Tag Archives: William Grant’s

Back to its roots

Whisky finds new inspiration from within.  PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along.  Familiarity is fickle lens.  Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you.  Until you do.  And even then it can be a while until it takes hold.  The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start.  Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently.  It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long.  Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future.  That future was in fact the elemental past.  The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.

There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”.  The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer.  These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time.  More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.

The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale.  This intuitively feels right.   What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself?  The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.

The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly.  In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer.  Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer.  The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness.  Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first.  Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer.   A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it.  The flame is now starting to flare.

With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed.  The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale.  I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours).  This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints.  A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours.  The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal.  This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures.  It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.

The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst.  We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment.  There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours.  In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service.  May the brew be with you.

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As it appeared – p1.

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As it appeared – p2.

Stocking up for spring – part 1

The new serving standard

First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2012 Edition).

As it appeared – page 1

As it appeared – page 2

Premium.  It’s the watchword of our times.  The online Oxford defines it as: “relating to or denoting a commodity of superior quality and therefore a higher price”.  I’ve simplified it to: “relatively extra” – specifications, quality, prestige…any or all of that good stuff.  Everybody wants premium.  And why not?  Life is too short to settle for less.

Whisky is no exception; in fact it’s the epitome of this phenomenon.  In the whisky world expensive, lavishly-packaged variants are being introduced on a weekly basis.  Older, better, more!  It’s exciting but also a little bit intimidating, because the bar (yes, I like my puns) is being set progressively higher.  For instance, it no longer seems enough, in a well-to-do home, to serve visitors the regular fare – a 12YO blended Scotch, the first step to premium, is the new minimum standard.

To properly appreciate this new game, and to make the most of it, one needs become familiar with the players.  This may be particularly relevant right now as we come out of winter hibernation, look to refill our liquor cabinets, and start entertaining afresh.  In the not-so-distant South African past, although there were others lurking about, the choice invariably came down to a straight contest between Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal 12YO.  One either preferred the huskiness of the former or the honeyed flavour of the latter (or, in many cases I’m sure, one just bought premium for premium’s sake).  No longer.  Whilst these two stalwarts still dominate the market, the repertoire of easily accessible options has expanded quite delightfully.

I recently sought out a few of Cape Town’s whisky luminaries and prompted them to gather at the Bascule, the city’s whisky HQ, to review the local pool of 12YO blended Scotch.  In the midst of some typical whisky-fuelled R&R (repartee and revelry) we somehow managed to string together a few coherent observations, précised below for your reading pleasure.  Enjoy, and may the dram be with you!

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Johnnie Walker is the world’s best-selling whisky.  Diageo, its owner, is much maligned in the whisky world, but one thing is clear enough: it takes nothing less than high-quality, highly consistent whisky to attain and maintain such lofty heights.  I found the nose somewhat brash, but if subtlety’s not the result then it’s not the objective either.  Rather, this is a bold and tasty mainstream whisky that hits each and every place on the Scotch trifecta – malt, peat, and sherry – and hits it hard.  And if you’re a young turk with a big swinging dick looking to make your mark in the world then there’s still no better way to announce your intent than by walking into a bar and calling for a Johnnie Black, yeah baby!

Chivas Regal

If Johnnie Walker is Scotch then Chivas is Speyside…in all of its debonair elegance.  In very broad terms the region has become known for the fruit and honey flavours which happen to be prominent in Chivas Regal.  The whisky’s official tasting notes also claim a slight smokiness, but this was beyond my ability to identify.  Perhaps it comes from char as opposed to peat.  Regardless, it’s not important.  Chivas is not about smoke, or anything so robust.  It is understated refinement personified.  Interestingly one of our party noted that this is not a distinctively whiskied whisky – apparance of its cereal origins is restrained, and dominated by sherry notes.  Indeed to a novice it might be difficult to distinguish from a similarly aged cognac or rum.  I’d perhaps venture to suggest that this is a whisky for all seasons.

Grant’s 12YO

This new kid on the block comes from a pedigreed background.  It’s a blend in which we can assume the famous Glenfiddich and Balvenie malts, emanating from the same hallowed stable, to be at the forefront.   Sadly for this fine whisky my attention was diverted by a claim which seems rather forced: “Grant’s 12 Year Old is the only blended Scotch whisky to ‘marry’ the finest 12 Year Old grain and single malt whiskies for six months after blending in bourbon casks”.  Technically this may be true, but it’s not quite as impressive as it sounds.  Dewar’s (and W&M) has a long tradition of marrying whisky, albeit in sherry casks, and one of the variants of the local Three Ships, albeit not a Scotch, is married in bourbon casks.  The good news – for peat freaks in particular – is that Grant’s is the smokiest whisky in this category.  Phenol-menal!  Kudos too on the best packaging amongst the lot.

Ballantine’s 12YO

The regular Ballantine’s is my favourite blended Scotch in its price category.  It reminds me of my time in Rome when I spent many an evening pondering the spectacular sights, glass in hand.  And big brother does not disappoint.  A flavoursome and interesting all-rounder – my personal runner-up.

J&B Jet

Jet’s mild flavours won’t start a party in your mouth; rather this is a whisky that’s ideal for newer initiates, and for occasions when fuller flavours might be distracting.  Fresh but not vivid – perfect as an aperitif on a spring evening.

Dewar’s 12YO

I’ve kept the best for last – and that’s not just my opinion.  Each of the heavyweights at our gathering concurred, with no hesitation whatsoever.  This whisky is magnificently integrated – it displays superb balance not only amongst it complex flavours, but also between nose, palate and finish – and is completed by a smooth, silky mouth-feel.  Hugely underrated.

Big thanks to Hector McBeth, Marsh Middleton and Bernard Gutman.

12YO blended Scotch preview

Whisky – if you’ll excuse this statement of the obvious – has been premiumising steadily in recent years.  New, expensive, lavishly packaged variants are being introduced on a weekly basis.  Older, better, more!  It’s exciting but also a little bit intimidating.  The bar is being set higher and higher, with direct impact on our daily lives.  As an example – it no longer seems enough to offer one’s guests the regular stuff.  Perhaps this is just my peculiar point of view, but I suspect that it rings true for many of us.  A 12YO blend seems to be the new minimum standard.

For this reason I’m embarking on a review of the major 12YO blended Scotches available on the South African market.  If this is the new game then I reckon someone should be carefully checking out the players and sizing them up against each other.

I’m kicking off the review with a tasting – for which I’ve enlisted some of Cape Town’s whisky luminaries to assist.  Marsh Middleton, Bernard Gutman, and Hector MacBeth will be joining me at the Bascule tonight to sample the following whiskies:

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Chivas Regal

Ballantine’s 12YO

Dewar’s 12YO

J&B Jet

Grant’s 12YO

One of the whiskies we’ll be tasting.

If you happen to be in the area please join us for a dram and a chat.  There’s nothing better than whisky and good company – generally but particularly on a miserable, stormy day like this one.

The review will be published in the September issue of Prestige Magazine, and then on this blog later in September.

May the dram be with you!