Tag Archives: Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky

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.


State of the nation 2014

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

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Out and about with whisky

The James Sedgwick episode.   You don’t have to fly to the auld country to visit a top-notch distillery.  They’ve got the old and brown at Sedgwick’s in Wellington…and I’m not talking about sherry.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

PS: The title in the printed version is not mine.  I wouldn’t refer to whisky made in SA as Scotch, even jokingly.

The dominant feature at South Africa’s premier whisky distillery, the sight that first attracts the eye on arrival, is an iconic-looking pagoda.  It may be vestigial, like most of its counterparts in Scotland, but it’s impressive and imposing nonetheless; like a steeple it proclaims the presence of holy ground, although of a different sort.  This particular pagoda is modelled (like the stills too) after the one at Bowmore.  In fact it soon becomes obvious that the Scottish influence is everywhere.  Most of the whisky produced here at Sedgwick’s is clearly Scotch in style and flavour.  Even the surroundings, the arresting, picture-perfect mountain vistas, suggest a fleeting resemblance to the Highlands.  It’s an observation that stirs mixed feelings for me.  I’m glad that I’ve made the trip, but somewhat embarrassed that it’s taken me so long.

In past years the products made here were criticised for being poor quality facsimiles of the genuine thing, inferior substitutes to be bought on a budget.  Today these outdated perceptions can be consigned to a rubbish tip where they belong.  The whisky is top-class.  Of course, as if often the case with South Africans, it often takes foreign validation before we believe this of one of our own.  Three Ships, the distillery’s flagship brand, was given one of the industry’s greatest accolades earlier this year when its 5 year-old was named the best blended whisky by the World Whisky Awards.   Let me clarify in no uncertain terms exactly what this means: that’s the award for the best blended whisky in the world, including those from all the big guns: Scotland, Ireland, and even Japan, one of the most prolific countries of recent times in the accumulation of whisky prizes.  Last year Suntory’s Hibiki, the Japanese whisky which Bill Murray so memorably turned into a household name (I use the term loosely – whisky households only), specifically the 21 year-old, took this selfsame award.  So the magnitude of this achievement for a young whisky from a young, isolated, whisky producing country is massive indeed.

Strolling around the distillery it’s easy to see how this came to pass.  The word that comes to mind, appropriately in more ways than one, is “shipshape”.  It’s modern and clean, so much so that I could have eaten my lunch off the floor.  The equipment is dazzling – I mentioned the pot stills but also worth noting is a gleaming automated column that looks like it could have flown me to the moon during its leisure time.  I couldn’t put this to the test because it was hard at work distilling grain whisky.  These buggers are very expensive, so clearly there’s been sufficient confidence in the product and its prospects to have laid down some serious investment.  Most importantly however there’s a sense that these guys, the brains behind the operation, have high-level insight into the making of great whisky – which they’re systematically putting into practice; our host explained to us how malt whisky, and separately grain whisky, was best distilled during particular seasons of the year for optimal results.  It’s an operation with an undeniable pedigree.

Notwithstanding the accents, the column stills (there are two in fact – the other’s an older, manual model) and the good weather, there isn’t much difference between Sedgwick’s and the better Scotch malt distilleries.  And it’s no accident.  The source of the Bowmore connection is Master Distiller Andy Watts, who trained at that eminent Islay facility, and subsequently implemented the fruits of his early experience locally, clearly to great effect.  This is all well and good – who better to learn from than the best – but I was also hoping, maybe for no other reason than to stay my own discomfort, for some local flavour.  It had taken the award for me to pay any significant attention to the distillery and its whiskies, to my discredit as a South Africa-based whisky lover, and now it seemed important to me that they should be something more than a Scottish (or other) clone, however good.

This is obviously not a novel idea.  Sedgwick’s however is owned by Distell, a brandy-focused behemoth, for whom whisky is still a bit-part player.  There are twelve year-old casks lying around in their maturation warehouse, ready, mature, delicious, waiting for the call.  That’s not to say that nothing has happened.  Things have definitely happened – Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky, whilst not intrinsically unique (I find it somewhat bourbon-ish), makes for an interesting proposition in that it is distilled entirely from local maize – and are set to continue happening – apparently there are experiments in progress to develop whiskies with a Pinotage cask finish.

Is this enough though?  I can’t help but think of a parallel.  During the darkest days of malt whisky, when blends had completely taken over, it was the independent bottlers who kept the tradition of the single malt alive.  Sedgwick’s juice is kept strictly in-house by company policy, but imagine the possibilities if this were to be relaxed.  Something radical perhaps, a bold new genre – a muscadel cask finish or maturation in indigenous wood.  Who knows what may happen yet.  May the dram be with you!

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky

I had an eventful last week dealing with the Bell’s Father’s Day promotion – see The return of WHISKYdotcoza.  We’ve now dispatched the bulk of the orders, so hopefully there’ll be a host of happy customers dramming Bell’s Special Reserve from personalised tumblers in the very near future.

Despite all this activity, I managed to work in a few tastings.  No matter how busy you are you can and should always find time to chill out with a friendly whisky.  It’s good for the soul.

On Saturday I went to my brother’s place for dinner, and, true to form, we ate late.  He and his wife like to partake of some extended kuiering and slowly ease into their evening meals…take a long-limbed, ambling fast bowler’s run-up to the crease if you will.  Their inclinations in this regard gave me ample opportunity to settle in with a few unrushed whiskies.  I opted to start with Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, with which I was unacquainted.  In fact – North American whiskeys aside – I’m unfamiliar with single grain whisky as a style, so it was a pleasant surprise to have one at hand to sample.  The brand is named after the mind-numbingly spectacular Bain’s Kloof Pass, built, quite fittingly for the subject of this post, by a Scottish settler.

The pass from above

I’ve driven through it on several occasions and it ranks in my opinion as one of the most epic stretches of road in the country.  So the name is a winner, conjuring up the right frame of mind to relax, sip whisky, and unleash one’s imagination.  Onward then.  This is an easy drinking, immediately accessible whisky.  I’d suggest that it would be an ideal introduction to whisky for the novice drinker.  My brother felt that it had more in common with bourbon than scotch, and I wouldn’t disagree.  The verbage on the pack talks about double maturation in first-fill, otherwise unspecified oak casks, but it tastes as if it was aged in virgin wood.  Its overwhelming impression is one of sweetness, a touch cloying but not unpleasant, with notes of vanilla, toffee, and very ripe fruit – apricot and maybe a bit of guava on the palate.   Strikingly, it lavishes you with a great full, thick mouthfeel.  All considered this is a commendable effort by the local industry.  Let’s hope we forge ahead with more challenging, more complex offers in the future.

South African single grain whisky