Monday, 19 October 2009

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. B372 or A159. 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 form the same supplier and because it starts with a B it is fully imported.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Havana Club Rum - the world's fastest growing spirit

Distributed by Pernod since 1994, Havana Club is the leading Cuban rum sold in France and is the fastest growing spirit in the world today. Created in 1878, the brand is named after the famous Havana bar, the Havana Club. Authentic and festive, this "ron" with intense character is made from the best Cuban sugar canes, using the traditional methods of master rum makers. An international benchmark for Cuban rum.
Havana Club Añejo Blanco
A "ron" full of lightLight colours, delicate flavours … Havana Club Añejo Blanco is the lightest of the "añejos". The result of a long process of sugar cane transformation, this rum aged in white oak barrels reveals attractive, slightly sandy tones and rich, smooth flavours. Authentic, it is the perfect ingredient for traditional Cuban cocktails

Havana Club 3 Year old
Delicate fruity notes Rum with a subtle, supple flavour, Havana Club 3 years offers wooded notes, combining the flavours of toffee, vanilla, chocolate and spices. Aged for 3 years in oak barrels, until it achieves its delicate straw-coloured shades, this fruity "ron" can be enjoyed neat, with or without ice, or in cocktails.

Havana Club Especial
Exceptional fullness A distinctive association, Havana Club Especial brings together several rums cask-aged for up to 5 years, combining the lightness of young crus with the intensity of more mature "rons". This rum with its dark colours and fine roundness offers a floral fragrance of sugar cane and spicy notes of honey, vanilla and cinnamon

Havana Club 7 Year old
Complexity full of flavour With a beautiful mahogany colour, Havana Club 7 Year Old presents powerful and complex aromas. Obtained from rums aged for at least 7 years in oak barrels, this "ron" of remarkable quality has a very rounded bouquet and persistent taste, with flavours of cocoa, coffee, tobacco and spices.

Havana Club 15 Year old
An intense, gourmet rum Complex aromas, gourmet flavours of cream, almond, vanilla and toffee. Havana Club 15 Year Old is an incomparable blend of rums resulting from a long process of ageing in white oak barrels, for at least 15 years. A rum of great character, intense, supple and fragrant

Havana Club Maximo
A rare association Made specially by Don Navarro, the most experienced master rum blender in Cuba, Havana Club Maximo is a unique amber-coloured "ron", considered to be "the supreme expression of Cuban rum". This alliance of extra-old rums of great finesse is presented in a precious crystal carafe with elegant lines, blown using traditional techniques and numbered by a master glassmaker.

An ancestral rum

Cuba has become known as the "Isle of Rum". A sugar cane with a global reputation (introduced in 1493 by Christopher Columbus), the favourable Caribbean climate, a fertile soil and the unique skills of Cuban "Maestros Roneros" (Rum Blenders) have all contributed to establishing this image. The inhabitants of Cuba, as well as sailors and adventurers, used this exceptional sugar cane to make fermented nectars and the "tafia" that would later become Cuban rum.
In the early 19th century the quality of the rum began to improve considerably with the introduction of copper stills and the first attempts at ageing, thanks to the efforts of Pedro Diago, now considered the father of Cuban rum. It was his idea to store the eaux de vie (aguardientes) in pots buried in the ground.

In the second half of the 19th century, a lighter, more refined rum was produced: "Ron Superior". This was developed on the instructions of the Spanish Crown, which was seeking a more delicate rum capable of satisfying "the court and the elite of the Realm". "Ron Superior" was the forerunner of today's Cuban rum. A light, smooth, delicate rum, crisp and exceptional straight or in cocktails. It proved so popular that by 1860, there were over 1,000 distilleries in Cuba.

Today Havana Club, the leading Cuban rum in Cuba and worldwide, embodies the heritage of Cuban rum production. Based on the unique skills of its Maestros Roneros, Havana Club has maintained the art of "Añejamiento" at the heart of distilling, ageing and blending of premium

But the name Havana Club, which is an integral part of Cuban culture, also captures the unique atmosphere of Havana, the capital of Cuba. The finest proof: the life-loving Cuban people are the true ambassadors for Havana Club. They have made it a national icon.

The know-how of master rum-makers

The sugar harvest: this takes place during the month of December, in the dry season. The "Macheteros" proceed with cane extraction. Crushed, it produces rich, creamy black molasses (called "mieles" – literally honey - in Cuba).
Molasses purification: cleaned of all undesirable elements, the molasses are submerged in the purest spring water. Yeast is then added to this mixture, called the "baticion": the molasses ferment for around thirty hours.

Distillation: the volatile alcohol is released from the molasses through copper distilling columns. The precious "aguardientes" or pure spirits and eaux de vie are collected at the end of this operation.

Ageing: The "aguardientes" are then aged in unique ageing cellars, their walls lined with casks, filled with the aromas of wood, sweet almond and blond tobacco. To ensure that the mixture is imbued with the most intense aromas, no detail is left to chance. The casks are chosen with care, depending on the wood used to make them, their age and the spirits they previously held. The degree of aeration and humidity is strictly controlled. After a year and half of ageing in white oak casks, the alcohol content of the eaux de vie is reduced to 54°. They are then purified by settling over active charcoal, which removes any remaining impurities: a typical Cuban method.
Blending: the work of master blender Don Navarro, the different elixirs are blended in big oak vats. A pure sugar cane distillate is then added to the mixture before filtering it again. The most refined aguardientes, "Añejos" or matured rums, will develop over the months.
The colourful Cuban rum Havana Club Especial is perfect for Cuba Libre (see Cocktails). Havana Club 3 Year Old is perfect for cocktails such as the Mojito, Daïquiri or Collins. Havana Club 7 Year Old, 15 Year Old and Maximo are ideal for drinking as a digestif.In order to discover all the aromas of rum, we recommend drinking Havana Club in special glasses. Effectively the shape of the glass is a key factor in the quality of olfactory perception. For optimal tasting, rum should be served in tulip glasses, with a slightly enclosed upper rim. These are preferable to wide-based or over-large glasses, for example.
The recommendation of master rum blender Don José Navarro, Havana Club's premier "Maestro Ronero": The fruit of ageing and careful blending, Havana Club 7 Year Old and Havana Club 15 Year Old marry perfectly with the aromas of a Cuban cigar. Two island specialities of excellent quality, whose subtle aromas lend themselves perfectly to the most sophisticated tasting experience.
Cuba libre :- 3 measures of Havana Club Especial- 7 measures of cola- 1 slice of lemon- 2 or 3 ice cubes
Mojito- 1 measure of Havana Club 3 Year Old - ½ spoon sugar- Juice of half a lime- Crushed fresh mint- 2 or 3 ice cubes- Dilute with sparkling water
Daiquiri- Shaker- 1 measure of Havana Club 3 Year Old - ½ spoon sugar- Juice of ½ a lemon
Collins- 1 measure of Havana Club 3 Year Old- ½ spoon sugar- Juice of half a lime- 2 or 3 ice cubes- Dilute with sparkling water se

Excerps and pictures from website

Ballantine's Whisky Leaves an Impression

Distilled in Scotland for over a century, Ballantine's has become a veritable benchmark in the world of scotch whiskies.The producers of Ballantine's were the first to recognize the benefits of long ageing in the barrel. This technique, previously reserved for ports or fortified wines, gives Ballantine's premium whiskies their very distinctive flavour.

Ballantine's is the 2nd largest whisky in the world today with sales of 6.4million 9 litre cases worldwide equating to 2 bottles every second being purchased. Ballantine’s has won over 60 trophies and medals in the last 10 years at international competitions.

Ballantine's Finest
The refinement of aromas since 1910Both subtle and elegant, Ballantine's Finest is the most famous whisky in the Ballantine's range. Produced from over 50 single malts, it reveals an inimitable, perfectly balanced taste. Delicate nuances of chocolate, apple and vanilla make this blended scotch whisky a "must".
In the spotlight Colour: Pale gold.Nose: Deep, with spicy notes.Palate: Well balanced with hints of chocolate, apple and vanilla followed by a delicately floral finish.Finish: Sophisticated final notes add a fresh and floral touch.

Ballantine's 12 Year old
Complexity of aromasBallantine's 12 Year Old is a premium blend revealing mellowness and complexity. It is produced by selecting and combining over 40 malt and grain whiskies aged 12 years and over.Launched in the 1950s, Ballantine's 12 Year Old is recognised as an international benchmark for premium scotch whiskies.
In the spotlight Colour: GoldenNose: Notes of honey, sherry sweetness and oaky aromas.Palate: Mellow and complex, floral, revealing notes of honey, vanilla and oak.Finish: Long, fresh and slightly salty.

A Scottish adventure
The brand's beginnings date back to 1827, when George Ballantine opened a grocery store in Edinburgh and sold whiskies selected for their high quality. He went on to specialise in the wines and spirits trade, then to creating and perfecting his own blended whiskies. George Ballantine was then appointed supplier to the British royal family.To cope with the growing demand, he asked his second son to go into business with him, and founded George Ballantine and Son Ltd. The company then began to export and expanded fast.

In 1895, the company was granted the Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria, rewarding the prestigious reputation acquired by Ballantine's in high society.
In 1919, the Ballantine family accepted a buy-out offer from Barclay and McKinlay. The new owners undertook to develop Ballantine's as a commercial brand, thereby promoting the excellent blends they had inherited.

In 1937 the company was rewarded by a Grant of Heraldic Arms, recognising George Ballantine & Son as an "incorporation noble on the Noblesse of Scotland". The heraldic arms that decorate the Grant still appear on bottles of Ballantine's today. The label reflects the key ingredients for making Scotch whisky and is the only whisky to do so.
Since then, Ballantine's has developed to become the leading seller of Scotch whiskies in Europe, and the 2nd global brand of scotch whiskies. Bought by Pernod Ricard in 2005, the brand has been distributed in France by Pernod since January 2006.

An association of character

Ballantine's blended scotch whiskies combine malt and grain whiskies from the most famous regions of Scotland, to create elegant, balanced scotch whiskies of unique complexity.The age shown on bottles of Ballantine's corresponds to the youngest whisky used in its composition.
Two signature malts give Ballantine's its identity and style: Glenburgie and Miltonduff.
Opened in 1810, the Glenburgie distillery is one of the oldest in the Speyside region. It produces a single malt that gives sweet notes of fruit to Ballantine's.- The Miltonduff distillery, also in Speyside,. has produced a floral malt with soft vanilla notes since 1824.Ageing in oak bourbon casks gives it vanilla notes, revealing the floral and lemony characters of the malts.
Each malt and grain whisky therefore offers its own character, whose blending is skilfully orchestrated by the cellar masters to produce the Ballantine's range of premium scotch whiskies.
This range is therefore the result of the work of a dynasty of cellar masters who, in the tradition of George Ballantine, use all their skills in the service of making high quality Scotch whiskies - complex, elegant and balanced.

How to taste

The taste then confirms the olfactory analysis. Take a small mouthful and swirl it around your mouth so that it comes into contact with all areas. Identify:The body: is the texture, the sensation in the mouth, oily, silky, round, velvety, hard?The palate: is the flavour of the whisky spicy, wooded, malty, fruity?The finish: is the taste of whisky remaining in your mouth rich, prolonged, light, dry?

When to drink
We recommend drinking Ballantine's whiskies as an aperitif or digestif, neat, with mineral water or on ice.
Ballantine's Finest makes a great aperitif, ideally as a whisky sour: shake together 4 cl Ballantine's Finest, 4 cl lemon juice and 2 cl cane sugar syrup in a shaker with a few ice cubes and serve in an "old fashioned" type glass, decorated with a twist of orange peel.

Excerpt and pictures from the website.

Aberlour Single Malt Whisky

We all have our soft spots - mine is Aberlour.
Winner of 16 gold medals at the International Wine & Spirit Competition, Aberlour is the jewel of whiskies. The inheritance of carefully-preserved skills, these single malts are made in the distillery of the same name, in the renowned Speyside region, a veritable "golden triangle" for malts in the Highlands of Scotland. Combining excellence and purity, they have a taste of unique complexity, with rich and authentic aromas. Aberlour is 'The Definitive Single Malt Taste'.

Aberlour 10 Year old

Roundness and balance.A well-rounded blend with a spicy finish, Aberlour 10 Year Old is a single malt offering both complexity and a perfect balance. Aged in old oak bourbon or sherry casks, it reveals delicate sherry and honey notes, with hints of mint and toffee.

History has it that well before the Christian era, Celtic Druids from Ireland founded communities in Scotland before emigrating to the East. Druids settled close to a source of very pure spring water. Convinced that the waters were haunted by spirits, they called the place "Aberlour", meaning in Gaelic "the mouth of the chattering burn".

In 1879, James Fleming set up the Aberlour distillery on this legendary site in the eponymous village of Speyside, at the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

Today, Aberlour is the 5th largest selling single malt whisky worldwide. Aberlour 10 Year Old Single Malt is available throughout South Africa at liquor stores and all reputable restaurants, pubs, clubs and hotels.

Aberlour 10 Year Old Colour: A beautiful amber colour with slight reddish-gold tints.Nose: Malty, smoky notes, typical of Scottish malts. The aromas are dominated by fruit esters: plum, apple and pear characteristic of great Speyside Malts. Palate: Balanced and complex, slightly creamy with soft aromas of sherry, honey and toffee. Finish: Long and warm, with spicy notes.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Article 2 for Status Qua magazine

All things French by Mark Backhouse

I trust that you enjoyed our whisky journey in the previous issue and that you tried some new whiskies.

The part of the ‘drinks’ world we cover in this issue is all things French. The French don’t merely drink a spirit; they own the complete category of spirit. Champagne, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and ‘Pastis’, are some categories unique to the French. Even with wine the French differentiate: they have wines such as Bordeaux, Chablis and more.

When it comes to presentation - Champagne is foiled and wrapped in glamour, Cognac bottles bold and ornate almost perfume-like, while Armagnac and Calvados bottles are snuggled with slim wood shavings in hand-made engraved wooden boxes. When we drink these world famous French spirits we use flutes for Champagne, a Cognac snifter for Cognac, a white wine glass for Armagnac, a Tulip glass for Calvados - we follow etiquette carefully. We have detailed rituals to ensure the correct consumption of these premium luxury spirits.

Champagne can only be produced in a defined area** of north east France. Two abbeys became the birthplace of naturally sparkling wine which was created by two cellar masters, Frère Jean Oudart and Dom Pierre Pérignon (not to be mistaken for the Champagne which was first produced in 1936). Champagne is essentially a wine with bubbles. The bubbles are achieved with in-bottle fermentation*, which was not always the case - sparkling wines were the result of an accident. When shipped abroad in cask, warm spring weather frequently set off a secondary fermentation in the cask. When the wines arrived at their destination, they were bottled immediately and retained a lively sparkle. This sparked the deliberate attempt to capture the ‘mousse’ in the bottle. Better Champagne is aged from two to three years in underground cellars. (The Romans quarried the chalky hillsides in Champagne up to three hundred feet deep, for chalk building blocks. Today the chalk pits are cellars for millions of bottles of Champagne). Famous Champagne producers are Mumm, Perrier-Jouët, Bollinger, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Laurent-Perrier, Moët et Chandon, Pommery, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, etc. These Champagnes are available through premium liquor stores and at premium restaurants in South Africa.

* The Classic method of making champagne is by creating a second fermentation in the bottle – the process is called ‘Method Champagne’, also used when making South African ‘Cap Classique’ or ‘Cava’ in Spain and ‘Asti’ in Italy. The Charmat method is produced in large tanks as opposed to bottles and finally - the cheaper sparkling wines inject carbon dioxide into the bottle.

**The official body that determines France's wine laws has decided to expand the country's champagne-producing region to meet growing worldwide demand. A century-old law has restricted champagne production to just 370 villages in north eastern France, but with demand now outstripping supply, the group is admitting 40 more communities.
The Armagnac region is in South-Western France and the spirit from this region is the oldest in France dating back to the early 15th century. The place Armagnac is the birthplace of brandy and its many illustrious members include Count d'Artagnan, musketeer to King Louis XIII and hero of Alexandre Dumas' novel "The Three Musketeers". The Marquis de Montesquieu family members are his direct descendants and their ‘Armagnac de Montesquieu’ is legendary. Armagnac uses the quicker column still process to produce the new spirit and is generally aged in Gascon oak producing a stronger spirit with higher tannins. Many people prefer Armagnac to Cognac. Armagnac is normally consumed after a meal. Armagnac de Montesquieu is available through premium liquor stores and at premium restaurants in South Africa.

The Cognac region is in South Western France, north of Armagnac, and the spirit is France’s best known brandy. There are six distinct growing regions in Cognac, listed in order of price as follows; the ‘Borderies’ is central to Cognac and is the smallest of the regions, followed by ‘Petite Champagne’, ‘Grand Champagne’, ‘Fin Bois’ (Fine Woods), ‘Bon Bois’ (Good Woods) and Bois Ordinaires (Ordinary Woods). A great Cognac would have more of the ‘Borderies’ and ‘Petite Champagne’ grapes. This is noted on the label. Martell Cognac only contains grapes from the top four Cognac regions and is the dominant user of the ‘Borderies’ grapes. Remy Martin is a Fine Champagne Cognac using grapes from only the two Champagne grape regions. These and other famous Cognacs contain ‘eaux-de-vie’, stored in ‘Paradis’*, which is more than 100 years old. (*Paradis is a windowless warehouse containing Cognac which has been aged in Oak for 50 years, then transferred to large glass bottles for storage and marrying of the alcohols – many of these Cognacs have been in these 50 litre glass demi-john’s since the early 1800’s) Cognac uses the more traditional slower copper pot still process to distil the new spirit and is aged in either Limousin or Tronçais Oak. Tronçais Oak produces a refined Cognac due to the tighter grain and lower tannins. It is not correct to heat Cognac in any way other than in the palm of your hands. Cognac is normally consumed after a meal.

Footnote: There are eight oak forests in France of which Limousin and Tronçais are two. The Tronçais forests were planted to produce wood for the ship building industry – the trees are planted closely producing tall and compact oak. Limousin oak is prized because it is loosely grained and therefore imparts a more obvious oak flavour and stronger tannins as opposed to Tronçais oak which is tightly grained and low in tannins.
Calvados is an apple brandy hailing from the French region of Normandy. It is distilled from specially grown apples, of which there are over 200 named varieties. Many Calvados producers use over 100 varieties of apple to produce their Calvados. The fruit is picked, pressed into a juice and is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled in the slower traditional copper pot still into new clear spirit before being aged for two years in oak casks. Calvados is normally consumed during the meal – with or without ice. Busnel Calvados is available through premium liquor stores and at premium restaurants in South Africa.

Many people have never heard of Pastis. Pastis is the largest French drink category. The two most famous brands are Pernod and Ricard. So massive is this French spirit category that the Pernod distillery produced over 30,000 litres per day in the early 1800,s and Ricard has become the world’s 6th largest spirit brand. It is the French countryside in a glass and to the French it is their beer – when last have you seen an overweight Frenchman.

Pernod started life as the original absinthe drink created in 1792 by a French physician. Henri-Louis Pernod acquired the absinthe formula and immediately started to manufacture. Pernod’s appeal was reinforced by an alcohol by volume of 65-75%, and that it contained the all important hallucinogenic thujone (absinthe “Arthemisia Absinthium”). An absinthe ritual quickly took hold - water was poured into an ‘absinthe glass’ through a perforated spoon, loaded with a sugar cube – the drink turned a distinctive cloudy white - visually appealing, beautifully enigmatic, and revitalising. ‘The Green Fairy’ was so popular with the Parisian artistic and literary set that the cocktail hour was renamed 'l'Heure Verte' (Green Time). Oscar Wilde, Picasso, philosophers and artists alike, all enjoyed their petit ‘heure verte’! Pernod, the drink of choice, brought their thoughts alive as they socialised in the cafes and bars of Paris.
After the imposition of a French ban on wormwood due to its hallucinogenic effects in 1915, the absinthe formula was modified, resulting in Pernod as we know it today – a 40% alcohol (80 proof) anise-flavoured spirit. The ban opened the door for another pastis: “It’ll be called Ricard, the real pastis from Marseille.” The place is Marseille, the year 1932. Paul Ricard, aged only 23, created his own style of spirit, lending it his name and linking it to his native city. And today Ricard is the 6th largest spirit brand in the world. Ricard is made up of delights from the Mediterranean and the Orient: star anise from China, liquorice from Syria, and herbs from Provence.

How to drink Pastis? 5 Parts water and 1 part Pastis but if you want it more refreshing, you can add up to 10 volumes of water (water first). You can also substitute water with fresh fruit juice. Pernod and Orange juice, Ricard and pineapple juice and many other options will always be refreshing.As this has been an introduction to ‘all things French’ I will cover Pastis exclusively and more extensively in the next quarter edition.