Tag Archives: Prestige Magazine

To your health!

It may seem counter-intuitive to some, but drinking spirits is good for you. Patrick Leclezio ponders the blessings of booze.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

During my adolescence one of my household tasks was to serve my father his daily libation.  This may have been the source of my affinity for whisky.  Back then however any such tendencies, if indeed they had been imbedded, were dormant.  I had no inclination to drink any alcohol, much less spirits (such were the misguided delusions of my youth).   I remember, as we went through the ritual, that he’d often attempt to instil in me the sentiment that a regular whisky was beneficial to one’s health.  The apparent authority behind this wisdom was his father, his father-in-law, and the family doctor – all three whisky drinkers too.  I was dubious.  Undoubtedly I was a cynical lad, given to questioning just about everything, but this seemed altogether too convenient.  I never quite believed it, and it slowly sunk into the recesses of my mind…until recently.

My wife works extensively with Russians.  A while ago, after a visit to the country, she mentioned that she’d been told that the average lifespan of a Russian man was 59.  In fact it’s somewhere in the late-fifties to early-sixties depending of the study consulted, and the date thereof.  A few years here and there notwithstanding this is a shockingly bleak situation; these guys are literally vodka-drinking themselves into an early grave.  Now clearly this is on the extreme end of the scale – no-one is suggesting that excessive drinking is anything but detrimental – but can this same substance, in more measured doses, actually do you good?

The answer is yes: a variety of scientific studies, one of the earliest (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) dating back to 1904, have repeatedly proved it to be the case, to the point where it is now undisputed. It seems that my collected male progenitors and the doctor were onto something (though whether they actually gave it any scrutiny is debatable).  Liquor drunk regularly in moderation does in fact have a myriad health benefits, reducing the risks of heart disease (in middle aged and older men in particular), certain cancers, diabetes and dementia amongst others; and given that the former is the principal cause of death in most industrialised countries this is no small endorsement. Alcohol achieves these impressive feats by impacting positively on cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin levels, by decreasing thrombosis (effectively thinning the blood), and by improving the heart’s response to stress (as those of us who’ve sunk a few after a hard day at work will gladly attest).

So how does one know good drinking from bad?  How can one separate one’s own habits from what the Russians are doing?  The (American) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderation as the consumption of four drinks on any day to an average of 14 drinks per week for men, with the corresponding numbers for women being three and seven drinks.  One drink in distilled spirit terms constitutes one and half fluid ounces, or roughly 45ml, so generous enough for this to seem more indulgence than regimen.  The important point to note is that this drinking should be regular and tempered.  I should also make it clear, at the risk of being obvious, that these guidelines apply to average persons, relaxing in the comfort of their homes; and that they would specifically exclude pregnant women, people on medication, people with a history of alcohol abuse, people intending to drive thereafter, and underaged people.

The studies also haven’t been able to find a significant difference in benefits attributable to the type of liquor consumed, so whether one is drinking red wine, beer, or hard tack doesn’t discernibly matter.  I had always been concerned that brown spirits, being less pure than their white counterparts, largely due to the presence of congeners (fatty acids) from the cask maturation process, might be at health disadvantage but gratifyingly there’s no evidence to suggest it.  This is great ‘news’ – we can all stick to our favourite tipple and responsibly drink ourselves to a longer, healthier life.

I’ve noticed (it seems to be my time for subconscious realisations) that toasts the world over are dedicated to health:  santé, gezondheid, sláinte mhath, l’chaim…the list is endless (and the origins of these toasts date back centuries).  These were conceived I’m sure to express an intention not a prescription, so the added meaning is an extraordinary coincidence.  Regardless, I’ll henceforth be toasting with extra vigour and gusto.  I wish you all the very best of health.  Bottoms up!


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

Big, bigger, biggest

If you thought that it was all about the motion of the…uh…potion, think again.  Size does matter.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

Every year the authoritative Drinks International publishes a supplement called The Millionaires’ Club.  To the pundit this is something of a bible – and accordingly I read it religiously.  It’s a snapshot of an intensely gladiatorial arena at the end of the annual “games”, documenting the performance – measured in millions of 9l cases – of the world’s big-time spirits brands.  In order to crack the nod a brand must post minimum annual sales of that magical thousand thousand, hence the name.

You might ask yourselves why this should matter to you.  Those of us who consider ourselves to be fierce individualists would probably insist that we make choices to which we are innately suited, rather than paying any attention to what the unwashed masses are consuming.  Or in other words – when it comes to liquor – we should drink what we like rather than worry about what others are drinking.  It’s a simple fact of life however that popular preference has significant sway on our own.  We are susceptible to a large extent, like it or not, to the influence of the world around us.  There is some sense after all, unconscious or otherwise, in recognising the value of something that has been evaluated and accepted en masse.  It is the ultimate endorsement, or so I console myself when falling prey.    Furthermore there’s also an undeniable pull to the beholding of scale: elephants, monster trucks, million case vodkas, and much other such oversized phenomena all offer a certain voyeuristic fascination, especially when they’re pitted one against the other.  Millionaires then is well worth a gander.

So, what’s big and getting bigger?  What’s out there – of significance – about which we might not know?  Do we need to re-evaluate our repertoires? I was seeking out and enjoying Grey Goose a good few years ahead of most fellow South Africans, thanks to Millionaires.  Do you know that Ballantine’s Scotch whisky – which is completely under our local radar – is the world’s third best-selling whisky?  And that’s including whiskeys!  What other tricks out there might we be missing? There’s only one thing for it – here are the highlights of 2011.

A quick note first though:  Millionaires categorises a brand as either global, regional or local, depending on its prevalence.  Global brands are those with wide reach and appeal.  Local brands are limited to just a few markets, or in many cases just a single market.  These are typically value-for-money brands whose success can largely be attributed to pricing, or culturally-specific tastes.   Regional brands fall somewhere in the middle.  I think we have enough Romanoff vodkas and Wellington brandies all of our own so I’ll be focusing on global brands, with the odd passing glance at a few regional brands and at one lone local brand.

All figures quoted represent millions of cases.


  1. Hennessy 4.93
  2. Martell 1.86
  3. Courvoisier 1.34

You should know:  Remy Martin declined to participate and did not submit any figures for 2011 – its volume for 2010 was 1.65.  Courvoisier, the smallest of the four dominant cognacs was also the fastest growing last year – adding to the previous year at a rate of 11,7%.  The Jarnac producer built this growth with the launch of a slew of age variants as well as other line extensions, notably C by Courvoisier – a bold, some are saying revolutionary, double-matured cognac with a “full-bodied, intense flavour profile”.  It is targeted it seems at the gangsta rapper brigade…and associated wannabes.  Word up.


  1. Smirnoff 24.7
  2. Absolut 11.21
  3. Nemiroff 8.03
  4. Khortytsa 7.5
  5. Grey Goose 3.79

You should know:  Smirnoff continues to consolidate its solid position – it has for some years now been the world’s largest global brand.  Meanwhile Ciroc, the ultra-premium grape-based vodka, has crested a million cases and was last seen passing the 1.5 mark, climbing a rate of 66.7%  thanks to the efforts of megastar rapper and brand ambassador Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.  Ciroc may technically be classified as a local brand (very unusual – given its premiumness), because its volume is almost exclusively concentrated in the US, but on evidence of this performance it won’t be for very much longer.  Around the world people are also increasingly calling for Ketel One and Poliakov, two premium vodkas that have been growing steadily during the past five years.


  1.  Bacardi 19.56
  2. Captain Morgan 9.2
  3. Havana Club 3.84
  4. Cacique 1.7
  5. Appleton 1.2

You should know: Rum continues to be dominated by the mix-it, party brands.  Only Appleton, with its credible portfolio of aged rums, is giving any hint of what might be to come.


  1. Johnnie Walker (Scotch) 18.0
  2. Jack Daniel’s (Tennessee) 10.58
  3. Ballantine’s (Scotch) 6.47
  4. Jim Beam (Bourbon) 5.86
  5. Crown Royal (Canadian) 5.0

You should know:

William Lawson’s posted incredible growth of 35,5%.  Is this the mass discovery of a formerly underappreciated brand?  There are suggestions that a pre-duty stocking in the massive French whisky market may be responsible, but time will tell.  If this is the case it’ll be corrected in next year’s figures, but it might be worth finding a bottle in the interim to see if there’s any merit to the fuss.

The introduction of flavoured “bourbons” such as Red Stag has been a big hit and largely accounts for the strong movement from Jim Beam and Wild Turkey in particular.

Jameson continues its long term surge, growing at an impressive 19,2% off an already large base.  Where though are the other Irish whiskeys?

The most monumental news however is the entry of the first single malt into the club (Glenfiddich of course).  Malt still plays a distant second fiddle to blends, but this signals a bit of a shift – in perceptions if not serious volumes yet.  Hopefully the supply can keep up.


  1. Gordon’s 4.3
  2. Seagram 2.77
  3. Beefeater 2.39
  4. Bombay Sapphire 2.32
  5. Tanqueray 2.1

You should know: Premium brands rose, whilst standard brands stayed static or sank.  The G and T set are packing their bags and setting sail for Bombay, with sales of the blue bottle leading the charge for the second year running at 7,9% up.

Stocking up for spring – part 2

A bar in need

First published in Prestige Magazine (September edition).

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared – p2.

I must confess upfront that I have an ulterior motive for this choice of topic – I’m renovating my house.  And, inspired by that wildfire Heineken commercial, my wife and I have come to a nifty arrangement to attempt to avoid the conflicts that tend to accompany these residential makeovers: I get a bar, she gets a walk-in closet.  Being the poetic fellow that I am (or at least that I like to think I am), I intend to see the whole matter through to its rightful conclusion.  It is imperative to me thus that when the moment comes my friends outscream hers in tribute.  This is only likely to happen if my bar is a replete with the necessary accoutrements…if it is impressive enough to move grown men to a spontaneous and volcanic show of emotion.  Take heed then of my lead for a bar in need.

The liquids

A bar can only be as good as what it serves.   We’ll dispense with talk of wine and beer, save to say that they’re required.  This is a spirits column – and, after a hard day in the trenches, when nothing but a stiff drink will do, this is where you’ll be glad that you focused your efforts.

Here is my three step cricket-derived guide to stocking a bar:

Step 1

Fundamentals first.  You need a command of the basic shots required to play all the orthodox deliveries.  Whisky?  Tick.  Vodka, brandy, and rum?  Tick, tick, tick.  Gin?  Of course old chap.  Cognac?  Mais oui monsieur.  And let’s not forget tequila (por favor) and liqueur.

These are the big boys of hard tack, and they should all be represented.  You should offer a choice of at least one brand in each category, preferably something that has been judiciously selected.  The consummate host should also ideally offer guests an alternative for each to cater for varying tastes.

Step 2

Develop depth.  There’s a famous quote that goes like this (after I’ve bastardised it somewhat): “An educated host should keep everything of something, and something of everything”.  We’ve covered the latter above, now for the former.  Everyone has a standout shot, or a favoured part of the wicket.  This should be developed and exploited – for both personal satisfaction and in order to accumulate runs more effectively.  Like to pull?  Learn to do it with a straight bat, a cross bat, forward, back, lofted and so forth.

My preference is for whisky, so my drinks’ cabinet (soon to be bar, hooray!) is whisky-heavy.  But I have a friend who enjoys his gin, and I particularly look forward to the opportunity to sample London Dry, Sloe, Jenever, and others amongst the variety of styles and brands that he’s collected.  This depth makes visits to your bar, for yourself and your invitees, so much more interesting and fulfilling.




Step 3

Exotic elaboration.  A good batsman is made great by the ability to produce the unexpected: shots like the reverse sweep, the switch hit, and the scoop.  These are the cherries on the top – the extra efforts that allow you to excel, that can propel a team to victory, and that can provoke unabashed delight.

Looking for an unusual aperitif?  Why not try pastis, or the similar ouzo and arak.  A digestif that’ll stimulate after dinner conversation?  Whip out a bottle of grappa, or a fine Armagnac.

So, can I now raise my bat and bask in adulation for my astounding strokeplay?  One might think so, but perhaps celebration is premature.  At this stage my wife – with her collection of shoes batting on well beyond a century – still has the wood over me.  There’s a bit of work remaining to be done.

The accessories

So you’ve now put together a suitably cultured collection.  Imagine you’ve got them lined up on the back bar like a row of soldiers awaiting deployment (another metaphor you say?).  Would a General with such a quality assortment of troops just send them out willy-nilly?  Not a chance.  He needs equipment and tactics, and so do you.


A bar’s most important accessories are its drinking vessels.  Goblets, quaichs, and steins might be good for a laugh or a theme party, but for the most part this means glasses – they are generally the vehicles that will get your drink from A to B.

Ok, before we drop a bundle we need to ask ourselves: do glasses though actually make any difference to the flavour, and consequently (or not) the enjoyment, of what one is drinking?  The short answer is yes: our perception of flavour can be psychosomatic.  A good whisky for instance will – most of the time – taste better when drunk from a crystal tumbler than from a paper cup.  So it’s really worthwhile to invest in some quality glassware.  You’ll need tumblers, highballs and zombies to start, and specialist glasses depending on your “tactics” below.


You have the troops, and you have the equipment.  Now what?  Sometimes the engagement will be straightforward: neat, on the rocks, with water or a mixer, and maybe with a slice of lemon or lime.  But sometimes you’ll need to do something a little bit special to carry the day.  Enter the cocktail, and the science of mixology.

These are the world’s most popular cocktails (in no particular order): Mojito, Pina Colada, Cosmopolitan, Tequila Sunrise, Martini, Cuba Libre, Screwdriver, Margarita, and Daiquiri.  Pick three (from this list or any other), and learn how to mix them.  As I mentioned earlier this may require specialist glasses, and some other equipment as well.  Martinis and margaritas should be drunk from glasses dedicated for the purpose – anything else, after all this effort, would be too inelegant to even contemplate.  Shakers, glass rimmers, and muddlers may all be required…along with a supply of limes, olives, mint, salt, and various mixers.

So, there you have it, our home bar is complete – and impressive enough to claim the raucous approval of both our palates and our guests.  Heineken, I may not be drinking your beer (all the time), but I hope to do you proud.

Out and about with whisky

The Singapore episode

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

Singapore never fails to impress me.  Looking down as one approaches from the air it’s no stretch to believe that this is one of the top three busiest ports in the world.  The Straits of Singapore is a bustling bottleneck – densely peppered with naval traffic from one horizon to the other.  The island city also happens to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Singaporeans are not struggling for drinking money and it shows in the whisky scene.

In an overall Asian whisky context, Singapore would be classed as a mid-mature culture.  It sits somewhere between the refined palates evident in Japan and Taiwan, where demand for vintage whisky is de rigueur, and the still raw uptake in crazy China, where whisky drinking is karaoke-inspired mixology.  The place regularly ranks amongst the leading markets for Scotch whisky exports, and whilst most of that stock is filtered into the wider region its presence alone must be infectious.   Things are happening here.  I visited no fewer than three top-quality whisky bars during my short eight hour layover and I was so enthralled by the experience that I came within a barley whisker of missing my flight home.  My whisky-addled, panic-stricken dash to the airport, involving no fewer than three modes of transportation (four if you include the trip on the airport skytrain needed to correct my arrival at the wrong terminal), must have been quite something to behold…more amusing to onlookers than it was to me.

La Maison du Whisky (LMDW)

This legendary French whisky business was founded in 1956 by Georges Bénitah, one of the true whisky pioneers of the modern era.  Its bar in Singapore – based at the vibey Roberson Quay on the banks of the eponymous river – is a little different, not only from its other outlets but from most other bars:  it is both a shop and a bar.

I didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It’s an appealing concept in theory, if a country’s regulations allow for it.  Imagine browsing whiskies and then being able to sit down and test drive one’s options before committing.  Generally I dislike shopping but this I think I could grow to enjoy.  I also like the idea of a total whisky zone, where I can ogle whisky, talk whisky, taste whisky, and then, to make the experience complete, take-away whisky.

But in reality can anything really be all things to all men?  LMDW Singapore, in keeping with its heritage, is more shop than bar.  I’ve been there once, early-ish on a weekday evening, so take my opinion from whence it comes, but with its face of plate-glass and severe lighting that it projects to the world, it wouldn’t be my first choice for an intimate evening of mellow dramming.

Ambience aside, it ticks all the boxes with a flourish.  LDDW boasts a selection of 400 distinct Scotches and 200 other whiskies, including some rare bottlings (to which the closest we would have come here in SA is a fleeting glimpse in one of the international versions of Whisky Magazine), and some dedicated bottlings.  GM Jeremy Moreau introduced me to a Strathisla 1965 Single Cask, specially bottled for the group by Gordon & MacPhail, whose rich, bite-into sherry flavours I savoured at length…yum.  Worth the visit?  It goes without saying.

 The Quaich

A short stroll down the river and a bite of supper later I found myself at a bar named after Scotland traditional drinking vessel.  The Quaich, according to owner Khoon Hui, was Singapore’s first genuine whisky bar.  It also appears to be the most genuinely Singaporean whisky bar.  Whereas the other two I visited seemed somewhat expatified, this was refreshingly local – Khoon pointed out a radio celebrity and some government heavyweights enjoying the undisputable pleasures of his establishment.

The Quaich’s menu numbers a highly respectable 300 fine whiskies, with a focus on the distilleries that it represents as a distributor in Singapore.  These include Bunnahabhain, Springbank, Glenglassaugh, and Bowmore, amongst others.  I noticed, and was duly impressed, by a 1964 Bowmore 46YO and three dedicated single casks bottled by Springbank (Longrow) and Glenglassaugh for The Quaich.

My most lasting impression however was of the great hospitality.  Khoon and I chatted whisky over a Kavalan (a name with which the chaps at Macallan are none too pleased by the way), and then he insisted on giving me a lift to my next appointment.  The man is a gentleman and a scholar and his bar is a gem.

Auld Alliance

The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel created the Singapore Sling, and has since been regarded as the bar in Singapore, fads aside.  Well, now there’s a new king in town and its name is Auld Alliance (a reference to the close military relationship which existed between pre-Union Scotland and monarchic France).  Let me not mince words: in my opinion this may well be the king of all whisky bars worldwide.

To say that I was blown away is an understatement.  This whisky cathedral – to call it a bar seems inadequate – is utterly, utterly (repeated for good measure) magnificent.  Auld Alliance is the brainchild of Emmanuel Dron, a whisky expert of long standing, and, as I set about acquainting myself with his spot, his expertise became explicitly evident: it is quite simply a league apart from anything that I’ve ever experienced.

Located in Chijmes, a charming entertainment complex built within the grounds and amidst the architectural structure of an old convent, the venue offers a breath-taking bar area, an elegant lounge, and two private tasting rooms.  Its collection of whiskies currently numbers 1500; so many in fact that there’s just not enough space for all of them, thus requiring 500 odd to be rotated in and out of storage periodically.  The highlights include a mint-condition first-edition 1993 Black Bowmore (S$ 12 990 ≈ R84 955 per bottle), and a Yamazaki 50YO, of which there are only a handful of bottles accessible outside of Japan.  I was particularly captivated by a menu which offers flights of the “same” whisky bottled in different decades, allowing customers to explore the evolution of the style over time.  I could go on and on.  Quite simply Auld Alliance lacks for nothing…except for South African whiskies.  One has to leave room for improvement I guess.

The moral of this story, in case you haven’t arrived at the same conclusion already – a whisky pilgrimage to Singapore is well in order.  May the dram be with you!

Off the beaten path

An exploration of unusual drinks

First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2012 edition)

As it appeared – spot the auto-correction error.

A Korean, a Brazilian and a Frenchman walk into a Joburg bar…what do they order?  No, it’s not a joke, and the answers aren’t what one might think.  Even in this era of globalisation, informatisation, cosmopolitanisation and consumerisation the world of spirits is still much more diverse than what our local repertoire would have us believe.  Despite a proliferating of choice in recent times, our protagonists are at grave risk of having to leave with their thirst unquenched.  It may not seem like it – because we hospitable South Africans aim to please – but this is in fact good news.  It means that out there, somewhere, there’s the promise of something compelling that we haven’t yet really discovered.


After a hard day’s work making ships, cars and flat-screen televisions, the typical Korean relaxes with a glass of Soju (pronounced: so-jew).  To intimate that Soju is an obscure beverage is misleading.  The path to its door is not only well beaten, but paved and widened to six lanes:  Soju drinkers chug down well in excess of 100 million cases per annum.  I’ll give this a bit of context – it exceeds the cumulative volume generated by Smirnoff, Bacardi, Johnnie Walker, Absolut and Jack Daniel’s, the world’s top five so-called “international” brands.  It also dwarfs the combined yearly total spirits consumption of giant European tipplers France and Germany.  So why haven’t we heard of it?  Why isn’t James Bond ordering his shaken martinis with soju instead of vodka?  Soju and the similar Shochu are almost exclusively drunk in Korea and Japan, with little dribbles here and there in a few other countries.  So it is astronomical but not prevalent.  Without travelling to these countries one would be unlikely to have encountered it.

Soju is a colourless, clear distilled spirit.  Whilst it bears a rough resemblance to vodka it is distinguished from that spirit by its sweetness – a result of added sugar – and its on average lower alcoholic strength – ranging from the high teens to the mid-forties in ABV (alcohol by volume).  It is traditionally made from rice, but modern production also uses potato, grains, sweet potato and other starches.

A tip: given a soju-imbibing opportunity, one might want to order Jinro, the colossus of the industry.  Jinro is taking soju to the next level and making a big push into the US market, so it may not be long before we find it on our shelves as well.  As they say in Korea: “gun bae” (cheers)!


Is it a rum?  Is it a cane spirits?  No, it’s cachaça (pronounced: ka-sha-sa).  Outside of Brazil it is known (if at all – only 1% of total production is exported) as the prime ingredient in the caipirinha, a delicious sugar and lime cocktail.   Whilst it may sound exotic, cachaça is a staple to the Brazilian population, which annually flattens an estimated seven billion two hundred million tots of the fun-to-enunciate Pirassununga 51 alone (the largest brand).  Let me put this into relatable terms – we would need to recruit every single South African to drink a tot every second day for a year to match this consumption.  A staggering thought in itself, until one considers that there are some 4000 different brands being produced – ai caramba!

Cachaça, like the footballing superstars of its homeland, is hard to pin down.  It uses sugar cane juice as its raw material, a feature which it shares in common with the rhum agricole of the French Caribbean.  However it can in fact resemble either rum or cane spirits depending on the broad type, of which there are two.  Industrial cachaça, the most common variety and also the cheapest, is column-distilled, and the bulk of these are effectively a type of cane spirits.  Artisanal or traditional cachaça, the more sophisticated variety, is distilled in copper pots and is flavoursome like rum, although it must be noted that certain peculiarities in its crafting make it distinct from rum by definition, and the specificity of its aroma and palate make it distinct from rum by flavour.  Cachaça can be unaged and partly aged (white), or fully aged (gold).  This maturation takes place both in the typical oak barrels used by makers of fine spirits worldwide, and, more interestingly, using a variety of indigenous woods that are integral contributors to its distinctiveness.

Enough to whet one’s appetite?  Cachaça may be scarce within our borders but don’t despair – it is available.  Look out for Germana, an artisanal cachaça that can be found at some of the better cocktail bars.


The French like nothing more than to be different.  It’s like a badge of honour.  At times this has worked out quite well for them.  Sacré bleu I’ve got it!  Let’s put some small bubbles in this wine.  At other times not so much.  Tanks?  Merci, but non, Monsieur Maginot has a better idea.  In the former category is Calvados.

Whilst it’s sometimes referred to as apple brandy, Calvados can be (and is often) made from both apples and pears.  That’s about as far as the laissez-faire extends however; the spirit is tightly regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the French system for governing the production and marketing of certain agricultural products, which is largely based on the concept of terroir.  For instance, unlike Scotch Whisky, which can employ barley that is grown anywhere (some of it in France), the apples and pears used in Calvados (of which only defined cider-specific varietals are permitted) must originate from the set Calvados region of Lower Normandy.  To keep things interesting there are also sub-appellations: Calvados Pays d’Auge and Calvados Domfrontais which amongst other criteria must, respectively, be double pot-distilled, as opposed to the column distillation more common for the wider marque, and must be aged for a minimum of three years rather than the standard two.

Locally Calvados is as rare as hen’s teeth, but seeing as we produce apples by the barrel-load it was only going to be a matter of time before some enterprising fellows created something similar.  Enter Malus, “the Terroir Spirit of Elgin”.   I’ve had the privilege of tasting Malus and there can be no doubt that it’s delicious.  Be warned though it’s highly exclusive – only 1000 decanters were produced – and accordingly it’s punishing on the wallet.

Waiter, there’s a speck in my whisky

The good and bad of chillfiltration

As it appeared.

First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2012 edition).

My parents taught me that a discussion of religion and politics should best be avoided in polite society.  I decided instead to avoid polite society.  A note to posterity:  if I ever warrant quotation then please make this my defining quote.  There’s a lot to be said (literally) for a bit of impropriety and irreverence.  In whisky society – where things can get quite impolite after a few drams – the parts of politics and religion are often played by a red-rag-to-a-bull known as chillfiltration.   Prompted by Bunnahabhain’s recent launch of their unchillfiltered range I decided to wade into murky, or should I say hazy, waters to confront this messy beast of a topic and poke it with a stick.

What is chillfiltration?  Let’s start with the converse situation, in which whiskies are alternatingly termed unchillfiltered or non-chill filtered.  The industry seems to have shown standardisation the finger and chosen divergent grammatical paths, but whatever one’s predilection for prefixes, hyphens and contractions, the meaning is the same.  I’m going to opt for concision and use the former henceforth.   A whisky, when it comes out of its cask after maturation, is loaded with fatty acids and oily compounds (known in more scientific terms as congeners), from which it derives much of its flavour.  These congeners however also tend to bond together and precipitate (i.e. form a haze) when the whisky’s temperature and/or its level of alcohol are lowered.  This is an unchillfiltered whisky and it poses certain problems…at least for some.

To the uninformed a hazy whisky is aesthetically displeasing; and it gives the (misleading) impression that it might be decomposing.  The motivating reason for chillfiltration is to eliminate the occurrence of this hazing in whisky.  The process works like this:  the whisky is cooled to a temperature of around 0°C (give or take – some whiskies are more aggressively chillfiltered than others) and then passed through a mesh filter, thereby trapping and removing certain congeners.  The result is a clear, cosmetically attractive liquid.

To the informed whisky lover however chillfiltration is a double-edged sword: remove the congeners, remove the flavour.  It’s a somewhat ruthless solution.  There are other gentler ways to mitigate hazing; for instance an alcohol level of 46% ABV would guarantee solubility at room temperature, without any flavour removal required.  Unfortunately, if the temperature drops, and if ice or cold water is introduced, the hazing would reappear, so it’s at best an incomplete alternative.  Also, at 46% a whisky is circa 15% and 7% more expensive than at the statutory minimums of 40% and 43% respectively, hence affecting its commercial proposition.  Some brands have nonetheless followed this course in the quest to offer unchillfiltered whiskies, but they’re in the minority – primarily single malts for whom the flavour stakes are higher, and whose consumer base is likely to be more aware of such peculiarities.

Until recently I’d been part of the faction that poured scorn on chillfiltration.  It was, in my opinion, a creation of laziness and greed.  To be fair though it’s a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma – it doesn’t make sense to invest in education on the matter individually, so invariably the bulk of the industry has taken the path of least resistance, but, regardless, depriving us of optimal product in doing so.  Some producers claim that chillfiltration doesn’t affect the flavour in their whiskies, but the force of contrary logic and the self-interest inherent in these justifications would suggest otherwise.  Others yet claim that they chillfilter less aggressively, which still results in flavour still being extracted, just less of it than would otherwise be the case.  So it seems clear-cut then that chillfiltration does a disservice to the flavour-seeking, pukka whisky lover.  Maybe, maybe-not.

Conventional wisdom is all well and good, but evidence is the only way to discover what’s really true about anything.   There’s little publicly available data on chillfiltration but I recently came across some research by Matthew Ferguson-Stewart (a whisky aficionado) that poured fuel on the chillfiltration fire.   His experiment involved a blind tasting of unchillfiltered and chillfiltered versions of four whiskies by a small panel of experienced tasters.  The shocking conclusion: the tasters identified the difference but preferred the chillfiltered versions.

What should one make of this?  Perhaps the experiment was too limited.  Certainly it should be verified on a wider and larger scale.  Perhaps some congeners, in this case the balance of those removed, are somehow offensive.    For the moment though it has made a contentious subject even more inflammatory.  Given that the bulk of whiskies available to us are chillfiltered, I find his results encouraging.  We can’t draw any definitive conclusions yet, but there’s hope now that the typical whisky that we’re drinking isn’t in fact a diminished version of itself, as we had previously believed…and that can only be good news.  May the dram be with you!

Inside the bottle

Dipping into the definitions of drinks

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2012 edition).

An aside:  The guys at Prestige Magazine have asked me to write a second column, on spirits in general, and this is the first attempt.  This column will feature whisky on the rare occasion, but it will be more focused on other spirits so that they too get some coverage.

As it appeared,

When I was offered a column writing about distilled spirits, I thought that I’d start at the beginning.  A singing nun once convinced me that this might be a very good place to start.  Sage advice – one never knows what one might otherwise miss.   The beginning in this case is not doe (as in a female deer, get it now…?) but definition.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that without the ability to define our society would be in utter chaos.    The definition of the world and its phenomena are the basic blocks upon which order, understanding, and communication, veritable bastions of civilization, are built.   What, one might well ask, does this portentous declaration have to do with the somewhat less solemn subject of liquor?  The implications might not be quite so all-encompassing but nonetheless, in a local context, the definitions for spirits, as enshrined in the Liquor Products Act 60 of 1989 and subsequent amendments (henceforth “the regulations”), are a treasure trove of interest for both the aficionado and the casual observer.

Two of the major players, vodka and brandy, between them command a huge swathe of the South African market.  Let’s take a tour.


I think vodka and potatoes come to mind.  Is Vodka actually made from potatoes, as is widely believed?  Not necessarily; in fact the regulations allow for vodka to be made from any vegetable matter.  It is easily the most indiscriminate of spirits, with its come-one-come-all rallying cry.  Ironically there isn’t a single potato vodka commonly available in South Africa, not counting the sparsely distributed Chopin and others of that ilk.

Vodka originated in Poland and Russia – the lore of the potato vodka actually came out of Poland (sad then in a sense that Belvedere and Wyborowa, its most eminent scions, are made from rye and not potatoes) – and these two countries historically dominated vodka production.  In previous generations vodka had to be Polish or Russian for it to be considered credible.  The regulations, which derive from convention in this regard, dictate that vodka should “not have any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”.  It is essentially a simple, almost neutral product, and one which is therefore easy to produce.

As a result, vodka has in recent times undergone somewhat of a de-mystification.  The success of a brand is often dependent on marketing more than any production expertise or heritage, thus creating an arena where style tends to trump substance…although purists may well disagree.    I say this without a shred of disparagement – style has its merits and is obviously important.   It’s always useful however to be explicitly aware of what it is for which one is paying, and with vodka, more so than other spirits, the active ingredient is image.  Blockbuster brands have emerged out of Finland (Finlandia), Sweden (Absolut), France (Grey Goose, Ciroc), Holland (Ketel One), and, at the extreme end of unlikely, New Zealand (42Below).  Absolut in particular has been the poster child for this new wave, blazing an advertising-orchestrated path to the vaunted position of world’s best-selling premium vodka.

A last word.  On closer examination of the regulations I was particularly struck by one of the stipulations: that a vodka must be produced “in a rectifying or fractionating column” i.e. a column still.  How then is Smirnoff Black Label (recently rebranded Small Batch no. 55 or somesuch), flagship of the world’s largest vodka brand and a product of pot-still provenance, being so prominently sold as a vodka in South Africa?  Have they somehow snuck an oversized set of studs past the referee?  Food for thought…


Historically the mainstay of the local spirits industry, brandy has been in crisis for the past several years.  Consumers have fled like rats from a sinking ship, finding refuge in whisky primarily, but also in rum and other products.  Naturally, the question being asked is why, and the broad consensus, somewhat unhelpful in itself, is that whisky is seen as a better class of drink, as more aspirational.

So why then is whisky perceived as superior to brandy?  It may come as no surprise that an answer can to be found at the beginning – in the regulations;  very simply: whisky is better than brandy by definition.

It’s generally acknowledged that the quality of a brown spirit improves with maturation in oak casks, usually referred to as ageing.  On a like-for-like basis, and to a certain point, the (sometimes hotly disputed) rule is: the older the better.  In this regard the regulations state that a whisky, any whisky, must be aged in its entirety for a minimum of three years before it can legally be sold as a whisky in our country.

These regulations however are played out on an uneven field.  Brandy, which is locally produced, has been handed a few massive – one might be tempted to say unfair – advantages.  Most significantly the vast majority of the liquid in popular brandies is immature new-make spirit, bottled virtually straight off the still.  Only 30% of a blended brandy is required to be aged.   This situation probably arose because at some point in time stakeholders in the brandy industry had lobbied the authorities to set the bar low and thereby hand them a preferential cost platform…or maybe it wasn’t quite so conspiratorial, may this was just how things naturally evolved.  Whichever, it now appears that the advantage has boomeranged and come back to bite the industry in the arse.

In an era when the spirits drinking public is becoming increasingly curious about their consumption, and discriminating as a result, this is a debilitating predicament.  Brandy is saddled with an image problem that’s rooted deep down in its DNA, in its very definition.  The quality of South African brandy has a great reputation, with our products consistently winning awards at all the major spirits competitions world-wide – Van Ryn, Oude Molen, and Joseph Barry, to name but three, have flown the flag and flown it high – but a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the weak link in this case happens to be the foundation upon which the entire edifice is stacked.  Only time will tell whether brandy can rekindle its former glory.   If anyone were to ask I could suggest where it should start…

No age statements

The dark side of whisky

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2012 edition).

An aside: The opinion I express is this column is somewhat contentious.  In a recent twitter exchange on the subject  I was informed by an esteemed whisky writer that I was “just plain wrong”.  The why was, and still is, not as clear.  In the interim thus this presumably snot-nosed, impudent upstart of a whisky blogger stands by his opinion.

As it appeared.

I’m often guilty of looking at the whisky world through rose-tinted glasses.  I am after all a self-professed whiskyphile, so a certain extolling of the virtues is part of the job description.  My natural inclination is to be mostly positive.  The reality however is that whisky is a human endeavour, and, like any other, is prone to human failings.  A cast which includes moonshiners, bootleggers, smugglers, gangsters, and all manner of dodgy bastards, have featured prominently in its story, a story whose aspect has been transformed – by the passage of time, and by subsequent regulation and legitimisation – from criminal to colourful.  Today a few huge conglomerates dominate production.  The industry is seen as venerable, and its members as responsible corporate citizens.  But are things really as proper as they appear?  I wouldn’t be self-respecting if I didn’t blend my admiration with a dash of scrutiny.

Marketing – if one was to adopt a cynical stance – is akin to commercial propaganda.  The discipline, in somewhat Goebbels-esque fashion, is no stranger to large-scale institutionalized deception.  In the marketing of whisky one of the more insidious examples, in my opinion, is the so-called No Age Statement (NAS) whisky.   The age, or to be more accurate (and lyrical) the duration of maturation, of whisky is a subject of lengthy debate.  To avoid labouring the point, let’s just conclude for our purposes that age is of distinct importance to the whisky drinking public.  Research published by Chivas Brothers last year revealed the following actualities: “94% of consumers believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality” and “93% believe that older whiskies are better quality”.

It follows then that people expect expensive whiskies to be old – since one expects to pay for quality.  As the whisky market has boomed beyond forecast over the last three decades, suppliers have struggled to keep up with the demand for older stock.   This crisis has been to some extent remedied by the proliferation of the multi-vintage whisky – a blending of old and young whiskies.  In itself this was a tidy “innovation” (these had existed before but as an exception) presenting whisky lovers with an extensive new diversity of flavour and style, and stretching the dwindling quantities of older liquid.  There was however an accompanying dilemma – Scotch Whisky regulations require that any age claim must refer to the youngest component in a whisky.  This nagging inconvenience – upon which the integrity of Scotch whisky is largely built – would potentially motivate a cap on pricing and/or the expensive need to re-educate the market…or maybe not.

The low road was and is an option to withhold disclosing the age, creating a situation where the average whisky buyer automatically assumes these whiskies to be older than they are in reality.  There is no doubt in my mind that multi-vintage NAS whiskies have been designed to foster this misconception.  Witness Johnnie Walker Double Black in particular (in the context of Black Label): a derivative and misleading name, similar packaging, higher pricing, and no age statement.  Is this whisky 12 years old – or even older – as one might reasonably be led to assume?  I think not.

This example and others like it I believe are lies of omission, occurring when an important fact (and we know that age is undisputedly important) is deliberately withheld, or not made explicit, in order to perpetuate deception.   Despite the obvious moral dubiousness these lies have become common practice.  There’s a glimmer of hope though that this may soon change.

Last year the new Consumer Protection Act came into effect.  Here’s a little snippet:

False, misleading or deceptive representations

41. (1) In relation to the marketing of any goods or services, the supplier must not, by words or conduct—

(a) directly or indirectly express or imply a false, misleading or deceptive representation concerning a material fact to a consumer;

 (b) use exaggeration, innuendo or ambiguity as to a material fact, or fail to disclose a material fact if that failure amounts to a deception; or

(c) fail to correct an apparent misapprehension on the part of a consumer, amounting to a false, misleading or deceptive representation,

I don’t lay claim to any striking legal insight, but it seems clear to me that were a challenge to be made this piece of legislation could terminate the existence of the NAS whisky in South Africa.  The veil would be lifted and we would be able to appreciate the real Double Black, ostensibly at a reduced price.  Law aside, isn’t it just basic ethics that all material elements to a transaction be disclosed?

Perhaps I’m being optimistic.  This is an entrenched agenda which will take some shifting.  Nonetheless it’s encouraging to hear industry voices seemingly supporting this position, whether out of self-interest or not.  Christian Porta, head of Chivas Brothers, was quoted as follows: “In an age when consumers of luxury goods increasingly demand transparency and authenticity from brands, it is vital that we empower consumers with knowledge so that they fully understand the value of what they are buying.”  Mr Porta, I salute you; you renew my faith.  May the dram be with you!

In humble worship of the holy trinity

Expect an epiphany when delving into the mysteries of the “Big Three”

First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2012 edition)

As it appeared

In my lapsed Catholic psyche the drinking of whisky can at times best be regarded as a religious experience.  I reckon you’d have to delve back some two millennia, when Jesus turned water into wine, to find a more apparent divine hand in the creation of a beverage.  There’s good reason why it’s known as the ‘golden nectar of the gods’.    Whisky too, like the religion of its progenitors, has a trinity:  Scotch, Irish and American – the big three of the whisky world, prominent in all places of worship.  As a novice drinker I was as mystified by this spirituous threesome as I had been by their spiritual counterparts.  Beyond the obvious, what was the difference?  Familiarity might breed contempt, but in this particular case I had anticipated delight instead, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.  Let’s take a short-cut through the catechism.

“In the beginning was the malt, and the malt was with barley, and the malt was barley” Anon.  Whisky by convention, and in many cases by law, is defined as a spirit distilled from cereal grains, the most reputed and famous of which is malted barley.  Whilst there are of course many other points of difference, it is this, the grain from which it is made, that on a basic level most clearly distinguishes one denomination of whisky from another.

Single malt, the high priest of Scotch, is made from malted barley which is often peated i.e. dried over a peat fire rather than a coal fire as would be the case with an unpeated malt.  The influence of the peat is evident in a smoky flavour, of which Islay whiskies are striking examples.  Whilst Scotch is not exclusively smoky (by any means), and whilst smoke is not exclusively Scotch, it is a broadly identifying feature, its bindi if you will.  There is a cult of Scotch whisky fans so devoted to this peated style that they have become known as ‘Peat Freaks’.  Sound appealing?  You’d do well then to try the most heavily peated whiskies on the market, said to be Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook-laddie) Octomore and Ardbeg’s aptly named Supernova.

The Irish too have a tradition of single malt, although theirs are most commonly unpeated.  However, their most emphatic prophet, whose rich, sweet and spicy flavours are converting untold numbers to the faith, is the single pot still, made from a recipe of predominantly unmalted barley.  This is the master component in the Jameson blend, Ireland’s most prolific whiskey by some distance.  The Midleton Distillery, producer of Jameson and currently the only exponent of this style, has just released the Midleton Barry Crocket Legacy, which at some €170 (≈R1770) a pop is the most premium single pot still available today.  I was lucky enough to taste this splendid whiskey late last year, and whilst I’m tempted to tell you more, it would be akin to speaking in tongues such is my gushing, uncontrollable admiration.

American whiskeys (and Canadian whiskies), of which Bourbon is probably the best known, generally have softer, sweeter, buttery flavours, a product of the largely corn based recipes (with rye in the minority adding a spicy kick).  Notably American whiskies are also somewhat fundamentalist.  They’re distinct from each other and from other whiskies not only by grain but also by age and by maturation.  An American whiskey must have been aged for a minimum of two years to be called a straight whiskey, and maturation of straight and other legislatively “named” whiskies must take place in virgin oak.  Iconic examples include Jack Daniels, a specialized Bourbon-style known as Tennessee whiskey, and Jim Beam, but those who’ve concluded their rites may prefer more complex and sophisticated options such as the highly-acclaimed George T. Stagg, or Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbons.

Each region has endured its reformation and travelled its own path, but it’s worth giving some consideration to the similarities as well as the differences.  That only grain, yeast and water, as rudimentary a recipe of ingredients as can be imagined, could yield such an astounding array of flavours, is inarguably cause for unifying wonderment no matter what your sectarian persuasions.  In the worship of whisky, each mass, wherever it may be held, is an enriching prospect.  May the dram be with you!