Tag Archives: Macallan

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.


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).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

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.

A year in whisky

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

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

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

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

Glenlivet Alpha

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

Grant’s Sherry Cask Finish

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

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

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

Monkey Shoulder

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

Macallan 1824

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

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

Glen Grant Five Decades

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

A 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.

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!

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.

The whisky tasting deconstructed part 3

Wow, I’ve been so caught up by the World Cup (let’s say no more about it), by my regular work (the irksome distraction that puts bread on the table), and by my recent holiday (less irksome) that I’ve let the blogging slip.  Well I’m now breaking out of the post-vac funk.  This series on tasting was not in fact prematurely cancelled by the networks: here’s the final episode.

We left off at appearance before I meandered about somewhat gratuitously.

Next up then the nose or aroma.  In part 2 I made a strong case – or so I thought – for giving the nose its pre-eminent due.  It seems however that when it comes to my powers of persuasion a gap exists between my perception and cold reality.  My own brother – he who is flesh of my flesh, and blood of my blood – ridiculed my new whisky glasses (I can still feel the hurt 😦 ) and was generally disdainful about the whole notion of nosing.  Pretentious, he called it.  For a split second – before logic prevailed – it made me question myself: have I managed to get sufficiently far up my own arse that I’ve become one of those anoraks whom I despise?  Is nosing just the expected form for a whisky lover?  This is actually an important question to consider.  It’s easy to get caught up in ritual.  Let’s break away from whisky for a moment.  Imagine bread, freshly baked, voluptuous, just out of the oven.  A thick steaming slice is spread with rich Danish butter, which then melts into the hot bread.  You reach for a pot of ripe youngberry jam.


Freeze it there.  Now give yourself a blocked nose – you can’t smell a thing – and picture the scene again.  Hell, you might as well be eating a dog biscuit.  No, I would suggest, and most would agree I think, that nose is undisputedly important…nay, critical.  The aromas in whisky may be more subtle than those in baking, but understated charms have their own powerful appeal.  Scientists have identified multiple hundreds of distinct flavour bearing compounds in whisky.  The nose is essential to “unlocking” and enjoying these flavours.  It deserves dedicated attention.

I don’t like to oversell.  But here I’m going to chuck in a little extra – some hard-earned knowledge that I managed to prise from the internet.  Our sense of smell is derived from the olfactory bulb which is part of the brain’s limbic system, a region also closely linked with memory and emotion.  This physiological connection is the reason why smell has the ability to call up memories and emotional responses almost instantaneously.  So, on a deep and personal level aromas, or at least certain aromas to certain people, are intrinsically interesting.    The nose of my Redbreast 12yo was redolent of cut-grass and caramelised sugar.  It evoked memories of cricket games on mowed turf, of sprinting across the outfield to cut off a boundary, and of the toffee-ish crust on my Mom’s apple-bake.  Why would I or anyone else want to ignore such an evocative part of this experience?  I, we, don’t.

Those halcyon days

So how do you go about nosing a whisky thoroughly?  Do you just stick your snoot in the glass and inhale?  When it comes to whisky be prepared to be humbled.  There’s always more to learn, and sometimes it’s basic stuff.  I was recently invited to an event hosted by The Macallan – an excellent evening spent viewing fine photography and sampling even finer whisky – to which I was accompanied by my non-noseworthy brother, his wife (also unconverted), and an old friend, a local film producer of such legendary status that dropping his name would be downright gauche.  For the purposes of this post let’s call him Carson.  Carson had recently been to a tasting where he’d been prompted to open his mouth whilst nosing whisky.  I was dubious but gave it a try, and wow, what a difference it makes!  It was the equivalent of fuzzy vision suddenly being focused – everything seemed more precise, more acute, more definitive.  Cats apparently smell in this way.  There are organs in their mouths, called vomeronasal organs, that supplement their sense of smell.  These organs are also present in humans but are thought to be vestigial (i.e. like the appendix no longer serving a function).  Maybe not though.  Or maybe there’s some other simple explanation for Carson’s nosing style – Google can only get you so far.  Regardless, if you weren’t aware of this nifty little trick, give it a go – it’s easy and it works.

There are a few other “tricks” worth investigating, if you’re so inclined:

–        When you start nosing whisky, and even if you’ve been doing it for a while, you’re likely to be asking yourself whether you’re really smelling some of these subtle aromas, or whether they might be a figment of your over-exuberance.  You think that you smell something but you can’t quite put a finger on it.  Consider this: you met someone briefly years ago.  Unexpectedly you see the person whilst you’re out and about in a public space.  The face seems familiar, but you can’t place it, or associate it to a name.  This is the olfactory predicament.  Our sense of smell is the poor relative – deprioritized, often ignored, and mostly deprived of attention.  Recognition comes with repetition.  You may not remember that fleeting face in the crowd, but you won’t forget your wife’s.  It’s got to do with observation.  Smells can be observed just like sights and sounds.  Pay greater heed to aromas in daily life and it’ll enhance your ability to more readily identify these in your whisky.  To what extent will this amplify your enjoyment, if at all?  I’m not sure.  The optimal fun/work balance is different for each of us.

–        Alternate between two different, and somewhat polarized, techniques. Firstly focus on a particular reference point, i.e. a single aroma, and attempt to identify this in the nose.  This reference can be sourced from tasting notes about the whisky, from the impressions of others who may be tasting the whisky with you, or from a standardized model.  Secondly, make your mind blank and indulge in some free association.  Let your imagination loose.  There are no wrong answers.  I favour the latter because of its fun factor domination.

These tips above are of equal relevance for the taste of a whisky, but the next one is specific to the nose:

–        You now know about the cat thing, so try varying it up some more:  long draws, short sniffs, and, discreetly (I wouldn’t let my brother see me do this), block one nostril at a time.  Each iteration might give you a different perspective.

Although I’ve focused on this aspect of it, nosing isn’t just isolated to aromas.  You should also be aware of the nosing effects – the sensation on the epithelium or lining of the nose (like mouthfeel for taste) – and how these influence your personal impressions of a whisky.  One of the flavour standardization models which I have at hand labels these effects as any one of pungent, prickling, nose-warming and nose-drying.  I’m not convinced that it’s particularly necessary to get caught up in these details, but getting a gauge on the level of prickling can be useful in guiding reduction, since this can largely be attributed to the bite of the alcohol.     Add water gradually from neat until the prickling dissipates.

Moving on.  You’re now ready to toss it back.  This is where formal tastings can really get pedantic.  Let’s struggle through it.

First up you should evaluate mouthfeel.  I was given an old Glenmorangie tasting manual which provides some useful vocabulary to guide you through this process.  According to the venerable gentlemen who bring us this fine Highland malt (there are apparently sixteen of them, residing in a place called Tain) a whisky can either be mouth-coating (oily, creamy or smooth), mouth-warming (like Nando’s peri-peri mild to fiery), mouth-watering, or mouth-furring (astringent or dry).  Related – in that it influences mouthfeel – but separate is the body or texture of the whisky, ranging from light and watery to full and dense.  The aromatics have now been fully appraised and are nevertheless trapped in your mouth so feel free to roll the whisky about as if it were Listerine.

Secondly, you’re now finding yourself in the home-stretch, the taste.  Remember that it can be meaningful to taste both neat and reduced.  There are 4 primary tastes – bitter, salty, sour, and sweet – which may be present in a whisky, either individually or, more likely, in combination.  Other flavours, which you interpret as taste, are in fact aromas detected by the nasal passage at the back of your mouth.  Swallow and savour the finish, the persisting flavour of the whisky after consumption.  Does it linger long or is this whisky lingerless?   Is there an aftertaste – new nuances that were not initially evident but might appear after a second sip or after a few minutes have elapsed?

I copped some flak from smokers because on my comments in part 1.  I’m going to try to make it up to them.  You’ve now reached the point where you can sit back with a self-satisfied look on your face, light up a smoke, and consider your overall impressions of the whisky.

These ones are better for you. The tobacco equivalent of broccoli really...

I tend to focus on one aspect alone – balance.  Are the various flavours in harmony with each other or is this whisky wearing black shoes with a brown belt?  Is the taste consistent with the nose, or does it just talk the talk, but not walk the walk?  Weighty matters indeed…

Incidentally I found the Redbreast 12yo to be beautifully balanced, nimbly performing cartwheels on a tightrope.  I have tears in my eyes as I look at the dregs that are all that remain in the bottle.

On that bittersweet note I’m going to abruptly terminate this series of haphazard musings.  Enjoy the week ahead, and may the dram be with you.

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.


You may remember from a previous post that I had ordered an ice-ball mould.  Well, the waiting is over.  It finally arrived.

Made in China of course

The logic behind the ice-ball is that in theory it melts slower than an equivalent sized ice-block, because a sphere with the same volume as a block will have a lesser surface area than that block.  Hence it cools a drink without diluting it as excessively.

The Macallan, makers of great single malt, have recognized this logic and embraced the ice-ball.  Check out this press release from last year:

March 15th 2010

Raising the Bar – The Macallan Introduces the Ice Ball Serve

The ice or water debate has long remained a fiercely contested subject amongst whisky drinkers and The Macallan has thrown its hat into the ring by creating an innovative serving method expressly for those who like their whisky with ice.

Believing the perfect serve to come down to personal preference, The Macallan has pioneered the Ice Ball Serve.  It is the first real move by any whisky brand in the UK to present whisky in an innovative, contemporary fashion and open the doors to a growing adult population that regards ice as an integral part of the spirit-drinking experience.

The Ice Ball Serve is based on the Japanese tradition of serving hand-carved ice with ultra-premium spirits.  The ice ball press instantly creates a flawlessly formed sphere of ice that adds a touch of theatre and sophistication.

The Macallan’s Marketing Assistant, Pat Lee, explains the science part: “The Ice Ball Press was inspired by Japanese cocktail culture where artisans hand-carve ice balls from massive slabs to create an uninterrupted surface that cools spirits quickly and evenly.  The ice ball melts slowly to preserve the integrity of the spirit.  We have updated this process, by developing a copper press that instantly trims a block of ice into a flawless ice ball.  This, combined with our masterful single malt Scotch whisky, is The Macallan Perfect Serve.

“The Macallan’s liquid excellence is continuously defined by its unprecedented elegance and versatility. The ice ball balances these qualities. As global cocktail culture has evolved, ice has become central to the modern-day spirits experience.  With an eye on this trend, we created The Macallan Perfect Serve, to modernise the way single malt can be enjoyed and appeal to a wider range of consumers.”

In essence; The Macallan ice ball serve takes this traditional practice to the ultimate level, with a single perfect sphere of ice, a unique beautiful serve with the benefits of maximum chill with minimum dilution.

Enjoy the perfect ice-ball serve at the following bars and restaurants:



The Ritz Hotel


The Connaught Bar, The Connaught Hotel, London

The Dorchester Hotel, London


50 St. James

Milk & Honey

It might have been a better idea to focus this initiative on warmer climes, the blink-and-it’s-gone British summer doesn’t count, but credit to them nonetheless.  Many brand owners’ marketing efforts are so focused on advertising, point of sale, packaging, and whatnot, that product aside there’s sometimes little attention paid to the consumer’s drinking experience.

So, having waited for a while, I was quite excited to ball some ice, and I hastily pressed my mould into service.  I had no Japanese whisky at hand so I called on an Abelour 10yo, knowing it would not let me down.  With the ice-ball in the glass and ready I tossed in whisky and water, let rip with the prescribed 13 and half stirs, and hey presto a mizuwari was born.

The mystical ice-ball

Vigorous but precision stirring required

I’m not an ice man (more a Maverick…sorry couldn’t resist) and yesterday evening wasn’t particularly warm, so this was never going to be my preferred format for drinking, or should I say appreciating, a whisky.  But it is a pleasant enough drink…hey it’s water and ice with a bit of fanfare and a fancy name.

I can’t comment on the efficacy of the ice-ball.  The theory’s appealing, but the difference in degree of dilution is probably quite subtle in practice.  I’ll have to repeat the experiment with two drinks at the same time, one balled one blocked.  I’ll say one thing though, whilst the mould is a great cheap alternative, I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on a Macallan-type ice-ball press.  Check it out here…with some sales patter thrown in.