Tag Archives: Glenfiddich

Clash of the Titans

The battle for number one.   Patrick Leclezio checks out the biggest and most intense rivalry in the single malt universe.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2017 edition).

There’s probably no greater engine for progress than competition.  It has defined our existence.  What is survival, if not a competition?  What is evolution, the mechanism culminating in an ability to build distilleries and make whisky (we can stop now!), if not the act of competing?  Competition elicits some of the finest human qualities – invention, excellence, determination – but also some of the worst, luckily largely controlled in our civilised world.  Healthy competition, by all objective measures, renders us, as a community, enhanced, advanced, and improved, across a range of endeavours, both the more and the less consequential.  Amongst the former, definitely amongst the former, somewhere between curing cancer and developing clean energy, is the crafting of single malt whisky.   And in recent times the thrusting and parrying between Glenfiddich and Glenlivet (The Glenlivet, if you want to be proper about it) has lit up this universe.

Following an extended era of persistent domination by Glenfiddich, the margins have been tighter in recent times, with the honours changing hands on two occasions in the last three years.  It’s not surprising that the onset of this competitive fervour corresponds with a period of tremendous activity and dynamism for the single malt style; its share of Scotch whisky sales have been on a radical incline.  Despite these gains though it remains a comparatively small and niched style; for all that I’m styling them “titans” the Glens, whilst significant in volume, having each crested the million case mark, are not mass-market brands.   Single malts appeal to a discerning audience, and whilst it may not be unswayed by extrinsic influence, it is relatively more attuned to the liquid itself.  In my opinion this makes the competitiveness in the sector a lot more meaningful.  If attributes like product innovation and quality rather than those like advertising and distribution, have a greater hold on the keys to success, then this can only be of benefit to genuine whisky lovers.   When Glenfiddich regained the mantle in 2016 brand spokesperson Enda O’Sullivan commented: “We are delighted with the current performance of Glenfiddich, and rather than focus on the best-selling single malt, we are committed to leading the category through innovation and creativity”.  It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling to know that this is a space where the two can be one and the same.

This competition in fact can’t really be understood in a brand context.  Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet?  Those are just words.  The actual, visceral fight is taking place out there on various fronts, between the whiskies:  liquid against liquid.  I recently ventured out onto these battlefields, amidst the popping of corks, the clinking of glasses and the venturing of “slainte mhaths”, to visit with a few of those that are making a difference.   It became immediately evident, if indeed it hadn’t been already, that the story of their mettle, of the iron within their fists, like the Roman legions of old, begins with their superb foot soldiers.

The 12YO’s in each stable are what you expect them to be and more: of broad appeal, and consequently of moderate flavour, exceptionally reliable, and universally enjoyable.  If any of this sounds underwhelming then bear with me as I elaborate.  I drink a lot of different whisky, much of it old, much of it uniquely flavoursome.  I guess you could say that I’m whisky spoiled.  Nevertheless, I’ll drink a Glenlivet 12YO, or a Glenfiddich 12YO, anytime, anyplace, following any other whisky, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I’ll savour every moment of it.  After work drinks, after dinner drinks, high society drinks, watching the rugby drinks, gala evening drinks, you name it, they’re up to it.  The nutty pineapple sponge flavour of the one, and the soft, melt-in-your-mouth fruitiness of the other guarantee satisfaction to almost any palate.  When I said exceptionally reliable, I meant just that.

The rest of their core ranges is faultless, there isn’t a middling whisky to be found.  Amongst the Glenfiddichs, the 14YO Rich Oak and the 15YO Solera Reserve deserve high praise.  The Rich Oak’s depth of flavour is a treat in such a young and affordable whisky, a testament to the casks employed, whilst the solera vat’s legendary status is well deserved, delivering a breadth and balance that’s virtually unparalleled in this whisky’s class.  On a rand for rand basis it makes a claim that is difficult to challenge, such is the value it delivers.   When I consider the Glenlivet stalwarts it’s the 18YO that immediately jumps out.  Here a prominent sherry influence pervades, powerful raisin flavours overlaying citrus fruits, apricots, and fudge, assembling into a whisky that’s quite simply marvellous; one of those that I’ve chosen to mark portentous moments in my life.

Faultless is one thing.  But you can’t expect to prevail only by not making mistakes.  The SAS has it right.  Who dares wins!  Both of the Glens have dared, both have reinvented battle strategy – with products that are bold and different.  Glenlivet’s  Nadurra range went back to its roots, its Guardians Chapters inserted consumers into the blending process, a result of which was the show-stopping Exotic, and its Alpha introduced a new style of cask to whisky.  Glenfiddich’s recent Experimental Series may well be partly responsible for the latest tilting of the scales, both the IPA Experiment and the Project XX are explicitly distinct and interesting.  I was mulling over the XX during the last few weeks, trying to put my finger on what made it and its stablemate (a bottle of which I polished off in short order last year) so standout and so quaffable: it’s the casks’ profile obviously, these having been handpicked by the brand’s ambassadors given free rein to the maturation warehouse, but also the vatting.  My guess is there are young whiskies significantly included, but unlike many other NAS products, these two have matched execution to the best intentions motivating this format.  The younger liquid adds, in this case an appealing husky robustness, but it doesn’t detract.

I have no doubt that we can expect more new and exciting products from both brands in the years to come.   The battle lines have been etched, but unlike the real thing, this is a war in which everyone wins – not least us whisky fans.  The competition between the two is bringing out their best, as they spur each other to new heights.   The only problem will be choosing which to splash into your glass as you kick up your feet tonight.  Make it one (or two) of each – and may the dram be with you.

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Back to its roots

Whisky finds new inspiration from within.  PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along.  Familiarity is fickle lens.  Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you.  Until you do.  And even then it can be a while until it takes hold.  The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start.  Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently.  It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long.  Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future.  That future was in fact the elemental past.  The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.

There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”.  The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer.  These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time.  More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.

The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale.  This intuitively feels right.   What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself?  The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.

The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly.  In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer.  Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer.  The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness.  Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first.  Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer.   A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it.  The flame is now starting to flare.

With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed.  The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale.  I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours).  This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints.  A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours.  The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal.  This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures.  It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.

The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst.  We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment.  There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours.  In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service.  May the brew be with you.

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The wood in whisky

A phenomenon called maturation.  PATRICK LECLEZIO bows respectfully but unflinchingly to one of the great forces in whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

The use of wood in crafting whisky is enormously important.  Many years ago – almost all the players seem to have their own quaint, romantic story about how it occurred – someone put their spirits into an oak cask, ostensibly for storage or transport, left it for longer than intended, and realised that the resultant, conditioned liquid had been considerably enhanced.  I can only imagine the joy of that discovery, the whisky equivalent of fire, or the wheel, or penicillin (or maybe that’s me imagining what I would say after appropriately celebrating the discovery).  Anyhow, in the aftermath of this happy accident (or these happy accidents, if we’re to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) laying spirits in wood gradually became a deliberate practice, utilised across the board.  It is now of such importance that the makers of fine spirits, and other drinks too (wines and fortified wines in particular), dedicate massive resources to what is known as maturation.  In asserting and validating the extent of its influence I’m going to delve into some the critical factors, but I also want to counter myself with a cautionary voice, because maturation is the one issue in whisky that tends to be over-aggrandised – so I’ll attempt to debunk the glib statements that are sometimes used to stress its importance, but that often misrepresent and mislead.

I’ve repeatedly been told that the most important influence on the flavour of a whisky is its maturation, or, similarly, that maturation contributes 60% (or 70%, or 80% – depends to whom you’re listening) of the flavour of a whisky…and I’ve probably passed on these same suppositions myself.  No longer, or at least, not in these terms.  I have no problem with the direction of the sentiment (there’s no doubting that maturation is important, enormously so, as I’ve already said and will say again, and in many or even most cases of majority importance), but I find it tenuous to reduce it to a fixed, universal, and absolute point.  Firstly the effect of maturation on different whiskies is variable: most obviously because of its duration, the weightings of its input into a 3YO and a 25YO will be dramatically different, but also because wood is a natural substance, and therefore not consistent in its impacts, and further because the relative scale of other influences will also vary.  In the Ardbeg 10YO for instance I could make the (not unreasonable) contention that it is peat smoke and not maturation that commands the single biggest impression in the flavour.  Secondly, flavour is subject to interpretation – it simply can’t be factually referenced in quantitative terms (when this is done in scoring it’s an opinion), or even in definitive terms.  I may be predominantly captivated by the biscuit notes in Maker’s Mark, which I attribute to the wheat in the mashbill, but someone else, sitting drinking the identical whisky opposite me, may be more captivated by the sweet vanilla derived from the casks.  The reason I’m labouring this point is that flavour is suggestive.  If you believe that maturation is the be-all, end-all, that’s often what it will be, perhaps to your detriment. During a business trip with two seasoned industry professionals we were served a cognac which we were told was a Scotch whisky.  We proceeded to debate amongst ourselves whether it was a blend or a single malt (I went for single malt, at least I got the copper distillation right).  In retrospect (blushes notwithstanding) I knew I had identified something funky, but I had simply ruled it out of my mind before even picking up the glass that this was anything other than whisky.  Question assumptions, about this and about anything else really (life rule).

When we talk about maturation, we effectively refer, in very simplistic terms, to the process over time where a liquid resting in a cask absorbs (and relinquishes) certain characteristics, primarily from (and to) the cask itself, and to a lesser degree from the environment in which the cask is accommodated, which permeates as the cask expands and contracts (breathes) with temperature fluctuations, and where the liquid further evolves as the result of chemical reactions between its component compounds and those being absorbed.  The cask itself plays the pivotal role, both intrinsically, by contributing the natural elements of the wood from which it’s made, and by passing on “second-hand” flavours that it has absorbed in its previous maturations, typically of bourbon or sherry, but increasingly of other drinks as well.  I recently worked my way through a bottle of the Glenfiddich 21YO (“raised in Scotland, roused by the Caribbean”…classic), finished in rum casks, with the molasses underpinning that spirit startlingly and deliciously evident in the final liquid.  Glenmorangie has just released Milsean, a whisky finished (extra matured in their parlance) in Portuguese red wine barriques.  Michel Couvreur, a brand with which I was previously associated, produces Spiral, which is finished (double matured might be more apt given the duration) in Jura vin de paille casks and which is one of the outstanding whiskies of my experience.  William Grant, and now Jameson (and possibly others), make whisky finished in ale casks.  And on it goes.  This aspect of maturation has created a model where the possibilities for flavour diversity are almost endless.  It is the sexy face of maturation.  Ex-sherry, ex-bourbon! Oloroso, Pedro Ximinez, manzanilla!  Port, sauternes! And whilst it’s undeniably interesting and alluring it’s important not to forget that much of the body of the whisky comes from the wood itself.

The wood in whisky is the mighty oak – as is the case for most spirits.  There are indigenous Brazilian trees that are used for maturing cachaça, the odd, old, arbitrary chestnut cask has turned up here and there in Scotland, and I’ve read of an American whiskey using maple for finishing, but these are strictly exceptions.  Somehow, out of all the trees in all the world, it’s curiously only oak that works properly (mighty indeed!), and furthermore only oak that has been grown in the right climate and conditions. The attempt to grow Quercus Alba (American white oak) in South Africa was a disaster; the wood was of such poor quality as to be unusable.  This is the reason why a company like Glenmorangie pays such close attention to wood cultivation, to the point where Bill Lumsden, their whisky supremo, flies out to the United States to individually select the trees that’ll be used to make their casks; and why a brand like Glenfiddich celebrates the intricate role of the wood in its whisky – as evidenced by the beautiful “Journey of the Cask” photo essay, from which I’ve chosen images to accompany this piece.   I’ll spare you a detailed knowledge the actual chemistry – because it’s above my pay grade I’ll admit, but also (I say somewhat conveniently) because it’s unnecessary if your objective is to better understand whisky for the purpose of its enjoyment.  The basics of it though are as follows:  The wood performs two functions. The charred or toasted inner layer, like the charcoal that it is, absorbs impurities from the raw spirit, making its smoother and more palatable.   It also gives the spirit a pathway into the wood, from which it absorbs vanillins, lignins and tannins – the elements that make such a central contribution (the second function) to flavour.

Lost to this simplistic explanation are a multitude of other considerations, that all stake a claim:  the seasoning of the wood – the process and time governing the drying of the cut wood (to be distinguished from the seasoning of the casks with liquid); the toasting and charring levels; the skill of the cooperage; the selection and proportion of virgin casks, first fills or refills; and, very importantly, the species of the wood – the most common being the Quercus Alba already mentioned, and Quercus Robur, the European oak.  I had the privilege of attending a nosing with Edrington (Macallan, Highland Park) heavyweight Gordon Motion, during which we compared the same whisky matured for the same period in the same warehouse in American oak and European oak casks, both seasoned with the same sherry for the same period.  From the number of times I’ve used the word same in that sentence you’ve obviously worked out by now that I’m setting you up.  Yes, the whiskies were dramatically different.

Maturation then is a critical lever for flavour.  Even today it retains a sense of that natural world mystique that must have astonished the first person to have stumbled upon it.  Its influence on whisky is both broad and deep.  It’s an easy trap to fall into though to think that it is all-important.  Look at a whisky, nose a whisky, taste a whisky and the first thing that dominates your thinking is a consideration of the casks from which it’s made.  As with all things that are imposing and extraordinary though, it’s worth taking a measured perspective to keep from being overawed.  If I can leave you with only one guiding sentiment about maturation it’s this: appreciate it but don’t exaggerate it.  Leave room for other things.  May the dram be with you.

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The headline whiskies of 2014

PATRICK LECLEZIO toasts the standouts of a quality year

First published in the December 2014 edition of Prestige Magazine.

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Whisky, amongst the many services it renders, often provides us with insight into the rampant consumerism of modern society – a view from which I take delight and despair in equal measure. This is a space in which new products are constantly clamouring for our attention, and whilst it’s exciting to discover and explore new things, there’s also a numbing futility to be repeatedly chasing after the shiny new toy. Here in South Africa we’re both unlucky to be isolated, and fortunate to be insulated, from the world’s whisky mainstream. Swings and roundabouts. We can’t get our hands on the hottest style in the market (read rye whiskey), but then again we’re shielded from a lot of the noise. I’ve started to look at the bright side. This enforced moderation gives us the opportunity for more considered appreciation. The last twelve months in particular have been relatively quiet but they’ve served up the four whiskies featured below – each different and distinctive, each exceedingly enjoyable, each memorable, and each deserving of and able to be given meaningful attention. Less is sometimes more. May the dram be with you.

Black Bottle

Black Bottle, the brand, is not new. It’s been around for a while – as evidenced by the large “Estd 1879” embossed on the bottle. I’m not going to go into its history, save to say that it has one and that it’s colourful, in obligatory whisky fashion. However, Black Bottle, the product, the one you’ll now find on the shelves of your local bottle store, is indeed new. There’s been an overhaul to the packaging and the liquid, both inspired. The bottle has returned to its roots – back in black glass for the first time since circa 1914. It was unveiled before us in a 1930’s era speakeasy (aka the basement of the Cape Town Club) – the launch taking the form of a striking piece of experiential theatre, conceived and co-ordinated by 3 Blind Mice’s Patrick Craig, with whom Black Bottle is also teaming on his legendary music events. These though – the robe, the showmanship – were distractions which pale in comparison to the monumental transformation undergone by whisky itself. Previously thin with a somewhat grating smoky dominance, it is now a rich and complex blend. Most interestingly, whilst the phenolic content is unchanged, the smoke is less apparent – being superbly counterbalanced by flavours of fennel, fruit and spice. This is a complete blended Scotch whisky that ticks all the boxes. Superb value priced in the mid R200’s

Glenfiddich 26YO

I’ve never tasted a Glenfiddich that’s disappointed me, and I don’t expect that I ever will. It’s the best-selling single malt in the world for good reason. The 12YO, my faithful long-haul flight companion (thanks Emirates), and the 15YO Solera, my anytime-anyplace companion, are personal favourites. In the malt whisky world Glenfiddich is as reliable as it gets. Reliability may not sound sexy, but when you’re shelling out R3500 odd, as you would for this whisky, it should need no persuasion that this is an attribute worth seeking. That the 26YO would be good then was a fait accompli. It was presented to us by Global Brand Ambassador Ian Millar during a fabulous launch function at the Pot Luck Club. Interestingly the whisky is exclusively matured in ex-bourbon casks. The result is a soft, sweet liquid with pleasing depth and hints of spice and sherbet. The litmus test of a great whisky though is its ability to make a connection with people. And if I’d had any doubts about Glenfiddich (I hadn’t) they would have been quickly dispelled when the whole restaurant accompanied Ian, unreservedly, in full voice, in a rendition of the Glenfiddich theme song – to the tune of “Volare”. Ignition baby! I can’t definitively say that it’s “better than all the rest” as the lyrics suggested, but it’s good, damn good.

Glenlivet Guardians Chapter: Exotic

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m suspicious of multi-vintage No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies. The concept – as it’s currently being applied – is an industry swindle. I’ve also not been shy however to shower praise on good NAS whiskies. This is one of those. It rates a mention not only because of its quality, but also because it’s a fascinating approach to whisky making. The brand reached out to its fans – via their Glenlivet Guardians program and at special events – and effectively invited them to participate in the blending process. I’d always thought that “ask the audience” was the best lifeline. This whisky proves it. The nose is spectacular, one of the best in recent memory, redolent of chocolate, cinnamon, zesty fruit, and moist cake. There are flashes of immaturity in the body, but not enough to detract from its thick juiciness. Well executed, and great value at approximately R1200. It’s a limited edition so don’t procrastinate. If you want it get it fast.

Single pot stills

Ok, so I misled you slightly when I alluded to four whiskies earlier. My fourth isn’t a whisky but a range of whiskeys. Much awaited, much anticipated, the Irish Distillers single pot stills headed by Redbreast, were finally made officially available in the country earlier in the year. These whiskeys come with a well-merited reputation – a cult status. I’ve enthusiastically sloshed and swigged each of the range at some point in time recently, abandoning myself to the pure pleasure of it on these occasions. When the opportunity came though for more reflective consumption I focused on the progenitors, the ground-breakers responsible for resuscitating this fine, uniquely Irish style of whiskey – these being Green Spot, Redbreast 12YO, and Redbreast 15YO. Apple flavours, progressing from ripe Granny Smiths in Green Spot (suggested by the label?…you tell me), to baked and then caramelised in the two Redbreasts, swim on a filmy, oily texture, amidst fainter appearances of cut grass, sultanas and apricot. Utterly outstanding! It’s insane that the style almost died out – a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions narrowly averted. If you’re limiting yourself to one new whisky during this festive season look no further than to the green hills of Ireland.

A year in whisky

Last year was bursting at the whisky seams.  PATRICK LECLEZIO recapitulates the major new appearances during 2013.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2014 edition).

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The soaring popularity of whisky in the recent past (and ongoing I should add) is well documented.  We are living through a period where more whisky is being produced and consumed than at any other time in history.  I’d hesitate to describe it as a “golden age” – defined by the Oxford, specific to our purposes, as “the period when a specified art or activity is at its peak” and, more generally, as “an idyllic, often imaginary past time of peace, prosperity, and happiness” – because peaks in volume do not necessarily (and in fact often don’t) coincide with peaks in quality, and any idealisation of our whisky era by future generations may well be somewhat imaginary, but it is undoubtedly a remarkable and an interesting time, as epitomised by the action in 2013.  We experienced a glut of new releases on the South African market at a variety of price points, so there was something relevant for any and every whisky lover.  In case you missed it, here are the highlights.  May the dram be with you!

(A bit of background on the review – all the whiskies featured were evaluated by a panel of four whiskyphiles during the course of a single evening).

Glenlivet Alpha

This high-intrigue launch created considerable anticipation as the marketing machine of the world’s second-biggest single malt shifted into high gear.   I must admit that my interest was piqued.  Here was a whisky with a cask profile that is completely unique (to the best of my knowledge): the Alpha has been matured in first-fill casks seasoned with Scotch whisky, instead of the typical Bourbon or Sherry i.e. the Alpha’s casks were virgins when they were first used to age Scotch whisky.  If you’ve been around the block and you’re struggling to find something genuinely different then I reckon this is worth trying for that reason alone.  Hats off to them for a bit of sparkling innovation.  But whilst it may yet give rise to illustrious progeny this first effort was be middle-of-the-road – a touch disappointing, given the expectations, and, dare I say it, a touch immature-tasting for the price point.  I think I need to revisit it in a quieter moment.

Grant’s Sherry Cask Finish

It may be lower profile and less newsworthy than the Alpha, and whilst it may not boast the same uniqueness this whisky is nonetheless unusual.  The technique of cask finishing is predominantly reserved for malt whisky, so it’s a surprise to see it featuring in a young blend; in fact Grant’s claims to have been the first to finish a Scotch whisky blend in a sherry cask.  The finishing period is short – “up to four months” – but the result is pleasing, particularly to a sherried whisky lover like myself.  It’s an easy drinking blend with some extra stretch – well worth the premium.

Glenfiddich 15YO Distiller’s Edition and 14YO Fine Oak

I reviewed these both in September last year so I’m not going to say too much more – save that we enjoyed them tremendously.  They’re highly credible, and highly recommended – just what you’d expect from the guys who bring you the benchmark 15YO Solera.

Monkey Shoulder

Blended malts are a hugely underrated (and underappreciated) style of whisky.  There’s not much by way of functional superiority of single over blended malt.  A single malt is representative of a singular place and style, in the way that a blended malt can never be, but a blended malt can call upon a variety of malts, and, catalysed by the blender’s skill, thereby draw from a much larger flavour palette to create something that might be just right.  Monkey Shoulder is just right – a sweet, smooth, fun addition to our serious limited selection of blended malts.  You may also be interested to know that “monkey shoulder” was a condition affecting hard-grafting, shiel-wielding distillery workers back in the more manual era of malting.  What’s next I wonder: Greenstick Fracture and Third-Degree Burn?  Not sure why they’d choose to name their whisky after an injury…maybe they just needed to justify the cool monkey icon on the bottle.

Macallan 1824

I wish I didn’t have to report on this range of whiskies.  The Macallan is one of my favourite brands of whisky, so it pains me to have to say something negative about it.  But unfortunately I must.  The NAS trend has been motivated by the shortage of aged whisky stocks – as unforeseen levels of demand have progressively exceeded supply.  These products are motivated less by the desire to make good whisky than by the drive to maintain volume growth.  It’s a hard, understandable reality, but it doesn’t mean we have to like it.  Macallan has now joined this circus with 1824, its first core range of NAS whiskies.  More brutal still, they’ve discontinued their aged range, including the magnificent Sherry Oak, in a variety of “lesser” markets, South Africa being one.  Bitter tears…as I’m sure Michael Hutchence would sing if he was alive to see this.

One of my main problems with NAS whiskies is that they’re often (not always) being used to harvest excessive margins.  Flavour is subtle, and, very importantly, it’s usually only experienced post purchase, so it’s not the clearest, most reference-able indicator of value, especially for the casual whisky lover.  Big brands like the Macallan, freed from the shackles of an age statement, are able to use their marketing power to extract more profit from multi-vintage liquid than if they sold the components separately – great for them, not so good for us.  I think this is the case with 1824.  The mid-priced variant, Sienna, is some 70% more expensive than the previous 12YO Sherry Oak, but I prefer the latter (and I know many others who feel the same) and I think it’s a better, richer whisky (and probably on average older).  Or at least I think I do – I can’t get hold of a bottle to do a comparative tasting!  The 1824 whiskies themselves are good, no doubt – this is still Macallan after all! – especially the Sienna and the Ruby which retain the distillery’s trademark sherry flavours, but comparison with their predecessors is unavoidable and the taint of NAS is inescapable.

Glen Grant Five Decades

Wow!  Let me get that out the way.  This one blew us away with its delightful creaminess.  I have a lot of open bottles at my bar – it’s part and parcel of this whole whisky gig.  Some sit there for months, a few have been there for years.  Not so with this whisky.  Two bottles of Five Decades disappeared in short order despite my best efforts at restraint.  It’s that good.  Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm created this limited edition whisky to celebrate 50 years at Glen Grant, constituting it with casks from the previous five decades.  Interwoven with fruit, toffee, vanilla, and cream it’s a long, meandering, relaxing, convivial Sunday afternoon drive of a whisky; and at just over a grand a bottle it represents great value – the standout release of 2013.

A salute to single malts

Pedigree in whisky…PATRICK LECLEZIO seeks out the proudest and the purest.

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

The sport of kings… To some it’s horseracing but to those of us who are better informed, it’s something altogether different. Yes, you know it, don’t pretend otherwise the love and enjoyment of whisky is as regal a pleasure as for which one might hope. That said, regardless of whether it’s the equine or ethanol variety, success on the field is most assured (albeit, I must add, neither guaranteed nor exclusive) with some pedigreed participation. A bit of breeding goes a long way and when it comes to whisky, there’s nothing more thoroughbred than the single malt. I recently had the rare opportunity to taste the flagship whisky, the purest of the purebloods, of the world’s leading single malt (and a few of its new releases to boot).

Single malts inspire awe – I’ve often heard the term uttered in almost hallowed tones – and rightly so, but I sometimes wonder whether many of these self-same utterers, and indeed the average whisky drinker, really understands what it is that makes them so special. A single malt is the product of a single distillery – and can be made from only one type of grain: malted barley. Typically they are produced using pot-stills, as is legislated in Scotland but elsewhere, interestingly, this appears to be more custom than law; Japanese distillers Nikka, for instance, produce an excellent ‘single coffey malt’ which, as the name suggests, is made in a column still. Single malts are distinct from the other styles of whisky –blends, blended malts and grain whiskies in the Scotch universe – but less so than one might imagine. The malted barley base and the potstill character are found also in blends (partially) and blended malts (entirely), and although it’s lesser-known to the whisky-drinking everyman, most single malts are in fact blended (or, more correctly, ‘vatted’) – different casks of different wood from different years can be and are typically used. The only element seemingly setting it apart is its single source provenance. Is this enough to warrant the aura? Is it of sufficient distinction?

No prizes for guessing, especially in light of my laudatory preamble, that the answer is yes. It turns out that the one point of origin is most definitely important: their unique stills, their local water, their people (focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part double-digit generations in the making), their heritage and indeed their very air (witness the Bunnahabhain dunnage) set single malts apart from other whiskies. A single malt is representative of a singular terroir and style; it is pure, it is distinctive, it is rare and limited – and bound to its birthplace (Cardhu Pure Malt be gone!) –- and each individual single malt is a critical point, one of many, on the map that makes whisky the great, complex, varied, and much-loved spirit that it is today.

In this revered tradition, in this procession of greatness, there is one that stands above the rest – as a herald and a leader, and as an influencer and definer of events: the world’s best-selling single malt, and the first (and only) malt whisky to conquer the million case frontier – Glenfiddich. Not so long ago, single malt, the progenitor of whisky, was mired in obscurity, and denied the acclaim that it enjoys today. Most were used as fodder for blends; the few that were bottled in their own right were available only on home soil and primarily in independent bottlings. Glenfiddich led the charge, becoming, in 1963, the first single malt to be commercially exported outside of the UK, “effectively introducing the world to the single malt category”, to borrow a phrase, unreservedly, from their publicity machine.

I am a fan. The 15-year-old Solera is one of my favourite whiskies, and has been for a very long time; it’s an enduring classic, and I can recommend it without restraint: it’s rich, flavoursome, well-balanced, and reasonably priced – a great combination of attributes. I’m also particularly appreciative of the fact that these guys don’t pompously insist, like many of their compatriots – a losing battle if ever I saw one – on a preceding article (‘The’ Glenfiddich). The flames of my fandom were fanned (haha, sorry) recently when I had the rare – very rare! – opportunity to sample a dram of the legendary Glenfiddich 50-year-old. And what a treat it was. The nose displayed the type of marvellous, immediate complexity – an all-out, highly co-ordinated, flavour assault – that is only possible with highly cultivated, extended maturation. The whisky was rich, rounded, polished, with faint wisps of peat smoke, a lovely mellow warmth and silky mouth-feel, all of which were delightful but expected, and then, quite surprisingly, some litchi on the palate, before it stretched itself out into a long, lingering finish. It’s a whisky that I consider myself extremely fortunate to have tasted – one that I’m sure I’ll remember well into my dotage.

Glenfiddich is also about to launch two new variants onto the local market: the 14-year-old Rich Oak, and the 15-year-old Distillery Edition, contrasting but worthy whiskies. I’m heartened that in Glenfiddich we have a brand that’s not sending the bulk of its stock to the No Age Statement circus. They’re fortunate to be in this position, but well done to them anyhow for holding the line. The Rich Oak is a sweet and spicy, tender whisky, somewhat reminiscent of its Solera sibling, whilst the Distillery Edition is a robust, dry, peppery whisky bottled at cask strength – a satisfying 51% ABV. Each for its occasion.

One could make the claim, with some justification, that there’s no better breeding, no finer pedigree than a single malt; and if you pick your whiskies like you (should) pick your horses, then those from Glenfiddich, the valley of the deer, supreme amongst single malts in many respects, would be as good a bet as it gets. May the dram be with you!

 

Whisky diplomats charm South Africa

The world of whisky is so gracious and so evolved that it even has its own emissaries.  I recently had the privilege of meeting with and interviewing the Global Brand Ambassadors of two of Scotland’s leading single malts: Karen Fullerton from Glenmorangie and Ian Millar from Glenfiddich.

Big thanks to the local Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich teams, and to Manny and Phillip Myburgh, the inimitable owners of Café Della Salute on Sandton Square, for setting up and hosting the interviews.

Ian with the Myburgh brothers

Ian with the Myburgh brothers

Karen with local sidekick Niel Hendriksz

Note: The interviews were conducted separately, but the questions were the same so I’ve consolidated them below.

WOW: You’re the Global Brand Ambassador for Glenmorangie/Glenfiddich.  Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your time away from work.

KF: I was born on the west coast of Scotland, and then I moved to England as a young lass.  I started my career in wine, but I’d inherited a love of Scotch whisky from my father and my grandfather.  In 2002 I joined Glenmorangie in a sales capacity, and shortly thereafter I had the opportunity to work as the brand’s Ambassador in the United States for some five years.  I left the company at the time of the Moet Hennessy acquisition, to work on Dewar’s at Bacardi.  It was a fulfilling experience, and it gave me the opportunity to work with blended whisky, but I always dreamt of returning to Glenmorangie, which I was then lucky enough to do when I was offered this role.  In my leisure time I enjoy the outdoors – spending time in the mountains, running, and playing golf and hockey.

IM: I’ve spent 40 years of my life working in the whisky industry.  In fact I’m about to turn 60 and I’ll be celebrating the occasion with two very special bottles: 1952 vintages of Glenfarclas and Linkwood.  I worked in production until 2006, managing distilleries for first Diageo and then William Grant’s, before moving into my current role.  My responsibilities are varied: aside from my ambassadorial duties I work on whisky innovation, I manage a team of 18 ambassadors, and I act as a guardian of the Glenfiddich brand.

WOW: What do you most like and dislike about your job?

KF: My likes: travelling to interesting places, meeting amazing, likeminded people, the variety inherent in the role (every day is different), the access to special insights, and, I won’t lie, the perks: I get to stay in the best hotels, eat in the best restaurants and taste the best samples from the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries.

My dislike: the industry isn’t as progressive as I’d ideally want it to be, and this occasionally impacts on my ability to do my job.

IM: My likes: experiencing different cultures and meeting different people.

My dislikes: travel problems – I’ve just had a nightmare journey to get to South Africa.

WOW: I would imagine that you meet a tremendous number of whisky drinkers, and that you must have close insight into the latest developments in the market.  In your opinion what are the latest whisky consumer trends?

KF: We’re seeing the introduction of more and more multi-vintage, no age statement whiskies (for malt as well as blended whisky).  There’s a lot of mixing of whisky taking place in developing markets, particularly for blends; malt whisky to a large extent is still being drunk traditionally.  Most encouraging for those of us in this sector is the continued strong growth of malt whisky.

IM: Let me respond rather on both whisky development and consumer trends, which are somewhat interlinked. Malt whisky only makes up 9% of the Scotch whisky market but it’s driving innovation in my opinion.  There are large numbers of interesting new expressions being released onto the market and attracting people to malt whisky, an example at Glenfiddich being Snow Phoenix.  Whisky tourism is growing, people are experimenting increasingly, and we’re seeing a proliferation of no age statement whisky as whisky stocks (not ours, I should add) come under increasing pressure.  Glenfiddich will be introducing only a small percentage of no age statement whisky, but with transparency about the contents.

WOW: Glenfiddich cracked the million case mark last year – the first single malt to do so.  Whilst this signals the increasing prominence of malt whisky, the market remains very much dominated by blends.  What’s your view of the future of the whisky market?

KF: I think that the market will always remain dominated by blends, but continuing education about whisky, and the introduction of younger malt whiskies intended to bring down the price gap will continue to makes malt whisky increasingly prominent in the future.

IM: As long as the price difference remains blends will continue to dominate – although having said that the weighting will continue to shift.  I would predict that malts will make up 15% of the market in 10 years’ time.  Higher disposable incomes, increasing longevity, younger malt whisky drinkers and the opening of new markets are all contributing to a bright future for malt whisky.

WOW: You’ve been to South Africa before.  You’re pretty much obligated to tell me that you enjoy visiting so I’m not going to ask you that question.  Rather what is it about the country firstly and about the Whisky Live Festival secondly that you most enjoy?  What sets them apart in your experience from other countries and other Festivals?

KF: I really enjoy interacting with South Africans who I find to be energetic, warm and progressive. And of all the whisky festivals in the world I most enjoy SA and Stockholm.  SA’s Whisky Live is a lifestyle event; it’s social and there’s a great balance between seriousness and fun.  It’s broken down barriers to engaging with whisky.  I always find it refreshing to see the large proportions of women and younger people attending the festival.

IM: I find it a joy to visit this country.  It has a rich history and culture, and the people are happy.  It’s a great environment in which to work.  I particularly enjoy the SA social scene.  The festival is the biggest in the world and it gives us the opportunity to engage directly with the consumer which is an important area of focus for Glenfiddich.

WOW: South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports.  Whisky Live South Africa has become the most well attended Whisky Live Festival in the world.  Why do you think whisky is so popular in this country?

KF: For many of the reasons that it has succeeded elsewhere: whisky tastes great, it offers complexity, there’s a depth, a story behind Scotch whisky, and it’s a well regulated product.  The local education programs are also generally excellent.

IM: African spirits consumers are looking for something with credibility, and in this regard whisky stands on its own.  It makes a statement, and people are proud to be seen to be ordering whisky.

WOW: Wood is generally acknowledged as the principal influence on the flavour of a whisky.  Peat smoke is probably the most obvious.  What are the other influences that might be perceptible to the casual drinker?

KF: That’s not an easy one to answer.  In fact our Signet logo is made up of 32 interconnected icons, signifying that no single element dominates.  Having said that I’d suggest location and water source for Glenmorangie.  Our hard mineral water, which filters through stone for 100 years before we use it, has a significant influence on the fermentation process, producing particularly fruity esters.  Our tall stills, the tallest in Scotland (they’re about the height of an adult giraffe), also contribute to a distinctly lighter and finer spirit.

IM: Fermentation time.  This is crucial in building spirit character.  It brings out the fruity, floral and nutty flavours which we enjoy in so many whiskies.

WOW: What makes Glenmorangie / Glenfiddich such a special whisky?

KF: The tall stills that I’ve just mentioned.  Our expertise in wood management, which is highly scientific: we use a carefully calibrated mix of early and late growth white oak from the Ozarks.  Glenmorangie was also one of the first whiskies to use ex-Bourbon wood for maturation, and it was one of the pioneers of extra maturation (what others call “finishing”).  Our first extra matured whisky, a 1963 Glenmorangie, was released on the market as far back as 1987.

IM: Its long term credibility and trustworthiness.  You can be guaranteed that any Glenfiddich whisky will be enjoyed.  There’s also comfort in the fact that the brand is long established and is still owned by the same Scottish family.

WOW: What do you drink when you’re not drinking Glenmorangie / Glenfiddich?

KF: Wine, G ‘n’ T, and hoppy beers.  I also enjoy certain island style whiskies – salty, spicy whiskies with a rich sherry influence.

IM: I drink from my top 10, which is as follows: Glenfiddich 15YO, Glenfiddich 30YO, Glen Elgin 12YO, Scapa 14YO, Glenfarclas 14YO, Mortlach 16YO, Springbank 15YO, Edradour 10YO, Balvenie 21YO, and Bowmore 12YO.

WOW: Are you a purist?  How do you respond if someone asks you to mix a dram of Signet / 15YO with Coke?

KF: Don’t do that!

IM: I would certainly discourage it.

WOW: Lastly, how do you prefer to drink your whisky when you’re just having a casual dram with friends?

KF: It depends on the mood and time of day.  When it’s warm I’ll drink Glenmorangie Original on the rocks with orange zest, although I’m not generally a fan of whisky cocktails.  In the late evenings I’ll tend to favour older whiskies drunk neat.  For the most part though I’ll drink whisky with a splash of water.

IM: It depends on the whisky.  I take my drams of Glenfiddich 12YO with two drops of water, and I find that water is not needed with the 15YO.

Thanks again to Karen and Ian for sharing time with me.