Tag Archives: Highland Park

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).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

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.

A nosing with Gordon Motion

Every now and again life treats you to a glorious surprise.  I was privileged during a recent visit to The Edrington Group’s head office in Glasgow to get to meet Gordon Motion and to be invited into his sample room for a nosing session.

Gordon amidst the tools of his trade,

Gordon amidst the tools of his trade.

This was my first foray into a Master Blender’s domain, so I was a little uncertain about what to expect beyond the obvious.  It proved to be a sensory feast.   I was told that the space was a re-creation of the sample room from their bygone offices of a bygone era – and indeed it exuded the old-style elegance of a Victorian library…that had substituted bottles for books.

Wood panelled splendour.

Wood panelled splendour.

Whilst the aesthetics were undeniably appealing and worth a linger, the focus soon shifted from the visual to the olfactory.   We nosed a variety of samples – those that happened to be on Gordon’s menu of tasks for the day – including new make spirit from North British, the grain distillery jointly owned by Edrington and Diageo, and Ruadh Maor, a peated Glenturret intended for Black Grouse.  It was particularly interesting to learn (or to be reminded, I had an inkling of it) that North British is the only grain distillery in Scotland using (more expensive) maize rather than wheat in its mashbill – the purpose being to achieve a buttery flavour and mouthfeel (similar to that of Bourbon).

Grain of a different sort.

Grain of a different sort.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the experience though was the opportunity to nose the same original spirit of equivalent age from various different casks.  The massive influence of wood on the character of whisky doesn’t really need reinforcement, but in this case there was an added twist.  People often refer to European casks and Sherry casks interchangeably, as if they were the same thing.  The wood from which the cask was made, and the liquid which seasoned the cask are two different elements, and it’s worth bearing in mind that each makes distinct contributions to flavour.  Whilst most Sherry casks are made from European oak, this is not a universal rule; Edrington in particular has been seasoning American white oak casks with Sherry, and consequently producing whisky with a different category of flavour.  If I ever had any doubts about the scale of this variation they were quickly dispensed by the nosing, conducted side-by-side with a traditional Sherry cask sample (and a Bourbon cask sample for good measure).

The wood factor.

The wood factor.

I’ve always been a Macallan and a Highland Park fan.  The whiskies are sensational of course, but that’s just part of it; I generally like the way they go about their business.   You might have noticed, tangentially, that almost every whisky drinking moment in an influential movie or television series seems to involve a Macallan – not by random chance I’ll warrant.  These guys are a class act, and this visit served to confirm my impressions.

Winter whisky specials

This message went out to the WHISKYdotcoza database today.  Ignore if you’re not interested in a commercial punt.

Winter is upon us.  If you’re anything like me then you’re probably enjoying a dram or three to fight back the cold.  In this regard WHISKYdotcoza is offering a little bit of winter cheer.

We’ve teamed up with Macallan and Highland Park to bring you these special offers:

These promotions will be open for the next two months, but be warned that stock is limited.  It’s strictly first-come, first served.

Note too that WHISKYdotcoza has secured some stock of the Glenfiddich Age of Discovery Madeira Cask 19YO.  The South African allocation is limited, so if this is something that strikes your fancy don’t delay in getting yourself a bottle.  The numbers are too small to place the product on the site so please contact us at info@whisky.co.za to order.  Price is R1099.

We’ve also been informed by the local suppliers of Laphroaig that there’s a global shortage of the 10YO.  It’s currently out of stock – there’ll be limited stock arriving next month and then no further availability for the rest of the year.  Same deal as above – if this is your bag then get an advance order in to us at soonest convenience.

Until next time – keep well and may the dram be with you!

Out and about with whisky

The Hong Kong episode

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2012 edition)

As it appeared.

There is little that’s quite as interesting for a whisky lover as a whisky excursion, whether it’s in the immediate locale, or somewhere a bit more far-flung.  Out there is a whisky world teeming with possibilities: there are maltings, distilleries, maturation warehouses, cooperages, bottlers, heritage centres, speciality shops, and bars aplenty, all waiting to be visited and explored.  I’ve tasked myself to get out and about and report back on my findings in a series of intermittent episodes, of which this, a bar tour, is the first.   It’s a tough slog of a job I know, but someone has to do it and it may as well be me.

Almost everyone it seems is travelling east these days.  China became South Africa’s leading trade partner in 2009, and its importance to our economy will almost certainly continue to grow in the future.  Despite this situation, it’s near impossible to fly there direct.  There are infrequent flights from Joburg to Beijing, but failing this somewhat impractical option one would likely be flying via the former British enclaves of Hong Kong or Singapore (subject of the next episode); and, finding oneself in either of these vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, one might be tempted to hang around for a bit.  So peripatetic whisky lovers – take note.  Here’s what one needs to know about Hong Kong.

Prince Charles was quoted as saying that Hong Kong has created one of the most successful societies on Earth.  If his opinion is valid then it would stand to reason, by my standards anyhow, that a whisky culture should be prominent.  And true it proved to be.  After a spot of preliminary research on the city’s whisky scene, and a predictably overpriced dinner in the mildly loutish Lan Kwai Fong, the famous party district, I set out to visit the two places at the top of my list: Angel’s Share and The Chinnery.

The most striking feature of Angel’s Share, dominating the entrance to the bar, is a large cask…sufficient to set the heart of any whisky lover aflutter.  My immediate impression was that this might be a “live” cask, an exciting thought.  Imagine drinking a theoretically different whisky every time one ordered from the cask!   Most distilleries however do not sell casks lock, stock, and…uh…barrel to the retail trade, and legislation now prevents single malts or single casks from being bottled outside of Scotland and effectively from being dispensed out of anything other than a bottle, so this was unlikely.  And indeed Eric Wan, my genial host, confirmed that the cask was a replica, and that its inner surface was lined with a metal membrane.  The illusion persisted nonetheless and I thoroughly enjoyed the undisputedly authentic ritual of being served from the cask – a heavy dram of Highland Park 1997 vintage having been drawn for me with a valinch*.

I would be doing the venue a disservice though if I were to fixate exclusively on the cask.  This is the ideal place to enjoy a superb evening of whisky appreciation and casual conversation – it is all dim-lit, intimate-nooked, and leather sofa’d elegance.  Whilst the brash whisky-drinking classes emerging in the Mainland might be quaffing the golden nectar with green tea (shudder), the clientele here is rather more refined and sophisticated.  Hong Kong after all has always been, and remains, the leading edge of the wedge.  The menu is somewhat modest by upper-tier whisky bar standards, but with a selection of 150 odd distinct whiskies, it is ample regardless.  I spotted a Macallan 1936 at HK$ 1240 (about the same in Rands) for a 30ml serving.  Perhaps when my ship comes in….

Eric twisted my rubber arm and had me linger longer over a glass of the excellent Laddie 17YO, his favourite of the moment.  This was my first rum-casked whisky, and its big exotic fruit flavours were well worth the wait.  Eventually however I reluctantly dragged myself away and hurried over to The Chinnery.  They hadn’t responded (in time) to my request for an appointment but I thought I’d just pitch up anyhow.  I arrived just before midnight only to encounter a massive disappointment – the place had closed for the evening.   The Chinnery has a laudable reputation, and I’m sure that it’s spectacular, but I have to ask: what kind of whisky bar closes at 11pm on a Saturday evening?  Especially in Hong Kong.  I’ll have to wait for my next visit to get an answer.

As my train headed over the horizon and my leaving became palpable I felt my spirits buoyed by this visit to a very special bar in this very special town.  If in the vicinity be sure to follow suit.  May the dram be with you!

*Valinch – A tube-like instrument used for drawing liquor from a cask via its bunghole.

Fireside chat with Highland Park

One of my most picture perfect whisky memories dates to some 10 years ago. The setting was Shamwari at sunset, the awe of bushveld at its most inspiring. I wish I could claim to be a regular visitor to this magnificent game reserve, but alas my sheckles are too few in number, and my distribution thereof too retrained. I was there on the company dime, and alert to the knowledge that I might not be returning in a hurry, so I was particularly intent on savouring the experience. We had finished a game drive, and had stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, surrounded by big sky, bush to the horizons, the quiet noise of the wild, and the biting cold of the veld at evening. I sipped on a dram of Chivas next to a roaring fire, contemplated Africa, and wondered if this was how Livingstone must have felt. Ok, admittedly the adjacent Land Rovers and the proximity of a 5-star lodge probably separated our perspectives somewhat. Some may also contend that the Eastern Cape hardly qualifies – can an area so close to Slummies really be considered to be genuine African bushveld? But still, the moment felt huge, and the whisky tasted sweeter than ever.

Shamwari sunset

I’m reminded of it whenever I enjoy a whisky by the fire, which is a bit of a stretch I grant you, but that’s just how the mind works…well mine anyhow. Recently, on a glacial peninsula evening, having put my fireplace to good use, I decided to unleash a bottle of Highland Park 12yo. This wasn’t done lightly, not because it’s expensive or rare, but rather because it’s a whisky that deserves to be shown respect. In my opinion it should only be drunk in the right setting, and if you’re in the right frame of mind – unrushed, relaxed – to appreciate it fully, otherwise it would be a waste. I sat myself down, the toasty glow of the fire at my back and the spirit of the bush in my heart, and I put the golden liquid to my lips.

HP next to the fire - a winning combination

I should declare at this point that I’m a big fan of the Edrington Group, owners of Highland Park and also of Macallan and Famous Grouse. I like their whisky making ethic – I’m particularly partial to a strong sherry wood influence and these guys are the doyens of sherried whisky. I also fondly remember tasting Highland Park for the first time with good friends in London some 5 years ago, so the brand has a certain sentimental value for me. My review as a result may be somewhat emotive, and so it should be I think. Whisky is beyond the purely clinical.

Highland Park is a bit of an iconic brand of whisky, holding the somewhat romantic status of being the northern-most distillery in Scotland. It is located on the Orkney Islands, and the local peat has a pronounced influence on the flavour of this whisky. I’ve mentioned before that whilst I can appreciate an Islay malt I’m not peat-freak. The gentler, honeyed smoke of the Orkney variety as evidenced in Highland Park is more to my taste. Intermingled with the smoke are elements of wispy heather, oaky malt, sweet honey, and, whilst I believe recent bottlings have been upweighted with American wood, a prevailing dense, dried fruit, sherry presence nonetheless. These elements are all beautifully balanced – picture identical twins on a see-saw, one giving way to the other but returning in between to a perfect equilibrium (btw, for best effect imagine twins that look like Scarlett Johanssen, that’s what I’m doing).

I don’t believe in quantitative ratings, and I’ll never make claim to a “favourite” whisky, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out, nay emphasise, that this is one damned good whisky. As Jim Morrisson said (sort of) – get some and it’ll do the rest.

Wrap party at Pepénero Restaurant

Last night saw the WHISKYdotcoza site wrap party take place.  There’s still some information to chase up from errant suppliers, and a few final tweaks to be made, but we’re almost there.  The opening bell is about to sound.  Let the trading begin…soon.

I sneaked in a quiet one before the festivities began

Our event was held at Pepénero in Mouille Point – a venue that I frequent regularly, and so do many other Capetonians it seems; Wednesday night and the place was packed to capacity.  We chose it for the party because it’s a great place to drink whisky.  For starters there’s a meaty selection of whiskies, as one would expect because it’s owned by the scion of one of the doyens of the local liquor industry.  The bar area is atmospheric – featuring an opulent décor style (which extends to the restaurant), large comfortable leather couches,  and a massive travertine bar counter, which is just perfect for propping up whisky-sipping barflies.  Take a bow Paul Kovensky.

I asked to bring in my own whiskies – their selection is wide, but by no means exhaustive – which they graciously allowed, so we worked our way through bottles of Macallan 12yo Sherry Oak and Highland Park 12yo, a taste journey starting from preserves and working its way to soft smoke.  I appreciate Islay malts once in a while, but I’m by no means a peat-freak, and this Highland Park is just right; enough peat into which to sink your teeth, but not so much that it clobbers you over the head.   Awesome stuff!

On the culinary front the restaurant was as reliable as always.  They have a fairly broad menu, but I find myself gravitating to their sushi more often than not.  It’s delicious and reasonably-priced, a winning combination in my books.  I like my sushi with strong wasabi, and too often restaurants don’t get this right.  Pepénero’s wasabi takes no prisoners – it sits up and punches you in the nose.

On the whole a great evening with our web designers and friends from Milk, who have done an amazing job.  Whisky, good company, and a great setting…what more is there?

Happy Easter everyone.  May the dram be with you.