who pulls the strings is the one who’s showing you around.

The big moment when it came was a spiritual experience. I’m never going to raise the claret jug (or any kind of golfing trophy for that matter), but holding that precious liquid gifted me with just an inkling of how that must feel. We put mouth (and nose – never forget the nose) to glass in the dunnage warehouse, the squat, thick walls imbuing the space with a cool, reflective quiet, the stacked rows of casks with a reverent, imposing gravitas. Few would get to drink this nectar, fewer still would drink it here on such hallowed ground. The whisky when it permeated my senses was big, very big, almost overwhelming, as one would expect from something this ancient; the pool of flavour so profound that it seemed to be reaching back, drawing from each and every one of those 50 years. This was eternity in an hour. May the dram be with you.

State of the nation 2014

South African whisky. PATRICK LECLEZIO visited Wellington to take a reading.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I wanted to get a gauge on the health of the whisky of this country there was really only one man I needed to see. Andy Watts is synonymous with South African whisky; in some 23 years at the helm of the James Sedgwick distillery he has steered the ship (all three of them if you will) from plonk to virtual perfection. His two prodigies, Three Ships and Bain’s, over the past two years, have come of age and earned their stripes, seizing the prestigious World Whisky Awards titles for best blended whisky and best grain whisky respectively. The scale of these achievements cannot be overstated, especially for young, previously unfancied whiskies from the foot of Africa. I sought him out to chat about the journey and about plans for the future.

There was a time not so long ago when Three Ships was sneered at and put down with all manner of disparaging names. That was the era of our whisky’s infancy, a time during which Sedgwick’s output was of such low priority to its owners that the distillery was thwarted with old, discarded casks that nobody else wanted. Those days have well and truly been consigned to the past. Andy attributes the turnaround to a new, more serious, and more professional approach to whisky-making, particularly to wood management, instilled during the merger that created the Distell group. The whisky boom, which has been a hallmark of the past ten plus years, helped to justify and sustain the increased investment, with new stills, various other upgrades, and a resplendent facelift further transforming the distillery. It has become a jewel, both in style and substance, of which South Africans can be genuinely proud.

I think it’s explicitly apparent to any educated observer that the quality of product has been dramatically elevated, and that it’s now beyond doubt. Three Shits? Not for a long time now, and never again. Ok, that’s great, but is it enough? And if not, where to from here? I recently expressed some concerns about “world” whisky (whisky from emerging producer territories, of which South Africa is one); these and others will be the challenges facing Sedgwick’s and other aspiring local producers as they seek to take their next steps.
My main concern hinges on the question of what makes our whisky particular to its region; the answer – nothing, other than the obvious geographical provenance…at least in my view of things. Sedgwick’s produces whisky based on the Scotch model. Accordingly there’s nothing about Three Ships and Bain’s that identifies them as distinctly South African. In fact most of the blends sold under the Three Ships label, including the award-winning 5YO, are constituted with a Scotch component – not just the malted barley, which goes without saying, but actual distilled-and-matured-in-Scotland liquid; this is a policy set to persist for the immediate future (although to be fair the proportions have been diminishing). Even Bain’s, which can at least claim to be entirely indigenous (locally produced only from locally grown raw materials), doesn’t seem to differ conceptually from the whisky of a Scotch distillery like North British, which also makes grain predominantly from maize.

Now there may well be divergence of opinion on this issue depending on one’s individual interpretation of what constitutes distinctiveness. When I put the question to Andy, he suggested that the difference was one of focus: whereas grain whisky is considered a filler, subservient to malt, by the industry in Scotland – receiving the short end of the resource stick as a result – here in South Africa it is lavished with the type of care and attention (first-fill casks et al) expected for an heir to the kingdom…which is exactly what it’s considered to be. Bain’s is styling itself as a whisky for emerging markets – light, flavoursome, accessible and easy-drinking – which is set to conquer South Africa, the rest of Africa, and beyond. I liked what he had to say but his response addresses quality rather than style – at least at this stage; who knows what a purposeful dedication to grain may inspire in years to come. For now though even the promising descriptor “Cape Mountain Whisky” is nothing more than a Distell trademark, with no particular definition of its own. It’s a pity, but my guess is that these guys are too busy making and selling exponentially increasing amounts of their whisky to worry about this very much. Perhaps in the future.

More promising, at least in this vein, are the new single malt styles being explored by Three Ships. It’s unusual that the brand serves as an umbrella for both single malts and blends – I can’t think of many prominent whisky labels that do the same (Bushmills and…?). Rather the trend is to move in the opposite direction – note Green Label’s relegation to black sheep status in the Johnnie Walker family. I was told that this structure was motivated by the brand’s pioneering nature, manifest in a drive to experiment with different whiskies and styles of whisky. I’m not so sure that this intention has publicly graduated into reality quite yet, but things seem to be percolating behind closed doors. Andy introduced me to a few special, recent creations: two styles of new-make malt (the distillery makes four) – one heavily peated, the other unpeated – matured (or rather finished) in Pinotage casks. South African whisky aged in a South African cask – very encouraging! This is the type of thing that needs to be pursued, and pursued vigorously, if the local product is going to be set apart. The flavours too give cause for belief: robust peat well-balanced with a sweet spot in the one, and a delicious spicy sweetness – the defining feature of Pinotage casks I’m told – shining through to full effect in the other.

Three Ships has only released three limited edition single malt bottlings to date – interestingly each distinct from the other as is the convention with vintages, although if these were vintages they were weren’t marketed as such – but there are plans afoot for a permanent malt program in the near future. Let’s hope that these two singular whiskies are included. They may just be the beginning of a genuine, ownable, inimitable South African whisky tradition. May the dram be with you!

 

A year in whisky

Last year was bursting at the whisky seams.  PATRICK LECLEZIO recapitulates the major new appearances during 2013.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

The soaring popularity of whisky in the recent past (and ongoing I should add) is well documented.  We are living through a period where more whisky is being produced and consumed than at any other time in history.  I’d hesitate to describe it as a “golden age” – defined by the Oxford, specific to our purposes, as “the period when a specified art or activity is at its peak” and, more generally, as “an idyllic, often imaginary past time of peace, prosperity, and happiness” – because peaks in volume do not necessarily (and in fact often don’t) coincide with peaks in quality, and any idealisation of our whisky era by future generations may well be somewhat imaginary, but it is undoubtedly a remarkable and an interesting time, as epitomised by the action in 2013.  We experienced a glut of new releases on the South African market at a variety of price points, so there was something relevant for any and every whisky lover.  In case you missed it, here are the highlights.  May the dram be with you!

(A bit of background on the review – all the whiskies featured were evaluated by a panel of four whiskyphiles during the course of a single evening).

Glenlivet Alpha

This high-intrigue launch created considerable anticipation as the marketing machine of the world’s second-biggest single malt shifted into high gear.   I must admit that my interest was piqued.  Here was a whisky with a cask profile that is completely unique (to the best of my knowledge): the Alpha has been matured in first-fill casks seasoned with Scotch whisky, instead of the typical Bourbon or Sherry i.e. the Alpha’s casks were virgins when they were first used to age Scotch whisky.  If you’ve been around the block and you’re struggling to find something genuinely different then I reckon this is worth trying for that reason alone.  Hats off to them for a bit of sparkling innovation.  But whilst it may yet give rise to illustrious progeny this first effort was be middle-of-the-road – a touch disappointing, given the expectations, and, dare I say it, a touch immature-tasting for the price point.  I think I need to revisit it in a quieter moment.

Grant’s Sherry Cask Finish

It may be lower profile and less newsworthy than the Alpha, and whilst it may not boast the same uniqueness this whisky is nonetheless unusual.  The technique of cask finishing is predominantly reserved for malt whisky, so it’s a surprise to see it featuring in a young blend; in fact Grant’s claims to have been the first to finish a Scotch whisky blend in a sherry cask.  The finishing period is short – “up to four months” – but the result is pleasing, particularly to a sherried whisky lover like myself.  It’s an easy drinking blend with some extra stretch – well worth the premium.

Glenfiddich 15YO Distiller’s Edition and 14YO Fine Oak

I reviewed these both in September last year so I’m not going to say too much more – save that we enjoyed them tremendously.  They’re highly credible, and highly recommended – just what you’d expect from the guys who bring you the benchmark 15YO Solera.

Monkey Shoulder

Blended malts are a hugely underrated (and underappreciated) style of whisky.  There’s not much by way of functional superiority of single over blended malt.  A single malt is representative of a singular place and style, in the way that a blended malt can never be, but a blended malt can call upon a variety of malts, and, catalysed by the blender’s skill, thereby draw from a much larger flavour palette to create something that might be just right.  Monkey Shoulder is just right – a sweet, smooth, fun addition to our serious limited selection of blended malts.  You may also be interested to know that “monkey shoulder” was a condition affecting hard-grafting, shiel-wielding distillery workers back in the more manual era of malting.  What’s next I wonder: Greenstick Fracture and Third-Degree Burn?  Not sure why they’d choose to name their whisky after an injury…maybe they just needed to justify the cool monkey icon on the bottle.

Macallan 1824

I wish I didn’t have to report on this range of whiskies.  The Macallan is one of my favourite brands of whisky, so it pains me to have to say something negative about it.  But unfortunately I must.  The NAS trend has been motivated by the shortage of aged whisky stocks – as unforeseen levels of demand have progressively exceeded supply.  These products are motivated less by the desire to make good whisky than by the drive to maintain volume growth.  It’s a hard, understandable reality, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it.  Macallan has now joined this circus with 1824, its first core range of NAS whiskies.  More brutal still, they’ve discontinued their aged range, including the magnificent Sherry Oak, in a variety of “lesser” markets, South Africa being one.  Bitter tears…as I’m sure Michael Hutchence would sing if he was alive to see this.

One of my main problems with NAS whiskies is that they’re often (not always) being used to harvest excessive margins.  Flavour is subtle, and, very importantly, it’s usually only experienced post purchase, so it’s not the clearest, most reference-able indicator of value, especially for the casual whisky lover.  Big brands like the Macallan, freed from the shackles of an age statement, are able to use their marketing power to extract more profit from multi-vintage liquid than if they sold the components separately – great for them, not so good for us.  I think this is the case with 1824.  The mid-priced variant, Sienna, is some 70% more expensive than the previous 12YO Sherry Oak, but I prefer the latter (and I know many others who feel the same) and I think it’s a better, richer whisky (and probably on average older).  Or at least I think I do – I can’t get hold of a bottle to do a comparative tasting!  The 1824 whiskies themselves are good, no doubt – this is still Macallan after all! – especially the Sienna and the Ruby which retain the distillery’s trademark sherry flavours, but comparison with their predecessors is unavoidable and the taint of NAS is inescapable.

Glen Grant Five Decades

Wow!  Let me get that out the way.  This one blew us away with its delightful creaminess.  I have a lot of open bottles at my bar – it’s part and parcel of this whole whisky gig.  Some sit there for months, a few have been there for years.  Not so with this whisky.  Two bottles of Five Decades disappeared in short order despite my best efforts at restraint.  It’s that good.  Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm created this limited edition whisky to celebrate 50 years at Glen Grant, constituting it with casks from the previous five decades.  Interwoven with fruit, toffee, vanilla, and cream it’s a long, meandering, relaxing, convivial Sunday afternoon drive of a whisky; and at just over a grand a bottle it represents great value – the standout release of 2013.

Whisky progeny

Riding the coat tails of their forebears.  PATRICK LECLEZIO considers the world whisky phenomenon.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p2.

As it appeared p2.

In the past I’ve written about “world whiskies” in nothing less than glowing terms.  I’ve always felt that whisky is distinguished from most other fine spirits by three vital attributes, the first two being complexity and variety – towering pillars that have set this drink apart and above.  The array of flavours within a single whisky – as evidenced by browsing through any arbitrary enthusiast’s tasting notes (pretentious and overcooked, I’ll admit, as some of these might be, in true anorak style) – is astounding, almost incredible to the uninitiated; and the scale of the variation amongst whiskies is unrivalled in classic liquor (would chasmic be too strong a word?).  It is thus safe to assume one would think – a foregone conclusion! – that the relatively recent proliferation of world whiskies should be regarded as an exclusively positive development, adding as these do to this lexicon. Perhaps, perhaps not.  It’s sometimes worthwhile to challenge even the most assured assumption.  I decided to take another look at this new fringe with a more critical eye; the result: a few musings about why the situation might not be as unambiguous as first impressions might suggest.

First though, what exactly are world whiskies?  I’ve always misliked the expression because it pronounces a lumping together of disparate products often with little in common – much of which should not be tarred by each other’s brushes.  Anyhow, for the sake of expediency I’m going to persist with it, and I’ll define them as whiskies emanating from regions where no whisky-making heritage exists, and where the whisky-making tradition was imported – wholesale – from elsewhere.  Japan is an oddity in this paradigm – whisky is not organic to the country but it could be argued that a heritage of sorts has now come to exist; nonetheless I’m going to include Japanese whiskies in my thinking.

I’ll kick-off with the third of my attributes – integrity.  The standards that have been laid down by the collective, established industry are generally rigorous (although I note the odd lapse here and there, and some worrying recent trends – inevitable I guess when the interests of the consumer are being served only indirectly). Scotch whisky and American whiskey, in particular, have precise and exhaustive sets of governing regulations.  Whilst these might well be self-serving (and they are – make no mistake) they nonetheless offer us whisky lovers a certain guarantee: that we can part with our hard-earned lucre with the relative security that expectations – instilled over generations – will be met, and that certain important criteria will be respected.  This is not something on which we can necessarily rely elsewhere. 

In fact new territories may be tempted to distort and exploit the acknowledged whisky-making ethic to serve their own agendas, and some do.  Take India as an example (an obvious one, forgive me) – where even the basic rules, the fundamental foundations of whisky production, have been grotesquely violated.  Whisky by evolutionary definition (and legal definition, in most places) is a spirit distilled from cereal grains, yet the bulk of Indian whisky is made from molasses, which is often subsequently blended with various proportions of malt or other grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premiumness.  “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said industry guru Bill Lumsden of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. The conclusion to which I’m drawn is that a massive swath of drinkers, the largest whisky-drinking population in the world, is being deceived, and short-changed.  How can this be good? 

I’ll admit that this is a blatant extreme – the issue is not so facile. There are conceivable instances where departures may even benefit flavour. However, as with sports, meaning derives from a set of rules.  Rugby might arguably be more exciting if one could pass the ball forward, but then it wouldn’t be rugby, would it?  Whisky’s identity, and indeed its value, comes from its link to its past and its traditions.  A drink springing from anything other than this platform, good or bad, should not have the right to call itself whisky, or to tap into its goodwill.   I wrote some time ago that whisky is only whisky because five hundred years of documented history (and several hundreds more lost in the mists of time) have told us that that’s how it should be made.  Integrity is everything.

Some sophisticated whisky drinkers might be willing to overlook such risks – their knowledge and the price points at which they engage are largely insulating.  Their sometimes-very-transitory attention tends to focus on the shiny new toy – usually malt with some sort of cachet, and with its own “brand integrity”: the Japanese, yes of course, and others such as Mackmyra (Sweden), Amorik (France), Amrut (India), and Sullivan’s Cove (Australia).  I have no doubt that these new whiskies have enriched the variety in our whisky regimens, but the real value of this added diversity is questionable – its impact owing more to novelty than to genuine uniqueness.  We can point to some distinctly individual flavours – the incense acidity evidenced by the use of Mizunara casks in the maturation of Japanese whisky for instance – but this is by no means guaranteed.  And how much variety do we really need? Surely, at some point, there has to be a diminishing return – because like-for-like (I use the term loosely), generally (our own Three Ships is an exception), these whiskies tend to be significantly more expensive than those from established regions.   

Most damningly, to my sense of things, it’s worth noting that whilst there may be product-to-product variety, there is scant by way of collective style variety.  New whiskies have emulated Scotch whisky by-and-large – with a few tweaks (be they motivated by genuine passion or by business reasons) thrown in to claim some originality: sorghum or other eccentric mashbills, scrub-wood and juniper twig fragrancing, local oak casks, and unusual stills, to quote a few – rather than build a concertedly separate identity.  These experiments are not without merit but ask yourself: is there a new whisky territory that stands significantly distinct?  Have original new whisky styles emerged?  Not really.  Even in Japan (and South Africa, and elsewhere I’m sure), the most compelling contender, blended whiskies are still synthesised using Scotch malt.  This cannot be ignored.

Now, I grant you, this is a thin line – almost contradictory given that I earlier mentioned the need for a connection to the past (which is somewhat exclusive) – perhaps impossibly thin, but those are the challenges of a late entry.  Here in South Africa there’s no meaningful legal definition, of which I’m aware, for a South African style of whisky.  Does this betray the lack of an intention to create anything unique and proprietary, or is it something that just needs to evolve organically as it did with the now established styles?  If the latter applies I think we need to concede at the very least that it doesn’t exist yet, and that potentially that it may never exist.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should moderate our consumption or exploration of world whiskies, not at all – because many of them are exceptional.  The best Japanese whiskies, often internationally lauded and awarded, easily rival those from anywhere else, Scotland included, and unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past two years you’ll know that our own whiskies have also garnered a few global gongs.   I recently had the opportunity to sample a range of Kavalan whiskies, ahead of their imminent local launch.  These whiskies hail from Taiwan, a country that is quite special to me.  I lived there in the mid-nineties, which doesn’t seem so long ago, especially in whisky terms.  It’s incredible then to think that the first Kavalan whisky was only released some twelve years thereafter in 2008, and it’s even more incredible to experience what’s been wrought with such young liquid.  They’re still a bit raw, but there’s a symphony of activity: a musical arrangement of lilting flavours – I’ll defer to their orchestral theme – against a signature background of ripe tropical fruits.  It epitomises the best of the world whisky phenomenon. 

What I am suggesting – and I have little doubt that this will be an unpopular sentiment, one that may be perceived as unsupportive (although that’s not my intention) – is that our enthusiasm should be tempered with the awareness that these whiskies are imitators; great imitators in many cases, yes, often imaginative and innovative, but imitators nonetheless.  Originality, real originality, has an irreplaceable, unsubstitutable worth.  Authentic objects should always command greater prestige than derivative objectives – especially to discriminating and critical consumers – and world whiskies are undoubtedly derivative.  They will not – cannot! – truly come into their own until and if they stake a real claim. May the dram be with you.

 

The bourbon review

First published in MUDL Magazine (November 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

It’s the end of the week, a thank-God-it’s-Friday kind of Friday.  The shackles are off, it’s time to cut loose.  You walk into a bar (where else!).  The vibe’s electric…it’s calling to you.  First things first though.  Like a cowboy who’s crossed the badlands and made it to the other side you deserve to slake your thirst with a golden elixir.  Yep, you’re going get yourself a bourbon – a freewheeling all-American shot-glass charging party starting gullet lubricating liquid bullet of a bourbon (and a double at that!) – to kick the evening into gear, no question.  But which bourbon?  Experiment by all means, but don’t just be arbitrary.  Here’s what you need to know.

I recently gathered together a panel of esteemed whiskey experts – guys who can tell their Jim from their Jack, and who know the latter well enough to call him John (in the best Pacino tradition, hooah!) – to review most of the bourbons available to us on the local market, an array which included the following: Jim Beam White and Black, Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack, Slate, Blanton’s Single Barrel and Straight from the Barrel, Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, Eagle Rare, Maker’s Mark, WL Weller and Woodford Reserve, in no particular order (and not counting a few wildcards, about which more later).   At this stage though, before ploughing into our impressions of these dozen contenders, it might be useful to set the scene – context can be a game changer.  So then, what is bourbon, and how does it fit into the greater whisk(e)y family?

For a whiskey to be called bourbon it must be produced in the United States (anywhere, but usually Kentucky), be made from a mashbill (recipe of ingredients) containing at least 51% corn, and be aged in new, charred oak barrels, amongst other more technical statutory necessities.  This requirement for virgin wood has created a nifty symbiosis with the Scotch whisky industry – which purchases the once-used cast-offs for their own maturation purposes.   It also means however that the bourbon flavour spectrum is by regulatory definition more limited than many other whisky styles, which use casks seasoned with everything from the typical bourbon and sherry, to port, cognac, rum and just about anything else of which you can think.    It seems also to be the case that bourbon is restricted – by convention and commercial feasibility if not legislation – to the use of American white oak barrels (whereas others are using Spanish, French, Japanese and other types of oaks), thereby further inhibiting its range of flavours.  This is something we noticed during the review – bourbon is generally big and bold, but it plays within a much tighter flavour band than whiskies such as Scotch or Irish.

A straight bourbon – the only type with which those of us seeking to appreciate a fine spirit should concern ourselves – must additionally be aged for a minimum of two years (although four is the standard for the marquee brands), and have no added colouring, flavouring or other spirit added.  This is an important distinction.  Slate, for instance, is a blended bourbon – a separate category allowing for just under half of the liquid to be composed of an unaged spirit component.  Accordingly we found Slate to have a ‘spirity’ flavour redolent of new make.  Best disguised with a mixer.

The rest of the mashbill is usually made up of rye or wheat (known respectively as a rye-recipe or wheat-recipe, or alternatively as the flavour grain) and a small percentage of malted barley for fermentation purposes.  Rye recipes predominate (and are typically further defined as high rye or traditional depending on proportions), but some of the industry’s most iconic brands are wheat-recipes, notably Maker’s Mark and W.L. Weller. Typically these are more moderate, sweeter – the corn being allowed to dominate (WL Weller is all “fat” corn) rather than having to compete with the very distinctive, powerful flavour of rye in the background.  Maker’s Mark has a cereal character, perhaps the wheat exerting an influence, which makes it – we felt – the most malt-like of bourbons.  Whisky (or in this case whiskey) always has the ability to surprise (and delight) though: of two of our wild-cards, the first, Larceny, exhibited the spiciness which is typical of rye, despite being made with a wheat recipe, whilst the second, the rye-based George Dickel Superior no. 12, was butterscotch sweet.

You’ve probably noticed at this point that I’d earlier been writing about Jack Daniel’s and bourbon in virtually the same breath, when, as everyone surely must know, it’s a Tennesse whiskey and not a bourbon – the same, by the way, goes for George Dickel (also along with Maker’s Mark the only American whiskies i.e. not whiskeys).  The only differences between a bourbon and a Tennessee whiskey is the additional step of maple charcoal filtration (also known as the Lincoln County process) before maturation, and the fact that the latter must be made in the great state of Tennessee (if you’ll excuse my huckster-politician speak).  The first is significant, the second debatably so, but regardless, in my opinion, they remain bourbons with carbon twist, rather than a separate class of whiskey; I was pleased to discover that the definitions in NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – seem to endorse my point of view.   In the case of Gentleman Jack, the Jack Daniel’s variant we reviewed, there is a double charcoal filtration process employed – both before and after maturation – resulting in an exceptionally smooth, velvety, maple-sweetened, easy whiskey with a well-rounded almost peachy overtone.  It’s not particularly complex, but it’s highly drinkable.

The prospect of tasting 15 bourbons – the third wildcard was an outstanding Four Roses Small Batch: as complex and subtle a bourbon as for which one could hope – in one sitting was somewhat daunting, but we meandered our way through them with an it’s-a-tough-job-but-someone’s-got-to-do-it attitude (tongue in cheek of course – so actually with great relish).

A few notable observations:

Jim Beam hasn’t become the world’s best-selling bourbon by accident; the White Label is a solid performer – basic and dependable like vanilla ice-cream but with sprinklings of pepper and orange zest to add a bit of interest.  Selling at R150 odd this is just astonishingly good value for money.  Its Black Label big brother is similar, but, as you’d expect for an eight year old, more evolved – the peppery spice having now mellowed and sweetened, and transformed into peppermint or perhaps aniseed.

If you have any intention of taking bourbon seriously then you need to pay close attention to the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  These guys are prolific innovators who produce a range of high quality drinks – notably bourbon and rye whiskey.  We don’t have to their best stuff locally but don’t let this put you off: from the eponymously named Buffalo Trace, an excellent entry-level bourbon with a sweet prickle on the nose and an orange ice-lolly stick note on the palate (to keep you jolly), and the well-balanced, grassy-flavoured Eagle Rare, to the outstanding Blanton’s, there’s enough on offer for satisfaction aplenty.

Sight is arguably the most powerful of our senses, or certainly the one that makes the most impression.  Appearances then are always likely to influence us.  Whether that’s right or wrong is a matter for the philosophers and in my mind largely irrelevant.  It’s just how it is.  That’s why I always like to give some consideration to packaging.  In this regard the Maker’s Mark wax capsule, Blanton’s horse and jockey closure and its distinctive globular bottle, the vintage George Dickel label (reminiscent of the Wild West), and the flask-like Woodford Reserve bottle are all standouts.

On to the serious business then.  I promised earlier to tell you what you need to know, so here it is.  We singled out four of the dozen as our collective favourites.  Our little panel, after an objective assessment, came to the conclusion that the best bourbons commonly available in South Africa are (in no particular order once again):

Maker’s Mark – great flavour, great looks, it’s the full package.

Knob Creek – dusty nose, potent kick of spice, pronounced wood influence; small batch is not just a sales pitch.

Blanton’s Single Barrel – immediately popped its head out of the crowd, complex, a trifecta (haha, think about it) of sweetness, spiciness and wood.

Woodford Reserve – deep, fragrant nose, multi-layered, pronounced rye spice; a big bourbon brazenly bragging of its copper pot-still provenance.

South Africa is a Scotch whisky market through and through.  Jamesons, Jack Daniel’s and, dare I say it, Firstwatch have made an impact – on the back of their brand power and pricing more than anything else – but by and large these have been exceptions to the norm.  It’s a bit of a pity that our awareness of and appreciation for other styles of whisky seems underdeveloped.  Or perhaps, more optimistically, it’s bit of an opportunity.  We now have an encouragingly broad selection of bourbons on our doorsteps.  And, without underselling this fine drink, in those go-big-or-go-home moments there’s just no substitute.  May the dram be with you.

Big thanks to luminaries Marsh Middleton, Bernardo Gutman, and Hector McBeth.