Tag Archives: Bowmore

Treats from the top shelf

PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends five fine whiskies to accompany the festive season’s feasting.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

The end of another year looms, so reassuringly close now.  We’re in the final straight, the finish line in sight and beckoning. There’s something about this period that’s exciting, in such a deep-seated sense that it’s more physiological than cerebral – a simmering exhilaration that gets you deep in the gut.   It’s a time to devote undistracted quality time to friends and family, to step away from the frantic pace of modern life, and to reward yourself for some sustained hard toil.  It’s that once a year culmination – and it should be fittingly anointed.   If there is ever a time to spoil yourself then this is it.  Life is short, this end-of-term hiatus even shorter; these are moments to be seized and savoured to within an inch of their existence.   In whisky terms – and revelling’s not revelling without great whisky – it’s the moment to let loose with the lucre, to drink something a little more special, to embrace some celebratory catalysts for sharing time with your favourite people.   Here are my five picks to fire the flame of your festive season.

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

It’s only recently that Irish Distillers renewed the Single Pot Still style, beefing up what had been – given its spectacular attributes – a criminally sparse offering.  The new range is still limited but it’ll get you on enthusiastically and it’ll keep you riding indefinitely.  Redbreast, the “Spots”, Power’s – these are heralds enough to convince us emphatically that this style is the equal of single malt, but for all their worth they are blunt instruments in comparison to the Barry Crockett, a whiskey of such subtlety and refinement as to leave you in awe.   Using an uncommon combination of both ex-bourbon and new casks, the Midleton distillery has a created an uncommon whiskey indeed.   I’m a sceptic when it comes to NAS whiskies, but this one honours all the justifications that are spouted on the subject.  There isn’t any indication of immaturity; the younger whiskies used in these vattings contribute to and complement the array within with no detraction whatsoever – and what an array it is!  It’s something you’ll have to keep revisiting: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, orchard fruitiness, and tangy candy the next, new twists layer after layer.  Drink it in slow reflection of a year well spent.

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

Great whiskies can grow on you gradually, or they can announce themselves immediately.  Black Art is unequivocally amongst the latter.  I came upon an earlier edition some three to four years ago at a whisky show, with no prior knowledge of it whatsoever.  There was no fuss.  I thought it was just another release from a distillery known for its prolific experimentation.  Until I tasted it.  It rocked me where I stood.  The universe suddenly came into focus – I kid you not.  I felt like I had unearthed genius, if you’ll allow me to be a bit liberal.  I’ve since sought out subsequent editions at every opportunity.  There is something particularly special about a series, whether it be vintages or editions.  You know what you’re getting in broad terms but each is a little different, carving out new nooks and crannies to explore, and offering fresh surprises to keep things interesting.   The wood profile is top secret – we’re told that there’s American oak and French oak (seasoned by “premium wine”) involved, but that could mean many things.  There’s no point hypothesising – it’s a sideshow.   The cascade of fruits, the hints of spice, the honey, toffee, chocolate and molasses, gather and swell into a sensational deluge of flavour that’ll keep you riveted from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day and well beyond.

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

I first experienced the Darkest sitting at the magnificent bar at Bowmore (my first stop on the island) looking out over the bay under a brooding sky.  Classic Islay.  It may have coloured my perceptions at the time:  how could you not enjoy the place’s peated whiskies with that weight of geography and heritage and atmosphere weighing upon you?  Well, after many further stops, with the passage of the years, and with a few other bites at the cherry since I’ll admit, the Darkest still lives large if not largest in my memory.  This is Islay as it should be – at least for my taste.  The unmistakeable smokiness is there, but it knows its place: as an equal not an oppressor.  The result is a rich and beautifully calibrated whisky – drifting, briny smoke with a balancing scale of raisins and dark, dried fruits, and butterscotch sweetness.  I can’t think of a better whisky with which to conclude the season’s typically banquetlike meals.

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

Johnnie Walker has its place and purpose, but on the whole I find its range of blends to be obvious, and somewhat overstated (appealing for many).   The Platinum is an exception.   It’s bold and big, yes, but there’s also a depth to be plumbed.  Candied cherries, nutty granola, and vanilla dance amongst dark chocolate crumbles and sparks of citrus and spice, with a fine smokiness, the traditional Scotch signature, playing a mellow music in the background.  There aren’t too many blended whiskies of this class and complexity on our local market – so I’d consider Platinum a get-in-the-festive-mood go-to:  something to “session” as you clink crystal tumblers with old mates, and regale each other with the highlights of your year.

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

I’m referencing this one as local, but let there be no misconception – this is a whisky that stands down to no other.  It is quite simply world class.  I was lucky enough to delve into some Pinotage experiments at the distillery about two to three years ago, and both the concept and the liquids intrigued and encouraged me hugely.  They spoke of a day when “we” would make a truly South African whisky, so both in provenance and style, and a truly great one to boot.  That day has now come.  The whisky that has materialised is full and well balanced, with fruits, sweet spice, dusted nougat, and mineral loaminess appearing and then disappearing like well-choreographed actors on a stage.  There’s peat smoke too, flitting around the edges of tongue and palate, clearly polished by a decade and half in wood, but still in burnished evidence.  Spend some time with this one.  It reveals more and more as you nurture it, the wine only showing itself directly to me when I nosed my emptied glass.  The whisky was finished in twelve Pinotage barrels for about two years, which makes it unusual in two senses: it’s the only mainstream (if not the only, period) release to have used this type of cask, and it’s one of a very few blended whiskies to have been either double matured or finished – so I’ll suggest that it’s a blend that’s been crafted with a level of attention, care and passion typically afforded only to single malts.  You’ll note from the number of casks I mentioned that supply is finite; only 3500 bottles are available, so don’t dawdle.   Stake your claim to a piece of whisky history whilst you can.

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Whisky in the winelands

The collection at Cavalli

First published in Private Edition magazine (December 2014 edition).

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As it appeared – p1.

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It’s said that one should never mix one’s drinks. As an unashamed practitioner of these dark arts, I reject the idea in the strongest possible terms. There’s little that’s more satisfying than enjoying a broad repertoire, preferably one after the other (deferred gratification is overrated). Nonetheless, despite these tendencies, I was surprised recently to stumble upon a bit of an oddity at Cavalli Estate: a massive stash of whisky on a wine farm. What’s more blatant than mixing the grain with the grape?

Odd but not outrageous. Located not too far away are Asara and the Devon Valley Hotel, both boasting outstanding whisky selections, an indication that even here, in a region that has wine so tightly clutched to its bosom, whisky has begun to demand its rightful share of attention. This one though was something special – the private whisky collection of Cavalli owner Jerome Smith, stretching to over 400 carefully accumulated whiskies.

Almost 15 years ago I was privileged to “tour” (that’s how it felt – such was its extent) the whisky collection of the late Leslie Zulberg, probably the finest ever put together in the country. This was during my whisky nascency, and yes, while I knew that I was in the presence of something extraordinary, looking back now I realise that it was largely wasted on the younger, greener me. We are the sum of our experiences, and that visit played its part in my journey, but being more knowledgeable now after having visited distilleries in places as close as Wellington and as far-flung as Islay, and having tasted whiskies as illustrious as the John Walker Diamond Jubilee (a 60YO blend) and as unusual as the Michel Couvreur Spirale (an 18YO finished in Jura vin de paille casks), I saw the Cavalli visit as going some way to redeem me.

Whisky collections are a source of both excitement and discomfort to me. It’s a subject on which I feel genuinely conflicted. On the one hand there’s admiration, of course. The sight of all of those bottles, lined up like an army in formation, often in their hundreds, will unfailingly quicken the collective pulse of whisky lovers everywhere. This I think is a natural reaction to an object of desire – and any collection worth its salt will invariably amass serious desire in serious volume. These collections are also a testament to discipline and persistence of the collector, civilization-building virtues to which I can’t help but doff my hat. And yet, on the other hand – it must be said – they’re an exercise in thwarted purpose. There’s a significant fraction of the world’s finest whiskies – whiskies that are the culmination of generations of incremental expertise, whiskies that in many cases have spent decades patiently maturing in a cask, and whiskies that have been made and cultivated specifically to be the best of the best – that will likely never pass the lips, but instead will spend a lifetime, if not many lifetimes, locked away in glass. So whilst a great collection is beautiful, it is somewhat sadly beautiful. Whisky is meant to be drunk.

Smith divulged to me that when he drinks whisky he tends to stick to the Balvenie 12YO. It’s a delicious dram, no doubt, but how tempting it must be to reach a little higher when the facility to do so is so evidently at one’s disposal. Did I mention discipline?

The Cavalli collection is imposingly impressive. When I asked him for his standouts Smith mentioned his 50YO’s – Glenfiddich (of which he has two) and Glen Grant. They need no introduction. Interestingly the former comes with a certificate which allows the bearer to sample the whisky when visiting the distillery. If one considers that a tot sells for R18k at the V&A’s Bascule Bar, then this is very useful indeed, an added bonus which goes some way to tempering the pain of constantly contemplating but never opening this gem of a whisky.
My slightly morose reflection on collections should be further balanced by the value of whisky as an investment – not necessarily the raison d’être for collecting, but always playing a part. I don’t have a crystal ball and I hesitate to recommend whisky in general as an area of ongoing value growth, but it’s unarguable that its performance over the last decade has been exceptional – a case of dramatically rising demand that was, completely and critically, unanticipated by the industry. Under-supplied, highly-aged stock has consequently been selling for a fortune. This is the drawback to whisky production – it’s a slow and time consuming process. Any whisky is at least three years in the making, great whisky considerably more.

As I laboriously pored over the collection, one shelf after the other, I suddenly came to an abrupt standstill. There is one particular whisky that lives largest in the dreams of all whisky investors…(cue drumroll) the 1964 Black Bowmore (cue cymbals). My itinerant preoccupation with whisky has taken me to a few memorable places, Bowmore included. Funnily enough though my opportunity to see the Black Bowmore in the flesh came not at the Islay distillery but at Auld Alliance in Singapore, which at the time accommodated a first edition in pristine condition with a near-as-damn-it original fill level. These bottles had initially retailed for some £80 when they were first released in 1993 – they now fetch upwards of £6500. You don’t need to do the maths. It’s a staggering performance, by any standard. The second and third editions, which followed in 1994 and 1995, were similarly (if marginally less) spectacular. Together they created a dynasty. The Cavalli bottle is from the final edition (bottled in 2007 from what remained of those same casks, and sold for considerably more), but regardless it retains its claim as one of the most iconic products in the history of whisky. The collection’s other highlights read like Scotch whisky’s roll of honour (not that these whiskies are dead, far from it): Macallan 1937, Highland Park 1962, Bowmore 1968, and Macallan 1969. I was inclined to bow.

The Zulberg collection, when I had encountered it, was locked away in a basement in the declining Johannesburg suburb of Orange Grove. The discordance of it has stayed with me all these years. Luckily the Cavalli collection suffers no such obscurity. It’s not as loud as it is proud – viewings are by appointment only – but it is accessible to a wider audience and, being exquisitely presented in display cabinets, it sensibly fosters a look-but-preferably-don’t-touch appreciation.

As if the whisky wasn’t enough (it was), I was awed by Cavalli in its entirety. The only thing I can reliably inform you about its eponymous horses is which are the front and back ends. I like horses but the less I say about them the better. The rest of it though was in closer vicinity to my comfort zone, so I feel I can pass comment with some measure of assurance. The food is faultless, in fact my rib-eye was literally perfect, the wine is delicious, the sommelier having recommended the Warlord (the estate’s flagship red blend) to accompany my steak, the gallery and other scattered artworks are delightful, with Pierneefs aplenty, and the view is astonishing, taking in the full broad swathe of the Helderberg. Cavalli then is a close to perfect outing for the bon vivant with a whisky bent. May the dram be with you.