Tag Archives: Bushmills

Bang for your buck

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/

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Answering Ireland’s call

I have on this blog repeatedly expressed my gushing affection for Irish whiskey – you may remember my review of Black Bush in particular.  If fans were bottles  I would be a Melchizedek.  So yesterday was a bit of a sad day for me and all my fellow lovers of Irish, or certainly that was my first impression at the unfolding of events.  On reflection I feel mixed emotions rather than sadness as such.  The trigger was an announcement that Beam Global – the large US liquor group which owns mega-brands such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Teacher’s and Courvoisier – had bought Cooley, Ireland’s last remaining independent whiskey distiller.  Has a light that has long flickered, and sometimes waned, gone out for good?

In the midst of these morose musings my mood was buoyed by memories of a recent Irish experience.  I was lucky enough some ten days ago to attend “Find-the-Craic”, the culminating event in the “Make it 2 Bushmills” global competition.  Two young South Africans, Sean Tickner and Jonathan ‘Oros’ Oliff, won this competition, beating out 3600 other teams in the process.  As if these guys weren’t righteous enough for having “brought the distillery home” the fact that we share an alma mater elevated them further in my esteem.  If I were a rah-rah jolly hockey sticks type, or rather the male equivalent thereof, I’d say “Go School!”, but I’m not so I won’t.  There is nonetheless a certain kinship to having been forged in the same fire.

Oros, Colum and Sean

A bit of context at this point.  I have attended countless liquor and tobacco promotions.  These are industries not known to be shy to flash their cash.  They are also categories where brand (the extrinsics) can tend to often overshadow product (the intrinsics), which is all well and fine, but extrinsics are costly and that cost eventually finds its way into the price of the product.  I once organised a Benson & Hedges party where we bussed (by luxury coach) a large group of celebrities into the Tswaing meteorite crater for a party of unjustifiable proportions.  It bordered on the ridiculous.  A few years later I was at a Lucky Strike concert where Violent Femmes played for a crowd of less than 300 people.  And I can quote dozens of similar examples.  I think I’ve reached the point where I can no longer be impressed by wanton expenditure…although I don’t really mind having this hypothesis tested from time to time :).

At Find-the-Craic I was teamed up with a group of similarly blasé whisky veterans: the legendary Bernard Gutman, whisky supplier extraordinaire Hector McBeth, and Whisky Mag SA digital editor Marsh Middleton, sometimes also known as Miles.  This was as hardened a group as for which you could hope, and yet despite our ho-hum preconceptions we were at the end of the day – to a man – all impressed by what we had experienced.

After a leisurely lunch at the Chapman’s Peak Hotel, where we were seated with Master Distiller Colum Egan, we separated into our respective teams and followed clues to the sites of the various challenges that were awaiting us.

We've already found the craic!

The program was essentially a replication of what Sean and Oros had faced during their epic victorious journey; it was comprised of barrel rolling, whisky tasting, beach golfing, and cocktail making, all of which was great craic (fun), especially in good company, and it was followed by a party at the Bascule, the Cape Town whisk(e)y HQ, where we were entertained by an excellent Irish singer with the interesting name of Foy Vance.  Foy incidentally comes from the French word “foi” meaning faith, although I can’t confirm that this was the basis upon which this particular Foy was named.

Foy Vance in action

Anyhow, I digress.  The day was organised with metronomic precision.  It can’t be easy managing six separate sites (seven if you include the collection point) and yet it was all seamless.  I didn’t notice a single misstep – even though I tried to throw a spanner in the works by tweeting misleading information to lead the other teams astray.

The fun and games aside, what was most impressive was the whole philosophy of the promotion, and by projection the brand.  Money was spent, make no mistake – this can’t have been a cheap endeavour – but there was heart, warmth and a genuineness about the proceedings.  I felt this way primarily for the two following reasons:

–        The theme of the promotion was closely tied to the core brand message of friendship.  Of course this was a marketing exercise, but it was kept relevant, responsible, related to the product, and within reason.  The Bushmills team was generous but not excessive.  I didn’t at any time feel like I was being arbitrarily schmoozed.  This is a brand that seems well grounded, secure and true to itself – no pretence was necessary.

–        The event was a standout largely due to the presence of Colum Egan.  Colum is a real Master Distiller (the best there is if his tongue-in-cheek comments are to be believed), unlike others who spend more time pounding the PR trail than doing any actual distilling.  I had the sense that we were his personal guests, as opposed to invitees at a brand function.  He was a relaxed and congenial host, chatting about the cost of a column still one moment, making stirring toasts the next, all the while making sure we had a great time and having a great time himself.

Taking a short break from distillation duties.

Now, back to my earlier worries about the Cooley situation.  Bushmills is owned by the liquor colossus Diageo, and you just don’t get more corporate than Diageo.  If it’s possible to substitute a process for any element of human initiative the Diageo machine will typically find a way to do it.  And yet, on the evidence of this experience, is there any real cause for concern?  The spirit of Ireland – which history has shown can never be tamed – and of Irish whiskey clearly still thrives within Bushmills.  I have a feeling that independence in Irish whiskey, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, will not be lost to us.

Check out Marsh’s video summary here and Bernard’s endorsement of the post-event here.

Photos courtesy of Tony Niemeyer.

I love Irish whiskey

And to anyone who doesn’t I have this to say – don’t be an eejit man!  Tree times distilled, you canna go wrong…

One who does not like Irish whiskey

In many ways the history of Irish whiskey reflects the very soul of Ireland itself: tragic, principled, enduring, resurgent, and throughout it all, ebullient, and abundant in lyricism and warmth.  The Irish story is bittersweet, having travelled a course of buoyant victories and bitter setbacks.  It led the charge of whisky in the nineteenth century, but passed on the trend to blend, much to its commercial detriment.  Scottish corporate interference then stunted the industry’s capacity to produce grain whiskey.  One hindrance followed another.  Independence and separation from the Empire deprived it of vast markets.  The industry shunned bootleggers and then was insufficiently prepared for the revocation of Prohibition, leading to severe reversals in one of its most successful markets.  Later post-war government policies further limited development, bringing the once flourishing industry to its knees, ravaged and barely hanging on with only 2 distilleries still operating.

But hang on it did, and in the last 20 odd years it’s been progressively emerging from the darkness.  There are now two new distilleries, independent and Irish-owned to boot.  And then there’s Jameson, the leading Irish whiskey brand and spearhead of the recovery, today logging sales of over 3 million 9-litre cases annually…and still growing.    As the more perceptive amongst you may have gleaned from the title of this post, I’m a big a fan of Irish.  So I couldn’t be happier about this turnaround.  There’s still some way to go but I’m starting to believe that it’s on its way to reclaiming its rightful place in the whisky pantheon – which is important, not only because Ireland is the birthplace of whisky, but more so because Irish offers whisky lovers an astonishingly good, and meaningfully distinct style of whisky.  The more it thrives the richer our whisky adventure becomes.

What makes Irish Irish?  As with Scotch any such analysis is general at best.  The industry may be more limited than that of its celtic cousins, but its whiskeys are significantly diverse.  Nonetheless, certain signature features have evolved over the centuries which on a broad level may be considered representative.  Most people know about triple distillation.  Whether this makes a whiskey “twice as smooth” is debatable, but it certainly does have an effect.  The original strength – i.e. before reduction – is higher than a twice-distilled whisky and this will influence flavour.  Furthermore the stills are notably and consistently larger than those of the Scotch industry.  You’ve probably heard stories of distillers replacing old stills by putting dents in a new still to match those that were on the original: it’s not scientifically quantifiable but it’s accepted as fact that the size, shape, and surface area of a still impact flavour.  They affect the “conversation” of the spirit with the copper.  These are the subtle differences – more tangible is the difference in ingredients.  Irish generally uses unpeated malt in its mashbills, whereas Scotch (very generally) uses peated malt.  And whereas the single malt is the bastion of Scotch, the heart of Irish is the single pot still (previously known as the pure pot still), made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley (and sometimes a sprinkle of oats).

Peat. Lots in Ireland, little in Irish.

Single pot stills are still scarce, although this is changing as the industry prospers again.  Until recently there were only 2 brands, Redbreast and Green Spot, available…but sparsely distributed.  Two new brands – under the Midleton and Powers umbrellas – were introduced this year.  These are all produced at Irish Distillers’ Midleton Distillery, however there are rumours that Cooley, the aforementioned independent distiller, is now also producing and laying down stocks of single pot still.  Hooray!

The Single Pot Still family

I’ve got to come clean.  I’m trumpeting this news and singing the praises of Irish despite having never tasted a single pot still.  This will imminently change.  A bottle of Redbreast soon will be winging its way to me.  Irish blends can be made with a combination of any or all of single pot stills, single malts, and grain whiskeys.  The grain whiskey is usually lightly flavoured so as not to interfere with the “master” component. I’m very partial to brands such as Jameson, Tullamore Dew, and Powers, but recently, when biting down on my regular-ish Jameson, I’m left with the impression that it’s over-diluted.  I like the flavour tremendously but I’m not getting enough of it.  The more premium versions, like the Gold Reserve, which obviously have a greater proportion of single pot still (and also benefit from longer maturation), go some way to solving the problem, but I want more.  I need to take my appreciation of Irish on a journey, and there can only be one destination – single pot still.  So I’m as familiar with and as confident about this style of whiskey as it’s possible to be without actually having tasted it.

I recently told a mate of mine who works for Diageo that Bushmills wasn’t a real Irish whiskey, because it doesn’t have a single pot still component.  He was seriously unimpressed by this opinion.  Admittedly I was being unfair, and exaggerating my point (I like to stir).  The truest of Irish, the heart of its tradition, is the single pot still, but that should by no means exclude the other fine whiskeys produced on the island.  To make up for this slight I’m going to follow-up on this post with a review of Black Bush, an unfortunately named (try an unfiltered image search on google), but superbly constituted whiskey.

Until then may the dram be with you!

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!