Lesser known but exceptional. Patrick Leclezio reviews three to-be-sought-out whiskies.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).
Lesser known but exceptional. Patrick Leclezio reviews three to-be-sought-out whiskies.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).
PATRICK LECLEZIO trains a straining spotlight on the invisible ingredients inside your drink.
First published on WineMag.co.za (November 2018).
If you’ve never encountered the term “bonificateur” you’re not alone. Until last year I hadn’t, and I’d reckon the same goes for most. Loosely translated from French as “good maker”, prompting the unfortunate inference that some sort of rectification is needed, it denotes a slug of additives introduced into brandy during blending, to influence its flavour or colour or both. I’d long believed South African brandy to be made only from three ingredients: grapes, yeast, and water – and of course whatever it extracted from its casks during maturation, perhaps better defined as flavouring agents than ingredients – so this sudden edification made me question my convictions, about brandy and beyond. My purist naiveté was in need of an overhaul.
The dearth of available information is a telling place to start in weighing up the matter. Bonificateurs have not been referenced on any packaging, in any promotional or educational materials I’ve come across – with the solitary exception of a fleeting mention in the official industry compendium “Fire Water”, nor during any brandy presentations I’ve attended. They don’t even feature in the Van Ryn’s Advanced Brandy Course – described in some media as “the most thorough and sophisticated of its kind…” covering “…in-depth all the steps involved in brandy-making…”. And by this absence I mean of the process and its existence, never mind any specific detail. When I started with my enquiries one leading distiller told me that the practice was a “very, very sensitive matter “that was “kept as a secret by all manufacturers”. I needed to get to the nerve centre for further insight.
In this pursuit I was privileged to be hosted recently by Johan Venter and Mare-Loe Prinsloo, Heads of Product and Brandy respectively at Distell (i.e. two leading heavyweights working for the country’s largest brandy producer), for a wide-ranging discussion on the matter during which I questioned if the industry might be hiding this process from consumers, by omission if not actively. Despite a comprehensive denial, and despite an enjoyable and informative session, the disclosure went so far and no further. When I asked for an indication of which of their brandies used bonificateurs and which didn’t, I was given some satisfaction on the latter, more on this later, but none on the former, other than being told that it was a minor percentage. My impression was that they were concerned that this constituent would taint those products identified. If I’m right then this would explain, if not justify, the perceived silence.
Before going any further I need to clarify, at the risk of being pedantic, that the use of additives, within certain parameters, is entirely legal. Table 6 of the Liquor Products Act titled “SUBSTANCES WHICH MAY BE ADDED TO LIQUOR PRODUCTS” clearly regulates the practice. I’ve summarised the additives for brandy in the following list (taken from the latest update of the Act, issued on 2/05/2014): bentonite, caramel, carbon dioxide, concentrated must, dessert wine (seemingly also encompassing fortified wine in practice), filtering aids of inert material, flavourants of vegetable origin or extracts thereof (prune and vanilla extracts being two examples), gelatine, honey, must, potassium ferro cyanide, silicasol, sugar of vegetable origin, tannin if it is not foreign to wine, water, and wood.
I should also stress that this practice is hardly limited to South African brandy. The use of additives and flavourants is pronounced in many of the classic spirits. Rum is maligned for its use of added sugars and colourants in particular. Cognac and Armagnac prolifically use a substance called boise, an oak extract, to mimic additional maturation. Canadian whisky allows an injection of other wines and spirits of up to 9.09% and in certain cases even more, depending on the nature of the deployment. Scotch whisky often touts that it doesn’t allow any additives, other than flavourless caramel colouring, but in a sense this is hypocritical: it permits peat smoke, and bourbon, sherry, and all sorts of other wines and spirits to be imbued into its product during malting and maturation respectively, the latter in largely uncontrolled proportions; though, to be fair, whilst they’re not acknowledged as additives these flavouring agents are widely communicated to consumers.
That additives are allowable however, is not the issue. They are – full stop. The real questions are whether they’re desirable firstly, and whether their presence and use should be made (more) explicitly transparent.
Let’s tackle the last question first. Yes! Undisputedly and emphatically – yes. There’s a real, growing thirst amongst modern consumers to be educated about their consumption, the denial or manipulation of which would be obstructive and disingenuous. More importantly direct access to this information is a fundamental right underpinning our freedom. We should be presented, without having to search for it, with the content and composition of any foodstuffs we consider buying and ingesting, because this awareness has an essential bearing on our ability to protect our health and our interests generally. I have the right quite simply to know what’s in my drink – whether it’s because of potential allergens, or because I may, for instance, be inclined to pay more for conventionally matured than boise-augmented cognac.
Unfortunately when it comes to alcohol the letter of the law is yet to catch up to its spirit. Whilst it’s legally required of most foodstuffs, liquor is exempt from having to disclose a list of ingredients (or, quite incredibly, even the presence of “foreign” matter), for seemingly unfathomable reasons. It may be challenging to consistently define certain elements, such as those deriving from the oak – although the exemption applies to most liquor, whether cask matured or not – but it’s clearly not impossible: the European Commission stated in a March 2017 report that “objective grounds have not been identified that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutritional information on alcoholic beverages or a differentiated treatment for some alcoholic beverages”. The report concludes that change to this effect is imminent. In fact it is already mandatory to display consumer information about calories, additives, vitamins and microelements on the labels of spirits containers in 13 member states of the EU.
When I questioned an official at our local Department of Agriculture on the topic I was given this response: “At the moment this is optional, you can indicate the ingredients on the label but it is not compulsive (sic). The reason for this is that there is not yet any international guideline or requirement for wine or other liquor products. South African legislation follows international requirements to make sure that we stay up to date, that our labels still complies with the requirements of the overseas countries when we export … If it should become an international requirement to indicate the ingredients on a label, the Liquor Products Act, Act 60 of 1989, will be amended accordingly.” So whilst the industry has been remiss in respecting our right to this information of its own accord, it ostensibly will to be forced to do so in the medium term. Good news! How everyone’s going to react to the sudden appearance of all sorts of unexpected things in their drinks is another matter.
Once transparency is assured, the debate then becomes about whether an allowance for additives is of benefit or detriment: a thorny and complicated matter to unpack. There is no right or wrong in my opinion, there are only varying perspectives. One perspective is that if it’s able to contribute positively to flavour, with a result improving what it would otherwise have been, then it must be of benefit. Another contrasting perspective is that it masks inadequacies, and fosters low standards. Johan Venter voiced Distell’s brandy-making philosophy as endeavouring to get things right from the start rather than correcting mistakes at the end. The existence of this recourse though – for any spirit, not just brandy – provokes the exact opposite motivation: you can bet that any short-cuts on offer will be exploited by less principled producers. The knowledge that shortfalls can be corrected may limit ambition, or may engender the wrong kind of ambition. Further perspectives concern identity and purity. Additives introduce the potential for widely varying flavours, narrowing the boundary between diversity, which we want, and divergence, which we don’t. When I buy yoghurt (read brandy), I want something that tastes and feels like yoghurt, not like milk or cream (read grappa or pisco). It gives me the context in which I can root and understand my appreciation. South African brandy regulates its additives precisely, sufficiently one would hope to preclude this risk, but it may not be the case elsewhere. Canadian whisky’s only real limit to the extent to which permitted additives can be used is a clause stipulating that it should have an “aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky” i.e. it depends on an organoleptic evaluation, which can’t be objective or consistent.
During my meeting at Distell, I was given five brandies to nose and taste: Flight of the Fish Eagle, the potstill component from Klipdrift Premium, Oude Meester 12YO, Van Ryn’s 12YO unfiltered, and a Van Ryn’s 47YO, none of which employ bonificateurs, the intention being to show me these aren’t necessary to make great brandies. If I needed any convincing, then this did the trick in spades, the experience of the two Van Ryn’s being a particular privilege. The 12YO is not available for purchase unfiltered, which is a shame, its usual bold fruity flavours being amplified to gigantic, and the 47YO, an intense, dead-in-your-tracks eruption of nuanced complexity, is not marketed at all…yet. I had not long before also tasted the Van Ryn’s 27YO, a big, boisterous, irresistible hug of toasted oak and dried fruit, which was also confirmed additive-free. A pattern was beginning to emerge – from these Distell learnings and from elsewhere. Potstill brandies and more mature brandies typically don’t use bonificateurs. When I asked Johan Venter if he wished this allowance didn’t exist, his response was “horses for courses”. Whilst it’s a deduction supported by constrained information – I’m entirely aware that I haven’t tasted this Pierian spring – it makes sense that these horses would be most needed on courses where the muscle of pot distillation and maturation is inhibited i.e. blended brandies.
The best will always be the best, and with additives, in some cases like Scotch (and its flavouring agents), maybe even more so. There’s also no doubt that our best brandies are exceptional. The additives allowance – on the face of all available evidence – has not been necessary for this splendid outcome. It may be the case however that the worst may be worse than would have been the case. Like my hosts at Distell I personally don’t like the idea of papering over cracks that shouldn’t be there in the first place. Equally, it may mean that pleasant brandies are available to us more cost effectively than would otherwise be possible. You’ll have to take your own perspective. One thing’s for sure though – most of my misgivings would be decisively expunged if (and will be when) the curtain is drawn back just a little further.
An antidote to perverse pricing. PATRICK LECLEZIO identifies five whiskies vying hardest for value.
First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (June 2018)
It’s easy to get carried away by whisky fever. I know because I’m particularly susceptible; I’ll wax lyrical at any given opportunity, and I’ll clamour for the fancy stuff. There is a plethora of great candidates with much to be recommended. In fact whisky as a whole just lends itself to this enthusiasm. The flavours are varied and interesting, and have struck a chord with a multitude of drinkers. The stories equally are compelling: rich histories, beautiful settings, and colourful characters weave an engaging narrative. And the industry is highly capable, having carefully cultivated and exploited these attributes. It’s no surprise then that people tend to get passionate about this drink. In my circles I’m often talking up all sorts of fine whiskies – usually the type that comes with an increasingly hefty price tag. Do they warrant their cost overall, or has the market been hypnotised by the hype? I could make the case that whisky is just a beverage. You drink it and then it’s gone. Are we paying the appropriate premium for perceived increments in quality? It’s a difficult, objectively almost unresolvable, question – but I made a broader associated realisation recently. Over the years I’ve gradually passed over the cheaper-end whiskies in my bar, subconsciously assuming that I’ll get better satisfaction from the more expensive stuff. I needed a reality check, so I challenged myself to seek out five whiskies each costing under R500 that I could casually drink with equivalent fulfilment as my top-shelf selection (or even more fulfilment – because who doesn’t appreciate getting the same for less). Here they are in no particular order.
Bourbon: Maker’s 46
Straight bourbon is probably the most tightly regulated of all spirits. This situation has its positives and negatives. Amongst the latter is the narrow band of flavour to which it is inevitably consigned, although lately, encouragingly, this has been levered wider by some innovative product initiatives. But these can only go so far. More exciting still is the introduction of a spate of drinks that are straight bourbon (in spirit, no pun intended), but not straight bourbon (according to the letter of the law) i.e. they usually start off as a straight bourbon, but then diverge in one way or another. You’ll be able to identify these by their labelling, which typically reads “Kentucky Straight Bourbon…” addended with a qualifier of some sort. Maker’s 46 is one of these. It is effectively the same liquid from the standard-bearing Maker’s Mark, but aged for a bit longer, during which time seared French oak staves (the divergence / qualifier) have been introduced into the barrel. The result is a full-flavoured, hot-cross-bun of a bourbon. There’s vanilla, toffee and biscuits here, all expected in a wheated bourbon, but I was surprised by the prominent spice, from the staves I’m guessing , and by the thick depth of the flavour: this is one heck of rich whisky. Maker’s 46 just squeaks into the budget, but it nails my approval by a wide margin.
Blended Scotch: Dewar’s 12YO and Dewar’s 15YO
Whilst I’ve sort of lost track of it over the years the 12YO Dewar’s had always been a personal favourite. Nothing seems to have changed. Dewar’s was a pioneer of “marrying” – the process during which whisky stands and settles for a few months after blending or vatting. There are other influences of course, but this is likely a contributing factor to its extraordinary balance. These components have clearly all got to know and like each other. There isn’t a single argument, and there are no underlying tensions. All the flavours work together in perfect, contented harmony within and across the nose, palate and finish. The glorious, integrated array of fruit, cereal, spice, honey and oak in the 12YO will not disappoint, and the 15YO does it again with some added complexity. You’ll be hard pressed to find better blended Scotch all-rounders at these price points. Sadly they’re a bit sparse in South Africa compared to some of their peers, but it’s worth hunting around until you find them.
Blended Irish: Black Bush
If I played golf this would be my hole-in-one drink. I’d want the celebration to be unreservedly enjoyable, I’m picturing a chorus of clicking glasses and vibrant camaraderie, but without excessively punishing my pocket. Black Bush is the ideal catalyst for this outcome, and indeed many other wonderful occasions. What it promises on paper: high malt content, predominant Oloroso cask ageing, significant maturation, it delivers emphatically in its full-bodied person: an intense out-of-the-park flavour that is husky, fruity, and spicy, with a masculine background of leather and perhaps tobacco. If I had to plot the broader continuum of whisky pricing versus performance, definitely featuring a quadrant I’d label “perverse”, Black Bush would dominate the opposite position, at the head of the “charity” quadrant; for what it is they’re almost giving this stuff away. An enduring classic. I’ve never had a glass of Black Bush in which I didn’t delight.
Malt: Monkey Shoulder
I’ll allow myself to stand corrected but I think Monkey Shoulder is the only whisky named after an injury – one sustained by distillery workers whilst shifting barley with shiels on a malting floor. It’s the type of quirkiness that defines this young, fun, monkey-mischievous whisky. In days past it might have been called a triple malt, with its parts originating from three malt distilleries: Kininvie, Glenfiddich, and The Balvenie, but today it is known as a blended malt – a sadly underrepresented style, those with such clearly identifiable provenance even more so. For this reason alone, that it’s one of few representatives, it’s a whisky worth noting. That it’s also smooth, approachable, uncomplicated, and reasonably priced – an ideal introduction to malt whisky drinking, but with enough range of flavour, especially for what is ostensibly a young whisky, to keep the more seasoned interested – puts it over the top and into my group of hard-hitting stars.
As it appeared: http://whiskymag.co.za/bang-for-your-buck/
The formula for travelling with ease and poise
The golden age of travel may long be over, but there’s no reason why those of us on the move can’t emulate the élan of our predecessors. All it takes is a few grains of insight and a spot of preparation…conveniently supplied by THE INDY’s three step guide.
Step 1: Before you go
The first step is also the most vital. Your baggage needs to stay within that shifting, easily shot line at which enough lapses into overloaded. The trick to transitioning is to remain as unencumbered and unburdened as is reasonable.
If it’s going in the hold it’s got to be bold. You’ll need something tough, functional and protective, but also inexpensive – don’t fork over for a piece that’s going to be punished.
THE INDY suggests: Think Travelite rather than Louis Vuitton. Hard shells only – you may be wanting to return with a fragile bottle of that hard-to-find Japanese whisky. Quality wheels are important – reserve your energy for walking the Champs Elysees not for pulling a recalcitrant case through CDG airport. Built-in locks – your bag should be the only thing carrying your stuff.
On shorter trips take a cabin case so that you can glide past without breaking stride whilst others congregate like cattle at the conveyor belt. Efficiency is of the essence.
THE INDY suggests: The Victrinox Spectra is light, robust and impeccably-engineered – and if not licenced then at least dressed to kill, in its cool, matt carapace. You could take it to a black-tie dinner without anyone blinking.
Does anyone travel anywhere without their laptop these days? You’d likely feel naked without it. Your laptop will need a bag – one that’s able to accommodate a few other necessities as well: notebook, e-reader, cables, passport, and the like. Ensure that this bag includes a padded shoulder-strap and a pass-through to slip it over the handle of your suitcase – you’ll want to set out with your sword hand hand free.
THE INDY suggests: Thule is best known for its exceptional roof racks, but it puts out a mean set of bags as well. The Subterra 15” hits the sweet spot with its travel-busting, rugged outer skin, its chamois-lined sunglasses pouch (one of a multitude of convenient pockets and pouches), and its slick well-thought out design.
Clutter is the enemy, but there are those bits and pieces that you ignore at your peril. Get adaptors before you go – our local plugs are virtually unique (the odd Indian socket notwithstanding). And remember the travel restriction on liquids – you’ll need to decant these into small containers.
THE INDY suggests: The chaps at GO Design specialise in travel accessories. They’ve got those adaptors and bottles, and pretty much every travel related item that you can imagine.
Step 2: In transit
Comfort is king. The flights and the in-between flights will set the tone for your trip. Time away is premium priced, so you’ll want to get to the other side well-rested, relaxed, feeling fresh and ready to seize the day.
The single most important influence in accomplishing this objective is your choice amongst airlines, which are not all created equal. Some offer more than others – whether it be in terms of space, coverage, catering, entertainment, amenities, and ground support. Pick wisely.
THE INDY suggests: Emirates has become, in a very short space of time, the world’s second largest conventional, international airline. With good reason. It is industry leading in almost all respects, from its fabulous footprint numbering 150 odd destinations, its consistently razor-sharp pricing, and its fleet of modern aircraft, to the bars on its cavernous A380’s, the chauffeur-drive to and from the airport, the free in-flight internet, and the complimentary meal vouchers and hotel rooms for extended layovers. It is virtually unrivalled. Whether in economy, business or first – and we tested each cabin, and the accompanying lounges, on a recent trip to make sure – you’ll get unsurpassable bang for your buck.
When you’re stuck in a seat for hours, the boredom pinning you fast on all sides, you’ll be desperate for some reprieve. On most airlines the entertainment system offers a double-edged surprise: pleasant in that the options of movies and shows are plentiful, nasty in that the headphones with which to listen in are disappointing – ranging from diabolically bad in economy, to mediocre in business and first. BYO good people. And don’t forget the adaptor.
THE INDY suggests: Go in-ear – remember the golden rule: unencumbered and unburdened, and noise cancelling – an aircraft is droningly loud. Which bring us to the Bose Quiet Comfort 20, unanimously (to the best of our knowledge) rated by credible reviewers as the best in-ear, noise cancelling headphones in the world. You’ll not look back.
At some 40 000 feet you have limited hierarchy of concerns. You want to avoid plummeting from the sky. You want to be fed. You want access to a lavatory. Your most pressing needs assured, you’ll move on to entertainment – as already covered. That leaves sleep. Glorious sleep. You can best beckon the sandman, frustratingly elusive on an airliner, by properly equipping yourself with earplugs, eye shades, and a travel pillow.
THE INDY suggests: With products based on NASA cushioning technology, Tempur has been at the forefront in foam, the material of choice for your sleep inducing requirements, for decades. They offer the typical travel “doughnut”, but this works for some and not for others, and it’s useless in the upper cabin classes. You’ll sleep tightest with our hands-down favourite: the slumberous, travel-sized version of their standard erganomic pillow. Tempur also supplies eye shades – which are soft, comfortable, and easy on the eyelids.
Step 3: At your destination
Whether you’re travelling for work or pleasure you’ll want to be primed for action – looking good, and feeling confident. Don’t leave these things in the lap of the gods. It pays to be prepared.
At THE INDY we believe that one should always be impeccably turned out, presenting oneself to the world to the best possible effect. To make this happen on your travels you’ll need to have your grooming essentials securely packed and conveniently accessible.
THE INDY suggests: Tumi’s ballistic-nylon luggage has become iconic amongst die-hard travellers, and it includes a range that represents something of a zenith in toiletry kits. Check out the Hanging Travel Kit for extended voyages and the Split Travel Kit for shorter sojourns; both sport a well-organised, stylish layout, and an aura of rugged invincibility.
You can’t be carrying everything that you could conceivably need, but if your destination is prone to precipitation, then you’d be well advised to sacrifice space for a brolly. You’ll be wanting after all to maintain a crisp comportment in any given set of conditions.
THE INDY suggests: The Blunt XS_Metro is a compact umbrella that’s slightly overgrown its class, but what it costs in size, it repays tenfold in strength and build quality. Rain has the nasty habit of running with wind, the mortal enemy of most umbrellas. Not of this one though. As a bonus it’s available in an array of funky colours.
You’re walking about sightseeing, folding and unfolding one of those damned hotel maps, clueless tourist written all over your face. What do you do? Your historic predecessors would have hired a cicerone, but that time has passed and you wouldn’t want a stranger harshing your vibe anyhow.
THE INDY suggests: Ulmon’s CityMaps2Go app offer interactive, easy-to-use, offline maps (no roaming required, it works using GPS) for most of the world’s major cities. You’ll stay so effortlessly orientated, and informed – with its photos and insider tips – that you might even be mistaken for a local.
– Pack your clothing rolled. It’s amazing how much more you can fit using this format.
– Check-in online and download your boarding pass. You’ll get your choice of seating, and you’ll avoid those long, dispiriting queues on arrival at the airport.
– If you don’t have frequent traveller status, review your banking package for lounge access privileges.
– Travelling across time zones wreaks havoc on your internal body clock (the so-called “jet lag”). Speak to your doctor about supplementing with the natural hormone melatonin to assist with the adjustment.
An insider’s guide to the best-loved foods of Mauritius
First published in the Sunday Times (25/02/18).
You’ll eat and drink well in Mauritius whether or not you read this article. It’s one of those places where it’s impossible not to. The melding of a rich history, diverse cultures, obliging natural resources, and slick hospitality have contrived to make great food a virtual inevitability. This island is endowed with a special culinary proficiency, one amongst the many charms which have been vital in making it such an appealing destination. The stuff that you’ll find on the surface however – the half-board buffets, the occasional stop at a street stall, and the internet-guided restaurant selections – will only take you so palate-pleasingly far. There’s the good, and then there’s the exceptional – the gems that need to be unearthed, like a truffle by a cultivated hog. Whilst I hesitate to liken myself to a pig – others may not be as reluctant – I have a certain voracity for and knowledge of the island’s foodstuffs, which may be useful to you, the discerningly hungry visitor. In the interests of full disclosure though, given that you’re about to invest some time, I should mention that I recently convinced a group of visitors to Mauritius, whilst we were taking drinks on a terrace overlooking the ruins in Balaclava, that the mask of the same name had its origins in the ritual headgear of monks who inhabited these structures in the early eighteenth century. Don’t let this deter you. I’m more serious when it comes to food.
Mauritius has a population that is majority of Indian descent, so it’s no surprise that their influence is pervasive in its cuisine. My particular favourites are the flatbreads, and of course the curries. Whilst these exponents have been carried far and wide by the Indian diaspora, there are variations that are if-not-unique-to then well-honed on the island. The paratahs (or rotis / faratas, as you would have it), a great Indian staple, are here in force, but it’s to the dhal puri that you should dedicate particular attention. Made from dough containing split pulses, which cooks to a flaky consistency, and typically served with chilli, pickles or sometimes curry, it is only commonly available in Mauritius (although a distinct style has manifest itself in the Caribbean). The dhal puri is the ultimate snack (or indeed meal!): displaced Mauritians, like myself, are known to habitually order towering stacks during our visits, which we’ll then freeze and take back with us, such is its delectability. They are widely available at street stalls but the most reputed, sought-after dhal puris are probably those from Dewa, located in the big Bagatelle mall in Moka. Another interesting flatbread worth trying is the ti poori. This is effectively the Indian deep-fried puri, but served in Mauritius with a mix-and-match selection of local dishes, such as rougaille (a tomato-based stew of many varieties), bredes songes (Mauritian water cress), achard de legumes (pickled vegetables) and bringelles au miel (honeyed eggplant), as well as the obligatory curries. It’s best procured from a specialist caterer like Modley (+230 5796 5084), for a long, lingering, gregarious lunch on a verandah overlooking the ocean.
Moving from flatbreads to their ostensible fillings, two indelibly Mauritian curries that’ll reward the seeking out and then some are the curry de cerfs (venison), and the curry d’homard (lobster). The former is tied into the earliest recorded history of the island, when the original Dutch settlers introduced Java deer – populations of which have persisted over the centuries, considerably outlasting their masters. It’s not easy to find on a menu, the supply of deer meat being irregular, but stay on the lookout, and if you’re in a villa get your housekeeper on the job – spicy and gamey make a heady mix of flavours. The latter’s finest purveyor is the unassuming but outstanding Chez Rosy in Souillac in the south. There are members of my family who are unable to mention this place and its lobster curry without visibly salivating.
If you’ve ever eaten and enjoyed madumbis (or even if you haven’t), then Mauritius has a special treat in store for you. One of the local taro yams, the arouille violette, is closely related (but markedly superior), and makes the most delicious mash that you could hope to taste, knocking the socks off the potato version. They’re available from most vegetable markets on the island, and are best appreciated in combination with a meat dish.
Another exotic item of Mauritian produce is the highly nutritious tamarind fruit, the dark sticky pulp of which is used to produce juice, pickles, preserves, and chutneys. Most people describe its flavour as sweet, tangy and tart, but I find it musky as well – it’s quite unique. Les Vergers de Labourdonnais offers an outstanding, brilliantly refreshing tamarind juice (distributed to most of the major supermarkets), which might be the most convenient and accessible means to sample this unusual fruit.
The arouille and the tamarind fruit, of all the victuals of my childhood, live largest in my memory, along perhaps with the punch mariage, an iced concoction of rum, lemon juice, sugar, water and egg white, traditionally served at Mauritian weddings. I’ve remembered it well not because it was regular fare for me, despite the relaxed European-leaning Mauritian attitude to liquor for children, but for one striking occasion in particular: my younger brother at the tender age of four, unobserved during a function, got stuck into a bowl of this punch, with unfortunate, albeit hilarious results…if I might be allowed to find a sauced infant hilarious. He clearly found it delicious. It is delicious. Punch mariage can be sourced by order only from Nathalie Maurel (+230 5257 2172), considered to be the island’s foremost expert. I’d recommend that you request it to be made with New Grove’s Plantation Rum, one of the best of the white Mauritian rums.
As one would expect from the “pearl of the Indian ocean” fish and fruits de mer are integral to the culinary life of the island. Whether it’s bistro fare at a place like Hidden Reef in Pointe aux Cannoniers, or fine dining at Jacqueline Dalais’ (the Mauritian Heston Blumenthal) La Clef des Champs in Floréal or the more touristy but nonetheless enchanting Château Mon Désir in Turtle Bay, the best dishes are likely to be seafood based. A trip to Mauritius is an opportunity – which you should seize with both hands – to partake of this natural bounty. There are two fish in particular that are spoken of in hallowed tones by those with deep roots on the island: Sacré Chien and Gueule Pavée. They’re less abundant today although they do appear in restaurants here and there. You may be most likely to strike it lucky with a trip to the Débarcadère de Grand Baie, the jetty for the town’s fishing boats, an interesting excursion regardless, and if you don’t you can also opt for delightful alternatives such as Vielle Rouge and Capitaine. Mauritian waters, and consequently tables, are replete not only in fish, but also in octopi, crabs, oysters, mussels, lobsters, prawns, scallops and the like, but the most iconic of the island’s dishes hinges on a combination of its aquatic and terranean resources. Make it your particular mission to track down and savour palmiste with crevettes or camarons, the succulent heart of a palm tree, served with prawns, typically in a red sauce, and prepared in a variety of ways; Curepipe landmark La Potinière has a souffléd version which is especially noteworthy.
I’ve left the sweets, one might say the best, for last – last but not least, because for nation built on sugar, the expectations excited by its confectionaries, patisseries and desserts, which won’t be disappointed, quite the opposite, should rightly be at the front of the queue, and fervent. There are so many stops on this glorious journey – some prime examples ranging from sucre d’orges, a twirly hand-made rock candy fashioned by the religious sisters on the island, and papaye tapée, rich, juicy slabs of candied fruit contributed by the Chinese-Mauritian community, to puits d’amours, an egg custard tart perfected by the Patisserie Marimootoo in Curepipe, and the genoise au coco, a coconut cake so good that you’d be tempted to sell your soul for a slice– that the end will always be another trip away. The pinnacle though, the cherry on the top of this massive Mauritian mountain of mastication, must surely be the napolitain. Whilst its origins are unknown, lost to the mists of time, one thing is certain: the napolitain is indubitably, exclusively, and comprehensively Mauritian – it is not found anywhere else, unless transplanted by Mauritians. Made with two shortbread style biscuits sandwiching guava jelly (classically, although other jams are also used), and then covered with pink icing, this melt-in-your-mouth delicacy exhibits flavours so extraordinarily complementary that one might say they are fated to be fêted. The crème de la crème are those made by Patricia de Speville (+230 5788 3331) according to an old family recipe at her bakery in Tamarin and sold under the name Pat’s Cookies in various outlets all over the island.
Mauritius, as you’ll be realising by now, but as you’ll only truly appreciate when you sink your teeth into it, offers much, much more than sandy beaches, sunny skies, and sapphire oceans. That it’s a gastronomic paradise as well is one amongst its many other dimensions. Enjoy your trip – and bon appetit!
Making spirits bright and laughing all the way. Patrick Leclezio prepares for some festive season fun.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).
Another year is set to bite the dust. This period always gets me thinking about the elapsing of time, and about how moments in life come and go with a disconcerting haste. We can get melancholy about it of course, but what’s the point. This passing is inevitable, it is beyond our control. What we do with our time however is another matter, and something over which we should exert our most diligent influence, particularly in the weeks ahead, when we all-too-briefly get to shrug off our work obligations and focus on what really matters – our friends, our families, our loved ones, and ourselves. This is a column about liquor though, so I’ll limit my counsel to the overall sentiment and more specifically to the decorative cherries to which it is dedicated i.e. the inspiring drinks that’ll add a finishing touch to your experiences and festivities this season. Cheers, sláinte, l’chaim, gesondheid! Make the most of it.
The Gin Box
The gin revolution, whilst much covered in these pages, especially as manifest in the country, and particularly in the Cape, keeps on keeping on, outstripping my ability to stay current; I always seem to be a few newcomers behind. It’s worth considering, given this effusive flow, how gin is so prevalent over here. The Cape Floristic Region is one of six worldwide, the only one entirely contained in a single country, and home to an incredible diversity of plant species, numbering some 9000, a large proportion of which (69%) are unique to the region. It is a botanical paradise, generally, but for an aspirant gin-maker specifically – and it goes some way to explaining the rapid local propagation of new and interesting gins. If you’re overwhelmed, as you’d unstintingly be forgiven for feeling, and unable to see the wood for the trees, then the Gin Box may be just the thing for you. This enterprising concept delivers to your doorstep monthly, bi-monthly (each R650), or once-off (R750), a carefully selected small-batch craft gin, accompanied by all sorts of delicious treats and useful gin-related information, including tasting notes and cocktail recipes.
The December / Christmas box is a treasure trove. The gins, there are three – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – each in a 200ml bottle, are bespoke limited editions developed for the Gin Box by the highly regarded Hope on Hopkins distillery. Each is delightful in its own right, each I’d be happy to drink at any time of year, but its Christmassy flavours of spice, nuts, and soft citrus make it an ideal complement for the festive season. It’s worth noting that the botanicals actually feature frankincense and myrrh, and that the gold version is lightly aged in oak to give the liquid its eponymous tinge. The box is stuffed with all sorts of other goodies, including two bottles of Goldberg Japanese Yuzu tonic, distinctly different from the Indian version with its sweeter, citrus overtones; some dried fruit garnishes; and a few food items – notable amongst these being the decadent “Fat Santa Bar” from The Counter (yum!).
Remy Martin’s flagship cognac is the ultimate luxury spirit, possessing a pedigree and an essence unmatched by any other drink. Its inspirations date back to the Battle of Jarnac in 1569, to the discovery of metal flask on the battlefield that would serve as the model for its renowned, meticulously-crafted, Baccarat decanter. The Louis “Treize” (French for 13), as it’s referred to, was launched in 1874 and has been continuously produced ever since, inexorably enhancing its reputation as it climbed to the presiding status that it enjoys today. The liquid itself is a blend with up to 1200 distinct Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie, the youngest matured for a minimum of 40 years, the oldest, incredibly, for over a century. When I first encountered it I was expecting an oaky character, being at a loss to understand how the cellar masters could restrain the wood on a product with such an extended maturation. I was wrong. There’s wood of course, but it’s one of many chimes in this multipart melody. The “secret” is the tierçon, a special type of cask employed in the maturation. Made from Limousin oak, with finer staves than typical casks, they are restored but never replaced. These casks, in my view of it – the Remy people don’t use this term – are largely exhausted, having little of their oak elements left to impart – leaving the maturation to persist via the chemical reactions in the liquid and the interaction of the liquid with its environment as they breathe. The result is tantalising and transfixing, a rare phenomenon of awe-inspiring depth and complexity – all the benefits of old age but without its drawbacks. The Louis XIII earns its chops and then some.
Our sunny alfresco South African Christmases demand a sunny alfresco cocktail, the kind that you mix up in a jug and serve under blue skies on a lawn. Enter the ho-ho-ho merry Cointreau Fizz. I’d never considered triple sec as anything other than a sidekick ingredient, Tonto to the Tequila Lone Ranger in my margarita, before chancing upon the Fizz – which promptly prompted me to revaluate my impressions. It’s simple, delicious and healthy, the sweet spirit offsetting tangy lime for a perfect balance.
2 ½ parts Cointreau
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
5 parts sparkling water
Fill a jug with ice, add Cointreau and lime, top off with sparkling water, and garnish with an orange wheel or any sweet juicy fruit.
Rising from illustrious graves. PATRICK LECLEZIO deconstructs the excitement.
First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).
The biggest news in whisky in the last few months has been the mouth-watering declaration that the Port Ellen and Brora distilleries are to be refitted, and reopened in 2020. This is most whisky lovers’ (much conjectured) fantasy come true. We’ve been living of late through a golden age of malt whisky in which the inception of new distilleries and the revival of previously terminated or shuttered distilleries (so-called silent stills) have been common occurrences: examples range from the massive Roseisle and the boutiquey Wolfburn, Kilchoman, and Kingsbarn on the one hand, to forerunners like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, and more recently Tamdhu and Glengassaugh on the other. But this is different. Special. Exceeding the “ok, cool” reaction that the others would have elicited, and tipping the scales at “yahoo!”. New distilleries are unknowns, and reincarnates like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich have largely created their standing during this latest phase of their existence. Port Ellen and Brora though are the Van Goghs of whisky, unregarded and mostly used as blending fodder whilst active, then garnering massive acclaim after their demise, and attracting followings during the interlude, Port Ellen in particular, that it would be trite to describe as “cult”. With this gong still reverberating, let’s take a look at what these announcements really mean.
They boil down to three simple realities really: we’ll have access to whisky that until now has been very expensive and limited, it may or may not be what we expect, and we’ll have to wait a long time still before getting our hands on any of it – a situation in totality that should both fire and temper our enthusiasms.
When time was called on Port Ellen and Brora in 1983 – part of a widespread series of closures by the Distillers Company Limited (Diageo, effectively), including now heralded distilleries such as Dallas Dhu, St. Magdelene, and Rosebank, driven by flagging demand – whisky was at a low ebb, and bottled single malt was a small speck on a blended landscape. In fact the first book featuring tasting notes, ubiquitous today, and the first magazine devoted to Scotch whisky (inconceivable in a media environment where we’re drowning in whisky commentary) were only published in 1986. In the modern age Port Ellen’s production, predominantly, and Brora’s, entirely, during their active years had been allocated to blending, so they were to a large extent unknown quantities. The only bottling of Port Ellen between 1967 and 1983 was a 12YO commemorating the Queen’s visit to the distillery in 1980, and the first known Brora bottling was released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989. Independent bottlings became relatively common, but it was only with official bottlings in the late nineties and turn of the century (now a feature of Diageo’s annual special releases), and in Port Ellen’s case extended maturation, that the legends were created. The quality of the whiskies and the fact that no more of it would be produced (ostensibly) combined to arouse messianic devotion – and pricing to match. The Port Ellen First Release, a 22YO of which there were 6000 bottled and offered at £110 in 2001, sells for some £4500 in 2017. Prices have escalated exponentially with each subsequent release, with Brora following a similar pattern. The prospect thus of larger supply, of being able to access these fine liquids at reasonable prices, is undoubtedly cause for celebration.
But don’t pop your stoppers just yet. Making the same whisky as was done 30 years ago is not a given – as conceded by Diageo in its press release of 9 October: “Port Ellen Distillery on the famous whisky island of Islay, and Brora on the remote eastern coast of Sutherland, will both be reinstated to distil in carefully controlled quantities, with a meticulous attention to detail, replicating where possible the distillation regimes and spirit character of the original distilleries”. The strains of barley and yeast employed, and the calibrations of production – especially from a more manual era, may be difficult to duplicate and replicate. There is an additional challenge too: whilst Brora was merely “mothballed”, the original buildings and stills left intact, Port Ellen was partly demolished, its equipment, the stills included, scavenged by other distilleries within the group. The whisky will undoubtedly be wonderful, but whether it’ll have the same austere, pier head flavours (as redolently described by Dave Broom) that made its name is debatable.
Any celebration is also somewhat premature. Production is anticipated to begin in 2020 once “planning permission and regulatory consents, detailed design, construction and commissioning work” have been secured and completed, although it seems logical that Brora should be ready ahead of Port Ellen. Be that as it may the gain of a year or so in this initial period is of little significance. As with any whisky the production will be just a small part of the overall time frame. In various interviews on the subject Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, has disclosed an intention to release the two whiskies as 12YO’s, whilst also acknowledging that there may be preceding smaller releases. A 12YO would put us at 2032 – a long wait indeed. Any earlier release would likely mean NAS, perhaps playing with the maturation regimen (smaller casks, new oak) and perhaps vatting with (dwindling) pre-83 stocks – although I think they’d be hard pressed to take this risk, given the premium that these command unadulterated, and the higher purpose that they can serve in perpetuating the hype (now more useful than ever). The Port Ellen’s and Brora’s to which we’ve become accustomed (those lucky few amongst us) are perceptible only on a distant horizon.
The order of the day then appears to be patience, in pursuit of a probable but uncertain payoff. Our patience though is unlikely to be arduous. One of the shining beacons of Scotch whisky, and whisky in general, drawing in and engaging people from far and wide, is its variety. The number quite evidently will keep changing but at present there are 98 active malt distilleries in Scotland producing innumerable expressions, two of which, sharing certain similarities with a Port Ellen and a Brora, I’ll recommend to keep you company in the cold nights ahead, before your much anticipated rendezvous with their future emissaries. Lagavulin, a few kilometres from Port Ellen, produces a rich, peaty, and complex 16YO whisky of exceptionally elegant balance. It is a defining Islay malt. On the opposite coast to Brora but unmistakably its Highland brethren you’ll find Oban, and in multiple bars and liquor stores around the world you’ll find its popular 14YO, a gorgeously fruity, aromatic maritime malt, imbued with fine wisps of smoke. Ask Santa to add these to your stocking. May the dram be with you.