Tag Archives: Bascule

The land of the rising dram

Whisky, big in Japan.  Japan, big in whisky.  Patrick Leclezio separates his mizuwaris from his oyuwaris.

Whisky geeks have been on it for a while, but now it’s starting to explode in the mainstream.  Japanese, if you can get it, is the hottest thing in whisky.  And it’s been due for some time. Bill Murray memorably introduced (most of) us to it in 2003’s Lost in Translation: “For good times, make it Suntory time”.  After all when some paranormal publicity is required who you gonna call? Since then Suntory and Nikka, both the company and brand names of the two leading players, and their flagship single malts, Yamazaki and Yoichi, have rapidly established themselves in our collective consciousness, with the smaller marques following in their wakes.  Demand has grown to fever pitch, but with South Africa low on the list of supply priorities, the stuff is thin on the ground.  I wanted to know more and try more before writing this piece, so I sought out the country’s leading Japanese whisky distributor (and expert) Hector McBeth, to tap into his voluminous knowledge of the subject…and to sneak a few drams from his private stock.

Stranger in a strange land.  Five words that sum up the origins of Japanese whisky.  A Japanese man living and studying in distant Scotland in the early twentieth century.  A curious Scottish tradition taking root in Japan shortly thereafter.  These are the two intertwined threads, epitomising the unifying magic of whisky, that precipitated this industry.   Its watershed moment though came much later, in 2008, when Yoichi’s 20YO and the Suntory Hibiki were awarded the titles of world’s best single malt and world’s best blended whisky respectively by Whisky Magazine, one of the most credible of whisky authorities.  A deluge of awards have followed.

The face behind the liquid and its success, is somewhat inscrutable.  In fact Japanese whisky is a study in contrasts.  On the one hand there’s extreme rigidity.  The model and the basic techniques, and hence the flavours, are derived from Scotch.  I had always held out that the one tangibly identifiable feature distinguishing its whisky from others was the use of Japanese oak (mizunara), inserting the incense notes that are identifiable in some of its expressions.  Hector disavowed me of the notion, confirming that the proportion of these casks in any vatting or blend is minimal.  It’s a nice story, and it’s sometimes apparent (in Yamazaki in particular), but on the whole it’s not significant.  There just isn’t enough of the stuff (the wood).  Adding to its limitations, the various distilleries, already few in number, by and large do not trade stocks outside of their parent companies (of which there are fewer still), hence restricting the variety of product that’s available for vatting and blending.  This is a traditional convention, profoundly fixed in the Japanese ethic of company loyalty.  The result is a set of institutions that can appear deeply conservative, unimaginative and cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face inhibiting.

Then there’s the other hand, the contrast.  Paradoxically the same issues that have constrained Japanese whisky seem also to have driven it forward.  Starved of variety, Japanese distilleries began producing it for themselves.  A Scotch distillery will typically only produce one type of new make.  In Japan individual distilleries began experimenting with different barleys, different malting methods, different yeasts, different stills, and different distillation methods, to produce a wide variety of different single malts.  Bamboo charcoal filtration has been introduced.  High quality single malt has been made in a Coffey still. Necessity as they say is the mother of invention.  The narrow parameters of their setup – the adoption of the Scotch paradigm, the cultural issues – seem to have stimulated rather than restrained innovation – producing spectacular results.

The real impacts remain implicit rather than explicit.  It’s difficult to point out visible, significant distinguishing features.  Whereas other territories have made their mark with radical departures, the Japanese have made small tweaks, focusing on execution of the details.  Their work with yeast is supposedly industry leading, to the point, Hector tells me, that they legally register their strains.  My take-out is that they have taken vatting and blending to greater levels of dedication than anyone else.   Ireland and North America have their own very distinct styles.  Scotch is bound to provenance.   Japan is all about using their human resources to make the most of their limited physical resources – in whisky as in everything else really.  This is particularly evident in blended malts.   A neglected sector elsewhere the Japanese have embraced it, recognising and exploiting the extra dimension that it offers.  I’ve often maintained that blended malts have all the intrinsic advantages of single malts, and then some: they go beyond by providing the blender with an extensive palette of varying liquid, resulting in vatted potential that is undeniably superior (at least theoretically).   The Nikka portfolio in SA is a case in point: Nikka Pure Malts Red and Black, and the Taketsuru Pure Malt, along with Nikka from the Barrel, a high malt blend, being the most prevalent.

The industry has gone about things its own way, assiduously keeping the faith.  What it lacks in macro it has doubled in micro creativity, as growing legions of fans can bear witness.   If you’d like to be in that number, then march over to either Kyoto Gardens or Bascule Bar in Cape Town, or WhiskyBrother in Joburg, South Africa’s most assured purveyors of Japanese whisky.  May the dram be with you.

Sidebar:

Mizuwari: whisky with water and ice, served in a tall glass and stirred 13 and half times.

Oyuwaris: whisky with hot water, a custom that was borrowed from the drinking of sochu (the indigenous Japanese spirit).

prestige-magazine-feb-2017-whisky-p1

As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

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Out and about with whisky

The Cape Town episode.  It’s much more than just a collection of whisky bottles – Patrick Leclezio checks out the bigger picture at the Bascule Bar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I first heard about the Bascule it was with reference to its impressive assortment of whiskies – 400 odd back then, supposedly the largest of any bar in the Southern Hemisphere.  Subsequently each mention of it, in the press in particular, fixated on this same angle; and whilst it’s admittedly worth the boast – what whisky lover wouldn’t be intrigued – it has also placed the bar in a bit of a one-dimensional pigeonhole: “Ah the Bascule, that’s the place with the large selection, right?”.  Things have moved on since then.  Firstly, any whisky bar worth its salt, and there are an increasing number available to us, should offer satisfyingly vigorous variety, and whilst the Bascule’s is now over 500 strong, there are others that come close to or even exceed it.  Secondly, the Bascule is far more than the sum of its whisky parts; it would be a grossly missed opportunity (and an injustice) to remain ignorant of its wider charms.  In this spirit I decided to dedicate an evening, some quality time, to get to know the place in-depth.

The bar takes its name – in case you were wondering – from the nearby bascule bridge (a type of moveable bridge that employs counterweights to open and close, hence giving access to naval traffic), the only one of its kind in the country.  It, the bar not the bridge, is ensconced in the Cape Grace hotel, amongst the Cape’s finest and a recent recipient of high accolades (from the TripAdvisor website – second best hotel in the world in their 2013 Travelers’ Choice Awards).  In a case of narrowly averted tragedy, a less travelled road (back then) almost not taken, the bar didn’t figure in the hotel’s original plans.  It was an afterthought – its existence indebted to the then-owner’s passion for whisky.  This may go some way to explain its position in the lower reaches of the structure.  As inadvertent as this might have been it doesn’t suffer as a result of it; actually quite the contrary – the subterranean floor level, the tunnel-like passages, the restricted natural light, the ship-type staircase (a “ladder” in nautical speak), and the direct access to the quayside all combine to give the place a certain unique cachet.  It’s cosy and intimate, elegant in a welcoming and comfortable manner, and, as I was to discover, infinitely interesting and engrossing.

My host for the visit was Bascule manager George Novitskas.  We sat down together – in the delightfully opulent high-backed chairs installed during the recent renovations – over craft draughts from the Cape Brewing Company (what better than some skilfully brewed barley to break-in the palate), a bottle of Highland Park 12YO (still in my opinion one of the most complete Scotch whiskies on the market), and a couple of mouth-wateringly delicious Wagyu burgers (the meat coming from cattle originating in Japan, and renowned for being the self-same source of the world famous Kobe beef) . This burger is the star attraction on a well-considered, elaborate, but mostly tapas-based menu, which is primarily intended as a snacking accompaniment for patrons.  George is very particular on this point: the Bascule is a bar, not a restaurant…although those seeking more extensive fare can always order from the hotel’s main eatery.

Inevitably, obligatorily, the whisky discussion began with the much lauded collection, which includes highlights such as the Glenfiddich 50YO, the Glenmorangie 1963, the Laphroaig 40YO, the Ardbeg 1975, the Glen Grant 1952, the Highland Park 30, and the Dalmore 1978 – enough to keep the more (most?) demanding connoisseurs well-satisfied – but this is only the beginning of the bar’s whisky attractions:  whilst the classics and some winter warmers are already available, a bespoke whisky-specific cocktail menu is being created for the Bascule by one of the country’s top mixologists;  customers can request to have their whisky served with a perfect ice-ball, made using a Taisin copper press, one of the few, if not the only one, in the country; and the bar also offers an extensive program of whisky tastings and a well-subscribed whisky club.

It’s worth dwelling on these last two offerings. 

Whisky tastings are all the rage at the moment – for corporate functions, for bachelor parties, or just simply for one’s general enjoyment and enrichment.  The Bascule provides two types of tastings.  The first is a self-tutored ‘flight’ of whisky – basically three related whiskies presented on a tasting mat that is inscribed with relevant information.  This strikes me as an ideal vehicle for musing over a couple of drams easily and on short-notice, whether in one’s own company or as a shared experience. The second is a tutored tasting – offered at three levels – the Introductory, the Intermediate and the Sommelier’s Choice – and conducted by one of the bar’s managers, each of whom, along with the rest of the staff, would have been trained on Dave Broom’s World Masterclass series.  These tutored tasting also feature the growing and (very) agreeable trend of pairing food with whisky.

The Bascule whisky club almost defies belief.  Members enjoy the place as if they’re in their own homes – and effectively that’s the whole premise of the thing.  One of the values of the Cape Grace hotel is to make visitors feel like they’re at home, and it has certainly succeeded with the club; for a nominal annual fee members are allocated a bottle locker which they can stock at much reduced prices.  To the gregarious, whisky-loving gadabout, and I know a few, this is like the proverbial manna from heaven.  Throw in six special, catered tasting events, an end-of-year members’ party, and the option to use the club for one personal function, and you’ve got a package that’s almost too good to be true.  The Bascule also gives each member a crystal tumbler with their name engraved on it – a discreet, understated symbol of their special status.

I may be under the influence of the Orkney peat buzz, the memory of that delectable marbled beef, or the lingering pleasure of an evening well spent, so dim my effusiveness down a notch if you will: the Bascule Bar is quite simply magnificent. The whisky community has embraced it, celebrities flock to it, and both locals and tourists are drawn to it persistently.  If you’re a South Africa-residing whisky lover then it is imperative that you should visit…often.  May the dram be with you.

A night of big sherry

Last week I scrounged a back-door invitation to a GlenDronach tasting.  It was hosted by the Bascule, and after I’d arrived it gradually dawned on me that I had kind-of gate-crashed a get-together of their whisky club.  I felt bad about it, but sometimes these things need to be done in pursuit of a higher purpose.

It turned out to be well worth the momentary embarrassment.  During a tasting that was expertly led by the amicable, Scottish-accented (which always lends a certain authenticity) David Wyllie, we were served a sextet of exquisite drams from a stable renowned for their sherried whiskies.   I’m a big fan of sherry-casked whisky – you could say that I’m the sherry equivalent of a peat-freak – so this was quite a treat, and also the motivation for my dubious presence at the event.

We tasted the 12, 15 and 18 YO’s from the core range, a 14YO finished in Sauternes casks, a 1992 Single Cask bottled exclusively for the South African market, and, last but not least, a whisky about which we were asked not to publicise details.  This was a special bottling, supposedly not authorised for public consumption.   It’s widely known that a whisky lover relishes nothing more than the opportunity to taste something exclusive and uncommon, so I’m pretty sure that the GlenDronach guys were blowing a bit of smoke up our arses – but I appreciated the sentiment and the whisky regardless.

Interestingly the 14YO, which is sadly not available in SA, was made from a stock of virgin-casked whisky (European oak) which was then re-racked into a variety of casks for finishing.  I found this Saturnes version interesting if somewhat overly woody.  Taste can be suggestible though and I wonder if I would have come to this same conclusion had I not known its provenance.  I suggest that you try it if you get the chance.  Virgin casks are blended into bottlings occasionally, although perhaps with increasing regularity in recent years, but whisky which is made primarily from virgin casks is exceedingly rare.  In fact this style is probably limited to the few available organic whiskies.

Finished virgins.

Amongst the core range the 15YO stood out, at least for me – the signature sherry flavours were offset by the freshness and vibrancy of a pine forest.  It also has a spectacular nose which drew oohs and aahs from the audience, myself included.  The other whiskies were similarly impressive – only enhancing my affinity for this distillery and its creations.

Corker!

I was struck by a final observation before heading home, which reinforced to me why I’m passionate about whisky rather than other potential candidates – i.e. why I’m not spending my time writing about chocolates, or teas, or bicycles, or somesuch.  There is artistry and skill required for all of these and hundreds of others, but whisky has a certain uncommon magic.  The 1992 and the mystery bottle were both from Oloroso casks, probably sourced from the same bodega.  The latter was significantly older.  And yet the 1992 was considerably darker and its sherry flavours more pronounced.  In fact the mystery whisky has citrus notes, which are unusual in sherry casks.  This is the enigma of wood.  It contributes a visceral organicity to whisky which sets it apart from other industrial production, and gives it the constant ability to surprise and to astound.

12YO blended Scotch preview

Whisky – if you’ll excuse this statement of the obvious – has been premiumising steadily in recent years.  New, expensive, lavishly packaged variants are being introduced on a weekly basis.  Older, better, more!  It’s exciting but also a little bit intimidating.  The bar is being set higher and higher, with direct impact on our daily lives.  As an example – it no longer seems enough to offer one’s guests the regular stuff.  Perhaps this is just my peculiar point of view, but I suspect that it rings true for many of us.  A 12YO blend seems to be the new minimum standard.

For this reason I’m embarking on a review of the major 12YO blended Scotches available on the South African market.  If this is the new game then I reckon someone should be carefully checking out the players and sizing them up against each other.

I’m kicking off the review with a tasting – for which I’ve enlisted some of Cape Town’s whisky luminaries to assist.  Marsh Middleton, Bernard Gutman, and Hector MacBeth will be joining me at the Bascule tonight to sample the following whiskies:

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Chivas Regal

Ballantine’s 12YO

Dewar’s 12YO

J&B Jet

Grant’s 12YO

One of the whiskies we’ll be tasting.

If you happen to be in the area please join us for a dram and a chat.  There’s nothing better than whisky and good company – generally but particularly on a miserable, stormy day like this one.

The review will be published in the September issue of Prestige Magazine, and then on this blog later in September.

May the dram be with you!