San Francisco days, San Francisco nights

The long haul will be quickly forgotten, the city once there etched on you forever.  We never will be through, San Francisco.

First published in GQ Magazine (November 2016 edition).

San Fran.  Frisco. SF.  It’s hardly surprising when remarking on this city, that these conversant-with diminutives abound, even from those who haven’t come within a parsec of the place.  The tendency exists for good reason: because the city is so damned pervasively to-the-marrow-of-its-bones cool that people subconsciously ache for this familiarity.  And I’m not talking about some indefinable, je ne sais quoi cool.  No, this is the obvious, all-encompassing kind.  Very simply – San Francisco is the complete package.  Awe-inspiring beauty.  Tick.  Distinct and interesting character.  Tick.  Cosmopolitan.  Tick.  Diverse range of things to see and do.  Tick, tick, tick!  I could go on ad nauseam but I think you get the picture.  They say things are bigger and better in America and with San Francisco representing even an unimpressionable (if not downright cynical) person like me would find the sentiment difficult to dispute.  To quote Jim Morrison: “The West is the best.  Get here, and we’ll do the rest”.   He may just as well have been thinking of San Francisco when he wrote it.

Stay

The Mission, Castro, Nob Hill, SOMA, Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury…  San Francisco is replete with a plethora of fascinating, willful, extraordinary neighbourhoods.  As I was wandering through Castro, I happened upon a guy wearing only takkies (sneakers!) and a cock-sock.  Not something you see every day I thought to myself.  Apparently though, in Castro, this is exactly the sort of thing that you see every day.

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Most of these areas have their own unique personality, into one of which you may want to immerse yourself for the duration of your visit, depending on your particular preferences.  Personally, I’m an advocate of the central location, the convenient springboard from which to access and explore a city easily.  In pursuit of this objective you’ll be hard pressed to find better than the brand-new, downtown-based Axiom Hotel.  From its fibre-optic internet connections delivered via individual routers, its interactive TV-interfaced information and entertainment system, and its paperless philosophy, to its communal tables, its pets welcome policy (with no extra cost), and its foosball table and arcade games, this place is a mirror of the city’s young, progressive and tech-savvy essence.

28 Cyril Magnin Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-392-9466

http://www.axiomhotel.com/

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Drink

Some places keep their distance, warming to you and you to them only gradually.  Frisco, with our trip kicking off at the Press Club San Francisco, gave us a big, welcoming hug right at from start.  I was cognisant that I was near the heart of America’s wine country, but that I wouldn’t have the time to visit any of the outlying wineries.  Lucky then for wine bars like this one.  I sat back in the elegantly appointed surroundings, the DJ creating a buzzing atmosphere for the 200 odd patrons (with some excellent remixed hard rock), and tasted eight of the 300 different available expressions, paired with options from a vast, exquisite small-plates pairing menu.  The sumptuous food and wine, the relaxed cosmopolitan crowd, and lesbian speed dating taking place at the table behind me plugged me straight into the SF vibe.

20 Yerba Buena Lane San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-744-5000

www.pressclubsf.com

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Eat

I’ve travelled extensively to Paris, Rome, and London, cities that I’d consider to be heavyweight culinary capitals, but I’ve never eaten as well, across the board, as I did in San Francisco – a compliment not lightly dispensed.  I set out specifically to experience three types of eateries: traditional, funky, and fine dining.  In that order then.

Fog Harbor Fish House

Dungeness crab, and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl – these are the iconic San Francisco dishes, in which Fog Harbor specialises.  With the restaurant being located in Pier 39, the city’s equivalent of the V&A Waterfront, and being part of a group, I was somewhat concerned that the experience might be a bit artificial, pre-packaged for the tourist masses.   There were tourists, no doubt (I tend to overlook in such instances that I’m one myself), but this didn’t detract from what turned out to be a long, lingering, satisfyingly authentic lunch, drinking craft beer and local wine, and contemplating the knockout view of the Bay.  We sampled the crab, the chowder, the bread (from reputed baker Boudin), and a mixed seafood grill, all of which was delicious, but, ironically, the highlight was the outstanding crème brulee.  Go figure.

39 Pier 39 Concourse San Francisco CA 94133, +1 415-421-2442

www.fogharbor.com

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Foreign Cinema

Ostensibly this spot’s claim to fame is its screening of seminal movies, foreign or otherwise (the Goonies whilst we were there), intended and executed as ambience rather than active entertainment.   They’ve created a unique atmosphere, possibly the most charming and compelling that I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant, from the retro, theatre-style façade and entrance passage to the al fresco dining area, a large courtyard fringed by a wall onto which the films are projected.   But as attractive as it is, it would be a disservice to get overly caught up in the veneer, because Foreign Cinema has a real epicurean depth and credibility to it.  The wine list numbers 800 odd, flabbergasting for a neighbourhood brasserie, and the selection of oysters alone, a speciality clearly, runs to a dozen odd, impressive for any establishment anywhere.   The rest of the menu is expansive and imaginative – the American caviar, cod gratin, fried chicken, and rhubarb and huckleberry cheesecake that I was served were all delightful – and to my further astonishment, I was told that it changes daily.  You’d have to twist my rubber arm to go back to verify.

2534 Mission Street San Francisco CA 94110, +1 415-648-7600

www.foreigncinema.com

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Photo by Charlie Villyard

Saison

Wow!  If Mazlow’s hierarchy was adapted to eating specifically, then Saison would be its self-actualisating apex.  After a visit here it seemed vulgar to me that food should have to be used for physical sustenance when it’s so obviously suited to a much higher purpose.  I asked the head sommelier on arrival if there was any particular theme to his wine and drinks menu.  His reply was that they simply look to source and offer the very best of everything.  And that was my sense of it for the place in its entirety.  Our 15-course tasting menu introduced itself with salt seasoned caviar in an egg custard accompanied by a little loaf of fat basted bread, so ridiculously good that I thought they’d overreached too early.  Oh ye of little faith indeed.  In a meandering, bibulous journey with such highlights as trout (from “Battle Creek”!), lobster, abalone (in a sauce of its liver and capers), crab, and wild boar, and a variety of dishes – such as the grilled artichoke barigoule – made from vegetables cultivated in the restaurant’s own garden, my doubts were put to the sword in decisive fashion.  The wines with which these courses were paired were predictably spectacular but it is the Eiko Fuji unpasteurised sake and the Jacques Perritaz cider (who knew cider could taste like this!) that live largest in my memory.   A place of understated elegance and outrageous tantalisation.

178 Townsend Street San Francisco CA 94107, +1 415-828-7990

www.saisonsf.com

2nd Course: Golden Osetra Caviar

Shop

Valencia Street in the Mission, a hip, slightly eccentric assemblage featuring artisanal purveyors of all persuasions, offers the opportunity for an extended stretch of mellow ambling and browsing, with a stop for some gelato here, and a nibble on some chocolate there.  Drop in at Tartine in the general area for an excellent if overpriced pastry (or even for an asparagus croque monsieur).  Hayes Valley flaunts a lively retail scene, Haight Street still has the same vibrancy as I imagine it did during the Summer of Love,  the Ferry Building market is a gourmet’s treat , and if you’re about at the right time of year you’ll want to catch the inimitable 420 (look it up) exhibition (a pop-up market really) in Golden Gate Park.   However whilst these trendy, signature San Fran spots are all well and good, this is still the US of A, where the shopping mall is king.  Here specifically it’s the Westfield that reigns.  Large (170 shops), upmarket (Bloomingdale’s, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss), central (epicentral!), it presented me with the occasion to track down and secure an obscure-ish piece of luggage that I’d been hankering after.  In fact the selection was so vast that I found it in no less than three places.  Never mind Alice’s Restaurant, it’s here where you can get anything you want.  Special mentions for David’s Tea, an outlet offering 150 varieties, and Tap 415, where you’ll get a large range of not only draught beer but also wine on tap (which prevents oxidisation), and other specialities like chicharones, pretzel nuggets, and the show-stopping Tap burger, a hamburger for the ages.

865 Market Street San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-512-6776

www.westfield.com/sanfrancisco

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See

There are dozens of exciting possible excursions in and around Frisco, but the area’s incredible beauty is perhaps best appreciated on the Bay itself.  From the variety of operators plying the water we opted for the Hornblower brunch cruise.  Americans don’t mess around when it comes to buffets, and this lavish spread was no exception.  I was able to enjoy unparalleled views of the city (those famous ski-jump streets), the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and the surrounding areas (Oakland, Sonoma, and Sausalito in the distance), all from the sated comfort of a liner-style dining deck, with live piano included.

Pier 3 Hornblower Landing The Embarcadero San Francisco CA 94111, +1 415-788-8866

www.hornblower.com

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These are views of which you just can’t get enough, and I had a second bite when we subsequently visited Alcatraz.  I’d been fascinated with the place since watching Clint Eastwood in “Escape from Alcatraz”, a true story – one of many colourful stories about the island and its former inhabitants, so I was determined to fulfil it with my own on-the-spot insights of America’s most notorious prison.  Alcatraz is welded into San Francisco’s landscape both geographically and culturally, and as such it’s an indispensable inclusion in any itinerary.

Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing San Francisco California 94133, +1 415-981-7625

www.alcatrazcruises.com

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For a young city San Fran has a rich history.  The Presidio, a large tract of land at its northern end, offers a great portal into parts of this past, by way of its museum, its heritage buildings and structures, its free programs at the The Presidio Officers’ Club, and its own pivotal role in local and national events.  Dating back to 1776, the time of the Spanish settlement, it served as a military base for most of its existence before being transferred to the Presidio Trust to manage as a national park.   Moreover though, it’s a kill-ten-birds-with-one-stone, multifaceted type of place, the possibilities ranging from walking and biking (and just gazing out from the overlooks) along a picturesque, 24-mile trail in its forested parklands, mass picnicking on Thursdays and Sundays, feasting in one of its choice of ten eateries (try the margaritas at Arguello, yum!), golfing, swimming at Baker Beach, camping at the city’s only campground, and much much more given that it also accommodates a brewery, a bowling alley, a trampoline park, and tennis courts.  This rambling resort is easily arrived at to boot by means of a free shuttle from downtown.  Stay at the historic inn, take in some live music, get a look at the Walt Disney Family Museum, and visit Yoda’s statue outside the Lucas Films HQ.

The Presidio San Francisco ‎CA 94129, +1 415-561-4323

www.presidio.gov

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Listen

I read a report recently that claimed that San Fran’s black population had declined from one in seven in 1970, to one in twenty today.  One of the casualties of these shifting dynamics has been the city’s jazz scene, previously bustling, now reduced to only a few dedicated clubs.  Deluxe is an endearingly gritty jazz “dive” that’s keeping the flag flying and flying high.   Their focus is firmly the music – the excellent Bastet, playing on the night that we visited, is one of 60 odd bands on their books – but they also mix a mean Tom Collins.

1511 Haight Street San Francisco CA 94117, +1 415-552-6949

www.clubdeluxe.co

Tour

It’s not really feasible to walk San Francisco.  It may not be the largest of cities, by American standards, but it’s large enough.   Cycling though, which retains a point-blank perspective but with added reach, is a great option.  It’s popular in these parts both as a sport – Specialized has its head office close-by – and as a commuting format, with multiple bike lanes facilitating.  We chose Streets of San Francisco bike tours, based on excellent TripAdvisor reviews and it didn’t disappoint: from the decent bikes, and the complementary water and snacks, to the knowledgeable guide, very importantly, who was able to instruct us on a diverse topics including street art, architecture, culture, and history, never mind the geography of the place (one part of it being the reputed “Wiggle”, the hill-avoiding traverse) – making us feel like we were able to get under the surface of the city in a short space of time.

370 Linden Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-448-7673

www.sosfbiketours.com

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Special thanks to San Francisco Travel (www.sanfrancisco.travel).

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Back to its roots

Whisky finds new inspiration from within.  PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along.  Familiarity is fickle lens.  Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you.  Until you do.  And even then it can be a while until it takes hold.  The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start.  Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently.  It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long.  Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future.  That future was in fact the elemental past.  The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.

There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”.  The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer.  These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time.  More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.

The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale.  This intuitively feels right.   What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself?  The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.

The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly.  In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer.  Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer.  The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness.  Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first.  Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer.   A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it.  The flame is now starting to flare.

With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed.  The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale.  I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours).  This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints.  A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours.  The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal.  This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures.  It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.

The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst.  We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment.  There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours.  In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service.  May the brew be with you.

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The full kit

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

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

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

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

Strategy

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

Bar tools

Tot measure

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

Cocktail shaker

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

 Spoon

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

Ice-crusher

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

Muddler

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

Squeezer

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

Ice-buckets

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

Jugs

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

Glassware

Styles

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

Quality

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

Drinks and ingredients

Spirits

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

Mixers

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

Other ingredients

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

 

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The wood in whisky

A phenomenon called maturation.  PATRICK LECLEZIO bows respectfully but unflinchingly to one of the great forces in whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

The use of wood in crafting whisky is enormously important.  Many years ago – almost all the players seem to have their own quaint, romantic story about how it occurred – someone put their spirits into an oak cask, ostensibly for storage or transport, left it for longer than intended, and realised that the resultant, conditioned liquid had been considerably enhanced.  I can only imagine the joy of that discovery, the whisky equivalent of fire, or the wheel, or penicillin (or maybe that’s me imagining what I would say after appropriately celebrating the discovery).  Anyhow, in the aftermath of this happy accident (or these happy accidents, if we’re to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) laying spirits in wood gradually became a deliberate practice, utilised across the board.  It is now of such importance that the makers of fine spirits, and other drinks too (wines and fortified wines in particular), dedicate massive resources to what is known as maturation.  In asserting and validating the extent of its influence I’m going to delve into some the critical factors, but I also want to counter myself with a cautionary voice, because maturation is the one issue in whisky that tends to be over-aggrandised – so I’ll attempt to debunk the glib statements that are sometimes used to stress its importance, but that often misrepresent and mislead.

I’ve repeatedly been told that the most important influence on the flavour of a whisky is its maturation, or, similarly, that maturation contributes 60% (or 70%, or 80% – depends to whom you’re listening) of the flavour of a whisky…and I’ve probably passed on these same suppositions myself.  No longer, or at least, not in these terms.  I have no problem with the direction of the sentiment (there’s no doubting that maturation is important, enormously so, as I’ve already said and will say again, and in many or even most cases of majority importance), but I find it tenuous to reduce it to a fixed, universal, and absolute point.  Firstly the effect of maturation on different whiskies is variable: most obviously because of its duration, the weightings of its input into a 3YO and a 25YO will be dramatically different, but also because wood is a natural substance, and therefore not consistent in its impacts, and further because the relative scale of other influences will also vary.  In the Ardbeg 10YO for instance I could make the (not unreasonable) contention that it is peat smoke and not maturation that commands the single biggest impression in the flavour.  Secondly, flavour is subject to interpretation – it simply can’t be factually referenced in quantitative terms (when this is done in scoring it’s an opinion), or even in definitive terms.  I may be predominantly captivated by the biscuit notes in Maker’s Mark, which I attribute to the wheat in the mashbill, but someone else, sitting drinking the identical whisky opposite me, may be more captivated by the sweet vanilla derived from the casks.  The reason I’m labouring this point is that flavour is suggestive.  If you believe that maturation is the be-all, end-all, that’s often what it will be, perhaps to your detriment. During a business trip with two seasoned industry professionals we were served a cognac which we were told was a Scotch whisky.  We proceeded to debate amongst ourselves whether it was a blend or a single malt (I went for single malt, at least I got the copper distillation right).  In retrospect (blushes notwithstanding) I knew I had identified something funky, but I had simply ruled it out of my mind before even picking up the glass that this was anything other than whisky.  Question assumptions, about this and about anything else really (life rule).

When we talk about maturation, we effectively refer, in very simplistic terms, to the process over time where a liquid resting in a cask absorbs (and relinquishes) certain characteristics, primarily from (and to) the cask itself, and to a lesser degree from the environment in which the cask is accommodated, which permeates as the cask expands and contracts (breathes) with temperature fluctuations, and where the liquid further evolves as the result of chemical reactions between its component compounds and those being absorbed.  The cask itself plays the pivotal role, both intrinsically, by contributing the natural elements of the wood from which it’s made, and by passing on “second-hand” flavours that it has absorbed in its previous maturations, typically of bourbon or sherry, but increasingly of other drinks as well.  I recently worked my way through a bottle of the Glenfiddich 21YO (“raised in Scotland, roused by the Caribbean”…classic), finished in rum casks, with the molasses underpinning that spirit startlingly and deliciously evident in the final liquid.  Glenmorangie has just released Milsean, a whisky finished (extra matured in their parlance) in Portuguese red wine barriques.  Michel Couvreur, a brand with which I was previously associated, produces Spiral, which is finished (double matured might be more apt given the duration) in Jura vin de paille casks and which is one of the outstanding whiskies of my experience.  William Grant, and now Jameson (and possibly others), make whisky finished in ale casks.  And on it goes.  This aspect of maturation has created a model where the possibilities for flavour diversity are almost endless.  It is the sexy face of maturation.  Ex-sherry, ex-bourbon! Oloroso, Pedro Ximinez, manzanilla!  Port, sauternes! And whilst it’s undeniably interesting and alluring it’s important not to forget that much of the body of the whisky comes from the wood itself.

The wood in whisky is the mighty oak – as is the case for most spirits.  There are indigenous Brazilian trees that are used for maturing cachaça, the odd, old, arbitrary chestnut cask has turned up here and there in Scotland, and I’ve read of an American whiskey using maple for finishing, but these are strictly exceptions.  Somehow, out of all the trees in all the world, it’s curiously only oak that works properly (mighty indeed!), and furthermore only oak that has been grown in the right climate and conditions. The attempt to grow Quercus Alba (American white oak) in South Africa was a disaster; the wood was of such poor quality as to be unusable.  This is the reason why a company like Glenmorangie pays such close attention to wood cultivation, to the point where Bill Lumsden, their whisky supremo, flies out to the United States to individually select the trees that’ll be used to make their casks; and why a brand like Glenfiddich celebrates the intricate role of the wood in its whisky – as evidenced by the beautiful “Journey of the Cask” photo essay, from which I’ve chosen images to accompany this piece.   I’ll spare you a detailed knowledge the actual chemistry – because it’s above my pay grade I’ll admit, but also (I say somewhat conveniently) because it’s unnecessary if your objective is to better understand whisky for the purpose of its enjoyment.  The basics of it though are as follows:  The wood performs two functions. The charred or toasted inner layer, like the charcoal that it is, absorbs impurities from the raw spirit, making its smoother and more palatable.   It also gives the spirit a pathway into the wood, from which it absorbs vanillins, lignins and tannins – the elements that make such a central contribution (the second function) to flavour.

Lost to this simplistic explanation are a multitude of other considerations, that all stake a claim:  the seasoning of the wood – the process and time governing the drying of the cut wood (to be distinguished from the seasoning of the casks with liquid); the toasting and charring levels; the skill of the cooperage; the selection and proportion of virgin casks, first fills or refills; and, very importantly, the species of the wood – the most common being the Quercus Alba already mentioned, and Quercus Robur, the European oak.  I had the privilege of attending a nosing with Edrington (Macallan, Highland Park) heavyweight Gordon Motion, during which we compared the same whisky matured for the same period in the same warehouse in American oak and European oak casks, both seasoned with the same sherry for the same period.  From the number of times I’ve used the word same in that sentence you’ve obviously worked out by now that I’m setting you up.  Yes, the whiskies were dramatically different.

Maturation then is a critical lever for flavour.  Even today it retains a sense of that natural world mystique that must have astonished the first person to have stumbled upon it.  Its influence on whisky is both broad and deep.  It’s an easy trap to fall into though to think that it is all-important.  Look at a whisky, nose a whisky, taste a whisky and the first thing that dominates your thinking is a consideration of the casks from which it’s made.  As with all things that are imposing and extraordinary though, it’s worth taking a measured perspective to keep from being overawed.  If I can leave you with only one guiding sentiment about maturation it’s this: appreciate it but don’t exaggerate it.  Leave room for other things.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

Amsterdam in brief

Familiar and foreign both, Holland’s metropole strikes a poised balance as the ultimate place for a short city break.

First published in GQ Magazine (September 2016 edition).

I find myself in the fortunate position, courtesy of my work commitments, to be able to intermittently sojourn in a European city, typically for a long weekend.  The choice of destination is critical in this endeavour.  Given that these trips only manifest about once a year, so regularly but not often, and given the parlous state of the currency, I simply can’t face the prospect of disappointment.  The chosen city must therefore meet certain conditions – it must be convenient, distinctive, and interesting.  This year I opted for Amsterdam.  The conclusion, first – before you read on any further:  wau!  Or so the Dutch would say it.  The visit left me struggling to imagine any alternative that would have more emphatically fulfilled my criteria.

Convenient

If your time is limited you don’t want to be dealing with multiple transfers and contorted logistics.  Amsterdam Schiphol is a direct flight on KLM, a single stop on a host of other airlines, and an easy connection from all the major (and many of the minor) European cities.  It’s then a short journey of 20-odd minutes from the airport to the city’s central station by train.

Foreign languages are part of the charm of a holiday abroad, a charm particularly poignant in Amsterdam because of the filial relationship between Dutch and Afrikaans.  But they’re also an impediment, especially during a short stay when you’ll have neither the time nor inclination to wrestle with a language barrier.  The Dutch, and probably Amsterdamers in particular, speak the best English in Continental Europe.

The city’s tourism organisation IAMSTERDAM offers cards for purchase which include all public transport, canal tours, museum visits, and discounts at shops and restaurants.  They’re handy, although I found that I rarely needed to use the trams and the buses – the city centre is condensed enough that if you’re at your leisure anything other than walking is largely unwarranted.

Distinctive

The places that etch their mark most profoundly on our consciousness, that live longest and most vividly in our memories, are the ones with their own, unique, individual character.  If you were wake up here with no recollection of where you were – this city, with its canals, bicycles and winching beams…and its “coffee” shops and red light district, would immediately reveal itself to you, and impress itself (favourably!) upon you.

Interesting

Amsterdam has it all.  A deep and rich history.  A heritage of arts and innovation.   A broad culture encompassing food and drink, music and theatre, fashion and sports.  It’s a place of vibrant energy and unpretentious cool, endowed with a seemingly endless supply of things to see and do.

 Stay

The Conservatorium

Taking its name from the music school previously resident, the Conservatorium Hotel occupies a heritage building, renovated and extended by Piero Lissoni.  The result is a blend of the traditional and the contemporary that creates a reassuring, luxurious elegance.  The place is a spoil, be warned, but it delivers throughout: from the unusual split level rooms, the superbly well-equipped gym, the sumptuous spa with its watsu pool, and the Asian restaurant (Taiko) with its certified sake sommeliers to the quirky decorations, the shopping gallery with its cigar club, and the host department, which gets in touch with you ahead of your visit to assess your requirements and offer advice. The highlight perhaps is the flagship I love Amsterdam suite, nudged from the spectacular that you would expect to the outrageously sublime by a viewing deck, accessed by a spiral staircase to the roof of the hotel, which offers wraparound views of the city.  My only caution would be that its location is set slightly outside the thick of things, but the hotel offers bicycles to guests (naturally!) as a remedy so this is a negligible concern.  If it’s beyond your budget to stay then stop in at the excellent brasserie – with its community table for solo travellers, what a simple but beautiful idea – for a meal of duck breast or pikeperch, both exquisite, washed down with a Petit Chablis, to take in the charm of the place.

Paulus Potterstraat 50 – 1071 DB Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 570 0090

http://www.conservatoriumhotel.com

Dine

In a city that is both rooted in its traditions and that pushes the boundaries I thought it was important to experience both ends of the spectrum.

Supperclub

This restaurant seemed so avant garde to me that I was taken aback to learn that it had been operating for some 25 years.  Patrons recline at tables set on large beds, whilst being entertained by DJ’s and a variety of unconventional performers – imagine a fusion of Madame Zingara’s and the Blue Oyster Bar.  I don’t think I was successful in bringing out my “inner travolta” as they urged me to do, but I made a great time of it nonetheless.  It goes without saying too that the food was sumptuous.  An iconic Amsterdam experience!

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://supperclub.amsterdam/en

Haesje Claes

This family-run restaurant is an institution, having maintained persistent popularity since its inception some 40 years ago.  It’s a large place, but with its multiple dining areas enclosed into smaller separated spaces, with its decor of authentic Dutch furnishings, and with its friendly, chatty staff, an intimate atmosphere prevails.  Haesje Claes is a window to the past, to the old Holland of the seafaring age – I imagined myself a sailor, freshly stepped off a ship from the Indies, as I devoured a much anticipated meal of my favourite pea soup and stamp potten (a stew of sorts), whilst my wench, delighted at my return, celebrated with a dish of the local weaverfish with prawns and mussels.   Hearty and delicious.

Spuistraat 275 – 1012 VR Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 624 9998

www.haesjeclaes.nl

Drink

Wynand Fockink

With a name that made me smile every time I articulated it I was enjoying this place – a working distillery in the very centre of town – long before I actually got there.  Tours of the distillery are available on weekends, offering the ideal opportunity to learn about Holland’s traditional spirit, jenever (pronounced ye-nay-va).  It’s an ancestor of gin, but I found it more related to blended whisky, especially the premium Korenwijn style.  The accompanying bar is small but hugely popular, and incredibly fascinating.  Its knowledgeable barman schooled me in Dutch drinking habits:  the “buigen voor de borrel” ritual, which involves bending over to drink from an overfilled glass in order to avoid spillage (the Dutch are known to be thrifty), and the “kopstouter”, the traditional manner of drinking jenever, which is beer accompanied by a chaser of the stuff.   The real highlight though is a stupefying range, shelf after shelf, of sensational liqueurs and fruit brandies.  I’m not a huge fan of liqueurs but the flavours of the “half and half”, the “singelburger” and the “hansje in de kelder” blew me away.

Pijlsteeg 31 – 1012 HH Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 639 2695

http://www.wynand-fockink.nl

Hoppa

I love the concept of craft beer, so when I learnt that Amsterdam had a bar entirely dedicated to the genre I inked it on my itinerary immediately.  The beers were hit and miss, as one might expect from microbrews, but the array of flavours was impressive, living up easily to the promise suggested by their colourful names: Tropical Ralfie, Howling Wolf, and Thai Thai, to name a few.  I was particularly pleased to be served from a growler tap, one of only two in the city, a device which I was encountering for the first time and which apparently controls the level of carbonation (to prevent over-foaming) – and indeed it was a superlative pour.  Hoppa is the perfect place to while away a few hours, enjoying great beer and charcuterie, whilst gazing on the adjacent canal and contemplating this enthralling city.

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://hoppa.amsterdam/en

Snack

If a Dutch person were stranded on a desert island and given a choice of two foodstuffs as sustenance, it would undoubtedly be cheese and pastries.  And I wouldn’t argue with it.

Reypenaer

If you thought like me that great cheese was in the making then you stand corrected.  The people at Reypenaer don’t even make their own cheese, they’re entirely focused on maturation because they believe that it contributes 80% of the eventual flavour.   Based in Woerden, Holland’s cheese capital, with its conducive microclimate, Reypenaer cheese is matured in a wooden warehouse, allowing it to absorb flavours from the wood over time, much like a fine spirit.  The shop in Amsterdam offers a tasting of six cheeses paired with wine, ranging from a light, tangy four month-old goat cheese, to the rich and potent three year-old gouda XO.  Yum?  An understatement!

Singel 182 – 1015 AJ Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 320 6333

www.reypenaercheese.com

Pastries

You couldn’t throw a croissant in Amsterdam without hitting a bakery or a patisserie, and you’d probably be locked up for callous wastage if you did.  There’s a bit of everything – Amsterdam after all is one of the world’s great cosmopolitan centres – but the local fare, the moreish stroopwaffels and poffertjes, should be foremost in your attentions.   Inexplicably they haven’t travelled; you’re unlikely to get them easily elsewhere, so make hay whilst the sun shines.

Listen

Café Alto

Holland is home to the North Sea Jazz Festival, so the country’s a bit of a hub for this style of music.  Café Alto is one of Amsterdam’s foremost live jazz venues,  with a reputation for hosting top quality acts – and, for the most part, somehow, not charging couvert.   No second invitation required.

Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 115 – 1017 PX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 626 3249

www.jazz-cafe-alto.com

Shop

De Bijenkorf

I was in Amsterdam during the late-January sales, which were so compelling that purchases made sense even in beleaguered Rand terms.   The city centre is replete with a wide variety of shops and stores, including those of reputed Dutch labels such a G-Starr and Whisky and Soda – which is brilliant if you’re inclined to expedition about, but for a quick one-stop shop head to De Bijenkorff, an all-singing, all-dancing department store usefully located at the epicentre on Dam Square.

Dam 1 – 1012 JS Amsterdam, 0800-0818 (Netherlands) or +31 (0)88 245 3333 (other countries)

www.debijenkorf.nl

  Chill

All that walking around might up your shares on Fitbit, but it also parches the throat and piques the appetite.  Take a break at these enchanting cafes.

Ivy & Bros

This place screams hipster at the top of its voice, which I’ll confess had me in two minds.   My fears though were unfounded.  Whilst the pricing was a touch liberal, and the service a little off-beat, predictably so, the value of the experience could not be faulted.  I was held in rapt by the Ismael Lo soundtrack, by an excellent, original smoothie, and by décor which included a replica of the jaws of a megladon – something you don’t see every day.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal 96A – 1012 GH Amsterdam, +31 6 1192 4244

https://www.facebook.com/ivyandbros

De Laatste Kruimel

I kept walking past this quaint little eatery at inappropriate times but it made such an impression on me, its windows almost bursting with home-style baked goods, that I committed myself to returning.  And I’m glad I did.  The fare is simple – quiches, sandwiches and cakes – but it’s wholesomely delicious.  In case you’re wondering I did polish off my order of a turkey sandwich and a raspberry frangipane tart…to the last crumb.

Langebrugsteeg 4  – 1012 GB Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 423 0499

http://www.delaatstekruimel.nl

See

Rijksmuseum

This marvel is everything that you’d anticipate from the national museum of a country as pioneering, energetic and prolific as Holland.  The art collection (I use the term broadly) is astounding for its own intrinsic value – there are Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s aplenty, including the breath-taking, outsized Nightswatch, and much, much more besides – but also because it tells the story of a captivating history.  Not to be missed.

Museumstraat 1- 1071 XX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 674 7000

www.rijksmuseum.nl

Anne Frank House

A visit to this memorial is both emotional and, in my opinion, necessary.  There are certain things that should never be forgotten.  The horror and absurdity of Nazism is excruciatingly vivid, and haunting, when seen through the eyes of a child whilst sharing the very same space in which it was experienced.  You’ll want to brace yourself but this excursion is well worthwhile if you want to add some meaning to the fun of your trip.

Prinsengracht 267 – 1000 AS Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 556 7105

www.annefrank.org

GQ Amsterdam 1

As it appeared – p1.

GQ Amsterdam 2

As it appeared – p2.

Maturing tequila

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

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

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

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

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

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

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

Prestige June 2016 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige June 2016 Spirits p2

As it appeared – p2.

Grain versus Malt

A family affair.   PATRICK LECLEZIO spotlights the plight of whisky’s less favoured son.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2016 edition).

There are two brothers in the Whisky Family.   Malt Whisky, the eldest, is a prodigy of the highest order.  It’s clear from the start that he is both outrageously talented and wildly popular, and as a result his potential has been obsessively nurtured, to the virtual exclusion of anything or anyone else.  He is lavished with the best that the family has to offer, and, unsurprisingly, his accomplishments have been prodigious.  His brother Grain Whisky too shows glimpses of great potential, and he has his own aspirations, but for the most part they’ve been swept aside.  He is recognised only for what he can do to contribute to Malt’s success.  Ironically it’s as a team that they’ve made the most impact, but whilst Grain does most of the heavy lifting the plaudits always seem to go to Malt.  He basks in the glory of the applause, as his brother, unacknowledged, if not downright ignored, is relegated to watching from the wings.

This is the dynamic that plays itself out in Scotch whisky primarily (but also elsewhere), albeit in less pointedly emotive fashion.  And as with any family drama worth its salt, each party has their side of the story.  Malt typically dominates the whisky conversation, but the less recognised, less understood, less appreciated grain also deserves its chance – and if you have an affinity for whisky (which of course you do!), you’ll be amply rewarded in giving grain some of your attention.   I love whisky for a whole variety of reasons, large amongst them being the variety of flavour that it offers.  Grain whisky may be related to its malt sibling in their common whisky brotherhood, but it is also a distinct style of its own – and it varies on perhaps the most fundamental possible basis – thereby offering an alternative, refreshing corridor of exploration, which you overlook to your detriment.

The most obvious difference between malt and grain whiskies is the raw ingredient or base from which each is made: malt from malted barley, and grain from any other cereal, although there are some caveats.  Malted barley is used in many grain whiskies in small proportions to assist with fermentation, and there are some styles, single pot still comes to mind, that would defy categorisation as either malt or grain.  The grain whisky of Scotland is made primarily from wheat, but also from maize.  American bourbons (the cousins of our two brothers) are effectively grain whiskies made predominantly from maize (corn in their parlance).  This base, being the core of a whisky, imparts significant differences in flavour, and even in mouthfeel, to the final spirit.  In wheat based whiskies there is often a biscuity sweetness and an oily mouthfeel , and in maize based whiskies a full buttery chewiness, detectable through the other influences.

Malts and grains are produced by means of two different processes, the former through pot distillation, the latter through column distillation.  The conventional wisdom is that pot stills facilitate more flavour through copper “conversation” (contact of the liquid with the copper material from which these stills are usually made) and by distilling a less pure liquid to lower concentrations (with the impurities imparting flavour).  Column stills conversely are seen to produce lighter, cleaner spirit to higher alcoholic strengths.  It is true that most grain whiskies tend to have lighter characters than malt for this reason, but distillation is a dark art in which many things are possible, and accordingly you should be careful not to paint all grains with the same brush.  Anyone who has sampled the Nikka Coffey grain and malt whiskies would be able to testify to the richness and depth of flavour achieveable with a column still.

Perhaps the most striking deviation between the two styles is not so much in their intrinsic constitution – the ingredients and the processes just described – but in the intentions that have guided their creation and importantly their maturation.  Scotch grains have been made almost exclusively for blending.  As a result they are designed: to be light, to “dilute” the rough edges of young malts; to be cost effective, so perhaps racked in lesser casks, and to be simple and accessible, so that the blend doesn’t detract from character of the malt.  These intentions, that have inhibited grain’s ostensible ambitions for the most part, are luckily not ubiquitous.  They may be in small numbers but there are grain whiskies that have been and are being produced for their own glory, and that are equivalent in class to the great malts whilst having their own unique charm and flair.

I evaluated two of these recently – Compass Box’s Hedonism (a blended grain), and Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky (a single grain), both brilliant fulfilments of the grain whisky potential.  Hedonism is a decadent delight, especially for those of us who value the typical elements of American oak ex-bourbon cask maturation.  Vanilla and coconut abound, being given free rein, with some oatmeal and honey also detectable.  The advantage of a lighter, purer spirit is that it doesn’t have to fight with its casks – it simply provides the canvas, and lets the painting ensue.   Bain’s, whilst still a lighter whisky in an absolute sense, is noticeably more fat and robust, with toffee nibs, a brisk hit of spice, and sweet oak prominent, the latter perhaps a factor of the double maturation, and ripe-ish fruitiness and some vanilla in the background.  It strikes with a certain confident aplomb the tenuous balance between interesting and easy.

There is a certain line in the whisky family which is expected to be toed: Malt comes first.  This is how it is – and it’s not to be disputed.  The extent of his talent and the weight of momentum have created an unstoppable force.  It’s exciting though that that there have been the occasional infractions, as Grain has stepped out of line to express his own talent.  There’s room I think for lot more of it.  May the rivalry endure, and may the dram be with you.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige June 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.