Tag Archives: Whiskey

The wood in whisky

A phenomenon called maturation.  PATRICK LECLEZIO bows respectfully but unflinchingly to one of the great forces in whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2016 edition).

The use of wood in crafting whisky is enormously important.  Many years ago – almost all the players seem to have their own quaint, romantic story about how it occurred – someone put their spirits into an oak cask, ostensibly for storage or transport, left it for longer than intended, and realised that the resultant, conditioned liquid had been considerably enhanced.  I can only imagine the joy of that discovery, the whisky equivalent of fire, or the wheel, or penicillin (or maybe that’s me imagining what I would say after appropriately celebrating the discovery).  Anyhow, in the aftermath of this happy accident (or these happy accidents, if we’re to give everyone the benefit of the doubt) laying spirits in wood gradually became a deliberate practice, utilised across the board.  It is now of such importance that the makers of fine spirits, and other drinks too (wines and fortified wines in particular), dedicate massive resources to what is known as maturation.  In asserting and validating the extent of its influence I’m going to delve into some the critical factors, but I also want to counter myself with a cautionary voice, because maturation is the one issue in whisky that tends to be over-aggrandised – so I’ll attempt to debunk the glib statements that are sometimes used to stress its importance, but that often misrepresent and mislead.

I’ve repeatedly been told that the most important influence on the flavour of a whisky is its maturation, or, similarly, that maturation contributes 60% (or 70%, or 80% – depends to whom you’re listening) of the flavour of a whisky…and I’ve probably passed on these same suppositions myself.  No longer, or at least, not in these terms.  I have no problem with the direction of the sentiment (there’s no doubting that maturation is important, enormously so, as I’ve already said and will say again, and in many or even most cases of majority importance), but I find it tenuous to reduce it to a fixed, universal, and absolute point.  Firstly the effect of maturation on different whiskies is variable: most obviously because of its duration, the weightings of its input into a 3YO and a 25YO will be dramatically different, but also because wood is a natural substance, and therefore not consistent in its impacts, and further because the relative scale of other influences will also vary.  In the Ardbeg 10YO for instance I could make the (not unreasonable) contention that it is peat smoke and not maturation that commands the single biggest impression in the flavour.  Secondly, flavour is subject to interpretation – it simply can’t be factually referenced in quantitative terms (when this is done in scoring it’s an opinion), or even in definitive terms.  I may be predominantly captivated by the biscuit notes in Maker’s Mark, which I attribute to the wheat in the mashbill, but someone else, sitting drinking the identical whisky opposite me, may be more captivated by the sweet vanilla derived from the casks.  The reason I’m labouring this point is that flavour is suggestive.  If you believe that maturation is the be-all, end-all, that’s often what it will be, perhaps to your detriment. During a business trip with two seasoned industry professionals we were served a cognac which we were told was a Scotch whisky.  We proceeded to debate amongst ourselves whether it was a blend or a single malt (I went for single malt, at least I got the copper distillation right).  In retrospect (blushes notwithstanding) I knew I had identified something funky, but I had simply ruled it out of my mind before even picking up the glass that this was anything other than whisky.  Question assumptions, about this and about anything else really (life rule).

When we talk about maturation, we effectively refer, in very simplistic terms, to the process over time where a liquid resting in a cask absorbs (and relinquishes) certain characteristics, primarily from (and to) the cask itself, and to a lesser degree from the environment in which the cask is accommodated, which permeates as the cask expands and contracts (breathes) with temperature fluctuations, and where the liquid further evolves as the result of chemical reactions between its component compounds and those being absorbed.  The cask itself plays the pivotal role, both intrinsically, by contributing the natural elements of the wood from which it’s made, and by passing on “second-hand” flavours that it has absorbed in its previous maturations, typically of bourbon or sherry, but increasingly of other drinks as well.  I recently worked my way through a bottle of the Glenfiddich 21YO (“raised in Scotland, roused by the Caribbean”…classic), finished in rum casks, with the molasses underpinning that spirit startlingly and deliciously evident in the final liquid.  Glenmorangie has just released Milsean, a whisky finished (extra matured in their parlance) in Portuguese red wine barriques.  Michel Couvreur, a brand with which I was previously associated, produces Spiral, which is finished (double matured might be more apt given the duration) in Jura vin de paille casks and which is one of the outstanding whiskies of my experience.  William Grant, and now Jameson (and possibly others), make whisky finished in ale casks.  And on it goes.  This aspect of maturation has created a model where the possibilities for flavour diversity are almost endless.  It is the sexy face of maturation.  Ex-sherry, ex-bourbon! Oloroso, Pedro Ximinez, manzanilla!  Port, sauternes! And whilst it’s undeniably interesting and alluring it’s important not to forget that much of the body of the whisky comes from the wood itself.

The wood in whisky is the mighty oak – as is the case for most spirits.  There are indigenous Brazilian trees that are used for maturing cachaça, the odd, old, arbitrary chestnut cask has turned up here and there in Scotland, and I’ve read of an American whiskey using maple for finishing, but these are strictly exceptions.  Somehow, out of all the trees in all the world, it’s curiously only oak that works properly (mighty indeed!), and furthermore only oak that has been grown in the right climate and conditions. The attempt to grow Quercus Alba (American white oak) in South Africa was a disaster; the wood was of such poor quality as to be unusable.  This is the reason why a company like Glenmorangie pays such close attention to wood cultivation, to the point where Bill Lumsden, their whisky supremo, flies out to the United States to individually select the trees that’ll be used to make their casks; and why a brand like Glenfiddich celebrates the intricate role of the wood in its whisky – as evidenced by the beautiful “Journey of the Cask” photo essay, from which I’ve chosen images to accompany this piece.   I’ll spare you a detailed knowledge the actual chemistry – because it’s above my pay grade I’ll admit, but also (I say somewhat conveniently) because it’s unnecessary if your objective is to better understand whisky for the purpose of its enjoyment.  The basics of it though are as follows:  The wood performs two functions. The charred or toasted inner layer, like the charcoal that it is, absorbs impurities from the raw spirit, making its smoother and more palatable.   It also gives the spirit a pathway into the wood, from which it absorbs vanillins, lignins and tannins – the elements that make such a central contribution (the second function) to flavour.

Lost to this simplistic explanation are a multitude of other considerations, that all stake a claim:  the seasoning of the wood – the process and time governing the drying of the cut wood (to be distinguished from the seasoning of the casks with liquid); the toasting and charring levels; the skill of the cooperage; the selection and proportion of virgin casks, first fills or refills; and, very importantly, the species of the wood – the most common being the Quercus Alba already mentioned, and Quercus Robur, the European oak.  I had the privilege of attending a nosing with Edrington (Macallan, Highland Park) heavyweight Gordon Motion, during which we compared the same whisky matured for the same period in the same warehouse in American oak and European oak casks, both seasoned with the same sherry for the same period.  From the number of times I’ve used the word same in that sentence you’ve obviously worked out by now that I’m setting you up.  Yes, the whiskies were dramatically different.

Maturation then is a critical lever for flavour.  Even today it retains a sense of that natural world mystique that must have astonished the first person to have stumbled upon it.  Its influence on whisky is both broad and deep.  It’s an easy trap to fall into though to think that it is all-important.  Look at a whisky, nose a whisky, taste a whisky and the first thing that dominates your thinking is a consideration of the casks from which it’s made.  As with all things that are imposing and extraordinary though, it’s worth taking a measured perspective to keep from being overawed.  If I can leave you with only one guiding sentiment about maturation it’s this: appreciate it but don’t exaggerate it.  Leave room for other things.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Aug 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

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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.

The boys are back in town

First published in MUDL Magazine (September 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I find it difficult to believe, in moments when I reflect on it, that until this year we did not have access locally to one of the most prominent whiskey styles in the history of the drink. It was a sad reality – at the risk of being melodramatic – which we’ll hopefully never have to face again. It’s sadder still that there were many long bleak years during which its very existence hung in the balance. This dismal state of affairs is luckily now a thing of the past. Redbreast and Green Spot, previously just names wishfully, wistfully spoken by this country’s whiskey lovers, are now beautifully tangible, bottles of the stuff being firmly ensconced in our bars and liquor cabinets.

You’ll have realised by now that I’m referring to that most uniquely Irish of whiskeys known as the Single Pot Still, whiskey made in a pot-still (obviously) from a combination of malted and unmalted barley, a range of which was launched in South Africa by Pernod Ricard in January during a would-be-elegant (if not for certain of my table-mates) dinner hosted by their global whiskey ambassador – and epic Irish toast master – John Ryan. If ever there was a whisky moment worth celebrating this was it.

The last time that a Single Pot Still was brought to our shores by an official importer is lost to the record – but needless to say it was a long time ago, and a diminishing hiatus at that. In many ways the story of Irish whiskey reflects that of Ireland itself: tragic, principled, enduring, resurgent, and throughout it all, ebullient, lyrical and embracing. It is a bittersweet story, having travelled a course of buoyant victories and bitter setbacks. It led the charge of whisky in the nineteenth century, dominating the market with its rich, full-flavoured pot stills – it was during this time that their industry changed the spelling of their product from whisky to whiskey, to distinguish it from Scotch, which they perceived to be inferior – but then it passed on the trend to blend, much to its commercial detriment. Independence and secession from the Empire deprived it of vast markets. Scottish corporate interference later stunted the industry’s capacity to produce grain whiskey. One hindrance followed another. They shunned bootleggers and then were insufficiently prepared for the revocation of Prohibition, leading to severe reversals in one of their most successful markets. Post-war government policies further limited development, reducing the once flourishing industry to a ravaged state, limping along with, until recently, only two operational distilleries.

The Irish though are survivors, and so is their single pot still whiskey. These boys hung about in blends, notably Jameson, for much of the dark times, but they’ve re-emerged to claim their rightful place in the whisky pantheon – which is important, not only because Ireland is the birthplace of whisky (or so the Irish claim) and because single pot stills are the truest of Irish, the very heart of its tradition, but more so because they offer us whisky lovers an astonishingly good, meaningfully distinct style of whiskey. There’s whiskey in the jar again people – may the dram be with you!

The single pot stills available to us here in SA are the following: Green Spot, Redbreast (12YO, 12YO Cask Strength, and 15YO), Midleton Barry Crockett, and Powers John Lane (my personal favourite).  Watch this space for a more detailed evaluation of these fine whiskeys.

Meeting your match

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

Intriguing.

Intriguing.

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

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.

Are pairings here to stay?

The relatively nascent trend of pairing food with whisky (and now brandy) is all the rage at the moment.  I for one am delighted – a burgeoning friendship between one’s great friends, what could be better?  Moreover chocolate, sincerely one of my very dearest friends, seems to be a popular pairing partner – hooray!  But are pairings just a passing fad or do they have the legs to become a classic consumption ritual?

My two BFF's.

My two BFF’s.

The basic idea with a pairing is synergy.  The flavours of the whisky or brandy (or whatever – other spirits will surely follow if they’re not doing so already) and the food should complement and enhance each other, thus creating a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts.  Interesting, but hardly so revolutionary that I spilled my drink as I jumped up in excitement. Wine has obviously been doing the same thing for millennia.

Pairings fall into two distinct groups – at least in my view of things:  the drink is paired with a meal, and more elaborately, a separate drink is paired with each course of the meal, or food is paired with a drink.  The distinction is a reversal of the primary and subsidiary roles.

My forecast for the former is pessimistic.  Wine, as a meal-accompanying beverage, also plays a lubricating role, which spirits, with their higher alcoholic strength, can’t really hope to fulfil, at least not without a level of dilution that compromises flavour.  I suppose that one could supplement with water, but that’s unwieldy.  People gravitate towards the simple and the natural, and personally I can’t see this becoming habitual – although at the very least it offers an alternative in good company: my uncle’s tut-tutting when I’ve drunk beer instead of wine comes to mind…water off a duck’s back.   Nonetheless, these musings certainly don’t suggest that one couldn’t and shouldn’t enjoy an occasional meal pairing experience.  I recently attended two lunch functions – Checkers LiquorShop at the Bascule and KWV-Brandy Foundation at the Pot Luck Club (more on these shortly) – where the hosts used this platform, quite superbly, to exhibit their offerings.

More promising to me though, as a sustainable, long-term “ritual”, is the latter style of pairing, where the food accompanies the whisky or brandy, not the other way around.  This is effectively a jumped-up, better-thought-out version of snacks-with-drinks. It just works – no further thought required.   I’m still a pairing novice but I can recommend the following:

          cheese and crackers (with almost any whisky depending on the cheese – other than the heavily-peated variety)

          chocolate (also works with a broad base of whiskies)

          oysters (roll out the island whiskies, Islays and Talisker in particular, and hold off on the Tabasco)

          salmon sushi (light, fruity whiskies with a bit of spice – Edradour 10YO would work, as would, funnily enough, Yamazaki 12YO)

          cake (sherry cask whiskies such as Macallan, Glendronach and Aberlour)

I would continue but I’m drooling all over my keyboard.  May the dram be with you!

Whisky 101

Want to brush up on your whisky knowledge?  Why not take the Masterclass.  PATRICK LECLEZIO signs up for some tutelage.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

I grew up in whisky on the books of Michael Jackson, the leading whisky writer of the modern age.  His wealth of knowledge and his astute delivery thereof – striking, in engaging prose, a beautiful balance between the accessible and the meaningful – made a pleasure of my early education.  I’ve reached the age now when in a somewhat dismal turn of events I’m starting to look back on my journey, my experiences, and indeed my life as a whole with certain wistfulness.  New things sometimes just don’t seem to measure up to my rose-tinted view of the past. With the benefit of progress of course this is less than likely to be the reality, so I know in my rational mind that fixation on blissful bygones comes with the risk of missing out on something really good…which I nearly did. Enter MJ’s (yes, we were that close) erstwhile successor, Dave Broom, a prolific drinks journalist and writer of whisky and other books in his own right, who along with a team of intrepid South Africans has been ushering in a new era.

I’m not questioning MJ’s status as a top-drawer legend, or suggesting that the other great whisky writers should not be read – he is and they should; but times have changed, technology has proliferated, and the public is more demanding.  We now have another option – an online, audio-visual, interactive option – that’s just too compelling to ignore, and, indeed, that might just warrant being preferred: it’s quite aptly called The World Masterclass of Whisky – and to all appearances it is the most comprehensive, most definitive, most all-encompassing publicly available whisky education instrument ever created.

This is not a statement that can be made lightly, and it isn’t.  The Masterclass is quite evidently encyclopaedic, spanning 50 individual lessons (or chapters) structured across five levels (or sections), 150 video clips of distillers and distilleries (including both scenic footage and actual tutorials by industry experts), and over 100 tasting clips.  The action is focused on a “classroom”- with Broom stationed in front of shelves laden with enough variety and volume of whisky to motivate even the most delinquent of students – but it diverts to a rich panoply of whisky-related footage as and when required to enhance the presentation. 

Now this is not a slick Hollywood production: the camera occasionally seems distracted, I noticed a section where the video and audio are out of synchronisation, and Broom’s characteristic shaggy, wild-Scotsman look shows no evidence of hair-and-makeup; but then again I don’t think it’s meant to be. It is basic but competent – and I felt that any shortcomings did more to add to rather than detract from its charm.  The true value of this initiative is in the content and the context: it is jam-packed with everything from basic explanations for the novice to more advanced insights for the aficionado – all delivered by some of the most credible possible sources at the most credible possible sources.

One of the little nuggets that opened up a new vein of knowledge for me was the commentary about charring (and toasting).  This is a subject which whilst always mentioned in whisky literature is rarely interrogated – at least beyond trivialities about levels.  Why is it done? I had in my wanderings heard various interpretations: for the sterilisation of casks previously used for other purposes (such as storing pickled produce); for the imparting of colour to the spirit at an accelerated rate; for sealing pockets of sap (perhaps in the era before adequate seasoning); for caramelising the sugars in the wood; or, at least in the US, for attempting a smokiness redolent of the peat of the old country. Some or even all of these reasons might have triggered the practice but it wouldn’t have continued unless its contribution to flavour was worthwhile.  Broom’s explanation thus – as evidenced in the Masterclass – is spot on and gets to the heart of the matter: the carbonised wood acts as a sponge adsorbing unpleasant impurities from the base spirit, although I might have also added that it provides a passage for the spirit into the pores of the oak.

The tasting clips are equally meaningful and in-depth.  Broom deconstructs each whisky with gusto – delving into not only its flavour, at length, but also into its history and its peculiarities.  I’d suggest accompanying him in real time with the same whisky – it’s most enjoyable and instructive, and a damn sight better than looking over some tasting notes.  I joined him in savouring a Bunnahabhain 12YO and his repeated enunciation of the name’s pronunciation, his description of the distillery (its size its isolation), and his precise summation of the whisky reminded me of my visit to the site, and generally raised my appreciation of this fine whisky.

The Masterclass is also intended as a formal “course” in whisky for service staff – the force behind the project is a dynamic South African hospitality education company called Lobster Ink – and as such it’s accompanied by an assessment system (the interactive element that I mentioned earlier) which you can use to evaluate yourself, if inclined to do so.  I have different ideas about how to put new found whisky knowledge into practice (and a test is not it), but to each their own.

This impressive body of work can be accessed at www.theworldmasterclass.com.  Wherever you might be on your whisky journey I think I can safely say that there’ll be value in it for you.  Register, watch, learn, enjoy, and may the dram be with you.