Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The idiots guide to choosing a great whisky.

Scotch whisky is by far the dominant whisky in the world. Irish whisky is fast regaining its popularity. American whisky is mainly referred to as bourbon. Other countries also produce whisky, but these three countries dominate.

First and foremost, let’s clear up what is whisky or whiskey. Before it can be called whisk(e)y: It must be made only with natural raw materials, It must be distilled and matured in the country of origin e.g. Scotland, Ireland or America; It must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks in Scotland and Ireland and two years in America. The more premium the whisky the longer it is aged. Generally all whisky older than 10 years will show the age of the whisky on the label. Generally a low priced whisky will contain 3 year old whisky; a medium priced whisky will contain whisky from between 5 an 7 years. You get the drift – you generally get what you pay for. In whisky, unlike brandy – every drop in the bottle is as old as or older than the age stated on the label. Only 30% of standard brandy is at the age stated on the label.

There are two types of casks used in Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey; namely ex Bourbon barrels from the US or Sherry casks from Spain. The bourbon barrel produces a much lighter whiskey and contribute a vanilla flavour while the sherry cask produces a much darker whisk(e)y and contributes a toffee caramel flavour. So when you pour your whisky and look at the colour, you can already begin to suggest that if it is lighter it will have a vanilla nose and sound glam. If it is darker you can already suggest a nose of toffee caramel. American whiskey is aged in new oak barrels.

Why are some bottles clear and others green? When whisky is in a clear bottle the whisky producer will add neutral caramel to window dress the product for consistent look on shelf, when in a green bottle this is not needed.

What are the key things to note from a whisky label? First and foremost check the country of origin. Note that some whiskies are distilled and matured in the country of origin but bottled in South Africa. Then you want to know what you are paying for? The majority of whisky is blended Scotch whisky which means it is a blend of various single malt whiskies together with grain whisky. The more malt whisky in a bottle the more premium the whisky and the more expensive. The cheaper whiskies contain modest amounts of malt whisky. A Pure Malt whisky is a blend of single malt whiskies and a Single malt whisky is a single distillate from a single distillery. If you want to spoil yourself it must be a single malt whisky and if you want the best single malt Scotch whisky it has to be from Speyside in Scotland. Speyside contain more than half of the distilleries in Scotland for good reason.

Now for some dispelling of an old urban legend – the ‘A’ or ‘B’ number on the label. These are generally followed by a number e.g. 'B'372 or 'A'159. The 'A' stands for locally produced, the 'B' stands for imported and the number following is the dedicated number of the importer. You will find this number repeated on many product e.g. Chivas Regal will have the same number as Beefeater Gin and you will know then that this is from the same supplier and because it starts with a 'B' it is fully imported.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Whisky or Whiskey in a nutshell

by Mark Backhouse

written for Status Qua magazines next quarterly issue

Whisky has become a passion of mine. I did not mean for this to happen considering that I was a teetotaler into my early thirties. Alcohol tasted really bad, but I was determined to have a ‘drink’ I might enjoy occasionally. A great friend of mine suggested easing into whisky. He poured a single Jameson Irish Whiskey, added Ginger Ale, a slice of lemon and two cubes of ice. I had tried the same mix with a Scotch whisky previously but the triple distilled whiskey without the smoke just worked and I was hooked. This was my drink of choice for many years before I started to experiment with other possibilities.

It is therefore thanks to Jameson Whiskey that I have also become a Scotch whisky master, and that I have today, a fastidious penchant for great single malt whiskies. I am mostly partial to whiskies from the Speyside region in Scotland as many of these are hardly smoked.

I state two facts so far assuming know-how by you, this includes Scotch whisky regions and the term ‘smoked’; allow me to reveal the hidden meanings behind the smoking screen:
The Regions explained: There are 6 Scotch whisky regions in Scotland, namely: Speyside, Highland, Lowland, Islay, Campbelltown and The Island regions. Speyside is the champagne region for Scotch whisky. This statement seems bold but some facts that support this are: half of all Scotch whisky distilleries are in Speyside; that the world’s top 5 selling single malt whiskies all originate from Speyside; that most of the leading premium whiskies of the world’s central heart malts distilleries are in Speyside. Of the over 85 distilleries in Scotland, 49 distilleries are in Speyside. Enough said.

The most famous and leading Single Malts in the world that you may want to try are the two Speyside greats; Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. Then again the largest single malt drinking nation in the world - France chooses another Speyside great - Aberlour as their number one. Other exceptional Speyside single malt whiskies to try include: Balvenie, Longmorn, Macallan and Strathisla.

The other regions produce some exceptional whiskies. The Highlands have 20 active distilleries and the classic malts are probably Glenmorangie and Old Pulteney. The Lowlands is home to 7 active distilleries and here the classic is the only triple distilled Scotch malt whisky named Auchentoshan. Islay is home to 8 active distilleries and famous for smokey whiskies; the smokiest single malt from Islay is Ardbeg. Campbelltown is home to 2 distilleries and the most recognized single malt whisky is Springbank. The Island region is home to 6 active distilleries. Two great single malts from the Islands are Highland Park and Scapa.

Now for the second point – ‘smoked’ explained: Simply put, the raw material used in making whisky is barley and in the process of making whisky we need to dry the barley. It is at this drying stage that we add ‘peat’ (putrefied organic matter). This addition of ‘peat’ and the amount of ‘peat’ determines how smokey the whisky is in the final product we purchase at our local liquor store. In Ireland we use hot air to dry the barley and therefore Irish whisky is never disguised by a smokey taste. The Speyside region is distinguished for its distinct lack or minimal smoke flavours. The Islay region is the direct opposite, offering some challenging whiskies where the smoke in them is older ashtray followed by seaside notes of moist salty air and musty seaweed. Some are great examples and the best in my opinion is Laphroaig10 year old.

I am satisfied to have explained some basics about whisky, but the key is the actual drinking of whisky. Some typical sentences I had heard before I came to know whisky are: “Sacrilege!” usually followed by a smirk or a look of disgust – the kind that is meant to belittle you. “How can you mix it with water?” or “don’t dare add that soda to your whisky.” The best statement most often used is “they perfected it for many years and you destroy it by adding water!” I became very irritated by these whisky aficionados and even with whisky itself because in my mind snobs and old farts drank whisky. It turns out that these protagonists were simply misguided by years of urban legend and hand-me-down stories.

The art to drinking whisky is how you choose to drink it – just drink it that’s all. You will find the way you most prefer in your own time. I enjoy Jameson the same way I started drinking whiskey. I love Aberlour single malt with a splash of water and one block of ice added after. I spend the entire evening nosing the brilliant aromas with sips in between. I will only drink a whisky neat if it is more than 18 years old and only if a fine example of the expression. These are my choices – find yours.

To the non whisky drinkers, I challenge you to drink the healthiest alcohol beverage around. Whiskey measures zero on the CI table (clucose index table) even a diabetic sufferer may drink whiskey. If you are a brandy drinker you simply haven’t found your whisky yet. If you are an occasional drinker or cocktail drinker – mix it your way. Remember whisky was born as “the water of life”.

For those who have been paying attention and are irritated by my sometimes spelling “whisky” and other times “whiskey” I will explain. Scotch whisky is spelt with the ‘y’ at the end. Irish and American whiskey is with the ‘ey’ at the end. The most significant difference is in the plural where the entire world spells it ‘whiskies’ and only Ireland spell it ‘whiskeys’. There is one simple reason for this – the Irish were the first to make whiskey and this is Irish whiskeys claim of distinction.It is amusing how things change and one way or another seem to stay the same, I have a generous serving of the premium ‘Jameson Gold’ poured into a snifter ‘tulip’ shaped glass perched at the end of my desk waiting for me. Cheers! See you in the next quarter serving!

Monday, 20 October 2008

Sitting next to a man on a plane

How often have you heard that saying, "I was sitting next to a man on the plane . . .". Well I was sitting next to man on a plane last week. I was on my return flight from Johannesburg after four days.

I was ispired by this man's simple take on things and will quote my man on the plane, who said "an entrepreneur just does the things everybody else does, but does it without fail, consistently, and to the best of his ability - I've done this since I was retrenched from a state job and now my construction company turns R800 million per year. It took me years to realise how simple success is to achieve if you just keep punching at it. It's not rocket science at all. It's hard work."

I like!