Tag Archives: Whisky

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.

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Complementary drinks

A contextualised guide to the appreciation of fine liquor

First published in GQ Magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

I recently watched Kingsman, a rip snorting romp of a spy movie in which suave veteran Harry Hart mentors young buck Eggsy on how to be a gentleman, the latter being a bit rough around the edges. His second lesson instructs on the making of a proper Martini. A little overly-trodden, and a little insufficient, but it had me nodding in agreement – yes indeed, gentlemen should know their liquor. What to drink when, and how. The right juice if you will for the right occasion. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter in suggesting that a cultivated repertoire is a vital attribute if you hope to evolve your masculinity to the next level. Well, maybe a little, but let’s just agree that it’s important. I may not be cast from the same aristocratic superspy mould but in this case I think I can step in where he left off. If you thought then that this was going to be a piece on cadging free booze I have this suggestion (now that I’ve assumed the mantle) for you: a gentleman should also own a dictionary (preferably the dictionary). But that’s just in passing. The matter at hand is drinks, and it is where I’ll make my bid for a small contribution to the lexicon of gentlemanliness.

Complement: “something that completes”, “one of a pair, or one of two things that go together”.

When it comes down to it life is about complementariness. The search for harmony. For optimality. The bringing of balance to the force. There are moments and occasions, which, whilst giving their own fundamental value to how you experience them, can be amplified, transformed even, made complete at the very least, by the right complements. In these instances, when they pertain to the not insignificant (as I think we’ve established) subject of drinks, it is beholden upon you to bring your gentlemanly knowledge to bear.

When: celebrations

What: champagne
An obvious one to start. From victories and Valentines, to birthdays and betrothals, this geographically indicated sparkling wine is synonymous with celebration. The crisp, dry taste – and the tingling mouthfeel, courtesy of its hallmark fine bubbles – of brut champagne is the foundation on which it’s forged its popularity, but, as if often the case with liquor, perception plays almost as much of a role as the liquid itself. The popping of corks, launching of ships, the sabrage method, the champagne towers, and its many other rituals have all impressed this drink on our collective consciousness as something distinctly special.

Try: Veuve Clicquot Rich. I’ve marked many of the milestones in my life with Veuve, and it’s always lived up to expectations, with its superior taste, depth of heritage, and innovative approach. The Maison Veuve Clicquot in Reims too adds to the charm and is well worth the visit. Rich in particular is an accessible, versatile offering which lends itself to personalised drinking. Shake things up by mixing in some cassis for a classic Kir Royale, or by creating your own infusions.

When: landmark celebrations

What: vintage spirits
A vintage bottling refers to liquid that was distilled and put into maturation in a single calendar year – the one denoted on its label. It is individual and variable by design, differing from a distillery’s standard bottlings, which may draw from production spanning various years in order to achieve flavour consistency. As such it captures the essence of one particular year – and what better way to fete an epic birthday or anniversary than by experiencing a little “stolen” taste of that specific period in time.

Try: Balblair vintage highland single malt Scotch whisky. I’ve had the privilege of enjoying their 1983, 1989, 1990 and 2000 vintages, all occupying the zone between delicious and outstanding, and I can reliably say that each is a fitting tribute.

When: summer and sunshine
What: caipirinha
Nothing evokes summer like sand and sea – so it seems fitting to take the lead for the season’s drink from the world’s foremost beach culture. A well-made caipirinha ticks all the boxes: it’s cool and refreshing – the essential attribute of course, it builds further with its complex and interesting flavour (but without being too challenging – that type of effort would only interfere with the fun and relaxation), and it’s strong and pure enough to be taken seriously – fun is great, frivolous is a waste of your gentlemanly time.
Try: Germana cachaça. The prime ingredient in the caipirinha is Brazil’s inimitable (no, it’s not rum) home-grown spirit. This stuff ranges from the cheap and nasty to the aromatic and sublime, with corresponding results for your caipirinha. Germana – a pot-stilled, artisanal cachaça housed in an unmistakeable banana bark wrapped bottle – features within the latter category. One word of caution – easy on the sugar.

When: gala events
What: martini
Ah, the martini resurfaces, as we always knew it must. Whoever said clothes maketh the man had clearly not yet encountered this most elegant of drinks – or he would have supplied an addendum. Your dress attire simply isn’t complete without the iconic martini stemware dangling languidly from your hand, and conversely a martini will never taste as downright delightful as it does when you’re suited and booted. And should it turn out to be a stuffy affair…well, let’s say that your bases are covered.

Try: Bombay Sapphire. Everyone has their own take on the Martini – here’s mine: Gin, of course, not vodka – it’s so much more interesting; and preferably a soft gin like Bombay. Dry vermouth – it exists for a reason. Noel Coward’s diametrically opposed view is that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy”, but how seriously can you take someone who thinks that the vermouth deployed in a martini comes from Italy? Pas du tout, I’m afraid. A ratio of five parts gin to one part vermouth – stirred or swirled, not shaken. Pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with olives or a twist, depending on your mood.

When: sports

What: craft beer
It’s difficult enough to maintain your cool, calm, gentlemanly demeanour when watching your favourite team play a nail-biting game without introducing liquor into the equation. But then again it wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as with a few drinks. The solution is something moderate, like beer. It’s crisp and refreshing, which is important for day-time drinking, it can be deliciously flavoursome, and, let’s face it, we’ve been pre-conditioned by a relentless avalanche of advertising and sponsorship campaigns to associate beer with sports. It feels right, so why fight it? You can choose though to cock a snook at those corporate puppeteers by applying your refined palate to the consumption of small-batch beer – to reassure yourself that you still have free will, and because it’s tastier by far.

Try: Jack Black. One of the original operators in the proliferating Cape Town craft scene, it now boasts the three additional variants, alongside the legendary flagship lager – my favourite being the Skeleton Coast IPA, a pleasingly bitter ale with a full well-balanced cereal flavour. The 440ml format, which seems to be a standard in the category, and the 6.6% ABV employed by Jack Black on the IPA, deliver what I would describe as an ideal per-unit level of satisfaction.

When: a birth

What: cognac
It’s a time honoured tradition, the origins of which are obscured by the mists of time, to present and smoke cigars at the birth of a child, and there’s nothing better suited to supplement a stogie and to toast such a momentous event than a fine cognac. The fragrant aromas of the former, and the rich flavour of the latter, and the theatre of two in concert, cigar between the fingers in one hand, balloon glass filled with smoke in the other, is the best of backdrops for this congratulatory gathering.

Try: Courvoisier XO. The Jarnac-based Couvoisier is one of leading producers of cognacs, having established its reputation as the preferred cognac of no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte, a man with Europe at his feet and with the pick I’m sure of any fine spirit he might have desired. XO, which stands for extra old, refers to blends of cognac in which the youngest component is no less than six years old, and whilst age isn’t everything, it’s nonetheless a loosely reliable indicator amongst cognac’s big brands that you’ll be getting a suitably-matured, quality drink.

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The song of the single cask

How bias governs the malt universe, and why it doesn’t matter. Patrick Leclezio runs the rule over blended malts, single malts, vintages and single casks.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2015 edition).

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With whisky there is the spirit and then there is the story. And make no mistake the story is important. In his bestselling book on cognitive biases: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli explains that people have an innate need to seek the meaning in or the understanding of a thing through the vehicle of a story – something he calls the ‘story bias’. A narrative – a suggested meaning – that may be irrelevant or inconsequential to the underlying matter, such as the concept of single malt is to the actual, real quality of the whisky for instance, can nonetheless be found to be irresistible and compelling. Whisky lovers, as much as we’d want to deny it, are not immune to this logical lapse – but whether it’s a problem in this sphere, ignoring the ostensible exploitation of pricing by producers, is less evident. I’ve always found that even if certain factors don’t affect the liquid they may well indirectly influence a person’s perception of the liquid. This is whisky after all, not the Matrix – we’re not being deceived so much as inspired.

Have you thought about the differences between blended malts and single malts? I mean really thought about it. The malt whisky universe is categorised into four types: blended malts and single malts, as a start, and then the latter further into “regular” single malts, vintages, and single casks. Typically, all other things being equal, pricing tends to correspond to the order that I’ve listed, because that’s the order in which they’re valued by whisky buyers. Yet, as much as we see these types as distinct, there’s no actual physical difference between any of them. They’re all made from the same ingredients (malted barley), using much the same production and maturation processes (specifically the copper potstills and oak casks that are so important to the flavour). The difference is only in the story – and what a lyrical story it is.

The concept of single malt is rooted in its unique source and single point of origin. This is the theme that drives its story – although, as an aside, it’s worth nothing that some have strayed slightly from the script: many distilleries don’t mature on site. It goes something like this (in my own words, no insincerity meant, the tangible reality notwithstanding, I believe it and I intend it). These whiskies embody a singular terroir and style: their unique stills, their local water, their people, focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part multiple generations in the making, their heritage, and indeed their very air, the breath in their casks, set single malts apart from other whiskies. They are pure, distinctive, rare and limited – and bound to their birthplace – and each individual single malt is a critical point, one of many, on the map that makes whisky the great, complex, varied, and much-loved spirit that it is today.
These are the melodic sounds that have catapulted single malts deep into the popular imagination. It’s not much considered by the casual whisky drinker but in fact most single malts are in fact blended (or, more correctly, “vatted”) – different casks of different wood from different years can be and are typically used, to give the blender enough range to maintain flavour consistency from one bottle to the next. The succeeding verses, whilst more specialised, are in much the same vein. Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only whisky distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings. Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded. The appeal of the vintage plotline is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. The outstanding Balblair distillery offers outstanding exponents of vintage whisky – with subtle, interesting variations of their primary philosophy of bourbon cask maturation, to the odd wild deviation, such as the excellent sherry matured 1990. The final type, the single cask, is the apex, the chorus: one source, one year, one cask…(although these can be double matured or finished). The ties to its heritage, always important if not definitive with whisky, are particularly strong here – single casks explain its history. They are the origins of the story, whisky at its  purest and most unadulterated.

All of this though is pure romance. There is nothing that a single malt can do, that a blended malt cannot do better. In fact as one moves up the value trajectory, from blended malts to regular single malts, and then to vintages and single casks, as a whisky maker one becomes increasingly limited. In terms of the hard science this inflating status is counter intuitive. Blended malts can summon all of the intrinsic advantages of the others, and then can add to these – by calling on its blender’s palette, at least in theory – an unlimited potential for variety and complexity.

I challenge you however to name ten blended malts, off the top of your head. You’ll struggle. Five? The fact is that there’s just no story. No quaint distillery, no home in a craggy corner of Scotland, and no shiel-wielding old-timers, working the same malt as their grandfathers, and their great-grandfathers before them. They just don’t have the same ability to inspire. This might afford us a new appreciation for the potential of blended malts but it shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for single malts, vintages or single casks in the slightest. The story counts for something. Enjoyment does not need to be rational. The single cask serenade may influence my appreciation of the sumptuous Private Barrel Company GlenDronach 20YO that’s currently cradled in my hand, but it’s a positive influence, so why fight it. We’re human, and these are two hand-in-hand human vices – whisky and whimsy – that we should be able to enjoy without restraint. May the dram be with you.

The essentials of whisky

An often confusing navigation. PATRICK LECLEZIO cuts through the clutter

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

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“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.

Hobnobbing with the scions of Scotland

First published in Compleat Golfer magazine (November 2014 edition).

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My earliest memories of golf are of the Open. The sights and sounds of Turnberry, Carnoustie, Muirfield, and, naturally, St. Andrew’s – the infamous road hole in particular – ring clear amidst the echoes from my childhood. I seized the opportunity to visit Troon some years ago, but it was just for a quick lunch before catching a flight from nearby Prestwick (ironically home to the first ever Open); so my connection to the tournament has remained regrettably removed…until this year. Timings coincided, distances contracted, and fates converged when I was invited on a monumental tour to celebrate the launch of Glen Grant’s 50YO whisky – a tour featuring the final day’s play of golf’s foremost competition.

Golf and whisky share a common bond – a familial bond. The Irish may dispute it but history officially pronounces whisky to have first emerged in Scotland in 1494, when mention of it was recorded in the country’s Exchequer Rolls for that year. Less than 40 years earlier, the first reference to golf was noted when it was banned (in vain, clearly) by the King of the Scots. Fruits of the same loins, and not too far apart; it’s small wonder then that these veritable twins often keep the same company – in this case fifteen avid South Africans, raring to spend time with both.

Ensconced in the Champions Club, our lavish hospitality area at Hoylake, we embarked on frequent sorties – cheering Charl Schwartzel, who played well but failed to ignite a real challenge, Sergio Garcia who was looking good until he floundered at the 15th, and finally Rory McIlroy, who held his nerve to clinch the title. It was a day long in the making. And whilst I registered the absence of the links weather which had coloured my recollections – I would not get to trudge lashed and sodden in the footsteps of this era’s Tom Watson – it lived up to all expectations.

Later in the tour, as I raised a snifter of the majestic whisky that we’d travelled all this way to honour, I called to mind the image of McIlroy with Claret Jug aloft. There was no need for any kind of envy. He was tight with one sibling and I with the other. All was right with the world. May the dram be with you.

A Scotch major

Patrick Leclezio harnesses his big dram temperament as he goes in pursuit of the title

First published in Golf Digest (September 2014 edition).

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“To see a world in a grain of sand”. I was reminded of Blake’s words – perhaps in a less metaphorical sense than he had intended – as I watched Sergio Garcia visit the 15th hole bunker at Hoylake during the final day of the 2014 Open Championship. It was a portentous moment. I joined the surge to the green, knowing, like everyone else in that gallery, that the fate of the title might well rest on whatever happened next. This was golf appreciation at its pinnacle – the decisive period at the game’s home major. The atmosphere was simply electric.

The rest of course is history. Garcia fluffed his trap shot and his challenge disintegrated. Instead of holding infinity in the palm of his hand, there was probably just a fist clenched in frustration. I was disappointed, but only mildly so; my horse might not have come in but it had been an epic day on a fantastic links course (luckily with distinctly unlinks-like weather – my British fellow course-goers were for the most part tinted bright red). I returned to drown my sorrows, such as they were, at the Champions Club, our opulent (remember that word) hospitality area, with the rest of our major-going party – actually, let me qualify that: our double-major-going party. A group of us had flown to Britain, less for the golf than for another major – a whisky major.

In whisky the equivalent of a major, the prizes to which most patrons of the golden nectar aspire, are the old and the rare – most conventionally manifest in the form of a 50 year old. These are the “big shows” of the whisky world, eagerly awaited and widely publicised.

It might be useful this point to consider what the age of a whisky entails, and why 50 years of it might be regarded to be so special. The ageing phenomenon is called maturation and it occurs through contact with wood, in casks made from oak. A whisky can only age in maturation – once it is decanted from a cask it is in a sense frozen in time. During maturation the whisky absorbs flavour from the cask itself (vanillins and tannins naturally present in the wood), from the liquid that preceded it and that remains impregnated in the cask (most commonly Bourbon or Sherry), and, less overtly, but in many cases distinctly nonetheless, from the cask’s environment as it breathes. The whisky also reduces in alcoholic strength during this ageing process – a result of evaporation (the twee-named Angel’s Share). The broad (and very important) result is a mellowing and flavouring of the liquid. In fact it’s widely acknowledged that maturation is the single factor that makes the greatest contribution to the flavour of any whisky. So it stands to reason, on a very simplistic level, that more ageing, more mellowing and more flavouring, must be desirable…up to a point. 50 years for many whiskies is well past that point, so when a cask continues to improve as it marches onwards towards that magical milestone, it’s cause for a celebration of top tournament proportions.

Which explains (but not really) how a crew of enthusiastic South Africans came to be at Royal Liverpool for the culmination of golf’s greatest major: we were on route to Scotland for one of whisky’s greatest majors – an unveiling of the Glen Grant 50YO. Sixteen men, an unlimited drinks budget, and a fierce love of whisky: all the makings of an unforgettable adventure.

Our base in Scotland was the town of Elgin (that’s with a hard-g good people), the very one from which ours in the Cape takes its name. There were no apple orchards here, but this was more than compensated for by a preponderance of whisky, nowhere more so than at our lodgings. The Mansefield Hotel is an unassuming place; it is comfortable and hospitable – we were frequently, and graciously, attended to by the owner and his family – but in most respects it gives the impression of being quite middling…an impression that is dramatically arrested and turned on its head at sight of its bar. The Mansefield bar is quite simply a showstopper, boasting a selection of whiskies that would put all but a paltry few of the world’s best hotels to shame. A Glenfiddich 50YO in alliance with various 40YO’s, including a Dalmore, a Balvenie, and some 60 odd from the Glenfarclas Clans collection, holds sway over a substantial, entrancing host. Whisky porn. It was near impossible to look away. The hotel has quite rightly as a result become the accommodation of choice in the area for whisky tourists from all over the world. We shared the place, and a few drinks naturally, with a festive band of whisky “ambassadors” who’d made the long pilgrimage from Hong Kong – an impromptu coming-together of the whisky brotherhood in one of whisky’s truly special places.

The highlight of the trip, indeed the purpose for which we’d teed up at the start, was of course -and I say “of course” with some contemplation, not because I’m doubtful of its veracity, but rather because it demanded something exceptional to qualify so obviously for the accolade – our visit to the Glen Grant distillery, to crown this much anticipated champion dram. The other contenders clamouring for the honour had included a personalised tour of Old Trafford, a cruise on Loch Ness, a round of golf at Castle Stuart, clay pigeon shooting, the aforementioned attendance at the Open, and a one-after-the-other succession of exquisite meals – we’d gorged ourselves on Scottish salmon, scallops, steaks of Aberdeen Angus, and haggis with neeps and tatties, accompanied by a repeating roll-call of delicious Sancerres, Barolos and Chateauneufs du Pape with which to wash it down. Did I say opulent? These though were all about to take a back seat.

We’d prepared for the visit by topping up our Glen Grant education at the Mansefield. No-one in their right mind plays a major without substantial practice – and then a bit of loosening up on the range before the start of the round. Back home we regularly get to enjoy the Glen Grant Major’s Reserve, the 10YO and the 16YO. This is the distillery’s core range – incidentally representing some of the best value single malt drinking on the market – with which we wasted no time in reacquainting ourselves. Occasionally, it also releases a few limited editions, most recently the 170th Anniversary edition, last seen in SA some two years ago, and the Five Decades, which came and went in a blur last year. I’d lamented the latter’s brief existence. It was an outstanding whisky: rich, creamy and full-flavoured – but I’d resigned myself to its expiry. So it was with no small measure of joy – a high-five dispensing type of joy – that I noticed a few bottles behind the bar, accompanied by the 170th no less. We sipped these drams into the wee hours with a it’s-hard-work-but-someone-has-to-do-it stoicism, retiring only when we felt ready to tackle the big one.

Now, I’ll be perfectly honest with you. Once you’ve seen the inner workings of one distillery, you’ve almost seen them all. A few have their own maltings, all but a few have their own unique stills, and there’s always a bit of variation here and there, but for the most part it’s more of the same. I’ve visited a dozen odd in my time, and whilst it’s always interesting to delve into the processes, there’s a limit to how excited I can get about it. In this respect however the excursion to Glen Grant – the 50YO moments not even counted – was an absolute exception, for two reasons.

Firstly, for any whisky loving layman, a distillery is less about its industrial functioning than about the setting (and the stories). Atypically for what are essentially factories, they tend to be quaint structures located in pretty surroundings – much like a clubhouse and its golf course. In that sense Glen Grant is the Augusta National of distilleries – its charismatic beauty is nothing short of exceptional. The bubbling burn, the stone buildings, and coach-house-cum-visitors-centre paint a picture of olde worlde elegance, that is then elevated to fine art by a glen of elaborate, splendorous gardens. And even there amidst the trees, flowers and birds, the presence of whisky is never far away – we were delighted to stop for a dram at the “secret” whisky safe set into the rock in the upper reaches of the garden.

Secondly (two reasons, remember), our tour of the distillery was conducted by the man who runs the place and makes all of its important whisky decisions – Scotland’s longest-serving Master Distiller, straight-talking Glen Grant supremo Dennis Malcolm. It puts a different spin on things when the guy who pulls the strings is the one who’s showing you around.

The big moment when it came was a spiritual experience. I’m never going to raise the claret jug (or any kind of golfing trophy for that matter), but holding that precious liquid gifted me with just an inkling of how that must feel. We put mouth (and nose – never forget the nose) to glass in the dunnage warehouse, the squat, thick walls imbuing the space with a cool, reflective quiet, the stacked rows of casks with a reverent, imposing gravitas. Few would get to drink this nectar, fewer still would drink it here on such hallowed ground. The whisky when it permeated my senses was big, very big, almost overwhelming, as one would expect from something this ancient; the pool of flavour so profound that it seemed to be reaching back, drawing from each and every one of those 50 years. This was eternity in an hour. May the dram be with you.

State of the nation 2014

South African whisky. PATRICK LECLEZIO visited Wellington to take a reading.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2014 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I wanted to get a gauge on the health of the whisky of this country there was really only one man I needed to see. Andy Watts is synonymous with South African whisky; in some 23 years at the helm of the James Sedgwick distillery he has steered the ship (all three of them if you will) from plonk to virtual perfection. His two prodigies, Three Ships and Bain’s, over the past two years, have come of age and earned their stripes, seizing the prestigious World Whisky Awards titles for best blended whisky and best grain whisky respectively. The scale of these achievements cannot be overstated, especially for young, previously unfancied whiskies from the foot of Africa. I sought him out to chat about the journey and about plans for the future.

There was a time not so long ago when Three Ships was sneered at and put down with all manner of disparaging names. That was the era of our whisky’s infancy, a time during which Sedgwick’s output was of such low priority to its owners that the distillery was thwarted with old, discarded casks that nobody else wanted. Those days have well and truly been consigned to the past. Andy attributes the turnaround to a new, more serious, and more professional approach to whisky-making, particularly to wood management, instilled during the merger that created the Distell group. The whisky boom, which has been a hallmark of the past ten plus years, helped to justify and sustain the increased investment, with new stills, various other upgrades, and a resplendent facelift further transforming the distillery. It has become a jewel, both in style and substance, of which South Africans can be genuinely proud.

I think it’s explicitly apparent to any educated observer that the quality of product has been dramatically elevated, and that it’s now beyond doubt. Three Shits? Not for a long time now, and never again. Ok, that’s great, but is it enough? And if not, where to from here? I recently expressed some concerns about “world” whisky (whisky from emerging producer territories, of which South Africa is one); these and others will be the challenges facing Sedgwick’s and other aspiring local producers as they seek to take their next steps.
My main concern hinges on the question of what makes our whisky particular to its region; the answer – nothing, other than the obvious geographical provenance…at least in my view of things. Sedgwick’s produces whisky based on the Scotch model. Accordingly there’s nothing about Three Ships and Bain’s that identifies them as distinctly South African. In fact most of the blends sold under the Three Ships label, including the award-winning 5YO, are constituted with a Scotch component – not just the malted barley, which goes without saying, but actual distilled-and-matured-in-Scotland liquid; this is a policy set to persist for the immediate future (although to be fair the proportions have been diminishing). Even Bain’s, which can at least claim to be entirely indigenous (locally produced only from locally grown raw materials), doesn’t seem to differ conceptually from the whisky of a Scotch distillery like North British, which also makes grain predominantly from maize.

Now there may well be divergence of opinion on this issue depending on one’s individual interpretation of what constitutes distinctiveness. When I put the question to Andy, he suggested that the difference was one of focus: whereas grain whisky is considered a filler, subservient to malt, by the industry in Scotland – receiving the short end of the resource stick as a result – here in South Africa it is lavished with the type of care and attention (first-fill casks et al) expected for an heir to the kingdom…which is exactly what it’s considered to be. Bain’s is styling itself as a whisky for emerging markets – light, flavoursome, accessible and easy-drinking – which is set to conquer South Africa, the rest of Africa, and beyond. I liked what he had to say but his response addresses quality rather than style – at least at this stage; who knows what a purposeful dedication to grain may inspire in years to come. For now though even the promising descriptor “Cape Mountain Whisky” is nothing more than a Distell trademark, with no particular definition of its own. It’s a pity, but my guess is that these guys are too busy making and selling exponentially increasing amounts of their whisky to worry about this very much. Perhaps in the future.

More promising, at least in this vein, are the new single malt styles being explored by Three Ships. It’s unusual that the brand serves as an umbrella for both single malts and blends – I can’t think of many prominent whisky labels that do the same (Bushmills and…?). Rather the trend is to move in the opposite direction – note Green Label’s relegation to black sheep status in the Johnnie Walker family. I was told that this structure was motivated by the brand’s pioneering nature, manifest in a drive to experiment with different whiskies and styles of whisky. I’m not so sure that this intention has publicly graduated into reality quite yet, but things seem to be percolating behind closed doors. Andy introduced me to a few special, recent creations: two styles of new-make malt (the distillery makes four) – one heavily peated, the other unpeated – matured (or rather finished) in Pinotage casks. South African whisky aged in a South African cask – very encouraging! This is the type of thing that needs to be pursued, and pursued vigorously, if the local product is going to be set apart. The flavours too give cause for belief: robust peat well-balanced with a sweet spot in the one, and a delicious spicy sweetness – the defining feature of Pinotage casks I’m told – shining through to full effect in the other.

Three Ships has only released three limited edition single malt bottlings to date – interestingly each distinct from the other as is the convention with vintages, although if these were vintages they were weren’t marketed as such – but there are plans afoot for a permanent malt program in the near future. Let’s hope that these two singular whiskies are included. They may just be the beginning of a genuine, ownable, inimitable South African whisky tradition. May the dram be with you!