Tag Archives: Whisky

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.

The bourbon review

First published in MUDL Magazine (November 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

It’s the end of the week, a thank-God-it’s-Friday kind of Friday.  The shackles are off, it’s time to cut loose.  You walk into a bar (where else!).  The vibe’s electric…it’s calling to you.  First things first though.  Like a cowboy who’s crossed the badlands and made it to the other side you deserve to slake your thirst with a golden elixir.  Yep, you’re going get yourself a bourbon – a freewheeling all-American shot-glass charging party starting gullet lubricating liquid bullet of a bourbon (and a double at that!) – to kick the evening into gear, no question.  But which bourbon?  Experiment by all means, but don’t just be arbitrary.  Here’s what you need to know.

I recently gathered together a panel of esteemed whiskey experts – guys who can tell their Jim from their Jack, and who know the latter well enough to call him John (in the best Pacino tradition, hooah!) – to review most of the bourbons available to us on the local market, an array which included the following: Jim Beam White and Black, Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack, Slate, Blanton’s Single Barrel and Straight from the Barrel, Buffalo Trace, Knob Creek, Eagle Rare, Maker’s Mark, WL Weller and Woodford Reserve, in no particular order (and not counting a few wildcards, about which more later).   At this stage though, before ploughing into our impressions of these dozen contenders, it might be useful to set the scene – context can be a game changer.  So then, what is bourbon, and how does it fit into the greater whisk(e)y family?

For a whiskey to be called bourbon it must be produced in the United States (anywhere, but usually Kentucky), be made from a mashbill (recipe of ingredients) containing at least 51% corn, and be aged in new, charred oak barrels, amongst other more technical statutory necessities.  This requirement for virgin wood has created a nifty symbiosis with the Scotch whisky industry – which purchases the once-used cast-offs for their own maturation purposes.   It also means however that the bourbon flavour spectrum is by regulatory definition more limited than many other whisky styles, which use casks seasoned with everything from the typical bourbon and sherry, to port, cognac, rum and just about anything else of which you can think.    It seems also to be the case that bourbon is restricted – by convention and commercial feasibility if not legislation – to the use of American white oak barrels (whereas others are using Spanish, French, Japanese and other types of oaks), thereby further inhibiting its range of flavours.  This is something we noticed during the review – bourbon is generally big and bold, but it plays within a much tighter flavour band than whiskies such as Scotch or Irish.

A straight bourbon – the only type with which those of us seeking to appreciate a fine spirit should concern ourselves – must additionally be aged for a minimum of two years (although four is the standard for the marquee brands), and have no added colouring, flavouring or other spirit added.  This is an important distinction.  Slate, for instance, is a blended bourbon – a separate category allowing for just under half of the liquid to be composed of an unaged spirit component.  Accordingly we found Slate to have a ‘spirity’ flavour redolent of new make.  Best disguised with a mixer.

The rest of the mashbill is usually made up of rye or wheat (known respectively as a rye-recipe or wheat-recipe, or alternatively as the flavour grain) and a small percentage of malted barley for fermentation purposes.  Rye recipes predominate (and are typically further defined as high rye or traditional depending on proportions), but some of the industry’s most iconic brands are wheat-recipes, notably Maker’s Mark and W.L. Weller. Typically these are more moderate, sweeter – the corn being allowed to dominate (WL Weller is all “fat” corn) rather than having to compete with the very distinctive, powerful flavour of rye in the background.  Maker’s Mark has a cereal character, perhaps the wheat exerting an influence, which makes it – we felt – the most malt-like of bourbons.  Whisky (or in this case whiskey) always has the ability to surprise (and delight) though: of two of our wild-cards, the first, Larceny, exhibited the spiciness which is typical of rye, despite being made with a wheat recipe, whilst the second, the rye-based George Dickel Superior no. 12, was butterscotch sweet.

You’ve probably noticed at this point that I’d earlier been writing about Jack Daniel’s and bourbon in virtually the same breath, when, as everyone surely must know, it’s a Tennesse whiskey and not a bourbon – the same, by the way, goes for George Dickel (also along with Maker’s Mark the only American whiskies i.e. not whiskeys).  The only differences between a bourbon and a Tennessee whiskey is the additional step of maple charcoal filtration (also known as the Lincoln County process) before maturation, and the fact that the latter must be made in the great state of Tennessee (if you’ll excuse my huckster-politician speak).  The first is significant, the second debatably so, but regardless, in my opinion, they remain bourbons with carbon twist, rather than a separate class of whiskey; I was pleased to discover that the definitions in NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement – seem to endorse my point of view.   In the case of Gentleman Jack, the Jack Daniel’s variant we reviewed, there is a double charcoal filtration process employed – both before and after maturation – resulting in an exceptionally smooth, velvety, maple-sweetened, easy whiskey with a well-rounded almost peachy overtone.  It’s not particularly complex, but it’s highly drinkable.

The prospect of tasting 15 bourbons – the third wildcard was an outstanding Four Roses Small Batch: as complex and subtle a bourbon as for which one could hope – in one sitting was somewhat daunting, but we meandered our way through them with an it’s-a-tough-job-but-someone’s-got-to-do-it attitude (tongue in cheek of course – so actually with great relish).

A few notable observations:

Jim Beam hasn’t become the world’s best-selling bourbon by accident; the White Label is a solid performer – basic and dependable like vanilla ice-cream but with sprinklings of pepper and orange zest to add a bit of interest.  Selling at R150 odd this is just astonishingly good value for money.  Its Black Label big brother is similar, but, as you’d expect for an eight year old, more evolved – the peppery spice having now mellowed and sweetened, and transformed into peppermint or perhaps aniseed.

If you have any intention of taking bourbon seriously then you need to pay close attention to the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  These guys are prolific innovators who produce a range of high quality drinks – notably bourbon and rye whiskey.  We don’t have to their best stuff locally but don’t let this put you off: from the eponymously named Buffalo Trace, an excellent entry-level bourbon with a sweet prickle on the nose and an orange ice-lolly stick note on the palate (to keep you jolly), and the well-balanced, grassy-flavoured Eagle Rare, to the outstanding Blanton’s, there’s enough on offer for satisfaction aplenty.

Sight is arguably the most powerful of our senses, or certainly the one that makes the most impression.  Appearances then are always likely to influence us.  Whether that’s right or wrong is a matter for the philosophers and in my mind largely irrelevant.  It’s just how it is.  That’s why I always like to give some consideration to packaging.  In this regard the Maker’s Mark wax capsule, Blanton’s horse and jockey closure and its distinctive globular bottle, the vintage George Dickel label (reminiscent of the Wild West), and the flask-like Woodford Reserve bottle are all standouts.

On to the serious business then.  I promised earlier to tell you what you need to know, so here it is.  We singled out four of the dozen as our collective favourites.  Our little panel, after an objective assessment, came to the conclusion that the best bourbons commonly available in South Africa are (in no particular order once again):

Maker’s Mark – great flavour, great looks, it’s the full package.

Knob Creek – dusty nose, potent kick of spice, pronounced wood influence; small batch is not just a sales pitch.

Blanton’s Single Barrel – immediately popped its head out of the crowd, complex, a trifecta (haha, think about it) of sweetness, spiciness and wood.

Woodford Reserve – deep, fragrant nose, multi-layered, pronounced rye spice; a big bourbon brazenly bragging of its copper pot-still provenance.

South Africa is a Scotch whisky market through and through.  Jamesons, Jack Daniel’s and, dare I say it, Firstwatch have made an impact – on the back of their brand power and pricing more than anything else – but by and large these have been exceptions to the norm.  It’s a bit of a pity that our awareness of and appreciation for other styles of whisky seems underdeveloped.  Or perhaps, more optimistically, it’s bit of an opportunity.  We now have an encouragingly broad selection of bourbons on our doorsteps.  And, without underselling this fine drink, in those go-big-or-go-home moments there’s just no substitute.  May the dram be with you.

Big thanks to luminaries Marsh Middleton, Bernardo Gutman, and Hector McBeth.

A salute to single malts

Pedigree in whisky…PATRICK LECLEZIO seeks out the proudest and the purest.

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

The sport of kings… To some it’s horseracing but to those of us who are better informed, it’s something altogether different. Yes, you know it, don’t pretend otherwise the love and enjoyment of whisky is as regal a pleasure as for which one might hope. That said, regardless of whether it’s the equine or ethanol variety, success on the field is most assured (albeit, I must add, neither guaranteed nor exclusive) with some pedigreed participation. A bit of breeding goes a long way and when it comes to whisky, there’s nothing more thoroughbred than the single malt. I recently had the rare opportunity to taste the flagship whisky, the purest of the purebloods, of the world’s leading single malt (and a few of its new releases to boot).

Single malts inspire awe – I’ve often heard the term uttered in almost hallowed tones – and rightly so, but I sometimes wonder whether many of these self-same utterers, and indeed the average whisky drinker, really understands what it is that makes them so special. A single malt is the product of a single distillery – and can be made from only one type of grain: malted barley. Typically they are produced using pot-stills, as is legislated in Scotland but elsewhere, interestingly, this appears to be more custom than law; Japanese distillers Nikka, for instance, produce an excellent ‘single coffey malt’ which, as the name suggests, is made in a column still. Single malts are distinct from the other styles of whisky –blends, blended malts and grain whiskies in the Scotch universe – but less so than one might imagine. The malted barley base and the potstill character are found also in blends (partially) and blended malts (entirely), and although it’s lesser-known to the whisky-drinking everyman, 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. The only element seemingly setting it apart is its single source provenance. Is this enough to warrant the aura? Is it of sufficient distinction?

No prizes for guessing, especially in light of my laudatory preamble, that the answer is yes. It turns out that the one point of origin is most definitely important: their unique stills, their local water, their people (focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part double-digit generations in the making), their heritage and indeed their very air (witness the Bunnahabhain dunnage) set single malts apart from other whiskies. A single malt is representative of a singular terroir and style; it is pure, it is distinctive, it is rare and limited – and bound to its birthplace (Cardhu Pure Malt be gone!) –- 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.

In this revered tradition, in this procession of greatness, there is one that stands above the rest – as a herald and a leader, and as an influencer and definer of events: the world’s best-selling single malt, and the first (and only) malt whisky to conquer the million case frontier – Glenfiddich. Not so long ago, single malt, the progenitor of whisky, was mired in obscurity, and denied the acclaim that it enjoys today. Most were used as fodder for blends; the few that were bottled in their own right were available only on home soil and primarily in independent bottlings. Glenfiddich led the charge, becoming, in 1963, the first single malt to be commercially exported outside of the UK, “effectively introducing the world to the single malt category”, to borrow a phrase, unreservedly, from their publicity machine.

I am a fan. The 15-year-old Solera is one of my favourite whiskies, and has been for a very long time; it’s an enduring classic, and I can recommend it without restraint: it’s rich, flavoursome, well-balanced, and reasonably priced – a great combination of attributes. I’m also particularly appreciative of the fact that these guys don’t pompously insist, like many of their compatriots – a losing battle if ever I saw one – on a preceding article (‘The’ Glenfiddich). The flames of my fandom were fanned (haha, sorry) recently when I had the rare – very rare! – opportunity to sample a dram of the legendary Glenfiddich 50-year-old. And what a treat it was. The nose displayed the type of marvellous, immediate complexity – an all-out, highly co-ordinated, flavour assault – that is only possible with highly cultivated, extended maturation. The whisky was rich, rounded, polished, with faint wisps of peat smoke, a lovely mellow warmth and silky mouth-feel, all of which were delightful but expected, and then, quite surprisingly, some litchi on the palate, before it stretched itself out into a long, lingering finish. It’s a whisky that I consider myself extremely fortunate to have tasted – one that I’m sure I’ll remember well into my dotage.

Glenfiddich is also about to launch two new variants onto the local market: the 14-year-old Rich Oak, and the 15-year-old Distillery Edition, contrasting but worthy whiskies. I’m heartened that in Glenfiddich we have a brand that’s not sending the bulk of its stock to the No Age Statement circus. They’re fortunate to be in this position, but well done to them anyhow for holding the line. The Rich Oak is a sweet and spicy, tender whisky, somewhat reminiscent of its Solera sibling, whilst the Distillery Edition is a robust, dry, peppery whisky bottled at cask strength – a satisfying 51% ABV. Each for its occasion.

One could make the claim, with some justification, that there’s no better breeding, no finer pedigree than a single malt; and if you pick your whiskies like you (should) pick your horses, then those from Glenfiddich, the valley of the deer, supreme amongst single malts in many respects, would be as good a bet as it gets. May the dram be with you!

 

What’s in a glass?

It may not be as important as what’s in the glass, but choice of glassware will materially influence the whisky drinking experience.  Patrick Leclezio reviews the options.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

If you’re a whisky cowboy riding about out there and exploring the range the weapon that you’re likely to be wielding more than most is a whisky glass.  A glass, if you think about it, is as basic as it gets: used for displacing liquid from bottle to mouth.  Is this worth worrying about?  Surely just about anything will do.  Well, actually, no. As with any of a wide array of ordinary, day-to-day products the features that distinguish one type of glass from another make only a subtle difference to its functioning; yet these can be sometimes be enough to both transform our experience of their use, and in many cases to command a substantial premium.  I recently assembled a panel of whisky luminaries – seasoned campaigners who’ve drawn just about every which glass from their holsters – to evaluate the various options available to us.

Our analysis focused more on casual drinking and less on professional tasting, where the opaque copita is king, but having said that we nonetheless gave due and full recognition to the appreciation of flavour.

The features that matter are both tangible and intangible; enjoyment, pleasure, even flavour are psychosomatic, so it’s important not to overlook or undervalue that latter class in a glass.  This notwithstanding in order of apparentness the conclusions from our review are as follows:

Shape

Some (many) whisky drinkers, much to their disadvantage, often overlook the aroma or nose (to use the proper parlance) of a whisky – which happens to be the most enabling medium through which to best appreciate the finer nuances of flavour, given that there are some 32 primary aromas but only five primary tastes.  A good whisky glass should taper inwards towards its rim, concentrating the rising vapours, hence promoting and focusing a person’s ability to savour the nose. Scottish manufacturers Glencairn produce the ideal glass for nosing – a bulbous receptacle at the base graduating into a narrow funnel towards the top; if I’ve had enough to drink I can almost swear that I can see the aromas swirling within it like an inverted tornado.  Doubters can employ a simple test to verify the significance of shape: stand a nosing-friendly glass side-by-side with a straight-walled tumbler and add equal measures of the same whisky (in our case we used the delicious Dewar’s 12YO) and water to both.  Nose one after the other and repeat – the difference is immediately palpable.

Rim

There are three factors relating to the rim about which we should be concerned: diameter, thickness and shape. 

The rim diameter should strike a harmonious balance between being too wide – thereby introducing sufficient area for vapour dispersal – and too narrow – obstructing the transition from nose to palate, especially for those of us with protruding proboscises (i.e. large schnozzes).  We found the Libbey 21cl L’Esprit du Vin glass to have the perfect dimensions – the inner rim measuring 45mm.

In terms of thickness there’s also a middle ground where drinking comfort becomes optimal, but this may be a matter of personal taste.  We tested a set of Normann Copenhagen rocking glasses whose chunky and cumbersome rims were almost suggestive of drinking out of a bowl.  Conversely the Glencairns are just too thin, too fine…whisky drinking requires a certain robust masculinity after all.

Lastly the shape of the rim can substantially enhance the experience of glass on lip, and subsequently of the introduction of the whisky into the mouth.  Riedel’s Vinum Single Malt glass is magnificent in this respect – a flared rim allows the whisky to pool at the lips before cascading over the teeth and onto the palate.  This glass does have its various drawbacks however: its curvature, its fragility, and its jaw-dropping cost combine to seriously inhibit one of whisky drinking’s greatest, most joyous rituals – that of toasting. 

Aesthetics and other intangibles

Design, clarity, weight, innovativeness, novelty, size and tradition all have a strong appeal; often this may not be explicitly and objectively explainable, but it is undeniable regardless.  I once owned a Mont Blanc pen (before I lost it, much to my chagrin); the shaft was ornate and substantial, the ink thick and lustrous, and the sight of it, well, it was arresting – I can still picture it perfectly now, in my mind’s eye, years later.  It was a beautiful, superbly-crafted instrument; still is I’m sure, to whoever found it.  But if I were to be measurably scientific, I’d have to say that I can write, and have subsequently written, with other pens – arbitrary, run-of-the-mill items – with much, if not exactly, the same observable results.  Yet, I definitely enjoyed writing with it, holding it, displaying it, impressing with it, far more than any of those others – for reasons that had nothing to do with its functional performance.  The experience of using it was special.  Similarly, even more compellingly – because its functional performance is undisputedly inferior – the straight-walled whisky tumbler, particularly its crystal incarnation, still occupies a certain pride of place amongst whisky lovers.  The guys at Spilhaus sent us a few of their finest examples – from Atlantis, Waterford and RCR – and we regaled in their use.  Their weight, or more descriptively, their heft, makes the suggestion of substance – of the glass, of the drink, and of the person.  It’s a serious glass for a serious drink – the badge of the gentlemen’s club tradition of whisky drinking, conveying affluence, power, civility and status.

And the winner is…

Once all these factors had been considered one glass towered above the others like a tippling titan: the Bowmore thistle glass.  It ticks all the boxes: a wide bowl, sitting on a thick, heavy base, curving pleasingly inwards before flaring to a well-proportioned rim.  It is not too small, not too large, sitting comfortably in the hand, and whilst its design may be deemed a bit tweed by younger, more modern enthusiasts, the thistle shape has a certain classic Scottish authenticity that will never be amiss for true adherents.  May the dram be with you – and in a damned good glass at that! 

Special thanks to Bernardo Gutman, Marsh Middleton, and Hector McBeth.

Out and about with whisky

The Cape Town episode.  It’s much more than just a collection of whisky bottles – Patrick Leclezio checks out the bigger picture at the Bascule Bar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I first heard about the Bascule it was with reference to its impressive assortment of whiskies – 400 odd back then, supposedly the largest of any bar in the Southern Hemisphere.  Subsequently each mention of it, in the press in particular, fixated on this same angle; and whilst it’s admittedly worth the boast – what whisky lover wouldn’t be intrigued – it has also placed the bar in a bit of a one-dimensional pigeonhole: “Ah the Bascule, that’s the place with the large selection, right?”.  Things have moved on since then.  Firstly, any whisky bar worth its salt, and there are an increasing number available to us, should offer satisfyingly vigorous variety, and whilst the Bascule’s is now over 500 strong, there are others that come close to or even exceed it.  Secondly, the Bascule is far more than the sum of its whisky parts; it would be a grossly missed opportunity (and an injustice) to remain ignorant of its wider charms.  In this spirit I decided to dedicate an evening, some quality time, to get to know the place in-depth.

The bar takes its name – in case you were wondering – from the nearby bascule bridge (a type of moveable bridge that employs counterweights to open and close, hence giving access to naval traffic), the only one of its kind in the country.  It, the bar not the bridge, is ensconced in the Cape Grace hotel, amongst the Cape’s finest and a recent recipient of high accolades (from the TripAdvisor website – second best hotel in the world in their 2013 Travelers’ Choice Awards).  In a case of narrowly averted tragedy, a less travelled road (back then) almost not taken, the bar didn’t figure in the hotel’s original plans.  It was an afterthought – its existence indebted to the then-owner’s passion for whisky.  This may go some way to explain its position in the lower reaches of the structure.  As inadvertent as this might have been it doesn’t suffer as a result of it; actually quite the contrary – the subterranean floor level, the tunnel-like passages, the restricted natural light, the ship-type staircase (a “ladder” in nautical speak), and the direct access to the quayside all combine to give the place a certain unique cachet.  It’s cosy and intimate, elegant in a welcoming and comfortable manner, and, as I was to discover, infinitely interesting and engrossing.

My host for the visit was Bascule manager George Novitskas.  We sat down together – in the delightfully opulent high-backed chairs installed during the recent renovations – over craft draughts from the Cape Brewing Company (what better than some skilfully brewed barley to break-in the palate), a bottle of Highland Park 12YO (still in my opinion one of the most complete Scotch whiskies on the market), and a couple of mouth-wateringly delicious Wagyu burgers (the meat coming from cattle originating in Japan, and renowned for being the self-same source of the world famous Kobe beef) . This burger is the star attraction on a well-considered, elaborate, but mostly tapas-based menu, which is primarily intended as a snacking accompaniment for patrons.  George is very particular on this point: the Bascule is a bar, not a restaurant…although those seeking more extensive fare can always order from the hotel’s main eatery.

Inevitably, obligatorily, the whisky discussion began with the much lauded collection, which includes highlights such as the Glenfiddich 50YO, the Glenmorangie 1963, the Laphroaig 40YO, the Ardbeg 1975, the Glen Grant 1952, the Highland Park 30, and the Dalmore 1978 – enough to keep the more (most?) demanding connoisseurs well-satisfied – but this is only the beginning of the bar’s whisky attractions:  whilst the classics and some winter warmers are already available, a bespoke whisky-specific cocktail menu is being created for the Bascule by one of the country’s top mixologists;  customers can request to have their whisky served with a perfect ice-ball, made using a Taisin copper press, one of the few, if not the only one, in the country; and the bar also offers an extensive program of whisky tastings and a well-subscribed whisky club.

It’s worth dwelling on these last two offerings. 

Whisky tastings are all the rage at the moment – for corporate functions, for bachelor parties, or just simply for one’s general enjoyment and enrichment.  The Bascule provides two types of tastings.  The first is a self-tutored ‘flight’ of whisky – basically three related whiskies presented on a tasting mat that is inscribed with relevant information.  This strikes me as an ideal vehicle for musing over a couple of drams easily and on short-notice, whether in one’s own company or as a shared experience. The second is a tutored tasting – offered at three levels – the Introductory, the Intermediate and the Sommelier’s Choice – and conducted by one of the bar’s managers, each of whom, along with the rest of the staff, would have been trained on Dave Broom’s World Masterclass series.  These tutored tasting also feature the growing and (very) agreeable trend of pairing food with whisky.

The Bascule whisky club almost defies belief.  Members enjoy the place as if they’re in their own homes – and effectively that’s the whole premise of the thing.  One of the values of the Cape Grace hotel is to make visitors feel like they’re at home, and it has certainly succeeded with the club; for a nominal annual fee members are allocated a bottle locker which they can stock at much reduced prices.  To the gregarious, whisky-loving gadabout, and I know a few, this is like the proverbial manna from heaven.  Throw in six special, catered tasting events, an end-of-year members’ party, and the option to use the club for one personal function, and you’ve got a package that’s almost too good to be true.  The Bascule also gives each member a crystal tumbler with their name engraved on it – a discreet, understated symbol of their special status.

I may be under the influence of the Orkney peat buzz, the memory of that delectable marbled beef, or the lingering pleasure of an evening well spent, so dim my effusiveness down a notch if you will: the Bascule Bar is quite simply magnificent. The whisky community has embraced it, celebrities flock to it, and both locals and tourists are drawn to it persistently.  If you’re a South Africa-residing whisky lover then it is imperative that you should visit…often.  May the dram be with you.

When Irish eyes are smiling

I recently met John Quinn, the Global Brand Ambassador for Irish whiskey Tullamore DEW and one of the consummate gentlemen of the industry, and I had the opportunity to put a few questions to him.

John Quinn watching over Tullamore DEW.

John Quinn watching over Tullamore DEW.

WOW: You’re the Global Brand Ambassador for Tullamore DEW.  Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work, and your time away from work.

JQ: Actually I don’t seem to have much time away from work these days as I’m constantly travelling – this week in RSA, last week in UK and the week before in South America. My job entails travelling the globe educating people about Irish whiskey and its history and characters and particularly talking about Tullamore DEW. On the announcement of my appointment a newspaper in Ireland wrote an article entitled “Is this the best job in Ireland?”. He might have been right – if I spent any time in Ireland !

When I’m not working I help manage a ladies Gaelic Football team – I know sounds strange but I enjoy it  when I’m at home. I also play golf most weekends, but please don’t ask me my handicap.

WOW: What do you most like and dislike about your job?

JQ: I love being in new places and meeting new people. I especially enjoy encountering new cultures and experiences. On this trip I visited Soweto – a fantastic experience giving an insight into South Africa, of yesterday, today and even of tomorrow. I also really enjoy the educational aspect of the job – it’s like being a teacher in a class full of very enthusiastic students – very rewarding. Dislikes would have to be the airport queues!

WOW: I would imagine that you meet a tremendous number of whiskey drinkers, and that you must have close insight into the latest developments in the market.  In your opinion what are the latest Irish whiskey consumer trends?

JQ: The growth of Irish whiskey itself is a worldwide consumer trend – growing at 20%+ per annum, much faster than any other whiskey category and even faster than any other international spirit category. Within Irish whiskey people are very interested in new expressions, particularly new finishes. Our own TD 12yo Special Reserve which is a triple blend is in vogue in many places while our 10yo single malt is an example of four-cask finishing, unique in Irish whiskey. The other big development is the interest in single pot still whiskeys, a small but very interesting category. New ways of finishing are always interesting, whether for blends, malts or pot stills

WOW: What sets Tullamore DEW apart from other Irish blends (such as Jameson)? What makes Tullamore DEW such a special whiskey?

JQ: Tullamore DEW is a triple distilled whiskey like most Irish whiskeys, but what makes it different is that it is also a triple blend. That is what makes it unique. Blended whiskeys tend to be blends of grain and malt whiskeys, such as blended Scotch. In Ireland we make a third type of whiskey known as “pot still” whiskey – this whiskey is unique to Ireland. Tullamore DEW is uniquely a blend of all three – grain, malt and pot still, matured is Bourbon and Sherry casks.  You ask about Jameson – it’s a wonderful whiskey. It’s a double blend of grain and pot still whiskeys. Bushmills, also a great whiskey is a double blend of grain and malt whiskeys. TD is a triple blend, so that what makes all of them different.

WOW: Irish whiskey is on the rise, led by the astounding performance of Jameson during the last decade.  What does the future hold for Irish whiskey, both in terms of volumes and styles?  How far and how wide can it go in the next ten years?

JQ: Who knows how far it can go. Both Tullamore DEW and Jameson have been leading the Irish whiskey growth globally in recent times. That is what you would expect from the two biggest brands. But there is still lots of room for more growth. For example Irish Whiskey sells 6m cases approx annually. The Scotch business alone is closer to 80m cases. So who knows what the potential can be – for sure the growth will continue as the brands enter new markets and introduce new expressions.

WOW: Specifically, in terms of Tullamore DEW, what new variants can we expect in the near-ish future?

JQ: Already in RSA we have the original and 12yo Special Reserve. We will introduce our 10yo Single Malt in the near future and we hope to have another older blend, fully matured by 2015. On top of that we do have plans to gradually introduce some small batches. Part of the difficulty has been that sales have exceeded forecasts for the past 15 years so we don’t have a lot of older whiskeys available just now. We are setting some aside though for the generations to come. On top of that we are building a new distillery in Tullamore to cope with the growing demand. This will also allow us to introduce new expressions

WOW: You’ve visited South Africa before.  What is it about the country you particularly enjoy?

JQ: I love the diversity in South Africa. The country is completely different from one region to another – The Western Cape is a world from Gauteng and vice versa – both physically and socially. I holidayed in the Cape a few years ago – it was fantastic. Jo’burg on the other hand is so vibrant, so exciting from a business perspective. We didn’t even get to Durban this time and I remember the importance of how that was different again. I also love the South African wine. I even had a chance to try some South African whiskeys and while more in the Scotch style they were very pleasant and interesting.

WOW: South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports, and Jameson too has performed well here. Why do you think whisk(e)y has become so popular in this country?

JQ: South African consumers are a dynamic bunch. The structure of society means a lot of new younger consumers are entering the spirits market and in many cases want to try drinks different from the parents – so whiskey seems to be taking over where other spirits once led, such as brandy for example. It’s often a case of people looking for new tastes and both Irish and Scotch offer these in abundance

WOW: Wood is generally acknowledged as the principal influence on the flavour of a whisky.  How prescriptive is the Tullamore DEW wood policy?  Is this something that you oversee directly or is it largely managed by Midleton and Bushmills?  Do you have any special / interesting / distinctive cask profiles?

JQ: We manage it very closely in conjunction with our colleagues at Midleton and Bushmills. In fact as part of the William Grants Group we have a very strict policy on cask purchasing and management. The good news is that in WGs we buy our casks from many of the same suppliers as those to Midleton for example so our policies are closely aligned and of course we work in close cooperation to ensure the qualities and styles of casks are in line with our preferences.

WOW: In this regard is the liquid that you buy from these distilleries custom distilled?

JQ: From Midleton we buy the column distilled grain whiskey and the pot distilled pot-still whiskey I mentioned earlier. The malt whiskey for the blend comes from the distillery at Bushmills, obviously this is pot distilled.

WOW:  Irish whiskey (and Scotch) once upon a time used a small measure of oats in its mashbills.  Is this something that you might consider doing for Tullamore DEW?  What would be its contribution to flavour?

JQ: Yes that is true but it is not practised nowadays. The distillery being built at the moment will be for malt and pot still whiskeys and we will be using barley for both. As you can imagine we need to ensure the whiskey retains its very popular flavour. Who knows – we might look at producing whiskey from oats in the future but it’s not part of the immediate plan.

WOW: We’re very excited about the new distillery that you’re building.  Can you share some of the details with us?  When do you expect to fire up the stills and start production?

JQ: The distillery will be a pot still and malt distillery and in time we will also add column stills for grain whiskey distillation. It will be the only distillery in Ireland producing all three whiskey types. We expect the first spirit to start running from the pot stills next summer (July/August) – it is so exciting for all of us and particularly for me – the old guy

WOW: Are there plans for you to launch new brands once things are up and running, or will this distillery be dedicated to the production of Tullamore DEW?

JQ: The initial plan is for dedicated production of TD – but I expect we will look at the possibility of expanding our range as time passes – nothing hard has been planned in that regard though

WOW: What do you drink when you’re not drinking Tullamore DEW?

JQ: I love Hendricks gin and tonic, I enjoy wines of all styles but particularly Chardonnay/Chablis style in whites and Reds of all styles and countries. I enjoy a good beer when I’m thirsty but more often than not I will have a cider as I’m a coeliac (gluten allergy) so beer, sadly, is not good for me

WOW: Lastly, how do you prefer to drink your whiskey when you’re just having a casual dram with friends?

JQ: Either, with two cubes of ice or if it’s summer time I like with long with apple juice (freshly squeezed if possible – I had a great one at Cape Grace!) or with ginger ale. If it’s one of the older expressions I tend to drink it neat, slowly in a heavy crystal glass and with my eyes closed……

The lone wolf of the north

What does an isolated distillery in the upper reaches of Scotland have to do with the fair city of Cape Town?

First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Note: Apologies on behalf of Prestige Magazine for the factual error in the second paragraph of the printed version.  Wolfburn is not a town.

Wolfburn?  Never heard of it.  I thought that my colleague was making this up.  She’d recounted that in an office nearby a group of guys, specifically one with whom she occasionally met up over a smoke, had claimed to have built a Scotch whisky distillery (called Wolfburn).  I was dubious.  Granted the owners of BenRiach and GlenDronach happen to be Capetonians, but this isn’t Speyside; by and large whisky producers don’t exactly grow on our indigenous trees in the Mother City. It was worth investigation. So it was that a little later, over a glass of orange juice (I had been hoping for new-make Wolfburn, having heard that the stills had begun production in January), I met with one of the owners, an expatriate Scotsman who’d gathered up a team of local investors, to learn a bit more about this intriguing situation.

Wolfburn is located in the far northern Highlands, close to the towns of Thurso and Wick, the latter once having been a major fishing hub.  In the mid-nineteenth century upwards of a hundred thousand fishermen would descend on the area during the season.  This was hard work on a cold, rough sea and it invariably stoked their already considerable thirst for whisky.  There were two distilleries serving this demand, one of which was the original Wolfburn – named after the crystal-clear, pristine stream from which the distillery’s water, then and now, was and is drawn.  Few records remain, just a few references in excise documents, and there’s nothing left of the physical structure.  The only link to the past is in the name and the general location.  I found this sad in a sense – I’ve always been enchanted by the stories and the heritage of Scotch whisky – but we tend get caught up in the romance of history, and we often don’t realise that it comes with its burdens.  Old does not necessarily mean good, and old definitely does not mean efficient.

Freed of these shackles whilst honouring its predecessor nonetheless, the new Wolfburn has been designed to be as efficient as possible, but true to the spirit of whisky.  Its processes, equipment and layout are modern, but it operates on an entirely manual basis, with no computerisation whatsoever.  “It’s the right thing to do”, I’m quoting the visionary behind Wolfburn, “in a world where the bog corporates are building bigger and bigger soulless whisky factories that are barely even distilleries in the real sense of the name”.  This is the type of raw candour that stirs my blood; perhaps we have a new Mark Reynier entering the trade.  Wolfburn then is an up-to-date re-envisaging of whisky-making from the golden age. 

Producing whisky from scratch is an expensive and precarious endeavour; there’s no revenue for at least three years post ignition, and no significant profitability until long thereafter.  Not forgetting of course the usual business risks that come with any new venture.  Efficiency thus is key.  The core team assembled to make this philosophy a reality is made up of General Manager Shane Fraser, a long-time servant of whisky who’s worked at stellar distilleries such as Glenfarclas, Oban and Royal Lochnagar, and Mashman Matt Beeson who was stolen from the beer trade, where mastery of mashing is paramount.  No shortage of pedigree clearly.

What then of the whisky?  Because at the end of the day that’s what really matters.  The malt (made from Optic barley by Munton’s of Yorkshire) is all unpeated, and the still shape is similar to those at Glenfiddich.  The new-make – sadly missing at our meeting I’ll repeat (hint hint) – has had its flavour described as follows: “lovely malty notes with some great nuttiness”, and is being filled into a pleasingly broad variety of casks which should give the Master Distiller a splendid foundation for vatting: first-fill Bourbon barrels, first-fill Sherry hogsheads, second-fill Sherry butts, and second-fill Bourbon quarter casks (the first-fill was an Islay malt so the flavour  from these last casks is expected to be subtly smoky).  There are plans to sell young whisky, probably largely composed from the quarter casks, where maturation might be advanced because of the relatively extensive wood contact, but there’ll be no other compromises in pursuit of quick cash.  You won’t find Wolfburn in a blend (or a blended malt), you won’t find an independent bottling of Wolfburn, and you won’t find Wolfburn “spirit” (white dogs and whatnot).  The strict ethic that has been instituted calls for the production in its entirety to be dedicated to bottlings of proprietary single malts.  Go big or go home.

Wolfburn dunnage

Wolfburn dunnage.

Whilst we’ll all have to wait some three odd years before tasting the whisky, one can stake a claim pretty much immediately.  The first release – limited to 500 bottles – is already being sold at £135 per bottle, and disappearing rapidly I’m told: more than a quarter of the stock is gone.  Interested parties can send an email to info@wolfburn.com to get their purchase rolling. 

The pricing may seem steep for a whisky of barely legal age, but consider that although a few new distilleries have been commissioned in recent years it’s still a hell of a rare thing to own an inaugural bottling.  I’m not a speculator myself but this appears to be worth a long-term punt.  I know I speak for many whisky lovers though when I say that if I were to buy I would do so not for the investment but for the satisfaction that I would be one of the first – ever and for all time – to savour this sweet nectar.  And the almost fraternal Cape Town connection should make it all the sweeter.  May the dram be with you.

Out and about with whisky

The Islay episode.  A trip to the Big Smoke.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2013 edition).

As it appeared - p1 & p2.

As it appeared – p1 & p2.

As it appeared - p3.

As it appeared – p3.

 

I share a tradition with a great mate of mine: whenever we see each other the one who’s done the travelling will bring the other a good bottle of whisky.  It’s not expected, it’s something that has just evolved, unspoken; it happened one day and has kept happening since.   Unfortunately we don’t see each other often – a factor of distance and circumstance – but when we do we tend to sit down over a series of solid drams, partaking of the seamless camaraderie and easy conversation that comes from long acquaintance.  I’m describing a synergy, I would think, with which many whisky lovers can identify – whisky and friendship each enhanced by the other.  Recently, when I had it in my mind to embark on a whisky pilgrimage, he was the first person I contacted to accompany me.

There are many conceivable places to which one could travel to pay homage at the altar of whisky, but I’ll venture out on a limb in an attempt to narrow the field: the location of most significance, the Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome of whisky, the area on earth more than any other imbued with its very soul, is a waterlogged little island, stranded in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, called Islay.  I ascribe this bold, rather categorical assertion to two observations:

Firstly, most obviously, is the voluminous presence of peat – the spongy, semi-decomposed vegetation to which the heritage of malt whisky is inextricably linked. It is at the heart of the lore. In the auld days it was peat which was most prolifically used to arrest the germination of barley and hence produce the malt for whisky.  Its contribution went beyond the functional purpose of creating a heat source, stretching into the essence of the whisky itself.  The smoky flavour which it imparts came to be a signature if not a defining feature of Scotch whisky.  And of all the whisky places in the entire whisky world there is none more synonymous with peat than Islay.

Secondly, less obviously from afar, but quite evident once you arrive, is the dedicated, unwavering, wholehearted, fixated focus on whisky.   Notwithstanding the sheep we spotted (and the odd cow), the few crops we were told were being grown somewhere (but of which we saw no signs), and the occasionally lines that are likely cast in the water, there’s not much else happening on Islay other than whisky, whisky and more whisky.   I doubt that there’s any other self-contained area in the world that’s more committed to whisky – to the exclusion of everything else – than this curious place, which has fittingly established itself as one of the five official whisky regions of Scotland.

So Islay presents itself convincingly and self-assuredly as a destination of preference for the whisky tourist.  Getting there however is another matter entirely; combine the obscure geography with foul weather and you get what can often turn out to be a logistical challenge.  Our hideously-expensive, short flight from Glasgow – less than a third of the distance from Durban to Joburg, some three times the cost – was cancelled because of a bank of low-lying clouds prevailing over Islay’s Glenegedale Airport, throwing our plans into disarray.  We started frantically evaluating alternative options.  Another airline?  There are none servicing this route (or any other route into Islay).  Renting a car and catching the ferry?  There are only three ferries a day and we’d miss the last one.  Luckily, by outsprinting the others on the cancelled flight to the customer services counter (with some measure of guilt, many of them being geriatrics), we managed to get ourselves on the next morning’s flight (the only inbound flight on a Saturday).  The locals informed us that this was a regular occurrence, ostensibly the reason for the high cost of the flight (the airline probably has to feed and accommodate one in every three passengers).  There are thus, seemingly, a few vital qualities required of a potential visitor to Islay – persistence and flexibility.  Once there though prepare yourselves to enter an unparalleled whisky wonderland.

Islay is only 40 kilometres long by 24 broad yet it boasts eight distilleries within that small area – or rather, as was pointed out to me by an industry veteran, seven distilleries and a micro-distillery.  Short of gerrymandering a similar sized territory in Speyside, this is pretty much as impressive a distillery density as in existence; it takes no longer than an hour to drive from any one to any of the others (unless, like me, you opt for a few unscheduled stops on the side of the road to investigate the boggy peat banks dotting the landscape).  They range in scale from Kilchoman, the micro-producer, to Caol Ila, which devotes the bulk of its output to Diageo’s muscular blended whisky portfolio, most notably Johnnie Walker Black Label.

A quick aside at this stage to deal with the issue of pronunciation; Islay’s Celtic heritage is apparent in the names of its distilleries, which can be phonetically baffling to the uninitiated, but lyrical and meaningful once through the door.  This is important stuff.   You don’t want to be sitting amongst the locals at the White Hart in Port Ellen on a Saturday night butchering their language as you’re calling for a dram.  Indeed Islay (eye-la) itself is often botched as “eye-lay” or, most horrifically, “iz-lay”.  This cringe-worthy scenario is best avoided – read on.  The two distilleries (and whiskies of course) with which people usually have the most difficultly are coincidentally located adjacent to each other: Bunnahabhain (Bon-na-ha-ven), meaning “mouth of the river” and Caol Ila (Ka-lee-la), meaning “Sound of Islay”, the body of water over which it perches.  The quest for linguistic purity though is not always straightforward, especially in Scotland.  Even within its parent company, there’s no definitive consensus about Bunna’s pronunciation; some enunciate the first syllable as “bun” (as in a pastry), whilst others, including Distillery Manager Andrew Brown, opt for “bon” (as in Jovi).  Other pitfalls include the overtly deceptive Bruichladdich (brook-laddie), the more subtly deceptive Bowmore (bo-more), and the confounding Laphroaig (la-froyg), with its close cluster of vowels. The remainder, Lagavulin (la-ga-voo-lin), Ardbeg (ard-beg), and Kilchoman (kil-co-min), roll themselves altogether more easily off an anglicised tongue.

Whilst we were out exploring the Port Ellen nightlife (somewhat limited), and exercising our Gaelic proficiency (somewhat erratic), my mate decided to order an Octomore, famed for being the most highly peated whisky ever produced.  As I alluded to earlier peat is central to life on Islay; it has been used by the islanders (Islayanders?) as a source of fuel since time immemorial, and whilst it might be less commonly used for that purpose today we were told that some people still haul out their “fals” (purpose-built peat hewing tools) and cut peat for the sport of it.  Peat is in their blood, metaphorically, and in their whisky, literally, although more so in some than others.  The peat levels in whisky are measured in parts per million phenols (ppm), and each distillery pegs an approximate point on the phenol scale for the bulk of its production. Ardbeg for instance has a standard peating level of 55ppm, the highest on Islay (and anywhere else), but will occasionally vary it for specific products: Blasda is much lower, Supernova is much higher.

Peat smoke is the most easily identifiable flavour in whisky, which I think is why it resonates with certain people.  This is probably a contributing reason for Islay’s iconic status.  I remember as a novice feeling a sense of satisfaction (hey, I’m getting this!) from being able to spot a peated malt.  The smoky flavour typical to Islay malts is even more distinctly recognisable; it is pungent and intense with medicinal, briny, and iodic overtones, stemming from the seaweed, and other coastal vegetation and material (including shells), from which the peat was compacted, and from its saturation by ocean spray.  This flavour sets it apart from other peated whiskies, made using other differentiated sources of peat – Highland, Orkney, Skye and so forth.  The Octomore (fifth release), which weighs in at a throat-constricting 169ppm, might be an Islay malt in name, but with its malt sourced from Bairds of Inverness in the Highlands, it doesn’t share the same defining genes as its peated Islay brethren.

Our itinerary kicked off at Bowmore, situated conveniently close the airport – especially given our delayed arrival.  Bowmore and Laphroaig, which unfortunately we didn’t get to visit, are in a sense the most complete distilleries on the island, in that they both still do their own maltings, or, rather, a proportion thereof, on site – a practice which has largely died out.  The others source malt either from the industrial maltings at Port Ellen, or from the mainland.  Now, a cautionary note:  distilleries are factories; they’re quaint, they’re old (mostly), and they’re picturesque, but they’re still factories.  They may fascinate me personally but I have (just) enough self-awareness to realise that this sentiment is unlikely to be universal.  So I’m going to focus on something altogether more consensually exciting – the whiskies!  As we meandered our way from distillery to distillery, enjoying the desolate Islay scenery through a steadily increasing perceptual haze, we enjoyed the most awesome of all whisky tasting adventures.  The magnificent bar at Bowmore, where we were poured stiff drams of the 15YO Darkest, the 18YO and the 10YO Tempest, gave way to the more rustic surrounds of Bruichladdich.  Energetic, experimental, and prolific; this distillery can probably claim the widest range of products on the island – certainly in the past decade.  What it lacks in aged stocks (there was no production between 1994 and 2000) it makes up in daring.  I was particularly pleased to taste Nostalgia, a limited edition 20YO whisky fast-finished (or aced) in Gaja Barolo casks – and a typical example of the distillery’s style for pre-closure distillations.   Our final stop on the first day was Lagavulin, where we were hosted to a tasting in an old style drawing room.  One of my favourite Islay malts, the Lagavulin 16YO, was trumped by the Distiller’s Edition (effectively the 16YO turbo-charged by a further three to six months of extra maturation in PX casks), and by the incredible 21YO, a treat of whisky, although somewhat steep at about R4900 equivalent.  We settled ourselves into the comfort of the leather armchairs, and, before we knew it, closing time had come and gone.  The distillery staff had to pry us loose to eject us from the premises – the whisky was that good.

The treasures didn’t ease up on the next round of visits.  Bunnahabhain served up the recently launched 40YO (outstanding!) and some sherry casks of less common variety, Manzanilla and Amontillado amongst them.  The distillery is splendidly isolated (even from nearby Caol Ila) on the Northern coast of the island; its casks in dunnage virtually on the water’s edge, greedily inhaling the ocean influence.  Finally, we made our way to our last stop, to Ardbeg, to arguably, and I do argue it, the most beautiful and picture-perfect of all Islay’s distilleries.   The white-washed walls, the elegant pagodas, and the seemingly-manicured layout of it spoke of a place in which tremendous pride has been invested.  In our good fortune we had resided in a superb, newly-renovated cottage on the premises (which is available to guests for rental) during the length of our sojourn, so from ambling around the grounds and soaking up the atmosphere our anticipation had been gradually building.  Ardbeg, like Bruichladdich, has gaps in its aged stocks; it was closed from 1981 to 1989, and it only operated on a limited basis between 1989 and 1996.  Necessity is the mother of invention and if ever proof was needed then Ardbeg’s portfolio duly provides it.  Using relatively young whiskies they’ve created a complex, integrated, unique and increasingly acclaimed range.  The Uigeadail, Corryvrecken and Alligator passed our lips – soothed against the cold by Ardbeg infused balm from the cottage – like three prodigies bringing gifts of incense…well, you get the drift.

My intention had been for an epic trip – of fast friends, great whisky, and moments to remember; I wasn’t disappointed.  The writer Iain Banks once suggested: “If you can’t find a Bowmore to fall in love with, you may have to consider very seriously the possibility that you’re wasting your money drinking whisky at all”.  I think the same philosophy is true of each and every distillery on Islay.  May the dram be with you!

 

Conversation with a master

Meet Ian MacMillan, a Scotsman’s Scotsman and a whisky legend who’s been crafting epic drams for most of his life. I caught up with him when he was in Cape Town recently.

First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2013 issue).

More or less as it appeared.  A few typesetting issues in this version.

More or less as it appeared. A few typesetting issues in this version.

I met with Ian at Harbour House in the Waterfront. I can’t share with you the details of the delicious lunch that we enjoyed, or the delectable wine, or even the crisp sunshine of that magical Cape day. These diversions though, pleasant as they might have been, were unimportant In the context of the occasion.What I can share with you are a few privileged insights from one of the world’s foremost whisky experts.

You’re the Group Master Blender and Head of Distilleries for Burn Stewart. Tell us about your path to this auspicious position.

I’ve spent 40 years in the industry, learning the trade from the ground up, and covering all aspects of distillation. Also, I consider myself lucky to have been blessed with good organoleptic ability, which is crucial, and to have been helped and guided along the way by some great mentors.

How do you spend your time outside of whisky?

I’m a passionate rugby fan. I support Scotland of course, and the Cheetahs when I’m in South Africa. I also have a serious interest in wine, to the point that I have a diploma to show for it.

You’ve visited the country often. What’s your impression of South Africa?

I’ve been coming here for 10 years, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each trip. I love the people, I’ve cultivated great friendships, and I can look back on some memorable, unforgettable experiences.

Is there any particularly special moment that you can share with us?

I once drank whisky out of the Currie Cup, shortly after it had been presented to the Cheetahs when they won the tournament. Our brand Scottish Leader is the official whisky of the Free State Rugby Union, so we had special access to the victory celebration. Special enough? (Hell yes)

South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports. Why do you think whisky has become so popular in the country?

I’ve noticed that South Africans have cultivated palates, that they’re very inquisitive and keen to explore the differences evident in whisky, and that they’re highly motivated to become knowledgable about whisky. Correspondingly, for many years now, there have been lots of good people on the local scene who’ve been working to feed this fire and educate consumers about whisky.

Islay seems to have established itself as a whisky Mecca. Its peated whiskies have developed a cult following. Why do you think this is the case?

It’s a unique place – a small island accommodating seven distilleries and a micro distillery – and it has become iconic because it embodies the true tradition and style of Scotch whisky. Originally all Scotch was made by malting barley using peat fires. I can’t drink smoky whiskies all the time, but when I do I particularly enjoy Lagavulin.

I would imagine that the influx of tourists has risen steadily. Are you worried that this might change the character of the island?

No, not really. Islay thrives on tourism, which is great for the local economy. The inaccessibility of the place and the generally inclement weather puts a cap on numbers and keeps things under control.

Bunnahabhain is well-known as the least peated of the Islay whiskies – the ‘gentle taste of Islay’. In the past there have been significant peated expressions. Are there any plans in place to release new peated variants in the future?

Yes. We started distilling peated whiskies again in 2003, which we’ve infrequently put on the market as limited editions. A Bunnahabhain Mòine (gaelic for peat) 10YO is slated for release in 2014.

You recently launched an unchillfiltered range of Bunnahabhain, replacing the previously chillfiltered versions. Have you been happy with the reception that the new range has received in the market?

Absolutely. It has been a transformative initiative, and the response has been phenomenal. We were the first distillery to take an entire range unchillfiltered. It’s been personally very satisfying – I fought for this move for many years.

The conventional wisdom is that chillfiltration removes flavour, however I recently came across a blind tasting experiment in which a group of four experienced tasters unanimously preferred chillfiltered versions of the same whisky. Obviously it’s difficult to draw conclusions from such a limited sample, but it raises interesting questions. Perhaps chillfiltration in certain cases might remove offensive congeners and actually improve a whisky. How would you respond to such a claim?

It would depend on the whiskies involved, and on those individuals and their palates. Chillfilitration might well disguise or ‘correct’ an error in distillation and/or maturation. In terms of our whiskies at Burn Stewart, there is no doubt that they’ve been enhanced by the removal of the chillfiltration process. You might want to note that Dave Broom (a leading whisky writer) concurs.

Whisky has been made in much the same way for hundreds of years. What, in your opinion, is the most significant change that has taken place in the modern era?

I’m a traditionalist. I don’t believe that whisky making should be computerised and automated. I find it sad that some distilleries are now run with virtually no people. Taking away the human element destroys the myth and heritage of whisky, and eventually it will lead to a blandness in flavour.

What can we expect from Bunnahabhain – that you’re able to disclose – in the medium term?

Burn Stewart has only owned Bunnahabhain for 10 years. The only variant at the time of purchase was the 12YO. We’ve introduced 25 variants since that time. The Bunnahabhain spirit ages particularly well, and it’s an exciting whisky with which to work, so we’ll continue to experiment. I’m specifically very excited about Mòine.

What’s your favourite whisky, Bunnahabhain or otherwise, and how do you drink it?

Whatever’s in my hand when the question is asked! Seriously, whisky is a mood drink so my preferences vary accordingly. I appreciate many outside of our stable (I mentioned Lagavulin earlier). I have a great respect for others in the industry doing the same job.

And I usually drink my whisky with a dash of water.

A message from Ian to all Prestige Magazine readers: may the dram be with you!