Tag Archives: Bars

Out and about with whisky

The Singapore episode

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

Singapore never fails to impress me.  Looking down as one approaches from the air it’s no stretch to believe that this is one of the top three busiest ports in the world.  The Straits of Singapore is a bustling bottleneck – densely peppered with naval traffic from one horizon to the other.  The island city also happens to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Singaporeans are not struggling for drinking money and it shows in the whisky scene.

In an overall Asian whisky context, Singapore would be classed as a mid-mature culture.  It sits somewhere between the refined palates evident in Japan and Taiwan, where demand for vintage whisky is de rigueur, and the still raw uptake in crazy China, where whisky drinking is karaoke-inspired mixology.  The place regularly ranks amongst the leading markets for Scotch whisky exports, and whilst most of that stock is filtered into the wider region its presence alone must be infectious.   Things are happening here.  I visited no fewer than three top-quality whisky bars during my short eight hour layover and I was so enthralled by the experience that I came within a barley whisker of missing my flight home.  My whisky-addled, panic-stricken dash to the airport, involving no fewer than three modes of transportation (four if you include the trip on the airport skytrain needed to correct my arrival at the wrong terminal), must have been quite something to behold…more amusing to onlookers than it was to me.

La Maison du Whisky (LMDW)

This legendary French whisky business was founded in 1956 by Georges Bénitah, one of the true whisky pioneers of the modern era.  Its bar in Singapore – based at the vibey Roberson Quay on the banks of the eponymous river – is a little different, not only from its other outlets but from most other bars:  it is both a shop and a bar.

I didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It’s an appealing concept in theory, if a country’s regulations allow for it.  Imagine browsing whiskies and then being able to sit down and test drive one’s options before committing.  Generally I dislike shopping but this I think I could grow to enjoy.  I also like the idea of a total whisky zone, where I can ogle whisky, talk whisky, taste whisky, and then, to make the experience complete, take-away whisky.

But in reality can anything really be all things to all men?  LMDW Singapore, in keeping with its heritage, is more shop than bar.  I’ve been there once, early-ish on a weekday evening, so take my opinion from whence it comes, but with its face of plate-glass and severe lighting that it projects to the world, it wouldn’t be my first choice for an intimate evening of mellow dramming.

Ambience aside, it ticks all the boxes with a flourish.  LDDW boasts a selection of 400 distinct Scotches and 200 other whiskies, including some rare bottlings (to which the closest we would have come here in SA is a fleeting glimpse in one of the international versions of Whisky Magazine), and some dedicated bottlings.  GM Jeremy Moreau introduced me to a Strathisla 1965 Single Cask, specially bottled for the group by Gordon & MacPhail, whose rich, bite-into sherry flavours I savoured at length…yum.  Worth the visit?  It goes without saying.

 The Quaich

A short stroll down the river and a bite of supper later I found myself at a bar named after Scotland traditional drinking vessel.  The Quaich, according to owner Khoon Hui, was Singapore’s first genuine whisky bar.  It also appears to be the most genuinely Singaporean whisky bar.  Whereas the other two I visited seemed somewhat expatified, this was refreshingly local – Khoon pointed out a radio celebrity and some government heavyweights enjoying the undisputable pleasures of his establishment.

The Quaich’s menu numbers a highly respectable 300 fine whiskies, with a focus on the distilleries that it represents as a distributor in Singapore.  These include Bunnahabhain, Springbank, Glenglassaugh, and Bowmore, amongst others.  I noticed, and was duly impressed, by a 1964 Bowmore 46YO and three dedicated single casks bottled by Springbank (Longrow) and Glenglassaugh for The Quaich.

My most lasting impression however was of the great hospitality.  Khoon and I chatted whisky over a Kavalan (a name with which the chaps at Macallan are none too pleased by the way), and then he insisted on giving me a lift to my next appointment.  The man is a gentleman and a scholar and his bar is a gem.

Auld Alliance

The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel created the Singapore Sling, and has since been regarded as the bar in Singapore, fads aside.  Well, now there’s a new king in town and its name is Auld Alliance (a reference to the close military relationship which existed between pre-Union Scotland and monarchic France).  Let me not mince words: in my opinion this may well be the king of all whisky bars worldwide.

To say that I was blown away is an understatement.  This whisky cathedral – to call it a bar seems inadequate – is utterly, utterly (repeated for good measure) magnificent.  Auld Alliance is the brainchild of Emmanuel Dron, a whisky expert of long standing, and, as I set about acquainting myself with his spot, his expertise became explicitly evident: it is quite simply a league apart from anything that I’ve ever experienced.

Located in Chijmes, a charming entertainment complex built within the grounds and amidst the architectural structure of an old convent, the venue offers a breath-taking bar area, an elegant lounge, and two private tasting rooms.  Its collection of whiskies currently numbers 1500; so many in fact that there’s just not enough space for all of them, thus requiring 500 odd to be rotated in and out of storage periodically.  The highlights include a mint-condition first-edition 1993 Black Bowmore (S$ 12 990 ≈ R84 955 per bottle), and a Yamazaki 50YO, of which there are only a handful of bottles accessible outside of Japan.  I was particularly captivated by a menu which offers flights of the “same” whisky bottled in different decades, allowing customers to explore the evolution of the style over time.  I could go on and on.  Quite simply Auld Alliance lacks for nothing…except for South African whiskies.  One has to leave room for improvement I guess.

The moral of this story, in case you haven’t arrived at the same conclusion already – a whisky pilgrimage to Singapore is well in order.  May the dram be with you!

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Out and about with whisky

The Hong Kong episode

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2012 edition)

As it appeared.

There is little that’s quite as interesting for a whisky lover as a whisky excursion, whether it’s in the immediate locale, or somewhere a bit more far-flung.  Out there is a whisky world teeming with possibilities: there are maltings, distilleries, maturation warehouses, cooperages, bottlers, heritage centres, speciality shops, and bars aplenty, all waiting to be visited and explored.  I’ve tasked myself to get out and about and report back on my findings in a series of intermittent episodes, of which this, a bar tour, is the first.   It’s a tough slog of a job I know, but someone has to do it and it may as well be me.

Almost everyone it seems is travelling east these days.  China became South Africa’s leading trade partner in 2009, and its importance to our economy will almost certainly continue to grow in the future.  Despite this situation, it’s near impossible to fly there direct.  There are infrequent flights from Joburg to Beijing, but failing this somewhat impractical option one would likely be flying via the former British enclaves of Hong Kong or Singapore (subject of the next episode); and, finding oneself in either of these vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, one might be tempted to hang around for a bit.  So peripatetic whisky lovers – take note.  Here’s what one needs to know about Hong Kong.

Prince Charles was quoted as saying that Hong Kong has created one of the most successful societies on Earth.  If his opinion is valid then it would stand to reason, by my standards anyhow, that a whisky culture should be prominent.  And true it proved to be.  After a spot of preliminary research on the city’s whisky scene, and a predictably overpriced dinner in the mildly loutish Lan Kwai Fong, the famous party district, I set out to visit the two places at the top of my list: Angel’s Share and The Chinnery.

The most striking feature of Angel’s Share, dominating the entrance to the bar, is a large cask…sufficient to set the heart of any whisky lover aflutter.  My immediate impression was that this might be a “live” cask, an exciting thought.  Imagine drinking a theoretically different whisky every time one ordered from the cask!   Most distilleries however do not sell casks lock, stock, and…uh…barrel to the retail trade, and legislation now prevents single malts or single casks from being bottled outside of Scotland and effectively from being dispensed out of anything other than a bottle, so this was unlikely.  And indeed Eric Wan, my genial host, confirmed that the cask was a replica, and that its inner surface was lined with a metal membrane.  The illusion persisted nonetheless and I thoroughly enjoyed the undisputedly authentic ritual of being served from the cask – a heavy dram of Highland Park 1997 vintage having been drawn for me with a valinch*.

I would be doing the venue a disservice though if I were to fixate exclusively on the cask.  This is the ideal place to enjoy a superb evening of whisky appreciation and casual conversation – it is all dim-lit, intimate-nooked, and leather sofa’d elegance.  Whilst the brash whisky-drinking classes emerging in the Mainland might be quaffing the golden nectar with green tea (shudder), the clientele here is rather more refined and sophisticated.  Hong Kong after all has always been, and remains, the leading edge of the wedge.  The menu is somewhat modest by upper-tier whisky bar standards, but with a selection of 150 odd distinct whiskies, it is ample regardless.  I spotted a Macallan 1936 at HK$ 1240 (about the same in Rands) for a 30ml serving.  Perhaps when my ship comes in….

Eric twisted my rubber arm and had me linger longer over a glass of the excellent Laddie 17YO, his favourite of the moment.  This was my first rum-casked whisky, and its big exotic fruit flavours were well worth the wait.  Eventually however I reluctantly dragged myself away and hurried over to The Chinnery.  They hadn’t responded (in time) to my request for an appointment but I thought I’d just pitch up anyhow.  I arrived just before midnight only to encounter a massive disappointment – the place had closed for the evening.   The Chinnery has a laudable reputation, and I’m sure that it’s spectacular, but I have to ask: what kind of whisky bar closes at 11pm on a Saturday evening?  Especially in Hong Kong.  I’ll have to wait for my next visit to get an answer.

As my train headed over the horizon and my leaving became palpable I felt my spirits buoyed by this visit to a very special bar in this very special town.  If in the vicinity be sure to follow suit.  May the dram be with you!

*Valinch – A tube-like instrument used for drawing liquor from a cask via its bunghole.

St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!  For obvious reasons I’ve been celebrating this day since as far back as I can remember.  My mom would bake a cake for my dad and I (he’s also a Patrick) to mark the occasion.  Sadly that hasn’t happened for a while now…perhaps I should put her in touch with an overnight courier service.  Anyhow, for now I’ll have to console myself with comfort of a more liquid nature.

On that note if you’re a Capetonian and wondering how to celebrate the Irish national holiday in fitting style, look no further than the Bascule Bar.  They’re offering double tots of Bushmills Original for R40.00, and throwing in complimentary tasters of Bushmills 10yo, Bushmills 16yo and Black Bush with each purchase.  The special will be running from 6pm until 9pm.  Enjoy and may the dram be with you!

Bascule photo shoot part 2

Well, our excursion to the Bascule was most enjoyable, if not entirely successful.  They were out of pure pot still (damn!) so I had to think quickly to appease my palate.  I ended up trying the Sazerac 6yo rye whiskey, and the Nikka Hokkaido 12yo pure malt (which prompted me to wonder if the Japanese will follow the Scottish lead and change this descriptor to “blended malt”).  Earlier this year I had tasted the delicious, award-winning Sazerac 18yo rye, courtesy of my friends at Liquidity (thanks Emil), and I must say that its little brother isn’t too far behind: all the zinging spiciness that you’d expect from a rye but well-balanced and with a smooth finish.  The Hokkaido also had a pleasing equilibrium, dancing in the mouth from buttery to fragrant.  My drinking companions took the paths more travelled, thoroughly relishing the Macallan 12yo sherry oak and Glenfiddich 15yo solera reserve.

The photo-shoot objective was accomplished to our satisfaction, with my brother Fred behind the lens.  I’ll be the first to admit that our family wasn’t front of the queue when artistic talents were handed out, but we seemed to have grabbed a few nuggets here and there.  Judge for yourselves.

Bascule photo shoot

This afternoon the WHISKYdotcoza team is off to Cape Town’s whisky mecca, the Bascule Bar, for a photo shoot.   Bascule manager George Novitskas has kindly agreed to let us do our thing at his venue, which is reputed to have the largest whisky collection in the southern hemisphere.  It should be perfect for the atmospheric images that we’re after.  One of my favourite magazines, Drinks International, recently commissioned an authoritative (I say this because they call it “The most authoritative bar industry survey ever”, so its authoritativeness cannot be overstated) survey to rate the world’s 50 best bars, and whilst South Africa is well represented – Café Caprice and Planet Bar crack the nod – for my money the Bascule can feel hard done by.  The supplement was published in November last year and if you’re inclined to do so it can be downloaded here: http://www.drinksint.com/files/Supplements/2010/Bar-Supplement-2010.pdf.  I’ve written to them to see if there are any plans to feature the world’s best whisky bars, whereupon the Bascule, and Katzy’s in Johannesburg, will I’m sure keep the flag flying.

Drinks International best bars supplement

I’m also going to be taking the opportunity of this afternoon’s visit to remedy a glaring omission in my whisky repertoire.  I have tasted and enjoyed all the significant types of whisky bar one – pure pot still Irish.  I can’t drink in Irish company again – and what better drinking company is there – until I set this right.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, this is the definitive Irish style of whiskey, much as single malt is to Scotch.  Pure pot still must be made in a pot still and, by convention (there are no regulations, as there are for Scotch, defining Irish whiskey styles), from a mixed mashbill (i.e. recipe) of malted and predominantly unmalted barley.

The pot stills at the Midleton distillery

The unmalted (or “raw”) barley is what gives Irish whiskey its distinctive flavour.  Most of the Irish whiskey available – for instance popular brands such as Jameson and Tullamore Dew – are blends, made of pure pot still, single malt, and grain whiskey, or any two thereof.  Most of these blends would contain grain whiskey (I only know of 1 pot still-malt blend, known as a “pot still blend” because both components are distilled in a pot still), which, unlike Scotch grains, are distilled close to neutrality, and intended only as a lightening agent so as not to interfere with the flavour of the “master” component…which is more often than not the pure pot still.  So whilst I’m familiar with the flavour from drinking these blends, I’m really looking forward to tasting the real thing.  Now I’m just hoping that the Bascule has it in stock…

Check in tomorrow for excerpts from our shoot and (hopefully) my impressions of pure pot still.  Until then – may the dram be with you.

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The acclaimed Redbreast pure pot still whiskey