Tag Archives: Glenmorangie

Two whiskies to reaffirm your faith

First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (March 2018).

During the course of my relationship with whisky I’ve rarely been disappointed.  Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs, but the troughs are usually my fault, isolated to occasions where I’ve abused its good graces.  More typically, over the years, it’s treated me to a series of wonderful encounters and experiences, nurturing between us a warm glow of contentment.  It has invigorated me when I’ve flagged, rewarded me when I’ve risen, encouraged my friendships, and made for good company at pretty much any time in between.  Most impressively, it keeps surprising me.  We’ve known each other well, for a long time now, so this is no mean feat.  They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it can obviously breed more positive regard as well – like delight.  I’ve had a few of those moments of late, brought on by two newcomers, which, if you’d like to instil a bit of fresh life into your bond with whisky, might be worth your attention.

Glenmorangie Allta

The tenth and latest in the unfailingly interesting, envelope-pushing Private Edition series, Allta fiercely perpetuates the spirit of this campaign.  I was lucky enough to “sense” this whisky along with a few others, Original, Cadboll and Lasanta, at the Glenmorangie HQ in Edinburgh, in an enthralling circular space known as “The Snug”, which showcases pretty much every whisky produced by the company in the modern age – wow!.  It was my first hit of Cadboll, and my first of Lasanta since the the finishing casks were changed from exclusively Oloroso to Oloroso and PX some four years ago.  The former, post-graduating from Muscat and Semillon casks, is a delicious sponge cake of sweet, polished flavours that’ll appeal to a broad range of palates, but especially to fans of Nectar d’Or.  It’s a Travel Retail exclusive so look out for it next time you’re going abroad.  The latter is a personal favourite, but I detected something on this occasion, a burnt flavour, somewhere between toasted sugar and an extinguished match, that I hadn’t previously noticed.  Whether this observation is derived from the new cask profile, or a function of my past inattention, is less important than the additional layer it ostensibly bequeaths to my perception of an already full flavoured whisky.  I won’t be waiting another four years.  The main show though was Allta, gaelic for ‘wild’, a nod to its raison d’être, a strain of wild yeast growing on the ears of Glenmorangie’s own cadboll barley identified by none other than the company’s whisky chief Dr. Bill Lumsden, and now catalysing this whisky’s fermentation.  An aside: the yeast was cultivated for production by South African-affiliated yeast supplier Lallemand.  The underlying rationale for Allta is that yeast variations are an unfortunate rarity in Scotch whisky.  In Dr. Bill’s words: “Yeast’s influence on taste has been overlooked for years, but it’s an area ripe for exploration”.  Perhaps taking a leaf from the Japanese whisky play book, which prescribes prolific experimentation with yeast, he’s created (yet another) whisky worthy of its place in this hallowed collection.  The liquid has much in common with The Original, its half sibling of similar age and cask profile, but is palpably fuller and more robust, bristling on the palate like a Rioja.  Earthy and herbaceous on the nose, waxy, bready and floral, with hints of mint and corn, it relaxes into a sweet, typically vanilla finish.  The distinctions pedestal yeast’s contribution to flavour, as I’m sure was the intention.  This in my opinion is a whisky to be bought and appreciated for three reasons: for its own innate value, for its place in this riveting Private Edition whisky story (to be enjoyed like a series of riveting, unmissable novels), and for making tangible the role of yeast in whisky creation.

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The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

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The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

Arbikie Highland Rye

Estate producers Arbikie are liquor all-rounders, better known for producing vodkas and gins.  How then, with no relevant credentials, do you get noticed on your first foray into an arena as crowded as Scotch whisky?  The answer: do something no-one’s ever done before (or at least, not for a long time).  The Arbikie Highland Rye’s premise is that it’s the first Scotch rye whisky produced in the last hundred odd years.  I guess that this makes it just a single grain in the Scotch Whisky Association classification, but unofficially I’ll happily concede that it’s rather unique and special.  Now let’s get the bad news out of the way upfront – this is a one-of-its-kind product, with a limited bottling of 998, factors driving a unit price of some R4.5k, which is clearly excessive for a young, barely legal whisky.  Then again, there’s no pretence of value for money – that’s not the idea.  There’s also lots of good news to even things out.  My experience of Arbikie Highland Rye left me with some striking impressions.  Firstly, rye brings something to the Scotch party – there’s enough here to persist and forge onwards with this experiment, which I believe Arbikie is doing; Secondly, this is one of the richest, fullest three year old whiskies I’ve ever tasted.  Whether it’s the rye, the casks, the small batch craftsmanship, or a combination that’s responsible can be debated, but the result is remarkable regardless.  Lastly, rye and sherry do great bedfellows make.  This is an unusual combination, which I’d never encountered before.  American straight rye whiskey is legislated to be aged only in new oak, and although the industry is increasingly breaking these shackles, variations are not commonplace.  But they should be.  Going by Arbikie Highland Rye – which has been “enhanced” in PX casks for 3-6 months – there’s evidence that this partnership works a treat.  If you’re in the fervent niche that’s dedicated to exploring new whisky horizons you may just have to throw pecuniary caution to the wind.

As it appeared: https://whiskymag.co.za/two-whiskies-to-reaffirm-your-faith/

 

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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.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

The Spanish Connection

They arguably own as much of the whisky heritage as any producer. Patrick Leclezio reviews a selection of whiskies owing their vital essence to the grapes of Spain.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

Ay caramba, the Spanish have infiltrated! This is not breaking news – in fact it shouldn’t even be news at all – it’s been a good long while in the making. And despite my ambiguous exclamation, it’s a good thing; for many, like me, the very best thing. I’m talking about sherry, of course, that quintessentially Spanish fortified wine, that has become so important to so many people – us whisky lovers – who don’t drink it, who have no intention of drinking it, yet who wouldn’t want to live without it. I set out recently to review, with a little bit of help from some discerning friends, some of the more notable sherried malt whiskies on the market, and to learn a bit more about sherry’s epic contribution to my favourite tipple.

One is often told – cut to an industry emissary assuming a portentous tone – that whisky is made from only three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Deep (not really – I’m just paying homage to the pregnant pause that usually follows), but also misleading. It may be true in terms of direct ingredients, but that’s only part of the story, luckily, otherwise our noses and palates would be bored stiff. There are other ingredients that have come to play a part, peat and oak notably, and, acting in synergy with the oak, a variety of other drinks, of which bourbon and sherry are overwhelmingly the most significant.

It may be worth taking a moment to contextualise matters. The single most important factor influencing the flavour of a whisky, undisputed and empirically proven, is the maturation (or ageing) of the spirit, which itself, for the most part, is constituted of three essential, equally vital elements: time, wood, and the sherry or bourbon in which the oak was seasoned. It’s a subjective view on which some may differ – you have to make up your own minds – but I would venture that of the two sherry is by far the more interesting. By this reasoning then – I don’t think I’m being dramatic – it is critical to whisky.

Sidebar

The sherries in whisky

There are a few distinct sherries primarily used by the whisky industry for the seasoning of its casks, each of which imparts a different influence to flavour.

Oloroso: The most popular sherry for whisky maturation. An oxidatively aged sherry – which means that it matures in contact with air. Dark, nutty, often sweet.

Pedro Ximenez (PX): Increasing in popularity. Pressed from dried grapes, thereby concentrating its sugars. Intense raisin and molasses. Very sweet.

Fino: A biologically aged sherry, covered during maturation by a cushion of yeast known as flor, which prevents contact with air. Light, fresh and dry, with no oak influence.

Others: Amontillado and Manzanilla casks are also rarely but occasionally employed.

Strangely, having said this, the importance of sherry to whisky is not endorsed in the regulations (I refer to those for Scotch whisky), which only require whisky to be matured in oak casks. Its use exists purely on the basis of accident (like so much with whisky), convention, and its own considerable merits – enough in itself. The origins of the relationship lie in the reuse of the casks that transported sherry from Spain to Britain (an idea stemming from the prudent Scots no doubt), to hold and store whisky for merchants and wealthy customers, who subsequently discovered a beneficial influence on the liquid. The practice was accordingly perpetuated and by the end of the eighteenth century distilleries had begun to mature their whiskies in this fashion as a standard. Today these transport casks have been replaced by bespoke casks – casks seasoned with sherry on instruction, for a prescribed period of usually between one and half to two years.

The resultant variety of flavour is attributable to the different types of sherry, but also to the different types of wood being used. This is sometimes overlooked by much of the whisky community, which often refers to sherry casks and European oak interchangeably – a gross mistake. Casks seasoned with sherry are made from both American oak and European oak, and have been for much of history, the latter mostly of Spanish oak, but possibly of French oak or of other types. The same sherry in one or the other has a markedly different result for the whisky end-product. Even the same sherry in the same wood, being organic and imbued by nature with its own individuality, will produce varied results, albeit less markedly. It’s a truly synergistic process where sherry, wood and whisky interact in a process where the resultant cask will be absolutely unique.

These insights could be evidenced in much of the selection that we reviewed. The pool, not comprehensive by any means, but as representative a collection of reasonably priced sherried whiskies as was possible and practical, was as follows: Aberlour 16YO, Balvenie 17YO Doublewood Bunnahabhain 18YO, Glendronach 12YO, Glendronach 16YO Platinum, Glenfiddich 18YO, Glenmorangie Lasanta, Highland Park 12YO, and Macallan Sienna. There isn’t a whisky amongst the lot that I wouldn’t gladly drink on a daily basis, testament to sherry’s potency if well deployed.

The most intense were the two Glendronachs – I could literally feel the tannins tugging gently on my palate. Both exclusively sherry cask matured (combination Oloroso and PX), the 12YO is aged a few years in American oak, but spends most its life in European oak, whilst the slightly more restrained 16YO is entirely matured in European oak. Powerful indeed! They define the term sherry bomb. The most interesting (but also challenging – there’s a lot going on) of the selection is perhaps the Balvenie, matured in both American and European oak (seasoning not specified but I would imagine both bourbon and sherry) and then finished in Oloroso butts for six months. A marvellously complex interplay of the dark dried fruits and spices expected of sherry. Its stable mate, the Glenfiddich, is rich and flavoursome, but less ambitious. The Bunnahabhain 18YO always reminds me of a salted dark chocolate. It’s full flavoured, with notes of cocoa and a hint of salt so subtle that I sometimes think it’s suggested by my visit to the distillery’s spray flecked dunnage, located point blank on the ocean. The Sienna is undeniably a Macallan with all the rounded richness that this entails, offering enough of the Macallans of yore to keep us all interested I’d warrant. It’s fully sherry cask matured in a pleasing, well balanced mix of first-fill American and European oak. The Highland Park was the only peated whisky amongst those we tasted, and it reconfirmed to me the need for sherry as a counterweight to peat, at least for my taste. It remains one of the most complete Scotches on the market. Lasanta, essentially a Glenmorangie Original finished (or extra matured in Glenmorangie parlance) in Oloroso casks for two years, is a striking example of the sherry contribution in general, taking a light, citrusy whisky, and transforming it into something rich and full bodied.

I hesitate to use the word favourite with reference to whisky, so I usually don’t and I won’t now. Your appreciation and consequently your evaluation of a whisky can depend I feel on your mood, your environment, and your physiology at a moment in time. You may have noticed however that I omitted mention of one of the whiskies in the review. Why? Well, I have this thoroughly unscientific test that I’ve used to single it out. After a tasting I unconsciously drink (hmm…don’t make too much of this combination of words) what remains of the bottles over time. Every now and again I take stock of the inventory. In this case the Aberlour 16YO was the first to disappear. Read into it what you will. My simple conclusion is that it ticks all the boxes with a flourish. Rich, balanced, and interesting without being taxing, with wisps of redolent flavours weaved into the backdrop of a thick, hearty traditional, home-made fruitcake. It’s an exemplary whisky, the type I can imagine to have created the tradition, that had people nodding their heads in appreciation and in realisation, and that forever bonded Spain into the whisky bloodline. May the dram be with you.

The essentials of whisky

An often confusing navigation. PATRICK LECLEZIO cuts through the clutter

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

“We distill our whisky more slowly than any other distillery in Scotland”. This snippet is courtesy of Glengoyne. How about this one? (I bet you know it). “Triple distilled, twice as smooth, one great taste”. These are just two of innumerable promotional shots in an incessant barrage. The whisky industry monologue, as its brands clamour for your attention and, more importantly, for your hard earned lucre, is peppered with all sorts of often confounding claims. Buying whisky can be akin to taking an exam for which you haven’t studied, like trying to appreciate a tune that you like in a cacophony of noise. What matters and what doesn’t? A how-long-is –a-ball-of-string question for the ages really – one about which voluminous tracts can be written (I won’t, not here). It’s worth though taking the time to dip our feet.

So, why should you buy one whisky rather than another of the many available? There are a multitude of reasons, some of which are central to the product, and some not. The latter group, whilst ìt can be significant to enjoyment, featuring influences like branding, is not relevant for our purposes here, which is to focus on a few tangible and factual observations related to the liquid itself – the flavour, the texture, and even the colour – and thereby to objectively guide purchase. A whisky, in order to win you over, needs to resolve the question in its favour; and to do so it ideally needs to demonstrate meaningful differences from which the basis for preference might be inspired. You on the other hand need to interrupt the monologue – with a firm put up or shut up. Here’s how.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the beginning there was the grain, and the grain was with whisky, and the grain was whisky. The type of grain, usually barley, malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye, is significant, and will manifest differently, but it’s rarely a critical variable unless you’re deciding between styles of whisky, in which case many other factors encroach. There are exceptions though. Bourbon for instance must be comprised of minimum 51% corn, but can include either rye or wheat as a secondary grain (often called the flavour grain). Rye will typically give a spicy flavour, wheat a cereal biscuit flavour. More pertinently you’ll be entreated to believe that a variant of a particular grain sets a whisky apart. Optic barley, the original Golden Promise, organic, exclusively Scottish-grown barley, Islay-grown…whatever. In reality, whilst it impacts on issues like yield and raw material cost, too distant to be of any concern to us the apprehensive receptacles at the far end of the line, it makes little or no difference to flavour. The exception perhaps is peat smoke, which transmits itself impressively into the resultant whisky through malting (or specifically kilning). Consequently, the constitution of that smoke, the peat from which it emanates – be it coastal, in its many varieties, or inland – makes a mark, albeit subtle.

The grain then gets milled, mashed, and fermented, but there aren’t really enough differences between distilleries for these processes to have any kind of a pronounced impact. Wooden or metal washbacks? It’s nice of them to point it out on a visitors’ tour but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Bourbon and Japanese producers tend to make a lot of noise about their individual yeasts. I’m still in dreamland, although maybe because it has never been specifically demonstrated to me. Some whisky experts disagree, I’m still not sure that the average whisky lover would notice or should care.

The culmination of production, like a shining copper beacon in the night announcing its importance, is the distillation itself. And here’s where it’s time to wake up. Woodford Reserve is the only mainstream bourbon to be distilled in copper pots – affording its distillate a “conversation” that resonates in the final product. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland – the height of an adult giraffe. How do I know? They’ve ensured that I’ve absorbed this fact by repeatedly disseminating it to me. And it is indeed important. The type of still, the size of the still, the copper, and the shape of the still, are all critical to the individual taste of a whisky. Glenmorangie’s long slender stills foster a light, delicate spirit, Macallan’s short, rotund stills a richer, heavier spirit. I swear that I can almost taste their shape when I drink a Macallan. That may be a stretch but there can be no doubting that it sets the liquid apart. Every distiller will tell you that when they replace a still it’s copied to the last detail – if the original was dented, well then a near-as-damn-it identical dent is administered to its successor. As to differences (actual real differences) in length of distillation, and the number of distillations…apologies to Glengoyne and Jameson – as much as I enjoy both of their creations, I remain to be convinced.
Moving on. Whisky may be the water of life, but the role of the water used in its production and its reduction is pretty much equivalent regardless of the source. The former is distilled – I’ve yet to taste distilled water that distinguishable one from another. The latter is demineralised – rendering it as generic as generic gets. Yet whiskies often talk up their water, talk best digested with a liberal pinch of salt.

I’ve saved the most important for last. It’s generally acknowledged that up to 70% of the flavour of a whisky comes from the wood in which it’s aged. It follows then that maturation is a critical point of difference. Spanish, American or Japanese oak? Seasoned with sherry, bourbon, or something more exotic? First-fill, or refill? Duration of maturation? Double maturation or extra maturation (otherwise known as finishing)? As promised I’m sparing you the detail, save to say that there’s nothing that exerts more sway. Take careful note, and drink it all in.

There’s lots more, lots. But this brief guide hopefully should map out the areas that warrant exploration, and those that don’t. These are the questions on the exam paper, the noise-cancelling earphones to sift out the sweet music of whisky. Good luck, and 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.

Liquid gifts

A spirit of generosity

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2012 edition).

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared – page 2.

I’ve walked into the umpteenth shop only to leave again, short on ideas, long on frustration.  I’d set aside an hour of my busy day, and so far it’s taken three and counting.  It might be Father’s Day, a birthday, Christmas, or any number of other gift-giving occasions.  I just can’t seem to find that appropriate gift without a struggle.  I could resort to a voucher, or just compromise and settle on any old thing, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  It seems so callous; a gift should indicate that one cares enough to invest both money and thought (even if it’s not the case) otherwise it’s all a bit pointless.  This has been an unfortunate recurring episode in my life.  Sound familiar?  Fear not, help, such as it is, is at hand.  There is a genre of gifts that is ubiquitous and generic enough to be expedient, and yet varied and personal enough to convey a fulfilling sense of consideration.  I’m talking about fine spirits of course, the doyens of which are whisky and cognac.   I did a bit of shopping recently (sadly only of the window variety) and identified a few highlights.

Chivas Regal

Royal in both name and stature, Chivas Regal is quite likely the world’s most gifted spirit.  This iconic brand, now well over a double century in existence, has carved for itself an enviable reputation as a supreme purveyor of deluxe whisky.  Millions of people can’t be too far wrong; as a gift Chivas (pronounced shivers without the r) hits all the right notes.  It is flavoursome and interesting to the connoisseur – at the heart of the blend is Strathisla, a single malt from what is said to be the oldest continuously operating distillery in Scotland.  And it is accessible to the novice – its mild, fruity flavour is easily acquired and its pricing, at least for the entry level 12 year old (a smidgen over R200), is entirely reasonable within the premium whisky bracket.

Chivas Regal is available on our shelves as either a 12, 18 and 25 year old.  The former is being offered in a package with two complimentary whisky tumblers during special gifting occasions, and the latter two are available year-round in attractive, top-end presentation boxes.

Remy Martin Louis XIII

If cognacs were stones, this one would be a diamond.  There are some that are more expensive, others that are more popular, and others still that are decked with a brighter glitter, but nothing else possesses the same cachet, shines with the same aura, or enjoys the same acclaim as Remy Martin Louis XIII.  Verbalised by the cognoscenti as “Louis Treize” (French for 13), this brand is an enduring classic.  I’ve seen advertisers gratuitously use the term “a mark of distinction” to peddle their wares.  Remy doesn’t need do this for Louis XIII (and Remy certainly doesn’t peddle).  If ever there was a product that was a mark of distinction then this is it…but it’s an unspoken fact, simply understood where that understanding is required.

Cognac is known for its excessive, some would say over-the-top, packaging.  The Louis Treize was one of the products that blazed this trail.  It has since 1937 been bottled in a Baccarat crystal decanter that itself probably costs more than most other cognacs.  Decadent as this may seem, given that some components in the blend are over a hundred years old, it’s somehow elegantly appropriate.

Pricing is steep – expect to pay in excess of R17 000.  I would perhaps suggest that this a gift to be reserved for those held in the very highest esteem…or for those needing to be convincingly impressed.  The latter might explain why the Remy Treize, along with cognac as a whole, has become so popular in the East, where there is an entrenched gift-giving (and favour currying) culture in the working environment.

Richelieu XO Cognac

Isn’t Richelieu a brandy?  Well, as of last year, the brandy in the age-old French tradition is now offering us an age-old French tradition – cognac.    I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Richelieu XO, and I can report that it is magnificent, demonstrating complex flavours of fruit and spices and a full-bodied, silky mouth-feel.  The liquid is supplied by Richelieu’s stablemate Bisquit, but unlike their VSOP, which I find too cloying, this product manages to be both bold and restrained, each in the right place.

At circa R1600 it’s worth highlighting that it represents good value for an XO cognac.  It might just be the perfect gift for a new father – to accompany the obligatory cigars.

Michel Couvreur 1983

Here’s something one doesn’t see everyday.  Michel Couvreur has launched one of world’s only truly unique whiskies:  a 1983 vintage single cask…which is individually bottled on request.  The bottle comes inscribed with the name of the purchaser, and with the date and time of bottling.  It’s also accompanied by a certificate verifying its authenticity.  The individual bottling process means that each and every bottle will spend a different period of time in wood, and, as a result, will in theory be a different and unique whisky.

Couvreur is a whisky artisan of long standing, based in Burgundy in France, and known in particular for his highly cultivated maturation process, in which he ages Scottish new-make spirit in individually selected Solera sherry casks.  He and his small team are the remnants of an almost-forgotten golden era of whisky craftsmanship.

The Couvreur range of whiskies was launched in South Africa last year and is available in strictly limited quantities.  The 1983 retails for R4999.

Glenmorangie

Glenmorangie is one of the “maisons” in the LVMH group – the world’s largest single owner of luxury brands, and home to epic labels such Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bulgari.  One would thus expect the guys at Glenmorangie to exhibit a swaggering command when it comes to gifting.  And indeed they don’t disappoint – every year bringing out gift offers that set a benchmark for the industry.  Their latest gift-pack whilst not their best is compelling nonetheless.  It’s a beautifully designed carton containing a bottle of Glenmorangie Original, and a complimentary dinky bottle of Nectar D’Or, an expression from the brand’s pioneering extra matured range (this one specifically was finished in Sauternes casks).

Pricing is at around the R400 mark.

Class act

The poet John Lydgate once wrote: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”, a quote that was subsequently adapted by Abraham Lincoln and bastardized by all manner of people.  Whilst the sentiment may have been put into words by a poet, I’d suggest that it’s actually a law of human nature.  At some point or another, and probably with some regularity, even the best of us will succumb to it.  This applies to brands as well, which are effectively just manifestations of peoples’ ideas and actions.  In the face of such inevitability the measure of person and, more pertinently for my purpose here, of a brand, is how it reacts when it has been the cause of disappointment.

I was invited earlier this year to attend a satellite tasting which was to be hosted by Dr. Bill Lumsden.  There’s only one properly fit description for Dr. Bill – he’s a legend!  This however obviously has its drawbacks, one of which is that it places incredible demands on his time.  Dr. Bill was called away on urgent business and unfortunately was forced to cancel the tasting on short notice.  I was disappointed, along with everyone else who’d been invited I’m sure, but I wasn’t given much time to reflect on my disappointment.  A week or so later a courier pitched up at my door and delivered a package containing a bottle of Glenmorangie 18YO (signed by Dr. Bill) as well as a personal letter apologising for the cancellation.

I was blown away.  This was sheer class.  I’m already a big fan of Glenmorangie, but if ever my affinity needed affirmation, then this gesture did the trick tenfold.  Dr. Bill, may the dram be with you!

Wow!