Tag Archives: Dewar’s

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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What’s in a glass?

It may not be as important as what’s in the glass, but choice of glassware will materially influence the whisky drinking experience.  Patrick Leclezio reviews the options.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

If you’re a whisky cowboy riding about out there and exploring the range the weapon that you’re likely to be wielding more than most is a whisky glass.  A glass, if you think about it, is as basic as it gets: used for displacing liquid from bottle to mouth.  Is this worth worrying about?  Surely just about anything will do.  Well, actually, no. As with any of a wide array of ordinary, day-to-day products the features that distinguish one type of glass from another make only a subtle difference to its functioning; yet these can be sometimes be enough to both transform our experience of their use, and in many cases to command a substantial premium.  I recently assembled a panel of whisky luminaries – seasoned campaigners who’ve drawn just about every which glass from their holsters – to evaluate the various options available to us.

Our analysis focused more on casual drinking and less on professional tasting, where the opaque copita is king, but having said that we nonetheless gave due and full recognition to the appreciation of flavour.

The features that matter are both tangible and intangible; enjoyment, pleasure, even flavour are psychosomatic, so it’s important not to overlook or undervalue that latter class in a glass.  This notwithstanding in order of apparentness the conclusions from our review are as follows:

Shape

Some (many) whisky drinkers, much to their disadvantage, often overlook the aroma or nose (to use the proper parlance) of a whisky – which happens to be the most enabling medium through which to best appreciate the finer nuances of flavour, given that there are some 32 primary aromas but only five primary tastes.  A good whisky glass should taper inwards towards its rim, concentrating the rising vapours, hence promoting and focusing a person’s ability to savour the nose. Scottish manufacturers Glencairn produce the ideal glass for nosing – a bulbous receptacle at the base graduating into a narrow funnel towards the top; if I’ve had enough to drink I can almost swear that I can see the aromas swirling within it like an inverted tornado.  Doubters can employ a simple test to verify the significance of shape: stand a nosing-friendly glass side-by-side with a straight-walled tumbler and add equal measures of the same whisky (in our case we used the delicious Dewar’s 12YO) and water to both.  Nose one after the other and repeat – the difference is immediately palpable.

Rim

There are three factors relating to the rim about which we should be concerned: diameter, thickness and shape. 

The rim diameter should strike a harmonious balance between being too wide – thereby introducing sufficient area for vapour dispersal – and too narrow – obstructing the transition from nose to palate, especially for those of us with protruding proboscises (i.e. large schnozzes).  We found the Libbey 21cl L’Esprit du Vin glass to have the perfect dimensions – the inner rim measuring 45mm.

In terms of thickness there’s also a middle ground where drinking comfort becomes optimal, but this may be a matter of personal taste.  We tested a set of Normann Copenhagen rocking glasses whose chunky and cumbersome rims were almost suggestive of drinking out of a bowl.  Conversely the Glencairns are just too thin, too fine…whisky drinking requires a certain robust masculinity after all.

Lastly the shape of the rim can substantially enhance the experience of glass on lip, and subsequently of the introduction of the whisky into the mouth.  Riedel’s Vinum Single Malt glass is magnificent in this respect – a flared rim allows the whisky to pool at the lips before cascading over the teeth and onto the palate.  This glass does have its various drawbacks however: its curvature, its fragility, and its jaw-dropping cost combine to seriously inhibit one of whisky drinking’s greatest, most joyous rituals – that of toasting. 

Aesthetics and other intangibles

Design, clarity, weight, innovativeness, novelty, size and tradition all have a strong appeal; often this may not be explicitly and objectively explainable, but it is undeniable regardless.  I once owned a Mont Blanc pen (before I lost it, much to my chagrin); the shaft was ornate and substantial, the ink thick and lustrous, and the sight of it, well, it was arresting – I can still picture it perfectly now, in my mind’s eye, years later.  It was a beautiful, superbly-crafted instrument; still is I’m sure, to whoever found it.  But if I were to be measurably scientific, I’d have to say that I can write, and have subsequently written, with other pens – arbitrary, run-of-the-mill items – with much, if not exactly, the same observable results.  Yet, I definitely enjoyed writing with it, holding it, displaying it, impressing with it, far more than any of those others – for reasons that had nothing to do with its functional performance.  The experience of using it was special.  Similarly, even more compellingly – because its functional performance is undisputedly inferior – the straight-walled whisky tumbler, particularly its crystal incarnation, still occupies a certain pride of place amongst whisky lovers.  The guys at Spilhaus sent us a few of their finest examples – from Atlantis, Waterford and RCR – and we regaled in their use.  Their weight, or more descriptively, their heft, makes the suggestion of substance – of the glass, of the drink, and of the person.  It’s a serious glass for a serious drink – the badge of the gentlemen’s club tradition of whisky drinking, conveying affluence, power, civility and status.

And the winner is…

Once all these factors had been considered one glass towered above the others like a tippling titan: the Bowmore thistle glass.  It ticks all the boxes: a wide bowl, sitting on a thick, heavy base, curving pleasingly inwards before flaring to a well-proportioned rim.  It is not too small, not too large, sitting comfortably in the hand, and whilst its design may be deemed a bit tweed by younger, more modern enthusiasts, the thistle shape has a certain classic Scottish authenticity that will never be amiss for true adherents.  May the dram be with you – and in a damned good glass at that! 

Special thanks to Bernardo Gutman, Marsh Middleton, and Hector McBeth.

Stocking up for spring – part 1

The new serving standard

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2012 Edition).

As it appeared – page 1

As it appeared – page 2

Premium.  It’s the watchword of our times.  The online Oxford defines it as: “relating to or denoting a commodity of superior quality and therefore a higher price”.  I’ve simplified it to: “relatively extra” – specifications, quality, prestige…any or all of that good stuff.  Everybody wants premium.  And why not?  Life is too short to settle for less.

Whisky is no exception; in fact it’s the epitome of this phenomenon.  In the whisky world expensive, lavishly-packaged variants are being introduced on a weekly basis.  Older, better, more!  It’s exciting but also a little bit intimidating, because the bar (yes, I like my puns) is being set progressively higher.  For instance, it no longer seems enough, in a well-to-do home, to serve visitors the regular fare – a 12YO blended Scotch, the first step to premium, is the new minimum standard.

To properly appreciate this new game, and to make the most of it, one needs become familiar with the players.  This may be particularly relevant right now as we come out of winter hibernation, look to refill our liquor cabinets, and start entertaining afresh.  In the not-so-distant South African past, although there were others lurking about, the choice invariably came down to a straight contest between Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal 12YO.  One either preferred the huskiness of the former or the honeyed flavour of the latter (or, in many cases I’m sure, one just bought premium for premium’s sake).  No longer.  Whilst these two stalwarts still dominate the market, the repertoire of easily accessible options has expanded quite delightfully.

I recently sought out a few of Cape Town’s whisky luminaries and prompted them to gather at the Bascule, the city’s whisky HQ, to review the local pool of 12YO blended Scotch.  In the midst of some typical whisky-fuelled R&R (repartee and revelry) we somehow managed to string together a few coherent observations, précised below for your reading pleasure.  Enjoy, and may the dram be with you!

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Johnnie Walker is the world’s best-selling whisky.  Diageo, its owner, is much maligned in the whisky world, but one thing is clear enough: it takes nothing less than high-quality, highly consistent whisky to attain and maintain such lofty heights.  I found the nose somewhat brash, but if subtlety’s not the result then it’s not the objective either.  Rather, this is a bold and tasty mainstream whisky that hits each and every place on the Scotch trifecta – malt, peat, and sherry – and hits it hard.  And if you’re a young turk with a big swinging dick looking to make your mark in the world then there’s still no better way to announce your intent than by walking into a bar and calling for a Johnnie Black, yeah baby!

Chivas Regal

If Johnnie Walker is Scotch then Chivas is Speyside…in all of its debonair elegance.  In very broad terms the region has become known for the fruit and honey flavours which happen to be prominent in Chivas Regal.  The whisky’s official tasting notes also claim a slight smokiness, but this was beyond my ability to identify.  Perhaps it comes from char as opposed to peat.  Regardless, it’s not important.  Chivas is not about smoke, or anything so robust.  It is understated refinement personified.  Interestingly one of our party noted that this is not a distinctively whiskied whisky – apparance of its cereal origins is restrained, and dominated by sherry notes.  Indeed to a novice it might be difficult to distinguish from a similarly aged cognac or rum.  I’d perhaps venture to suggest that this is a whisky for all seasons.

Grant’s 12YO

This new kid on the block comes from a pedigreed background.  It’s a blend in which we can assume the famous Glenfiddich and Balvenie malts, emanating from the same hallowed stable, to be at the forefront.   Sadly for this fine whisky my attention was diverted by a claim which seems rather forced: “Grant’s 12 Year Old is the only blended Scotch whisky to ‘marry’ the finest 12 Year Old grain and single malt whiskies for six months after blending in bourbon casks”.  Technically this may be true, but it’s not quite as impressive as it sounds.  Dewar’s (and W&M) has a long tradition of marrying whisky, albeit in sherry casks, and one of the variants of the local Three Ships, albeit not a Scotch, is married in bourbon casks.  The good news – for peat freaks in particular – is that Grant’s is the smokiest whisky in this category.  Phenol-menal!  Kudos too on the best packaging amongst the lot.

Ballantine’s 12YO

The regular Ballantine’s is my favourite blended Scotch in its price category.  It reminds me of my time in Rome when I spent many an evening pondering the spectacular sights, glass in hand.  And big brother does not disappoint.  A flavoursome and interesting all-rounder – my personal runner-up.

J&B Jet

Jet’s mild flavours won’t start a party in your mouth; rather this is a whisky that’s ideal for newer initiates, and for occasions when fuller flavours might be distracting.  Fresh but not vivid – perfect as an aperitif on a spring evening.

Dewar’s 12YO

I’ve kept the best for last – and that’s not just my opinion.  Each of the heavyweights at our gathering concurred, with no hesitation whatsoever.  This whisky is magnificently integrated – it displays superb balance not only amongst it complex flavours, but also between nose, palate and finish – and is completed by a smooth, silky mouth-feel.  Hugely underrated.

Big thanks to Hector McBeth, Marsh Middleton and Bernard Gutman.

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!