Tag Archives: Distilled spirits

A diamond in the rough

Prospecting in rum.  Patrick Leclezio tracks a spirituous revelation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2016 edition).

In 2005 whilst living in Italy I discovered rum.  I’d been stumbling over it for a while of course, drinking mixed rums – typically in the fabled Cuba Libre style – but I’d never picked it up, dusted it off, held it to the light and given it proper consideration.  My prior experience of it had pigeonholed the spirit as something agreeable but limited, like a friend with whom you have just the one thing in common, which once exhausted leaves nothing much else that’s engaging.  My awakening, in the little bars of Trastevere in Rome, where the forerunning Latin appreciation for the drink had already been given unrestrained expression, exposed me to a sleeping giant.  In products like Appleton’s 21YO, Pampero Anniversario, Barbancourt, and Zacapa Centenario (these were the days before Diageo’s misguided attempt to fashion the thing into a cocktail base), I felt I’d seen a glimpse of the future.  Ten odd years later this future has finally arrived in the country.   Stay with me as I draw open the curtains.

Rum is a spirit with a colourful history, but with associations I feel that have held back its graduation to the upper echelons attained by its peers.  The reference to pirates, sailors, navvies and the like has evoked images of adventure, fun and daring-do, dominant themes in how rums have portrayed themselves and been perceived, but the potential for elegance and style has been largely overlooked, ignored, and overshadowed in the process.  No longer. The era of “sipping rums”, rums that have been judiciously produced and significantly matured, that can be drunk neat or with a dash of water, and that would not be amiss if served in a gentleman’s club, has been dawning, albeit slowly.  It’s been a bit of a drawn out, extended, impatient wait but today there is a satisfying-enough number of these rums available on the South African market.  This is great news, dare I say cause for raucous celebration (ok, refined celebration) for those of us who love fine spirits, in that it both confers a previously unknown abundance and variety of flavour to our drinking repertoires, and in that it does so for remarkable value; that the price of rum compares favourably with that of whisky and cognac is a gross understatement.

There are challenges certainly: rum, to be blunt, is all over the show.  The industry is fragmented; there are no unifying standards (often even within individual territories); there is no concerted and coordinated effort at consumer education, worrying at a time when consumers are thirsty (yes, sorry) for information and more discriminating than ever before; access to and depth of information, for those aficionados who are looking to self-educate is sketchy; and, for many of the reasons listed, the perceived integrity of rum in relative terms is sorely lacking – why, as an example, does Zacapa get to label a rum with the age of its oldest component when Appleton denotes theirs with the age of the youngest?  Surely this can’t be good for the wider category?  The flip side is that rum producers have incredible freedom.  Column stills, pot stills, both, liberal maturation – almost anything goes, all without constraints.  With a sparsity of rules and regulations comes both the risk of consumer confusion and frustration, and scope for incredible creations.

I had the opportunity recently to evaluate side by side all the major players contesting our attention locally.  The standard bearers for rum have long been the historically intertwined Bacardi and Havana Club, although the latter has only more recently manifest itself as a global brand.  The former’s 8YO and the latter’s 7YO are both plump, juicy drinks, ironically quite similar, with a pleasing fruitiness, perhaps pineapple, on the palate, and a long finish.  They may not be intricately complex, which I’m pretty sure is not the intention anyhow, but they’re solid, dependable and, most importantly, enjoyable.  From stalwarts to upstarts.  My guiding principle in analysing global spirits is that a premium brown spirit cannot be successful without heritage.  One of the most striking and impressive exceptions is the barrier-breaking Patron Spirits Company.  They’ve again broken the mould with Pyrat – its liquid has such a pronounced orange flavour that some rum commentators suspected added flavouring.  In fact the rum is finished in casks that had previously held orange liqueur, the only such instance of which I’m aware.  It may not be everyone’s ration of grog but its two strokes of silky citrus and bitter tang are simple and effective, at least for my taste.  Pair it with a few squares of dark chocolate as a digestif.  Also out of ordinary is Inverroche’s 7YO rum.  Next time I’m drifting down the coast I’ll stop in specifically to explore how this is put together.  All rums are made with cane (forgetting a few beet derived freaks) – either molasses or juice, so you’re pretty much be expecting a sugary profile.  The Inverroche rum is less sweet and more herbaceous – it is as distinct a rum as is available in the country.  Appleton, the venerable, long established Jamaican distillery, conversely, produces liquid that as typical as rum can be imagined to be.   Both its X/V and its 12YO display pungent molasses on the nose and ripe cane on the palate, as if you’d sunk your teeth into a stalk on the cusp of fermentation.   A rum’s rums, so to speak.

My favourites though, each of which glittered with the best of rum’s new sparkle, were those from Mount Gay, with which I could imagine myself to have endless entertaining conversations – the Black Barrel, syrupy and rich, maybe a factor of its heavily charred casks, with a peppery surprise on the finish, and the XO, subtle and sophisticated with notes of caramelised sugar and a juicy, mouth-coating fullness – and then, inevitably, the much beloved, and somewhat maligned Zacapa.  The suggestion has been made that Zacapa has declined in quality of late, since the reins changed hands, but if this is true then I wasn’t able to detect it.  It remains the complex, layered, gripping rum, brimming with sweet oak and sultanas, that I first tasted all those years ago.  The virgin press juice, the solera process, the variety of four different casks including Pedro Ximenex sherry, and the high altitude maturation constitute a winning formula.  It is outstanding, and it continues to be the herald of rum’s progressing journey to the pantheon.  Salud!

 

Prestige April 2016 Spirits p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige April 2016 Spirits p2

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Rocking the repertoire

Entertaining with spirits.  A rough guide by Patrick Leclezio.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

Prestige Spirits Dec 2015 p1

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Prestige Spirits Dec 2015 p2

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So you’re hosting a dinner and you’re fussing over the wine. Chenin with the fish. Or maybe a Chardonnay. And then a robust Shiraz with the fillet. Cool, sorted. Well, no, not really. Don’t feel bad though. This is a trap into which you’re easily ensnared. It’s become bizarrely commonplace to spend time and effort (and money!) selecting great wines for our guests, whilst then at the same time absentmindedly relying on whatever happens to be around, or perhaps just grabbing a six-pack or two, for the balance of the beverages. I’ve lost count of the occasions during which I’ve been disappointed by an absence of whisky, or gin, or been elated to find some gin, only to be told that there’s no tonic (vermouth – forget it!)…and that’s without even delving into the less popular drinks. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

And that’s that it doesn’t make sense. It is illogical, for three reasons. Firstly, the time spent eating is actually in the minority. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy wine before or after the meal – but there are so many spirits out there that are considerably more interesting for the purpose. It brooks no argument that more attention can and should be devoted to making your guests happier during the larger part of their time with you. Secondly, if you harbour ambitions as a good host, a complete and cultivated host, then you should be encouraging a repertoire in tastes, or at least catering for a variety thereof. We have an incredibly diverse heritage of drinks from which to draw, established over centuries, tried and tested, and evolved to suit a multiplicity of occasions and a range of palates. It seems positively uneducated to act in ignorance of these traditions. Lastly, very simply, without being silly about it, spirits are simply more fun than wine. There’s a reason they call it a dinner party. Don’t let yours get stuck on the first word.

Freddie Mercury memorably sang: I want it all and I want it now. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. You don’t need to open a bar. And for that matter you don’t need to do it my way. This isn’t rocket science though, and I’ve given it some thought, so why reinvent the wheel. There are four easy considerations: what you should serve before, during and after the meal, and what wildcards you should hold (apologies for being coy, an explanation will follow). This is how you should play it.

The drinks served before the meal are called aperitifs. You’ll be serving these on arrival, and typically with snacks, so they need to be both refreshing and lubricating. The primary (but not exclusive) focus then should be on drinks that are typically consumed with a mixer of some sort. An aperitif is usually dry for classical tastes, but there’ll also be preferences for sweet. Keep an array of the more popular spirits: gin, vodka, rum, brandy, and whisky, along with these mixers: tonic, soda, coke, lime cordial, ginger ale, and a juice, perhaps cranberry. Water of course, preferably bottled, so that your fine spirits aren’t tainted by the chlorine in tap water. I personally don’t opt for garnish, but many people do, so it’s advisable have lime and lemon available. These are only the basics of course. I’d further recommend that you offer some depth of choice for at least one of these spirits – any other than vodka, where intrinsic variety is close to meaningless, and that you be prepared to mix a cocktail or two – caipirinhas and martinis are less frivolous options. This opening period sets the tone for the evening – first impressions count as they say – so it’s essential that it be effective.

The opportunity may now present itself to throw a wildcard on the table – a round of shooters. This may sound juvenile, but how it’s received is all in the context and the execution. Who’s in the mix? What’s the prevailing mood? Is there cause for celebration? Shooters are your firestarter – be ready to deploy, but don’t do it unnecessarily. Read the situation. And as for the choice of shooter: frozen vodka. Its curious texture and its innocuous taste should find universal appreciation.

With the meal – wine, as rule with few exceptions. It’s become quite trendy to pair fine spirits such as whisky and brandy with food, but whilst this is plausible for experimental or promotional purposes, it’s not self-perpetuating. These spirits should only be marginally diluted (or you’ll lose their flavour) and as a result they’re not lubricating enough to accompany anything heavy. Dessert is an exception, with rich spirits serving well both as an accompaniment to the sweet flavours; try a well-matured brown spirit in particular, and as an ingredient, try a liberal dash of Chambord or crème de cassis – with just about anything.

Last but not least, the digestif, and the moment to cast a final impression, to seal the approval of those present, and, more importantly, to continue their enjoyment of the proceedings (as well as your own!). The obvious fare is cognac (or brandy) and whisky, but this is a chance to pull out another wildcard – something exotic. Offer your guests “un petit Calva”, or a sipping rum, or even an aged tequila.

You’ve now successfully avoided the wine tunnel-vision trap. Hopefully, as they’re reluctantly leaving, your partygoers would now be reflecting on the rich repertoire, on your superior hospitality, and on having shared an entertaining and fulfilling evening. You’ve unleashed the enormous spirituous potential. Let the good times roll. Chin chin.

Big on brandy

I don’t think that the emphasis on cocktails is the right way to restore faith in South African brandy. They’re easy-come easy-go, not fostering a relationship with the base spirit itself. And if the barmen serving them are clown incompetent and tortoise slow, it doesn’t help. This was the principle drawback – said and out of the way now – to an otherwise outstanding Brandy Festival 2014 (officially Fine Brandy Fusion), held at the Cape Town Convention Centre recently.
The most encouraging feature of the Festival was the increasing emphasis on pot still brandy. This stuff is the real deal – made in copper pots, as the name suggests, fully matured, and entirely credible. It is as it should be the flag-bearing style for the industry. Brandy is our signature spirit, a spirit that we can claim to be ours more than any other, and in pot still we have an expression of which we can be truly proud.
It became apparent to me as I was touring the exhibitions that there are now four strong mainstream brands each producing a significant range of excellent pot still brandies – not to mention the growing array of boutique creations, which hopefully will be better represented at the Festival in future years. In Van Ryn’s, KWV, Oude Molen and Oude Meester the style is being manifest in a manner befitting its tradition.
My introduction to Oude Meester was perhaps was the most encouraging experience of the evening. This was a brandy to which I hadn’t paid much attention in the past. Despite the Jamie Foxx-fronted reinvention it had always struck me as a bit stale and “ou doos”. Anything but! Oude Meester is the sipping brandy for a new generation. The 8YO “Demant” was perhaps the greatest revelation; bold, fresh and flavoursome, it is an easy-drinking and affordable entre to the genre – a welcoming gateway to the world of pot stills. The brand offers a graduated transition to a 12YO and then to its amazing 18YO – also bold and flavoursome, but evolving a generous measure of complexity that was missing in the more obvious Demant. I highly recommend a lingering acquaintance with these brandies, for novices and aficionados alike.
Oude Molen, since our last interaction, has doubled the size of its family – the impressive René Single Cask and Solera Grand Reserve joining the legendary VOV and the stalwart 100 Reserve – giving brandy lovers an added variety of terrain for exploration. I believe that their distillery in Elgin is well worth a visit too so that’s something to remember next time you’re in apple country and looking for an agreeable diversion.

Maturation at Oude Molen.

Maturation at Oude Molen.

Whilst I’m more familiar with both Van Ryn’s and KWV, which offer similarly structured portfolios of pot stills each consisting of 10, 12, 15 and 20 YO’s, than any other brandies this was nonetheless a rare opportunity (and privilege) to taste and compare their ranges side by side. The former’s aggressive flavour profiles contrasted with the more subtle, restrained character of the latter, but both are undoubtedly excellent, and deserving of their positions at the head of the pack.
The Brandy Festival is still in its infancy, so it may well have escaped your notice – if so then make sure you schedule it in your agenda for next year. It’s a must for anyone with so much as a passing interest. Its purpose is evidently to promote education about and consequently the appreciation of brandy, and in that regard it packs a punch – I particularly liked the nosing beakers isolating some of the more typical brandy flavours – but it does so with a velvet glove: the delicious food (really impressive for this type of large public event), the atmospheric décor, and the supplementary entertainment all contribute to make it a big brandified blast of an evening.

Rousing resolutions

There’s no more universally potent an impetus for change than the onset of a new year.  PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends a few adjustments to your potational proclivities.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2014 edition).

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p1.

As it appeared p2.

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Another holiday bites the dust.  They call it the FESTIVE season for good and obvious reasons, a description which for many – would it be ungenerous to say most? – extends to their consumption of distilled spirits.  The period in which we now find ourselves, the calm after the storm, is a time of contemplation and reflection – hence the emblematic resolutions that are bandied about, with anything varying from iron resolve to gay abandon depending on the individual.   I’d like to add to your list for 2014…if I may be so bold.  My suggestion is in two parts.  Firstly drink quality over quantity.   Ok, I never claimed that these offerings would be rocket science, but simple as this may seem its application is not a foregone conclusion:  it’s easy to slip back into old habits, and quality tends to cost, so price can be a deterrent (or an excuse).  Fine, high-quality spirits enhance all the wonderful, positive attributes of the genre, whilst inhibiting its less savoury elements (responsible drinking shouldn’t be just a tagline).  Secondly, try new drinks.  There are a myriad of different spirits out there offering an array of different flavours – and most of them have a pleasing depth of heritage; it’s reassuring to know that something has evolved over hundreds of years, and that it’s been exhaustively tried and tested…and trusted.  Hike out of the rut.  Reach out and embrace the wonders of the spirituous world in their multitude.

Here then is a short guide to get you started on your journey, to move you from vague generalities to actionable specifics.  Carpe diem!

KWV 10YO

I recently attended a delicious lunch during which KWV showcased their core range of premium brandies.   The focus seemed to be on their new 12YO, which is admittedly very good, but my attention was drawn to the less fashionable 10YO – for various reasons: it’s a great, flavoursome brandy (I particularly enjoyed the tart apricot on the palate); it’s been selling at a ridiculously good price (good for us, not sure if it’s so good for KWV or for the standing of premium brandies – we’ll just have to trust that they know what they’re doing); and, most compellingly, it’s signalling a promising shift in the industry.   I’ve written in the past about how I believe that South African brandy is being hampered by the presence of unmatured wine spirits in its compositions – a situation, by the way, which now only applies to the blended and vintage categories.  Well done then to KWV for taking their 10YO and transforming it from vintage to potstill (100% pot distilled, matured brandy).  This is the direction in which the industry should / must / has to travel.   The vintage labelling however still remains on the bottles (and on the tasting notes provided to us at the lunch!) –  I’m told that “they have yet to effect a label change” – which I find puzzling (disquieting?); these types of product changes don’t happen overnight and I would have thought they’d want to shout this out.  Regardless, ditch your coke and take the step up.

Hennessy XO

Brandy may not have the range of a spirit like whisky, but there’s no shortage of ground to be explored – and explore it you should.  Cognac is effectively a brandy produced in a designated region (the areas surrounding the town of Cognac in France), according to certain defined processes and regulations.  The quality of South African potstill brandy bows down to no man, so to speak, but when it comes to luxury the French are still well out in front.  XO is the new cognac black, and Hennessy – a great Irish name for a quintessentially French product…somewhat bemusedly – is the iconic leader of the pack.  I can confidently attest that their XO will make an outstanding accompaniment to any fruitcake that may have survived the Christmas gorge.  With some luck, if you hurry, you’ll also still be able to pick up their gift pack featuring a high-end, complimentary flask.

Mainstay 54

The proliferation of premium vodka over the last decade (and a bit) is remarkable, especially locally where premium white spirits have traditionally been the green, wet wood of the liquor industry.  Last year witnessed the introduction of our own home-grown, big-brand premium vodka – Mainstay 54.   Made from a distillation of “sun ripened molasses through a 5 column distillation process” – the type of vodka blah-blah which in my experience matters more to the perception rather than the actual quality of the liquid – this vodka actually does have an important point of difference from most of its synonymous brotherhood: the 54 denotes the alcohol by volume (ABV), well in excess of the category norm.  The tangible benefits to you the drinker will be twofold:  if you take your vodka in shots you’ll significantly boost your consumption experience, and if you dilute your vodka with a mixer you’ll extract considerably more value.   The lower freezing temperature also makes Mainstay 54 the ideal beverage for one’s occasional Arctic expeditions – in fact I’ll write to them to suggest a change of advertising theme; clearly the tropical island settings are not doing the product full justice.

Disarronno

I’m not a frequent liqueur drinker, but I’ve selectively come to both appreciate their worth and enjoy them on an occasional basis.  Amaretto – a diminutive of the Italian word amaro (bitter) – is probably one of the oldest and proudest styles of liqueur in existence, dating its origins back to the early 16th century.  Disarronno, supposedly the original amaretto and certainly the leading purveyor, is actually more bittersweet than bitter, and, unlike many others, it contains no almonds (or any other kinds of nuts); rather its signature fruity, nutty notes are derived from an infusion of apricot kernel oil.  Look out for Disaronno’s Valentine’s Day limited edition pack – produced in association with the Italian fashion label Moschino.  It presents the ideal opportunity to introduce yourself and your significant other to this delicious gem of a spirit.  Best enjoyed neat over ice.

Syrupy spirits

Can liqueurs be taken seriously?  Patrick Leclezio steps out of his comfort zone.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2013 edition)

As it appeared.

I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of liqueurs. They’re very sweet, they’re sometimes creamy – attributes which I can appreciate in a dessert but which seem frivolous in a drink – and they’re also usually undercooked; our legislation, likely a reflection of global standards, only stipulates a minimum 24% ABV for liqueurs and an even limper 15% for cream liqueurs. I still shudder from the residual effects of the many cloying, unavoidable ‘springboks’ that those of us growing up here would inevitably have drunk.  Hard tack is meant to be…well…hard, at least in my view of things. On reflection – and it can be rewarding to reflect on preconceptions – I have to concede though that mine is a rather narrow view, which deserves some reconsideration.  Many liqueurs have a deep and rich tradition, rivalling and sometimes exceeding some of the other classic spirits.  Others yet have remodelled the perception of spirits – and made them accessible to an otherwise resistant audience.  These attributes and this effort command enough credit to warrant a little exploration so I set out on a search and found four liqueurs which gave me pause for thought (albeit when limited to small doses).

Chambord

The little booklet hanging around this unusual, globular bottle (styled on the globus cruciger – a medieval Christian symbol) reads as follows: “According to legend Chambord was inspired by a luxurious raspberry liqueur produced for King Louis XIV during his visit to Chateau Chambord in the 17th Century”.  This is typical of liquor brands – the creation of a heritage, or appearance thereof, or association thereto.  Dubious, but no matter; the product itself stands quite securely on its own two feet. It seems to have taken the niche previously occupied by the poorly-branded, undifferentiated crème de cassis market and claimed it as its own.  Note that crème de cassis is a blackcurrant flavoured grape brandy (or sometimes neutral spirit) whereas Chambord is a cognac base infused with black raspberries, blackcurrant, and vanilla – similar enough to share a broad flavour profile but different and premium enough to be set apart.  Sipped neat (and chilled), partnered with a brut sparkling wine in an approximation of a Kir Royale, or indeed, if my small sampling is reliable indication, splashed into any one of their recommended cocktails (also to be found in the little booklet), it is simply a magnificent drink.

Magnum

Magnum, like all other cream liqueurs, owes a debt of gratitude to Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur – which in 1974 introduced people to the idea of a mix of liquor and cream (with the implied, utterly invented suggestion that such concoctions were part of Irish rural traditions). Today Bailey’s sells six and half million nine litre cases per annum, so clearly this is a format which has since enjoyed significant traction.  Magnum may be an imitator, the latest in a fairly long line, but it’s a damn good one.  It’s also local – developed and bottled right here in Cape Town.  From its exceptional milk-churn fashioned container, and its Scotch-malt-whisky content (distinct from Bailey’s, which is blended Irish whiskey), to its delicious, luxuriant flavour, it ticks all the boxes.  This drink might even tempt me to revisit the springbok…(I said might).

Cointreau

There’s an ice-cream parlour in Franschhoek that sells a delicious orange-chocolate ice-cream; I never miss the opportunity to pop in and savour a few scoops when I’m in the area.  My favourite pastry also happens to be the cannolo, a fried dough tube filled with an orange-zest ricotta cream.  I could go on but I’m sure the point is made – clearly I’m partial to citrus flavours.  So it’ll be no surprise that Cointreau, the king of Triple-Sec, is on my list (I could just as well have selected Grand Marnier – also orangey, also superb, great on crêpes – but its local distribution is a bit patchy, so why build up anticipation that may end in disappointment).  Cointreau is one of those liqueurs to which I had earlier alluded – boasting a long and proud (and genuine) history constituting some 150 palate-pleasing years.  It is notable for having produced one of the (if not the) first motion-picture liquor advertisements, featuring an iconic Pierrot character, and for its inclusion in one of the world’s most popular cocktail, the Margarita (any triple-sec might do, but life’s too short to settle for anything less than the best), but mostly it’s just notable for being downright delicious.

Frangelico

Ok, I’ll admit, you’re not going to catch me drinking much of this stuff, if any at all.  I find its nutty sweetness overpowering in the mouth.  But I do like its aroma, and, whilst smell might not be as satisfying as taste, it is in a sense a lot more interesting: there are 32 primary aromas and only five primary tastes.  One whiff and I can imagine that I’ve dunked my head in a bag of hazelnuts.  In typical fashion the brand harks back to ye olden times with its talk of legends and monks and past centuries, and with its Friar-Tuck-habit (or rather the Italian Franciscan counterpart) bottle – rope belt included.  Would it be cynical to suggest that the drink was probably synthesised in a Piedmontese laboratory not too long ago?  Snide remarks aside, it’s worth keeping a bottle in the liquor cabinet, if for nothing else other than dousing a bowl of ice-cream.

 

Beleaguered brandy

What’s happening to South Africa’s signature spirit? PATRICK LECLEZIO looks below the surface.

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

There’s a philosophy which suggests that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. I generally subscribe to this type of thinking, be it for political or any other pursuits (in this case spirituous), because I believe it to be true – absolutely – but also, I have to admit, because I’m just a bit of a truculent character. I have in the past been a critic of South African brandy – not because I don’t like it (I do) and not because I have any kind of hidden agenda (I don’t). Simply, I believe that discussion, discourse and dissemination can only do good to the lots of both the brandy industry, and more importantly, the brandy layman; brandy drinkers – former, current and potential – need to be informed and empowered because it’s only through pressure to serve their interests that anything meaningful will get done. Let’s stoke the necessity – it is, as they say, the mother of invention.

The backdrop here, for those you don’t know it, is that local brandy has taken a battering in recent years. It is mired in a downward spiral – with no immediate recovery in sight, despite some encouraging developments (of which details later); its once-majority share of the country’s spirits market has plummeted by approximately 20% (give or take, depending on the source) over the last seven years. I think it’s fair to say that this is a business in crisis.

In a sense, this situation seems rather surprising. Our brandy compares favourably to most others, exceedingly so – consistently winning awards at the world’s most credible spirits competitions; Van Ryn, KWV, and Oude Molen in particular, but by no means exclusively, have flown the flag and flown it high, bagging the prestigious IWSC trophy for worldwide best brandy on no fewer than 11 occasions during the past three decades, quite aside from a plethora of more minor accolades. So what’s the deal? Why is performance on the swigging field not living up to potential on the calligraphed certificates?

I would suggest, perhaps contentiously, that South African brandy’s status relative to foreign brandies is largely irrelevant. The overwhelming bulk of sales are derived from the local market, in which, for all intents and purposes, there isn’t a single one of the theoretically vanquished present for actual vanquishing. These competitors compete for little more than pride and bragging rights.

Rather, the real threat is cross category; and it’s in this context – the measuring up against a drink like whisky, a go-to brown spirits alternative – that the problem becomes evident. As brandy’s fortunes have waned so whisky’s have risen. Broadly this can be – and often is –ascribed to macroeconomic circumstances (the exchange rate in particular making appealing imports such as whisky more affordable), and cyclical fluctuations in consumer choice (the inevitable ebb and flow of trends); and there’s no doubt that these are impacting factors. However there’s an additional Occam’s Razoresque explanation – a reality from which the industry seems to shy – that surely must have occurred to anyone who’s given it any thought: that it may be the case, just maybe, that people are switching because whisky is inherently simply a better drink than brandy.

My logic on this point hinges on one single but vitally important component of the brandy and whisky-making processes: the wood. Let’s start with whisky – and I’m focusing on the Scottish variety because that’s the overwhelming majority of what’s being consumed locally: every drop of any Scotch, be it a grain whisky, a single malt, a blended malt or a blend, can be fully, absolutely, completely relied upon to have been matured (aged) in oak casks for no less than three years. Age matters, and it matters greatly – it is universally acknowledged as the single most important contributing element to the flavour (read ‘quality’) of brown spirits. Conversely, of the three defined types of South African brandy – potstill, vintage and blended – there isn’t one that is legislatively required (yet) to be completely matured; each allows, in what are clearly short-sighted cost concessions, for a proportion of new-make (ie ‘unaged’) spirit. Whisky thus, subjectivities aside, is by definition a superior spirit, and this is something which, by osmosis if not explicitly, has become apparent to an increasingly discriminating and knowledgeable public.

Encouragingly, some attempt has been made to address this problem: two years ago the industry regulated of its own accord to strip this unaged… I’ll call it ‘impediment’… from the constitution of potstill brandies; so all bottlings since that decision have been fully matured. Hooray! But why did it take this crisis, one might reasonably ask, to prompt the initiative? Regardless, it’s certainly a move in the right direction; much is the pity, however, that courage could not be found for more widespread changes. Potstill is a small – but, also encouragingly, growing! – and premium segment of the wider market, so this would have been a relatively easy and painless motion to carry. Vintage brandy is even smaller – as far as I can tell there are only three currently being produced – yet its regulatory makeup remains unchanged. Why?

The guts of the problem, though, reside in the mass-volume Blended sector – where up to 70% of the bottle can be filled virtually straight off the still. The scale of the problem is appreciable. How can this type of product, in this day and age, be expected to compete with blended whisky? It can’t. In my estimation it’s obvious that there’s a tier missing in the brandy hierarchy – ie that of a fully-aged blended brandy – but correcting this might be a step too far for a conservative industry; it would put a spotlight on this ‘weakness’ in their titan brands. A large part of the challenge here is that brandy’s innards have always been kept somewhat defensively shrouded – like a family secret, made shameful more by its guarding than anything else. The typical response I’ve been given when I’ve engaged with stakeholders on the subject of blended brandy is that it’s “designed to be mixed”. This is a nonsensical position, not only because it’s untrue: it’s designed to be cost-effective to produce, the mixing is incidental (ie to make it palatable); but also because it’s hardly flattering – I wouldn’t publicise that I’d designed a drink to have its flavour camouflaged. It’s also a justification that is at odds with almost every product-use image generated by the industry, which shows brandy poured neat or “met ys ja…met ys”. Why not just be forthright? Perhaps the product doesn’t justify the pricing… but that’s just conjecture; I really don’t know.

This attitude is changing to some extent. I’ve been impressed with the education and promotional programmes initiated by the SA Brandy Foundation – although the cocktail malarkey is dubious. Brandy is our signature spirit. It’s part of the fabric of our country. No-one wants to see it fail. Here’s hoping it reclaims lost ground and rises to new heights. Gesondheid!

A phoenix from the ashes

From expired discard to fine spirit. Patrick Leclezio indulges in some renaissance culture.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

If you’re a fan of fine but obscure spirits or spirit brands, then residing in South Africa can be frustrating.  The coinciding of limited niches (of demand) and Machiavellian import regulations conspire to deprive us to a large extent of the variety available in many other countries.  Shopping for premium rum, cachaça, calvados, various Asian spirits, ouzo, I could go on indefinitely, is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  Luckily – che culo! – there are some exceptions; Italophiles, bon vivants, and discriminating drinkers can relax: if you’re looking for a good digestivo or a hit for your caffè corretto then you can bask in the assurance of steady supply, and even more encouragingly – of local supply.  I’m talking about grappa of course, and in the course of my exploration I made a few surprising observations about this iconic Italian spirit.

I’m regularly struck by the realisation that events, be they minor or epic, are often slaves to circumstance.  History is littered with examples – none more so than the specific history of distilled spirits.  Those with which we are familiar today evolved in response to their environment.  Single pot still Irish whiskey for instance exists only because of excessive taxation on the malting of barley.  It seems so arbitrary.  In Mediterranean countries the plentiful waste from wine production, known as pomace – the skin, seeds, and stem of the grape – was employed, probably by peasants who couldn’t afford anything else, to make a pomace brandy, of which the Italian version is what we know as grappa; and hence the birth of a magnificent tradition, a culture, from the casual whim of circumstance.

My impression of grappa had been of a harsh, bitter spirit.  I lived in Italy for some time, but in a country replete with bountiful treasures in cuisine, art, architecture, and history, I’d been too busy and too distracted to engage with this drink beyond the occasional – grimacing – after-dinner shot of likely low-quality, industrially-produced fare; so my knowledge and experience were somewhat lacking. As I alluded to, despite its position on the fringes of mainline spirits, grappa has achieved decent local traction – thanks to the relatively large Italian-South African population.  I headed out to Dalla Cia – a producer of wines and artisanal grappa – to begin my education.

It’s always a source of a certain comfort to me to know that there’s a depth of heritage standing behind a brand.  The production of great spirits often hinges on small nuances which are absorbed over time and with experience, and passed down from generation to generation.  Dalla Cia grappa – whilst only some 16 years old in its present form (starting out under the Meerlust name) – actually dates back to the 1920’s when the grandfather of present distiller George Dalla Cia owned one of the biggest grappa distilleries in Italy.  You get the sense that some 90 years of accumulated knowledge has been made to count: as we inspected his beautiful Cadalpe still – clearly engineering from the same country that produces Ferraris and Ducatis – George explained that they distil their skins strictly within 48 hours of pressing (after fermentation) in order to best capture the primary aromas.  These skins are furthermore ideally from their own wine production, but if they do use those from other estates, then they apply equivalent criteria to the selection – using only batches from low-yield cultivation.  And so it continued.  Made with specific cultivars.  Single cultivars! No sugar – sugar is often used to disguise the taste of burnt skins.  Second fill chardonnay casks to mature the spirit. I was taken aback by the level of sophistication, and by the attention to detail.  Whilst I was not so naïve as to expect a moonshine operation this seemed a far cry from the rough spirit with which I was familiar.

We finished with a tasting – Dalla Cia offers an extensive and exciting tasting menu which includes grappa chocolates, grappa ice-cream, grappa paired with coffee (of course), and grappa drizzled over the almond-and-polenta Sbrisolona tart (a unique treat), quite aside from the grappas themselves – which included two cabernet-sauvignon merlot variants, one aged (six to nine months), the other unaged, and a single cultivar pinot noir.   The former – following in the footsteps of local olive oil producer Morgenster – bested some of Italy’s top grappas in a blind tasting conducted by Rome’s Sommelier Association.  Sad then that if Italy has its way the name grappa may become geographically protected – an initiative long in the making but not yet finally ratified (as I understand it).

I was amazed during the tasting of these three variants, and on reflection afterwards, by both their smoothness and their variety of flavours – and I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit my prejudices, and to expand my spirits drinking repertoire: an Italian meal will no longer be properly complete without a little chase at the end.  Grappa may have had humble beginnings but then again so did single-malt whisky, so who knows where its continued evolution may end.  It truly does endorse the concept of la dolce vita.  Salute!

To your health!

It may seem counter-intuitive to some, but drinking spirits is good for you. Patrick Leclezio ponders the blessings of booze.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

During my adolescence one of my household tasks was to serve my father his daily libation.  This may have been the source of my affinity for whisky.  Back then however any such tendencies, if indeed they had been imbedded, were dormant.  I had no inclination to drink any alcohol, much less spirits (such were the misguided delusions of my youth).   I remember, as we went through the ritual, that he’d often attempt to instil in me the sentiment that a regular whisky was beneficial to one’s health.  The apparent authority behind this wisdom was his father, his father-in-law, and the family doctor – all three whisky drinkers too.  I was dubious.  Undoubtedly I was a cynical lad, given to questioning just about everything, but this seemed altogether too convenient.  I never quite believed it, and it slowly sunk into the recesses of my mind…until recently.

My wife works extensively with Russians.  A while ago, after a visit to the country, she mentioned that she’d been told that the average lifespan of a Russian man was 59.  In fact it’s somewhere in the late-fifties to early-sixties depending of the study consulted, and the date thereof.  A few years here and there notwithstanding this is a shockingly bleak situation; these guys are literally vodka-drinking themselves into an early grave.  Now clearly this is on the extreme end of the scale – no-one is suggesting that excessive drinking is anything but detrimental – but can this same substance, in more measured doses, actually do you good?

The answer is yes: a variety of scientific studies, one of the earliest (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) dating back to 1904, have repeatedly proved it to be the case, to the point where it is now undisputed. It seems that my collected male progenitors and the doctor were onto something (though whether they actually gave it any scrutiny is debatable).  Liquor drunk regularly in moderation does in fact have a myriad health benefits, reducing the risks of heart disease (in middle aged and older men in particular), certain cancers, diabetes and dementia amongst others; and given that the former is the principal cause of death in most industrialised countries this is no small endorsement. Alcohol achieves these impressive feats by impacting positively on cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin levels, by decreasing thrombosis (effectively thinning the blood), and by improving the heart’s response to stress (as those of us who’ve sunk a few after a hard day at work will gladly attest).

So how does one know good drinking from bad?  How can one separate one’s own habits from what the Russians are doing?  The (American) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderation as the consumption of four drinks on any day to an average of 14 drinks per week for men, with the corresponding numbers for women being three and seven drinks.  One drink in distilled spirit terms constitutes one and half fluid ounces, or roughly 45ml, so generous enough for this to seem more indulgence than regimen.  The important point to note is that this drinking should be regular and tempered.  I should also make it clear, at the risk of being obvious, that these guidelines apply to average persons, relaxing in the comfort of their homes; and that they would specifically exclude pregnant women, people on medication, people with a history of alcohol abuse, people intending to drive thereafter, and underaged people.

The studies also haven’t been able to find a significant difference in benefits attributable to the type of liquor consumed, so whether one is drinking red wine, beer, or hard tack doesn’t discernibly matter.  I had always been concerned that brown spirits, being less pure than their white counterparts, largely due to the presence of congeners (fatty acids) from the cask maturation process, might be at health disadvantage but gratifyingly there’s no evidence to suggest it.  This is great ‘news’ – we can all stick to our favourite tipple and responsibly drink ourselves to a longer, healthier life.

I’ve noticed (it seems to be my time for subconscious realisations) that toasts the world over are dedicated to health:  santé, gezondheid, sláinte mhath, l’chaim…the list is endless (and the origins of these toasts date back centuries).  These were conceived I’m sure to express an intention not a prescription, so the added meaning is an extraordinary coincidence.  Regardless, I’ll henceforth be toasting with extra vigour and gusto.  I wish you all the very best of health.  Bottoms up!

The water of life

A short, distracted history of distillation, and a tribute to those who made it happen.  I ponder the origins of the fine spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

An elegant bar.  The gentle clink of rocks glasses.  An array of bottles on burnished shelves.  Unobtrusive service.  Another, sir?  I don’t mind if I do.  Small, measured sips.  An explosion of flavour.  Expanding ripples of relaxation.  Laughter and conversation.  This is a ritual enjoyed by spirits drinkers the world over – a ritual made possible by the magic of distillation.

I’ve often sat back and wondered to myself how it was that this phenomenon came to pass.  By whom, how, and where, in the distant past, the product of a startling imagination, was this remarkable exploitation of nature conceived?  Fermentation I get.  It lends itself to accidental discovery; the juice of a fruit or a sugary plant left standing, the presence of the right organisms, and cheers: a realistic, probable happenstance.  The details of the theory might have had to wait for Pasteur and others, but fermentation was evident enough that people were getting merrily toasted for multiple millennia beforehand.  Distillation though would have been a tougher, altogether-more-deliberate nut to crack.

The basic process, once known, is actually very simple. It uses the different boiling temperatures of the components of a liquid to separate them from each other, and then, once separated, to specifically collect or concentrate one or the other; it is the conversion of sugar to alcohol in fermentation which provides the base which is then concentrated.  The legendary Homer (Simpson, not the guy who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey) once said:  “In America, first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women!”  Truer words have never been spoken.  The alcohol from sugar, specifically ethyl alcohol, has a lower boiling temperature than water, its most abundant companion in fermented mixtures, so it can easily be evaporated in isolation and then condensed elsewhere in the form of a powerful, infinitely interesting, and complex liquid known as a distilled spirit.

It is likely then that nature served as the inspiration.  The observation of evaporating and condensing water, and then other liquids put on the boil, would have triggered a dawning realisation.  There are suggestions that distillation was being conducted in various places in the distant past, as far back as 800 BC in China, but the first undisputed evidence of it dates to the Greek colonies in Egypt in the first century AD, where it was being used by alchemists to distil essences for perfumes, balms and other such uninteresting purposes.  It was only much later, certainly in terms of documented fact, in the now teetotalling Arab world ironically (although to be fair it was intended for medicinal purposes), that distillation techniques were applied to alcohol, using a device called an alembic – al-anbīq in Arabic, meaning “still”.

This technology spread gradually to various areas, most impactfully to Europe, where it was added to and refined upon, and used vociferously for the making of acqua vitae, the water of life, which became the basis for our modern spirits tradition.  Stills were developed in various shapes and forms, notably the Charentais used to make Cognac, and the bulbous pot stills used to make whisky.  The structure of a still is believed to have a significant influence on the character of the final liquid, to the point where whisky makers will deliberately reproduce dents and other structural blemishes when replacing their exhausted stills.  Later still (sorry), starting in the early 1820’s and culminating with the device invented by Aeneas Coffey, the Coffey Still, came the onset of continuous distillation, just in time for the Industrial Age with its greater yields, and purer distillates.

Today, sitting in that bar, we’re able to reap the fruits of the toil of our long-gone brothers, selecting from a broad multitude of spirits to satisfy our every whim.  Let’s take break, every now and again, between the brandy and the Benedictine, to doff our caps to those who came before and made all of this possible.  It’s not classical Greek, but let’s not split hairs: Stin Iyiamas!

Figuring out the French

They’re the captains of fine liquor, but navigating their spirituous seas can be challenging.  I charted a course to the heart of French brandy.

First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2013 edition).

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

The fruit of the vine is often described as noble, with good reason.  Its contribution to our liquid landscape is arguably unparalleled, having given us wine, in all of its myriad splendour; champagne and its fellow bubblies; sherry, port and their other lessor-known fortified brethren; assorted liqueurs; grappa; eaux de vie; and, last but not least, a variety of brandies.  It was in France that the arts of exploiting the grape first reached its current cultivated proportions; specifically it is where the making of grape brandy became established and renowned.  Today the French dominate this sphere – their brandies are globally the most highly acclaimed, and the most widely and voluminously sold.  If you enjoy your brandy then you’d be well advised to seek out and appreciate their delicious nectar, if you haven’t already.  The latter though may not be as straightforward as it seems, at least not fully; the French are an indecipherable bunch at the best of times, and their brandies, replete with seemingly unintelligible jargon, are no exception.  Here then is a short guide to traversing the top tier.

What does AOC mean?

French brandy comes in three broad types, distinguished from one another by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC.  The AOC is the system by which France governs the production and marketing of certain of its agricultural products.  It is largely but not wholly based on the concept of terroir; essentially certain regions have acquired an exclusive right to assign their names to traditional product categories, and to legally compel production according to particular methods and standards.  This status confers a special cachet to subscribing products, which generally translates to a price premium in the marketplace.  There are two appellations specific to brandy: Cognac, the most well-known, and Armagnac, the most ancient. Additionally, for the sake of completeness, one should note that there are also often “sub” appellations to which distinct rules apply; Armagnac for instance can be Bas-Armagnac, Armagnac-Ténarèze, Haut-Armagnac, and Blanche d’Armagnac.  Cognac is slightly different in that it allows for the specification of Crus, much like Champagne, denominating strictly classified areas within the region in which the grapes used in the so-labelled products were grown – examples of these being Grand Champagne, Petit Champagne and Fin Bois.

Brandies from any other region, or those not conforming to the regulations, constitute the third type: simply brandy that cannot be assigned either, or indeed any, appellation.

What’s the difference between Cognac and Armagnac?

The most obvious difference – dare I even say it – is that each must be produced in its distinct named region.  This means that they are subject the influence of varying soil, climate and water (collectively terroir), which eventually percolates into their flavour.

There are other subtle but impactful differences at all stages of the crafting process. Each is made using recipes with different ingredients.  Cognac primarily uses the Saint-Emilion grape (better known internationally as Ugni Blanc) to make its base distillate, whilst Armagnac typically favours a basket of grapes including Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche amongst others. Cognac must be double distilled in copper alembics (pots with a regulated shape) whilst most, but not all, Armagnacs are column distilled.  This may be loosely comparable to the difference between a clay and an electric oven in making pizza, although that may not be entirely fair – some pundits actually reckon that Armagnac is noticeably more fragrant and aromatic because of its distillation method.  Once distilled Cognac is racked in casks from Limousin and Tronçais, whilst Armagnac is matured in oak from the Monlezun forest.

Most tellingly perhaps – certainly for the devoted explorer – is the manner in which these two brandies have manifested themselves on the market.  There are many exceptions of course but by and large Cognac tends to be blended, the output of large marques with multiple estates. The four principal brands – Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier – are utterly dominant, commanding between them some 90% of the spirit’s global sales.  Armagnac meanwhile is smaller and artisanal, often the production of single vineyards, and traditionally bottled as vintages, its flavour heritage able to be followed like a trail of crumbs in a fairy tale.

How does one determine the age of a French brandy?

The English author Samuel Johnson once wrote: “Claret is the liquor for the boys; port, for the men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy”.  I’m not sure that I’d necessarily endorse this sentiment, but it certainly takes a particular dedication, a certain heroic perseverence, to get to grips with some of the baffling French brandy terminology.  Why be so blunt as to put a number on a bottle when you can indulge in a little bit of romantic intrigue instead?  My particular favourite – with reference only to the poetry of it – is the wonderfully evocative Very Superior Old Pale (VSOP).

The standard age grades are as follows: VS (Very Special) or Three Star, which for both Cognac and Armagnac refer to liquid in which the youngest component has been matured for at least two years; the aforementioned VSOP, a minimum five years old for Armagnac and four years old for Cognac; and XO (Extra Old), denoting something of no less than six years of age.  It’s important to note that in each case the average age can often be significantly older than designated by the grade.  There are various other lesser used but equally poetic grades: Napoleon, Extra, Vieille Réserve, and Hors d’Âge (which literally means out of age or beyond age).  Some of these grades share the same legal definition, but are used in practice to show a distinction in scale.  So the grading is somewhat limiting a guide, driven by convention rather than precision, and leaving you – fittingly – to rely on your nose, your palate and your senses as the final arbiters. Santé!