Tag Archives: Johnnie Walker

Treats from the top shelf

PATRICK LECLEZIO recommends five fine whiskies to accompany the festive season’s feasting.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2016 Best of the Best edition).

The end of another year looms, so reassuringly close now.  We’re in the final straight, the finish line in sight and beckoning. There’s something about this period that’s exciting, in such a deep-seated sense that it’s more physiological than cerebral – a simmering exhilaration that gets you deep in the gut.   It’s a time to devote undistracted quality time to friends and family, to step away from the frantic pace of modern life, and to reward yourself for some sustained hard toil.  It’s that once a year culmination – and it should be fittingly anointed.   If there is ever a time to spoil yourself then this is it.  Life is short, this end-of-term hiatus even shorter; these are moments to be seized and savoured to within an inch of their existence.   In whisky terms – and revelling’s not revelling without great whisky – it’s the moment to let loose with the lucre, to drink something a little more special, to embrace some celebratory catalysts for sharing time with your favourite people.   Here are my five picks to fire the flame of your festive season.

Irish – Midleton Barry Crockett

It’s only recently that Irish Distillers renewed the Single Pot Still style, beefing up what had been – given its spectacular attributes – a criminally sparse offering.  The new range is still limited but it’ll get you on enthusiastically and it’ll keep you riding indefinitely.  Redbreast, the “Spots”, Power’s – these are heralds enough to convince us emphatically that this style is the equal of single malt, but for all their worth they are blunt instruments in comparison to the Barry Crockett, a whiskey of such subtlety and refinement as to leave you in awe.   Using an uncommon combination of both ex-bourbon and new casks, the Midleton distillery has a created an uncommon whiskey indeed.   I’m a sceptic when it comes to NAS whiskies, but this one honours all the justifications that are spouted on the subject.  There isn’t any indication of immaturity; the younger whiskies used in these vattings contribute to and complement the array within with no detraction whatsoever – and what an array it is!  It’s something you’ll have to keep revisiting: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, orchard fruitiness, and tangy candy the next, new twists layer after layer.  Drink it in slow reflection of a year well spent.

Unpeated Single Malt – Bruichladdich Black Art 1990 edition 04.1

Great whiskies can grow on you gradually, or they can announce themselves immediately.  Black Art is unequivocally amongst the latter.  I came upon an earlier edition some three to four years ago at a whisky show, with no prior knowledge of it whatsoever.  There was no fuss.  I thought it was just another release from a distillery known for its prolific experimentation.  Until I tasted it.  It rocked me where I stood.  The universe suddenly came into focus – I kid you not.  I felt like I had unearthed genius, if you’ll allow me to be a bit liberal.  I’ve since sought out subsequent editions at every opportunity.  There is something particularly special about a series, whether it be vintages or editions.  You know what you’re getting in broad terms but each is a little different, carving out new nooks and crannies to explore, and offering fresh surprises to keep things interesting.   The wood profile is top secret – we’re told that there’s American oak and French oak (seasoned by “premium wine”) involved, but that could mean many things.  There’s no point hypothesising – it’s a sideshow.   The cascade of fruits, the hints of spice, the honey, toffee, chocolate and molasses, gather and swell into a sensational deluge of flavour that’ll keep you riveted from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day and well beyond.

Peated single malt – Bowmore 15YO Darkest

I first experienced the Darkest sitting at the magnificent bar at Bowmore (my first stop on the island) looking out over the bay under a brooding sky.  Classic Islay.  It may have coloured my perceptions at the time:  how could you not enjoy the place’s peated whiskies with that weight of geography and heritage and atmosphere weighing upon you?  Well, after many further stops, with the passage of the years, and with a few other bites at the cherry since I’ll admit, the Darkest still lives large if not largest in my memory.  This is Islay as it should be – at least for my taste.  The unmistakeable smokiness is there, but it knows its place: as an equal not an oppressor.  The result is a rich and beautifully calibrated whisky – drifting, briny smoke with a balancing scale of raisins and dark, dried fruits, and butterscotch sweetness.  I can’t think of a better whisky with which to conclude the season’s typically banquetlike meals.

Blended – Johnnie Walker Platinum Label

Johnnie Walker has its place and purpose, but on the whole I find its range of blends to be obvious, and somewhat overstated (appealing for many).   The Platinum is an exception.   It’s bold and big, yes, but there’s also a depth to be plumbed.  Candied cherries, nutty granola, and vanilla dance amongst dark chocolate crumbles and sparks of citrus and spice, with a fine smokiness, the traditional Scotch signature, playing a mellow music in the background.  There aren’t too many blended whiskies of this class and complexity on our local market – so I’d consider Platinum a get-in-the-festive-mood go-to:  something to “session” as you clink crystal tumblers with old mates, and regale each other with the highlights of your year.

South African – Three Ships 15YO Pinotage finish

I’m referencing this one as local, but let there be no misconception – this is a whisky that stands down to no other.  It is quite simply world class.  I was lucky enough to delve into some Pinotage experiments at the distillery about two to three years ago, and both the concept and the liquids intrigued and encouraged me hugely.  They spoke of a day when “we” would make a truly South African whisky, so both in provenance and style, and a truly great one to boot.  That day has now come.  The whisky that has materialised is full and well balanced, with fruits, sweet spice, dusted nougat, and mineral loaminess appearing and then disappearing like well-choreographed actors on a stage.  There’s peat smoke too, flitting around the edges of tongue and palate, clearly polished by a decade and half in wood, but still in burnished evidence.  Spend some time with this one.  It reveals more and more as you nurture it, the wine only showing itself directly to me when I nosed my emptied glass.  The whisky was finished in twelve Pinotage barrels for about two years, which makes it unusual in two senses: it’s the only mainstream (if not the only, period) release to have used this type of cask, and it’s one of a very few blended whiskies to have been either double matured or finished – so I’ll suggest that it’s a blend that’s been crafted with a level of attention, care and passion typically afforded only to single malts.  You’ll note from the number of casks I mentioned that supply is finite; only 3500 bottles are available, so don’t dawdle.   Stake your claim to a piece of whisky history whilst you can.

prestige-december-2016-whisky-p1

As it appeared – p1.

prestige-december-2016-whisky-v2

As it appeared – p2.

Meeting your match

I love whisky events – I get to drink interesting whiskies, with my whisky friends, whilst learning a little more about whisky. They tend to occur at cool venues, serving delicious food and playing great music, and usually I’ll leave at the end of these things with an enhanced ability to write meaningfully about whisky and the goings-on in whisky. What’s not to love? Some are better than others of course but on the whole – nothing. Okay okay, push me and I’ll reluctantly admit that many (the majority – tastings excepted) follow a formula of favouring style over substance, enjoyment over education if you will, form over function if I must.
It was refreshing thus, upon accepting an invitation to the launch of Johnnie Walker’s (JW) online profiler, to see that emphasis reversed. Not that this wasn’t fun – it was, but there was a real intent here to impart something more.
JW has for some years now been tilting its “king of flavour” platform. This ostensibly intrinsics-centric approach is sometimes communicated in a somewhat extrinsics-centric manner and could be considered at odds with JW’s other glitzy activities, but there can be no arguing its relevance. To you the whisky lover flavour should be the single most important feature to seek out in a whisky. Do you like it, and if so, what is it about it that you like? The online profiler attempts to answer these questions for you, albeit within the narrow confines of the JW universe.
I was treated to a somewhat upweighted experience – although the general principles are the same as the one you’d find online. It works like this: one is tasked to select two preferred aromas and two preferred tastes (online it’s three) from a wide-ish range of each. My real-life version provided small vials for nosing and small morsels for tasting, whilst online these selections need to made conceptually. An algorithm then processes the selections to determine a match to one of the JW whiskies. There’s also a choice of “vibe” in the form of a music snippet (online you’ll be asked for mood, setting and serving) but I was told that this makes little to no difference to the outcome.

Intriguing.

Intriguing.

So does this really work? Is the result valid? My match was JW Black Label, which I’d be hard-pressed to agree as my favourite whisky in the JW range; not necessarily a failing on the part of the profiler I guess; its output can only be as good as my inputs, and these types of preferences, for me at least, are not definitive in isolation. Do I prefer the taste of figs or cherries, or the aroma of oak or cut wood in whisky? It’s really impossible to say. I’m as likely to prefer one whisky’s manifestation of fig as I am another’s of cherry. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
I was struck by a few other concerns. A brand promotion is and should be self-serving by definition, but this facet of it can sometimes be achieved better indirectly. I would have been more grateful to JW for a steer beyond its own products and into the wider world of whisky, but maybe this is something for the next generation profiler. It can also be frustrating (rather than aspirational) to be matched to something that’s beyond your budget – yet there’s nothing to guard against this eventuality.
Where does that leave us? In the real world I suppose – where nothing is perfect. The profiler may not be pin-point precise, and it may have some minor drawbacks, but don’t let this put you off. It is pioneering tool – a great, genuinely value-adding effort, and hopefully the first foray of many, at solving the problem of how to make a whisky purchase decision that’s right for you. Give it a spin at www.meetyourmatchsa.co.za, and may the (right) dram be with you.

Walking tall

A few months ago I interviewed Taygan Govinden, the South African brand manager for Johnnie Walker.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Note: Apologies on behalf of Prestige Magazine for the spelling error in the sub-title of the printed version.

PL: Locally you’re the man at the wheel of the world’s biggest whisky brand.  Tell us a bit about yourself.

TG: I’m Durban born and bred but I’ve also lived and worked in the UK and now I’m based in Cape Town.  My background is in analytics, which I think has stood me in good stead for what I’m doing now.  I’m a big cricket fan, and I enjoy sports in general.  Basically I’d describe myself in a nutshell as a passionately South African guy with strong family values.

PL: Johnnie Walker sold 18 million cases in 2011, leaving its rivals trailing by quite some distance.  The brand seems to be living its legend – keep walking indeed.  What’s the secret to its phenomenal success?

TG: The brand has a pioneering spirit that drives us to innovate as we respond and adapt to our changing consumer preferences.  Our heritage is based on the history and tradition of crafting big flavoured whiskies.

PL: The launch of Platinum Label forms part of some wider changes to the core portfolio.  Can you elaborate on what’s been involved?

TG: We’ve introduced two new variants – Platinum Label and Gold Label Reserve.  At the same time we’re gradually phasing out the old Gold and Green Labels.  We are committed to ensuring that our full range of whiskies meet both existing consumer demand and further positions us to fully realise the evolving consumer opportunities of today and tomorrow.  We believe that these changes will allow us to optimally realise these objectives.

PL: Whilst it’s still dwarfed by Blended whisky, Malt is on the rise.  Last year Glenfiddich became the first single malt to sell a million cases.  Green Label itself is the world’s fifth best-selling Malt whisky.  So it might be seen as somewhat curious – in an era showing early signs of an increasing appreciation for Malt whisky – that this variant should be discontinued.  Can you give us some insights into the rationale for this decision?

TG: We are evolving our range to meet existing consumer needs and build on our heritage of innovation of crafting flavours for contemporary tastes. The success we have seen with Gold Label Reserve in the Asian market gives us confidence that this variant offers a more compelling choice for our market.

PL: Will you be launching the Gold Label Reserve in South Africa?  If so, can you give us a sneak peek?

TG: Yes, we’re launching it locally in November. Our consumers can look forward to a blend of premium Scotch whiskies delivering a perfectly mixable whisky with a very smooth taste.

PL: Platinum Label replaces Gold Label, which will now be phased out.  What is the difference between the two?

TG: Platinum Label is an entirely new offering and not a reinterpretation of Gold Label.  It is crafted from the very best 18 year-old Scotch Whiskies with a new, distinct flavour profile.  While Gold Label is delicate and creamy, Platinum Label reflects a strong, sweet and elegant Speyside style with subtle smokiness, stewed fruit, malty cereal, smooth creamy vanilla, and tangerine sweetness.

PL: I recently passed through a duty-free store and I couldn’t help but notice that the price of Platinum Label is some 44% higher than Gold Label.   They’re both 18YO and I would imagine that Gold Label contains high-quality, well-aged whiskies.  What’s the basis for Platinum Label’s relatively more premium pricing?

TG: It should be priced at a 10% to 20% premium locally.  Platinum Label is a completely different whisky to Gold Label and so they should not be compared. The age statement is the only link between these two whiskies.

PL: What will be Platinum Label’s recommended retail pricing in South Africa?

TG: R999.99

Dear, dear drams

No, I’m not expressing affection for my favourite drink.  I’m reflecting on whether I can afford to part with a few limbs to enjoy it, because some whiskies really do cost an arm and a leg.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the Best edition 2012).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I’ve always found the free market to be a wonderful concept.  Left to their own devices the complex forces that govern economics will invariably find equilibrium – a phenomenon which Adam Smith, one of the fathers of economic theory, articulated as the “invisible hand”.  In my Darwinian view of the world this idea resonates with the natural order of things – it just seems right.  But is it really?  This order has manifested itself in the whisky sphere in recent times in the guise of booming demand interacting with sparse supply, and it has led to situation of spiralling prices…an outcome that is apparently without limits.  By the time this column is published a bottle of whisky would have gone on sale on our shores for the heart-stopping price of R1.4 million.

This might potentially be a new high for South Africa (it needs to sell first), but the trend towards extravagantly priced whisky is well established.  Globally the oldest and rarest whiskies from the most prestigious brands, Macallan, Glenfiddich, Dalmore and others, have been commanding millions (of Rands) for some time.  Right here the Balvenie 50YO very recently sold for R230,000, joining a handful of bottles to clear the R100 000 mark on the local market.  Even for whisky lovers like myself, for those of us who truly do appreciate the value of great whisky, these numbers are absolutely staggering, almost perverse.  We could just shrug our shoulders, dismiss the matter and carry on with our lives; and at the end of the day that’s exactly what we’ll have to do – after all there’s enough good whisky priced on reasonable enough scales to cater for most people – but it’s worth giving it a little bit of thought and asking a few questions nonetheless.

First though a little bit about the whisky with the golden, nay diamond, price tag: the Diamond Jubilee Blended Scotch Whisky by John Walker & Sons.  This is the same house that produces Johnnie Walker, the world’s best-selling brand of whisky, but somewhat confusingly, they’ve corralled some of their premium whiskies under a separate trademark.  For all intents and purposes though this is a Johnnie Walker whisky.  It was inspired by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, an auspicious occasion no doubt for those interested in that type of thing, but also a bandwagon for limited edition products of every stripe.  Regardless of whether the hallmark has been devalued by this stampede, the John Walker version stands out as the remarkable product that it is.  It’s a blend, as the name suggests, not a single-malt, which I found surprising for a whisky at this price level.  But perhaps I should question myself?  Many whisky producers are at pains to put out the message to that blends can be every bit as good as single malts.  This is probably self-serving, but I tend to agree, especially on an intrinsic basis.  Anyhow, the product comes with various jubilee cute-isms – all components are vintage whiskies from the same year as the Queen’s coronation, the marrying casks are made from oak from the Queen’s estates, the diamond-shaped decanter stands on six legs (one for each decade of the Queen’s rule), and bottling was effected exactly sixty years to the day from that of the Queen’s accession – and a long collection of accoutrements of which I’ll just list a few highlights – a silver decanter collar set with a half-carat diamond (the decanter itself being de rigueur Baccarat), a pair of bespoke lead crystal tumblers hand engraved with wildlife scenes from the Queen’s estates, and a cabinet made from oak from the same harvest and source as the marrying casks, as well as special timbers drawn from around the Commonwealth.  It goes beyond mere product – it is an objet d’art.  Indeed this is probably the one advantage of the elevated cost of such whiskies: it creates an opportunity to do something particularly special and imaginative with the packaging.  The Balvenie 50YO is notably accommodated in a cylindrical box made of 49 rings of seven Scottish grown timbers.

Impressed?  I am.  But the questions won’t go away.  I asked this one of various whisky creators:  Premium whisky has become so expensive that many of the oldest and rarest whiskies are completely out of reach for the average whisky lover.  Some of the pricing seems completely overblown and markedly unrelated to the cost of creating the whisky.  It could be argued that the industry is exploiting the current market dynamics to harvest excessive profits at the expense of its genuine, long-term, loyal consumers.  How would you answer such a claim?  The response that most struck a chord for me came from David Stewart of Balvenie who commented as follows: “I’m not involved in pricing but premium whisky has always been an expensive item, appreciated by few”.  Fair or not depending on how one might choose to interpret the word “appreciated”.

I personally don’t begrudge the situation.  The finer things in life, be they whisky or anything else, cost money, and, generally, are only available to a minority.  This is the natural order.  And it makes the moment of consumption – anticipated, hard-earned (in most cases), and long awaited – all the more special.  The lingering regret for me is that many of these types of whiskies are bought for collections or as investments.  There is a high probability that they might never be drunk.  This means that many of the ostensibly finest whiskies in the world are destined to remain locked in glass in perpetuity.  The John Walker Diamond Jubilee is sold with a 10cl taster bottle, but most of these won’t be opened either I would think because it’ll potentially reduce the value of the investment.  On that rather sad note – may the dram (make it a special one for the festive season) be with you!

What to do at 30 000 feet

Get yourself one of those dinky bottles, take a sip, sit back and read my article in the October edition of British Airways’ High Life magazine.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared – p2.

May the draaam be with you!

Stocking up for spring – part 1

The new serving standard

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2012 Edition).

As it appeared – page 1

As it appeared – page 2

Premium.  It’s the watchword of our times.  The online Oxford defines it as: “relating to or denoting a commodity of superior quality and therefore a higher price”.  I’ve simplified it to: “relatively extra” – specifications, quality, prestige…any or all of that good stuff.  Everybody wants premium.  And why not?  Life is too short to settle for less.

Whisky is no exception; in fact it’s the epitome of this phenomenon.  In the whisky world expensive, lavishly-packaged variants are being introduced on a weekly basis.  Older, better, more!  It’s exciting but also a little bit intimidating, because the bar (yes, I like my puns) is being set progressively higher.  For instance, it no longer seems enough, in a well-to-do home, to serve visitors the regular fare – a 12YO blended Scotch, the first step to premium, is the new minimum standard.

To properly appreciate this new game, and to make the most of it, one needs become familiar with the players.  This may be particularly relevant right now as we come out of winter hibernation, look to refill our liquor cabinets, and start entertaining afresh.  In the not-so-distant South African past, although there were others lurking about, the choice invariably came down to a straight contest between Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal 12YO.  One either preferred the huskiness of the former or the honeyed flavour of the latter (or, in many cases I’m sure, one just bought premium for premium’s sake).  No longer.  Whilst these two stalwarts still dominate the market, the repertoire of easily accessible options has expanded quite delightfully.

I recently sought out a few of Cape Town’s whisky luminaries and prompted them to gather at the Bascule, the city’s whisky HQ, to review the local pool of 12YO blended Scotch.  In the midst of some typical whisky-fuelled R&R (repartee and revelry) we somehow managed to string together a few coherent observations, précised below for your reading pleasure.  Enjoy, and may the dram be with you!

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Johnnie Walker is the world’s best-selling whisky.  Diageo, its owner, is much maligned in the whisky world, but one thing is clear enough: it takes nothing less than high-quality, highly consistent whisky to attain and maintain such lofty heights.  I found the nose somewhat brash, but if subtlety’s not the result then it’s not the objective either.  Rather, this is a bold and tasty mainstream whisky that hits each and every place on the Scotch trifecta – malt, peat, and sherry – and hits it hard.  And if you’re a young turk with a big swinging dick looking to make your mark in the world then there’s still no better way to announce your intent than by walking into a bar and calling for a Johnnie Black, yeah baby!

Chivas Regal

If Johnnie Walker is Scotch then Chivas is Speyside…in all of its debonair elegance.  In very broad terms the region has become known for the fruit and honey flavours which happen to be prominent in Chivas Regal.  The whisky’s official tasting notes also claim a slight smokiness, but this was beyond my ability to identify.  Perhaps it comes from char as opposed to peat.  Regardless, it’s not important.  Chivas is not about smoke, or anything so robust.  It is understated refinement personified.  Interestingly one of our party noted that this is not a distinctively whiskied whisky – apparance of its cereal origins is restrained, and dominated by sherry notes.  Indeed to a novice it might be difficult to distinguish from a similarly aged cognac or rum.  I’d perhaps venture to suggest that this is a whisky for all seasons.

Grant’s 12YO

This new kid on the block comes from a pedigreed background.  It’s a blend in which we can assume the famous Glenfiddich and Balvenie malts, emanating from the same hallowed stable, to be at the forefront.   Sadly for this fine whisky my attention was diverted by a claim which seems rather forced: “Grant’s 12 Year Old is the only blended Scotch whisky to ‘marry’ the finest 12 Year Old grain and single malt whiskies for six months after blending in bourbon casks”.  Technically this may be true, but it’s not quite as impressive as it sounds.  Dewar’s (and W&M) has a long tradition of marrying whisky, albeit in sherry casks, and one of the variants of the local Three Ships, albeit not a Scotch, is married in bourbon casks.  The good news – for peat freaks in particular – is that Grant’s is the smokiest whisky in this category.  Phenol-menal!  Kudos too on the best packaging amongst the lot.

Ballantine’s 12YO

The regular Ballantine’s is my favourite blended Scotch in its price category.  It reminds me of my time in Rome when I spent many an evening pondering the spectacular sights, glass in hand.  And big brother does not disappoint.  A flavoursome and interesting all-rounder – my personal runner-up.

J&B Jet

Jet’s mild flavours won’t start a party in your mouth; rather this is a whisky that’s ideal for newer initiates, and for occasions when fuller flavours might be distracting.  Fresh but not vivid – perfect as an aperitif on a spring evening.

Dewar’s 12YO

I’ve kept the best for last – and that’s not just my opinion.  Each of the heavyweights at our gathering concurred, with no hesitation whatsoever.  This whisky is magnificently integrated – it displays superb balance not only amongst it complex flavours, but also between nose, palate and finish – and is completed by a smooth, silky mouth-feel.  Hugely underrated.

Big thanks to Hector McBeth, Marsh Middleton and Bernard Gutman.

12YO blended Scotch preview

Whisky – if you’ll excuse this statement of the obvious – has been premiumising steadily in recent years.  New, expensive, lavishly packaged variants are being introduced on a weekly basis.  Older, better, more!  It’s exciting but also a little bit intimidating.  The bar is being set higher and higher, with direct impact on our daily lives.  As an example – it no longer seems enough to offer one’s guests the regular stuff.  Perhaps this is just my peculiar point of view, but I suspect that it rings true for many of us.  A 12YO blend seems to be the new minimum standard.

For this reason I’m embarking on a review of the major 12YO blended Scotches available on the South African market.  If this is the new game then I reckon someone should be carefully checking out the players and sizing them up against each other.

I’m kicking off the review with a tasting – for which I’ve enlisted some of Cape Town’s whisky luminaries to assist.  Marsh Middleton, Bernard Gutman, and Hector MacBeth will be joining me at the Bascule tonight to sample the following whiskies:

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Chivas Regal

Ballantine’s 12YO

Dewar’s 12YO

J&B Jet

Grant’s 12YO

One of the whiskies we’ll be tasting.

If you happen to be in the area please join us for a dram and a chat.  There’s nothing better than whisky and good company – generally but particularly on a miserable, stormy day like this one.

The review will be published in the September issue of Prestige Magazine, and then on this blog later in September.

May the dram be with you!