Tag Archives: gin

The gin list

What to try before the summer fades.   Patrick Leclezio explores six of the best.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2017 edition).

Everyone’s making gin these days.  The world has rediscovered a taste for it, and in an era of educated consumption, this burgeoning appetite has provoked a plethora of options, ranging from the old and established (and their more recent offshoots), to a raft of new entrants that are both industrial and craft in scale.  Unlike brown spirits gin doesn’t need to be matured (although some are), so the barriers to entry are relatively low, and accordingly they are being vaulted in droves.  This is an exciting unfolding of events – there’s never been more variety than there is at present.   Ten years ago a local aficionado would have been scratching around amongst a handful of products, today you can board a ride on a virtually endless gin adventure.   But being swamped by an embarrassment of riches brings its own problems – what to choose?  It’s a first world problem I grant you, but let me nonetheless help out with some first class solutions.

Plymouth

If any gin can claim a legendary aura, then Plymouth is it.  Bottled at 57% ABV, the so-called “navy strength”, because that’s the proofing level at which alcohol ignites gunpowder, this is a big gin in every sense.  It has longstanding ties to the British Navy, and it even has its own geographical indication – Plymouth Gin is (somewhat bizarrely) both a brand, and a protected regional name (like Champagne).  The bold nose leads out a complex, tight spectrum of flavours onto a settled palate: juniper and pepper, hemmed in by a barky, earthy woodiness, and strong herbal cologne.   It may be a touch less dry than your typical London Dry Gin, but this is unequivocally masculine stuff nonetheless, projecting a tethered depth of power and an incredible balance.  There are no wild lurches or veering detours here – nothing is out of place, and nothing is arbitrary.  You get the sense that this is liquid that has been evolved to a state of military precision over many years, with any kinks that it may have had progressively chiselled away.  It’s expensive, but keep in mind that it goes a lot further than its lower-bottling-strength compatriots.  The label says “for almost 200 years the navy never left port without it”.  I’m hardly going to be setting off any cannons, but it’s a sentiment that I can take to heart, for the sheer drinking pleasure of it.

Musgrave Pink

Simone Musgrave’s eponymous gin now has a stablemate that despite not being an incendiary is setting the local craft scene alight.  It’s not a pink gin in the conventional sense, but it’s pink in colour and in intention.   This new variant adds rosehip to the signature botanicals and is further infused with rose water, resulting in a flavour that’s dominated by rich floral notes, with the spiciness and the muskiness of the original still evident, but receded into the background.  The common theme amongst new wave gins (in South Africa specifically but elsewhere too) is the demotion of juniper, with this one being a case in point.   This may not be traditional, and it may even flout regulations (the EU set for gin dictating that the predominant flavour must be juniper), but I for one like it (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one).  It represents an intrepid expansion in gin territory, giving us new and more varied landscapes to explore and vistas to enjoy.  The Musgrave Pink iteration is probably a gin that’ll appeal more to women than men, but regardless of your sex, it’s striking and distinctive, and it’s stirring things up, so it should be on your radar.

Wilderer

Wilderer has a reputation for creating delightful small-batch liquid, grappas, eau de vie’s and the like.  It’s a name that’s become synonymous with craftsmanship in the little liquor niche that it occupies.   The chaps have most recently turned their hands to gin, their first foray into a big, popular category of spirits, with predictably impressive results.  A menthol nose and a peppery palate poke out above a dense herbaceous canopy, with tendrils of liquorice injecting a fleeting sweetness.   This gin is a flavour window into an olde worlde apothecary, or so I imagine it: vaguely medicinal, herby aromas dancing one with the other, leading, following, then rotating, throwing off your perspective.  There’s a lot going on here – it’s entrancingly interesting, and demanding of your attention.   You’ll spend a lot of time with this gin without getting bored.

Inverroche

The Verdant and Amber have long been two of my favourite gins.  In these drinks the Inverroche crew at Stilbaai has forged some sort of an alignment of the stars, I kid you not.  The former evokes dried flowers, the latter a balance between boiled sweets (a lollipop nose) and bitter-ish tannins.  But this crude attempt at describing their superbly cohesive flavours leaves much to be desired; the finely wrought combinations of fynbos ingredients, both distilled and infused, defy facile interpretations.  Gin is a versatile drink, but let’s be honest – any pretender lives and dies on its rendition of a GnT, and to a lesser extent a martini.  Some gins fight with the tonic, others are overwhelmed.   These two, I want to say serendipitously but that would be disrespectful, are the perfect complements, enhancing the tonic whilst maintaining the integrity of their characters.  I happened to try them in martini recently for the first time – less dry, and atypical, but mouth wateringly delicious.  No one-trick-pony these.   It’s very simple: if you’re South African and you claim to like gin, then you’re doing yourself a gross disservice if you haven’t drunk from the Inverroche well.

Bombay Sapphire

Despite all of the recent activity the benchmark in gin remains the London Dry style:  large in juniper, dry – as the name suggests, and often tangy, with well-integrated, fully distilled botanicals, and in Bombay it has a beautifully representative ambassador.   This is the ideal everyday gin – premium of quality but affordable, complex in flavour but not challenging, tiring or polarising, and soft, versatile, and accessible but also full flavoured and interesting.   The sight of that electric blue bottle behind my bar gives me a certain sense of inner peace – I’d feel off-kilter without it.  Bombay Sapphire is a gem indeed.

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Gindigenous

Hot on its heels. Patrick Leclezio tracks the local response to the global gin explosion.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2016 edition).

If there was even a slight hint of doubt about how searingly hot gin has become in the last few years it would be persuasively quelled by the extent of the local craft gin industry. I’d set out late last year with preparations for a review, which I’d hoped would be comprehensive, but my ambitions were thwarted by sheer numbers, and by what seemed like a constant stream of new entrants. My selection was eventually limited to nine, resulting in a mix of the more established, the new, and the brand new – in practical, manageable proportions; but keep in mind that there are a lot of others out there, with more joining by the day. There’s a gin heaven manifesting itself in South Africa and the gates are wide open. Join me for a quick tour.

It can be difficult to make any kind of systematic sense of gin. There are so few objective rules, and so much potential for variation. Juniper is ostensibly intended to be the dominant flavour – the word gin is in fact a derivative of juniper – but this has become doubtful (and somewhat controversial) in recent times, as new gins have been increasingly pushing the boundaries in attempts to carve out distinctive niches for themselves. Resistant purists claim that without the strong juniper a gin is simply a flavoured vodka. It’s a classic conflict between innovation and tradition. In fairness this was a regulation that was crying out of be trampled. How do you legislate flavour? Action may need to be taken though to tighten things up, such is the pace of developments – a subject for another time. Our local legislation is less prescriptive, simply calling for the presence of juniper amongst the botanicals, but not specifying anything further. The result is a whole new style of “African” gins – based on the use of indigenous ingredients – in which juniper is either receded into the background, or in fact entirely undetectable. I’ve had my nose in a big pot of juniper extract on more than one occasion so I’m confident that I’m familiar with its pine-y flavour – enough to identify its reticence. Anyhow, despite this departure, these gins are nonetheless is unmistakeably gin, in the nature and composition of its other botanicals.

The two most long established brands are the well-tractioned Inverroche, which has entrenched itself as the country’s flagship craft gin, and the more reclusive Jorgensen’s. The three variants of the former – Classic, Verdant and Amber – and two variants of the latter – its eponymous gin and saffron gin, were assessed for this review. The Inverroche Classic sets the benchmark for the profile of a fynbos based gin. Its base of cane spirits redistilled with limestone fynbos botanicals imparts peppery and savoury flavours – creating an interesting, edgy drink that’s likely to find favour with those who prefer their gins in the Beefeater mould. Jorgensen’s by comparison has a fuller, richer flavour – with hints of its grape base peeking through. I used it in a martini on whim, yielding impressive results, the only detraction being that it maybe lacks the “sessionability” (the dubious advisability of sessionable martini drinking is noted) of something softer. But that’s a question of personal taste. The other Inverroche variants use different recipes of botanicals, mountain fynbos for Verdant, coastal fynbos for Amber, whatever these might mean, as well as undisclosed fynbos infusions, resulting in gins that are substantially contrasted to the Classic and to each other. Most importantly both combine astoundingly well with tonic – not something that I say lightly. Jorgensen’s Saffron is a more subtle deviation from its parent – likely because the distillate used is the same, or very similar. Distillation is a dark art, one which I don’t pretend to fully understand, but what knowledge I have has made me partial to copper pot distillation – the method used by both Jorgensen’s and Inverroche – as a superior attributor of flavour. Whether this is justified or not it’s a preconception that’s certainly borne out by the well-crafted depth of flavour in these two gins.

The other bookend comprises newcomers to the scene in the form of Musgrave and Blind Tiger gins, the latter yet-to-be-launched. Musgrave is a bold gin that is African in both theme and flavour. Its broad and pronounced ginger flavour is derived from its use of African ginger as a prominent botanical. Less pronounced but discernible nonetheless is the cardamom – I’m a big fan of spicy tea, so I was particularly pleased with its inclusion. Blind Tiger occupies what seems like a separate space from its local peers, and from the defining local style. It is softer, sweeter, and more classical, more international. It also packs some additional value at 46% ABV, which shouldn’t be overlooked.  The in-betweeners are two variants from the Woodstock Gin Company. I found them to be little spirity, with flat flavours, but this may be unfair, especially since they were evaluated alongside more premium priced gins. Apples and oranges. The one is made from barley spirit and the other from a grape spirit – but both from the same recipe, offering fascinating insight into the influence of that base spirit. Worth checking out on that basis alone.

This burgeoning story of local gin is vibrant and inspiring, and hopefully it’ll continue to instil interest and gather momentum. The scene has been set, and the narrative has been populated with an expanding cast of compelling characters – refer to the handy table adjacent for a plot summary. It’s safe to say I’d venture that you can look forward to a persisting and varying injection of quality liquid for your GnT’s and your martinis. May the botanicals be with you.

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Complementary drinks

A contextualised guide to the appreciation of fine liquor

First published in GQ Magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

I recently watched Kingsman, a rip snorting romp of a spy movie in which suave veteran Harry Hart mentors young buck Eggsy on how to be a gentleman, the latter being a bit rough around the edges. His second lesson instructs on the making of a proper Martini. A little overly-trodden, and a little insufficient, but it had me nodding in agreement – yes indeed, gentlemen should know their liquor. What to drink when, and how. The right juice if you will for the right occasion. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter in suggesting that a cultivated repertoire is a vital attribute if you hope to evolve your masculinity to the next level. Well, maybe a little, but let’s just agree that it’s important. I may not be cast from the same aristocratic superspy mould but in this case I think I can step in where he left off. If you thought then that this was going to be a piece on cadging free booze I have this suggestion (now that I’ve assumed the mantle) for you: a gentleman should also own a dictionary (preferably the dictionary). But that’s just in passing. The matter at hand is drinks, and it is where I’ll make my bid for a small contribution to the lexicon of gentlemanliness.

Complement: “something that completes”, “one of a pair, or one of two things that go together”.

When it comes down to it life is about complementariness. The search for harmony. For optimality. The bringing of balance to the force. There are moments and occasions, which, whilst giving their own fundamental value to how you experience them, can be amplified, transformed even, made complete at the very least, by the right complements. In these instances, when they pertain to the not insignificant (as I think we’ve established) subject of drinks, it is beholden upon you to bring your gentlemanly knowledge to bear.

When: celebrations

What: champagne
An obvious one to start. From victories and Valentines, to birthdays and betrothals, this geographically indicated sparkling wine is synonymous with celebration. The crisp, dry taste – and the tingling mouthfeel, courtesy of its hallmark fine bubbles – of brut champagne is the foundation on which it’s forged its popularity, but, as if often the case with liquor, perception plays almost as much of a role as the liquid itself. The popping of corks, launching of ships, the sabrage method, the champagne towers, and its many other rituals have all impressed this drink on our collective consciousness as something distinctly special.

Try: Veuve Clicquot Rich. I’ve marked many of the milestones in my life with Veuve, and it’s always lived up to expectations, with its superior taste, depth of heritage, and innovative approach. The Maison Veuve Clicquot in Reims too adds to the charm and is well worth the visit. Rich in particular is an accessible, versatile offering which lends itself to personalised drinking. Shake things up by mixing in some cassis for a classic Kir Royale, or by creating your own infusions.

When: landmark celebrations

What: vintage spirits
A vintage bottling refers to liquid that was distilled and put into maturation in a single calendar year – the one denoted on its label. It is individual and variable by design, differing from a distillery’s standard bottlings, which may draw from production spanning various years in order to achieve flavour consistency. As such it captures the essence of one particular year – and what better way to fete an epic birthday or anniversary than by experiencing a little “stolen” taste of that specific period in time.

Try: Balblair vintage highland single malt Scotch whisky. I’ve had the privilege of enjoying their 1983, 1989, 1990 and 2000 vintages, all occupying the zone between delicious and outstanding, and I can reliably say that each is a fitting tribute.

When: summer and sunshine
What: caipirinha
Nothing evokes summer like sand and sea – so it seems fitting to take the lead for the season’s drink from the world’s foremost beach culture. A well-made caipirinha ticks all the boxes: it’s cool and refreshing – the essential attribute of course, it builds further with its complex and interesting flavour (but without being too challenging – that type of effort would only interfere with the fun and relaxation), and it’s strong and pure enough to be taken seriously – fun is great, frivolous is a waste of your gentlemanly time.
Try: Germana cachaça. The prime ingredient in the caipirinha is Brazil’s inimitable (no, it’s not rum) home-grown spirit. This stuff ranges from the cheap and nasty to the aromatic and sublime, with corresponding results for your caipirinha. Germana – a pot-stilled, artisanal cachaça housed in an unmistakeable banana bark wrapped bottle – features within the latter category. One word of caution – easy on the sugar.

When: gala events
What: martini
Ah, the martini resurfaces, as we always knew it must. Whoever said clothes maketh the man had clearly not yet encountered this most elegant of drinks – or he would have supplied an addendum. Your dress attire simply isn’t complete without the iconic martini stemware dangling languidly from your hand, and conversely a martini will never taste as downright delightful as it does when you’re suited and booted. And should it turn out to be a stuffy affair…well, let’s say that your bases are covered.

Try: Bombay Sapphire. Everyone has their own take on the Martini – here’s mine: Gin, of course, not vodka – it’s so much more interesting; and preferably a soft gin like Bombay. Dry vermouth – it exists for a reason. Noel Coward’s diametrically opposed view is that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy”, but how seriously can you take someone who thinks that the vermouth deployed in a martini comes from Italy? Pas du tout, I’m afraid. A ratio of five parts gin to one part vermouth – stirred or swirled, not shaken. Pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with olives or a twist, depending on your mood.

When: sports

What: craft beer
It’s difficult enough to maintain your cool, calm, gentlemanly demeanour when watching your favourite team play a nail-biting game without introducing liquor into the equation. But then again it wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as with a few drinks. The solution is something moderate, like beer. It’s crisp and refreshing, which is important for day-time drinking, it can be deliciously flavoursome, and, let’s face it, we’ve been pre-conditioned by a relentless avalanche of advertising and sponsorship campaigns to associate beer with sports. It feels right, so why fight it? You can choose though to cock a snook at those corporate puppeteers by applying your refined palate to the consumption of small-batch beer – to reassure yourself that you still have free will, and because it’s tastier by far.

Try: Jack Black. One of the original operators in the proliferating Cape Town craft scene, it now boasts the three additional variants, alongside the legendary flagship lager – my favourite being the Skeleton Coast IPA, a pleasingly bitter ale with a full well-balanced cereal flavour. The 440ml format, which seems to be a standard in the category, and the 6.6% ABV employed by Jack Black on the IPA, deliver what I would describe as an ideal per-unit level of satisfaction.

When: a birth

What: cognac
It’s a time honoured tradition, the origins of which are obscured by the mists of time, to present and smoke cigars at the birth of a child, and there’s nothing better suited to supplement a stogie and to toast such a momentous event than a fine cognac. The fragrant aromas of the former, and the rich flavour of the latter, and the theatre of two in concert, cigar between the fingers in one hand, balloon glass filled with smoke in the other, is the best of backdrops for this congratulatory gathering.

Try: Courvoisier XO. The Jarnac-based Couvoisier is one of leading producers of cognacs, having established its reputation as the preferred cognac of no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte, a man with Europe at his feet and with the pick I’m sure of any fine spirit he might have desired. XO, which stands for extra old, refers to blends of cognac in which the youngest component is no less than six years old, and whilst age isn’t everything, it’s nonetheless a loosely reliable indicator amongst cognac’s big brands that you’ll be getting a suitably-matured, quality drink.

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Painting the town red

The Mother’s Ruin episode. Patrick Leclezio reviews a seminal Cape Town nightspot.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2015 edition).

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My ideal bar– if I could venture to describe it in these terms – would be something between the Korova milk bar from Clockwork Orange, and Cheers, the place where everybody knows your name: friendly and welcoming, but also interesting and verging towards the edgy. I’d obviously draw the line well before lacing drinks with narcotics, and the serving of minors, but you get the general drift… I hope. Anyhow, when a friend of mine started murmuring about opening a niche bar late last year, I felt that this might be the one. Mother’s Ruin was launched in December, to little fanfare, but in the space of a few short months it’s become one of Cape Town’s hottest bars.

You might have deduced from the name, especially if you have an interest in history, that this is a gin bar – notably Africa’s first specialist gin bar. Gin wasn’t always the high-brow drink that it is today – at one point in its less savoury past it was referred to as “mother’s ruin”, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. Mother’s Ruin the bar somehow isn’t hampered by this association, its harking back is quirky if anything, and a nod to the heritage of the spirit that it celebrates. Gin may have travelled a colourful road, but it has survived, it has flourished and, with its multitude of botanicals and flavour permutations, it has captured our contemporary imaginations. You could say circa 2015 that it’s the drink of the moment.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of Mother’s Ruin is what I’d also consider to be the most important feature of any bar focused on a particular drink – the selection (…in this case of gins, of course). The bar has racked up a still growing assemblage of some 90 odd varieties. The standards are all there of course – Beefeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, and Gordon’s – but this is the type of place that offers an opportunity to cut loose and experiment. With exotic gins from all over Europe, from Kenya, from the United States, and with a fair few from within local reach, it’s got the makings a many a happy hour – you can read that any way you want – trying a bit of this and a bit of that.

Five gins to try at Mother’s Ruin:

1. Monkey 47
This fruity gin from the Black Forest in Germany chock-a-block with 47 different botanicals is as complex and layered a gin as I’ve ever tasted. A standout!

2. Gin Mare
With its principal botanicals being thyme, rosemary and olive, this is a Mediterranean gin indeed. Dirty martini baby.

3. Bombay Amber
Something strikingly different. Amber has been finished (in this case meaning matured for a short period) in French vermouth oak barrels, which is highly unusual for this typically unaged spirit.

4. Inverroche
The Inverroche gins from Stillbaai, Classic, Verdant and Amber, are the three best-selling gins at Mother’s Ruin. The people have voted – local is lekker. Be sure to also try Jorgensen’s gin and the gingery, spicy Musgrave gin.

5. No. 3
If you have classical taste then look no further. No. 3 strikes all the right juniper and citrus notes required in a great London Dry symphony.

Now, any gin bar worth its salt, no matter how good its collection, would need to engage in all the traditional deployments of this fine spirit: G and T’s, cocktails, and martinis (which I consider distinct from regular cocktails). Mother’s Ruin excels with each. The G and T’s are offered with a variety of tonics, from the standard (Schweppes, Fitch and Leedes) and the premium (Fever Tree, Fentimans), to the craft (Socks), and also with a variety of garnishes: if that means lemon or lime to you, then you’re clearly far too old school – the bar serves up mango (reckoned to be the pinnacle), grapefruit, cucumber, orange, rosemary, lemongrass, mint, and apple. Owner Mark Mulholland, a compulsive tinkerer with a food flavours background, has devised a cocktail menu that teams a few gin classics with his own imaginative creations – his “Klein Slaaitjie”, I won’t spoil the surprise, being the most popular. Last but not least, martinis are a serious business at Mother’s Ruin – twisted, dirty, perfect, the Vesper, they’re all represented, along with a constant stream of tweaks and experimentations. It’s a rich vein of conversation here – with suggestions and ideas welcome as they strive to create the ultimate martini. I should flag that they unfortunately subscribe to the Bond approach – minus points, so if you don’t want to risk an overdiluted, aerated affair, be sure to specify that you want yours stirred. On the plus side I spotted a few bottles of genuine French vermouth (Dolin) on my last visit – a rare treat in South Africa. Get some of it whilst stocks last.

Mother’s Ruin is nestled at the top of Bree Street, in an expanding, upmarket, vibrant nightlife district, where it’s kept company by Orphanage, Odyssey, and a few other bustling restaurants. It’s a must-visit venue for all gin loving gadabouts. See you there.

Mad about Martinis

Wheat from the chaff, men from the boys. Patrick Leclezio steps up to the major leagues.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2014 edition).

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It’s difficult to take cocktails seriously. They’re frivolous and insubstantial, and they’ve always struck me as a bit juvenile – equivalent to chocolate milk for children who won’t have it straight. Do you want a sippy cup for that Pina Colada, a squeezy bottle for that Daiquiri? Ok, I’m being harsh. Cocktails have their time and place – and, absolutely, there’s something orchestral, magical even, about marrying disparate ingredients into a harmonic and delicious whole. Most objectionably I’m painting all cocktails with the same brush and that’s just grossly unjust. There are some cocktails, few to be sure, but some nonetheless, that wear their spirituous authority like they were born to it, that lack for nothing in a measure of their gravitas (often oximoronically debauched it must be said, gleefully), and that in a contest of class concede to no other drink. First amongst these is the Martini.

The origins and originator of the Martini are a bit uncertain. The strongest claimant is probably the brand of the same name (dating to 1863), the Italian vermouth producers now forming part of the Bacardi-Martini group. The drink’s greatest proponent though, its unparalleled ambassador, is utterly without doubt: his name is Bond, James Bond. The source of Bond’s proclivities seems to have been the hard-drinking culture, as observed by Ian Fleming, which pervaded in MI6 in the period during and then after World War II: floating through the war on a river of booze was how one operative described it…or with words to that effect. The notorious double agent Kim Philby in particular was known to drink martinis in copious volume, and to serve them from a pitcher, as was the fashion in those days. Bond himself then was styled as an impressive drinker in the secret intelligence service mould – strong drinks, wide repertoire, steady legs, and cool demeanour – and one for whom the martini played an integral role.

Whilst I’m a great 007 admirer (aren’t we all), whilst I’m inclined to follow his lead in certain areas, and whilst I acknowledge his immense contribution to the Martini and its status, I hesitate to endorse his Martini preparation practices. Vodka? Really? It doesn’t make sense. Bond is nothing if not discriminating. So why would a man of such impeccable taste favour vodka over the vastly more interesting alternative – gin? In actual fact Book Bond drinks both vodka and gin martinis, almost equally, whilst Movie Bond, having clearly been forced to sacrifice his good sense to big product placement budgets, favours vodka. Or perhaps he just likes supersized vermouth. Bond’s technique is almost as questionable as his ingredients. “Shaken, not stirred” is arguably the dominant drinks related phrase in our collective consciousness. It’s a got an understated I-know-(precisely)-what-I-want cool about it. Unfortunately it’s also ill-advised. There are those who claim that shaking “bruises” the gin (and one would think the vermouth as well), but this has been disputed. And admittedly it does sound a little precious. It’s beyond argument however that shaking introduces aeration and additional ice-melt, and detracts in the presentation. So the alternative, seemingly, as Somerset Maugham was known to recommend, is that “a martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another”. This though would deprive us of the theatrical centrepiece of the Martini experience. Allow me to then to propose a remedy – neither shaken nor stirred, but swirled: languidly sophisticated (the best kind), and functionally sound. Done.

We’ve touched on the ingredients, but without really getting into the meat of it. The central requirements for a classic martini are gin (yes, movie Bond, yes), dry vermouth, and a garnish of either lemon peel (a twist) or olives, of which the most important, the bulk of what you’ll be ingesting, is the gin. I tend to favour a soft gin for a Martini. It’s strong in alcohol, like I said – serious, so you don’t want the flavour to be overpowering. I personally also want the vermouth get a shout – in contrast to Noel Coward who famously said that “a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy” (he clearly didn’t realise that the dry version used in the Martini is principally French). Something like Bombay Sapphire is ideal – velvety soft and smooth, and well-balanced with plump juniper and a slight citric edge. I can drink Bombay martinis all night without becoming bored with or tired of it. But this is a subjective choice and it may, and indeed should, change from person to person and mood to mood. We’re lucky to be living in a gin-loving era, as a result of which the marketplace is replete with many fine exponents with which to experiment and enjoy. Our ability to do the same with vermouth is unfortunately considerably more restricted, at least here in South Africa. There are no dry French vermouths commonly available, and no premium dry vermouths whatsoever. In the midst of this Martini drinker’s nightmare however, as you glimpse fleeting mirages of Noilly bottles during despairing moments, hang onto this little bit of hope. I recently learnt that Swartland winemaker Adi Badenhorst is reviving the old Caperitif brand, and will be producing a dry vermouth under its label sometime in 2015. Martini time baybee!

Book Bond, for whom I now have more respect than movie Bond, epitomises what the Martini is all about. It is utterly ruthless, unflappable, cultivatedly amusing, and effortlessly, all-encompassingly accomplished. It is the invitation to the ball, the inner circle, the reward on arriving. If you are what you drink, then I can’t think of much that’s more complimentary than a Martini.

Movie Bond on Martinis
From: Never Say Never Again
Fatima Blush: “Oh, how reckless of me. I made you all wet.”
Bond: “Yes, but my martini is still dry.”

From Die Another Day:
(At the party in the ice palace of Gustav Graves)
Bond: Vodka (Grrr…!) martini. Plenty of ice, if you can spare it.

From: Casino Royale
Bond: Vodka (sigh…) Martini.
Bartender: Shaken or stirred?
Bond: Do I look like I give a damn?

The WoW classic Martini

2 ½ tots Bombay Sapphire
½ tot dry French vermouth
Swirl over ice in a cocktail shaker
Strain into a martini glass
Twist a sliver of a lemon peel over liquid’s surface, coat the inner glass above the meniscus, and drop the peel into the glass

The king of white spirits

It’s gin of course, but who will win its crown? Patrick Leclezio casts an eye over the claimants.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I ascribe no small measure of my attraction to gin to its ability to hold my interest. Whisky stands tall amongst spirits for the variety and complexity encompassed within its broach reach – and whilst gin could never hope to match this scale, being largely unmatured, in a sense it can be considered to be the whisky, and consequently the king, of white spirits. Gin is gin because of its botanicals – ingredients or infusions, potentially limitless in number (virtually), which give individual gins their complex flavour, and which very distinctly differentiate one gin from another. I recently gathered up some of the more prominent gins available on the local market and invited a panel of hard tack luminaries to review them with me – a serious analysis, sure, but also, admittedly, an opportunity to indulge. And indulge we did. I take no responsibility for any inaccuracies or misrepresentations – rather I blame them on some large measures of unstoppable deliciousness. As a friend once memorably responded when I offered him a g & t: “ooh, talk dirty to me”. It’s that exciting.

The gin repertoire is fairly extensive: it’s drunk neat, with a citrus garnish of some sort, in cocktails (in fact it’s the original cocktail base), with a mixer, and in martinis (I feel I need to separately mention and emphasise this particularly legendary gin cocktail). Most commonly though, it’s drunk with Indian tonic: a quinine-laced carbonated beverage that was conceived, as the name suggests, and as is the case with the evolution of many other popular drinks, for purposes other than epicurean titillation. This mosquito neutraliser struck a chord, and became entrenched for its flavour rather than its original function. So any gin review would not be complete without evaluation in combination with its running mate. Of course there are tonics and there are tonics. Schweppes is passable, but why settle for passable – life’s too short. The best to which we have access in this country is the delightful Fitch & Leedes, made by a small producer in Stellenbosch. I guess you could call it craft tonic. It’s a bit more expensive but worth every cent. Needless to say our tasting was conducted using this excellent option.

Gin flavours are very particular – and different gins will appeal to each individual to varying degrees of preference. Juniper, certainly, and also citrus seem to be the most widespread botanicals. I’d venture the opinion that these are the traditional signatures, perhaps best represented in gins like Tanqueray, and the under-the-radar, more muted (or subtle), but no less worthy Boodles. In fact Tanqueray marries so well with tonic that it’s become a standard for that purpose; it’s smooth and easy, but still interesting. Supercharge it and you get Tanqueray No. 10, or, once you’re better acquainted, Tanq 10 – same smooth integrated effect but bursting with additional flavours. If you’re inclined towards “traditional” gins and you’re willing to pay the premium then you probably don’t have to look too far beyond its impressive, faceted visage.

If the Tanqs occupy the London Dry Gin middle ground, then on either side you’ll will find Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater, the former soft, open, and fragrant, the latter savoury and edgy. These three gins are a striking exhibition of gin’s diversity. They have clearly distinct flavour profiles and I can see each having particular appeal to different drinkers: Beefeater and Bombay in my opinion are unlikely to be substitutable for one another to most gin lovers. Beefeater has pulled back from its extremities with its premium expression, the new-ish Beefeater 24, which is considerably more moderate; I wonder how it’s been received by hard-core fans of the mainline variant. It’s wonderfully enjoyable but it feels like a departure from what makes Beefeater Beefeater – in my opinion.

Now it’s worth noting some extrinsics at this stage. I firmly believe that flavour, and, relatedly, the appreciation of a fine spirit, is psychosomatic – by which I mean that external influences beyond aroma and taste play an important role. This extends from contextual elements such as setting and mood, to visual cues such as presentation and packaging. Bombay is a standout in this regard – a compelling mix of the classic and contemporary: Queen Victoria mixing it up in electric blue (or maybe a few shades shy). I can’t help but be drawn to it and luckily it doesn’t disappoint – anything but! – on cracking the seal.

The other gin that’s making a splash at the moment is Hendrick’s. This isn’t London Dry, so the flavours are created partly from infusions rather than only distillates, as a result of which the drink seems relatively less balanced and integrated but also bolder and more visceral. It’s also a step away from the traditional – cucumber and rose petal predominate making it significantly unlike anything else I’ve tasted; it’s rich, round and racy.

We were also privileged to have included in our review a local craft gin, made in Stillbaai, called Inverroche – epically South African in that fynbos constitutes its botanicals. It’s a well-presented, well-made product, with a strong, unique flavour. I prefer my gin more restrained and traditional, but I’d urge you to give this a try. There’s a little bit of the Cape in every bottle.

Last, and unfortunately least, in our estimation was Seagram’s Gin, the eponymously named gin of a now defunct liquor company accommodated in an iconic frosted bottle. Spirity and obvious, it’s best left to the formula which made it famous in the States – mixed with juice.

It would be an understatement if I were to tell you that I’ve become a fan of gin. My appreciation of this fine spirit is legion. It has become my aperitif of choice. At the risk of sounding like a tedious Capetonian – a risk I’ll take – I can think of little to compare with the experience of sitting on my veranda on a warm summer’s evening, and contemplating the mountain (and my day and life in general) whilst sipping on a stiff gin and tonic. Glorious! This is my special gin moment, as I’m sure you have yours. As the bible sort-of advises (and who would argue) – go forth and multiply it. Chin chin!

Special thanks to Marsh Middleton and Bernard Gutman.

The beauty’s in the botanicals

What kind of far-fetched absurdity has concocted a narrative where James Bond’s drink of choice is a vodka martini?  Patrick Leclezio makes the case for gin.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I’m not a gin drinker.  Somehow, inexplicably, this is a drink that has eluded me over the years, much to my regret.  It’s a habit that I’m determined to acquire though, because I’ve come to realise that there are moments when nothing but gin will do.  Think balmy, summer afternoons. White linen and bare feet.  A thick, terraced lawn of colonial proportions.  Fast friends and fine food and (slightly) fuddled conversation. Ok, I’m laying it on a bit thick, but you get the drift.  Gin offers epic possibilities.

The European Union defines three broad categories of gin: gin, distilled gin and London gin (often called London dry gin), the specifications of which become progressively more demanding in that order.  The defining feature of all these gins is the predominating juniper flavour, a result of infusion or distillation, depending on the type.  This constitution has its origins in the tradition established by Jenever, the Dutch forerunner from which gin evolved, and still a thriving spirit in its own right.  London gin only permits flavouring via the inclusion of botanicals – juniper and an accompanying selection applicable to the individual brand – during the distillation process, whilst distilled gin also allows for further flavouring infused after distillation.  These two styles should be the focus for anybody serious about the appreciation of gin – and accordingly they dominate the premium gin market.  There are other minor “named” types which may be of interest: for instance, Plymouth gin, a Protected Geographical Indication, of which the only exponent is the eponymously named brand, and Navy-Strength gin, which is distilled to the 57% ABV historically stipulated by the British Navy for their requirements.

The true wonder of gin lies in the variety and energy of its flavours.  In this respect it is the king of the white spirits – nothing else offers such sophisticated and complex aroma and taste profiles.  Gin once served as the standard spirit base for the cocktail revolution.  On reviewing classic recipes I was astounded at the regularity with which gin made an appearance, with good reason.  After a brief, undeserved hiatus – gin went through a niching period during which it was tainted by a bit of an ou-doos image – it is re-emerging and taking its rightful plaudits, to some extent on the back of the new wave of mixology (the modern era’s cocktail revolution). Today’s bartenders and cocktail creators are recognising in gin the same enhancing flavour potential as did their predecessors.  The industry too has responded with increasing experimentation – new combinations of botanicals and infusions are introducing interesting and exciting flavours, such as the Bulgarian rose (renowned for its fine fragrance) and cucumber prevalent in Hendrick’s gin.

I was fortunate recently to attend a tutored tasting of No. 3, one of the more elegant gins available on the local market.  We worked our way through this gin in various formats: first neat, underlining the signature explosion of juniper and citrus, then with a twist, augmenting the orange and grapefruit flavours, and then finally with tonic (the awesome Fitch & Leedes) and lime, as refreshing a beverage as for which one could hope.  Later I studiously completed the assigned homework:  I mixed myself a gin martini – coating the inside of chilled glass with vermouth, adding a generous measure of gin, and garnishing with lemon rind, twisted over the top of glass to release its oils.  Quite. Simply Outstanding.  The secret of a good martini – aside from the quality of the gin itself – is the vermouth:  try Noilly Prat if you can find it.  I was left wondering how anyone possessing anything approaching reasonably discerning taste could prefer the vodka to the gin version of this drink – the latter’s a veritable flavour avalanche. 

In the song Piano Man by Billy Joel one of the characters is described as “making love to his tonic and gin”.  I’m just starting to understand the sentiment.  This is indeed a drink that can inspire a certain passion.  The G and T set have a new recruit.  Chin chin!