Luxury: A taste of excellence

Taste: now there’s an idea. We assume we have it when we consider ourselves sophisticated but do we mean taste as in the excitement of our taste buds for sensory experience that evokes memories of our childhoods, our university careers or our first loves? Is it cultural? Is it the taste of specially prepared foods that resonate with our sense of social identity, such as hangi or, perhaps, deep-fried Mars bar?
Or is taste our learned ability to place value on those things with which we engage? Is taste measure of the degree to which we are civilised or at the least socialised to the manners of our milieu? In which case, taste is not so much measure of the social excellence of the things themselves, but of our status, and our ability to perceive the social sophistication of the sensory miscellany we gather about us.
In short, we are only as clever as the things we enjoy, or more precisely, the things we enjoy to give to those close to us: items and experiences that have the capacity to stimulate three fundamental responses – interest, pleasure and satisfaction.
Considering these three, there is one wonderful product that incorporates all, as well as presenting both mystical transience and sense of deep history. That is brandy, or to be more general, spirits, that product of the creative genius of early chemistry that we once called alchemy.
Alchemy was an art that sought the most profound of material solutions to the challenges of spiritual life, one of which continues to lie at the roots of commerce: transmutation – the conversion of common materials into gold.
As well as worldly wealth, alchemists also sought the essence of what it was that made humans healthy, and more particularly, what transformed mere protoplasm into breathing organism: in effect, the essence of life.
The way to this essence was distillation, an art that was originally refined in the Far East, in what is now called China, and by series of fantastic voyages came to Europe via the intellect of the Arabs from whom it took the name of its product, al co hool.
They are strong spirits, as the Americans are fond of calling them. These are the beverages which numerous cultures around the world consider to be emblems of their identity, whether they are Scots, French, Poles or Mexicans.
Which is why the best of spirits are such an invaluable lubricant to the process of commerce or social intercourse. drinks cabinet, in the old-fashioned term of it, is where you entertain the best of your friends and partners, ease your own angst and that of your fellows, while enriching your cultural identity and sense of belonging. Whether at home or in the office, drinks cabinet charged with the taste of excellence is more than just luxury, it is flair for life.
So where to start? Well, you could begin with the good doctor, one MacBeth, or mac Beatha as he was known way back when Island men conversed with silkies. This particular MacBeth was sent from Ulster in the entourage of princess who was betrothed to the Lord of the Islands, those wildly romantic western outliers of Scotland.
As doctor, or man of life (mac Beatha) he took with him from Ireland the art of distillation, so that he could continue to make the essence of human health, or life, on which his art was based – uisge beatha, or the water of life from which the name whisky is derived.
And if you are starting with whisky, of the Scots persuasion, then you need to start with something from the West that is unquestionably amongst the finest original whiskies of them all; Laphroaig from Islay in the heart of the Lord of the Isle’s territory.
Laphroaig is an unequivocal whisky, single malt that sings of the briny ocean that laps at its walls as much as it does the reek of peat smoke in its malted barley. manly spirit, they say, but I have noticed that the sexiest of women enjoy quiet glass as much as any man.
As counterpoint to the Westerly character of Laphroaig whisky more in the mainstream of single malt should also be included. One more subtle but no less full of character, from Scotland’s northernmost distillery, is the magnificent Highland Park. (See box story “A dash of the wild”.)
While all the focus of fashion is on the singular taste spectacle of single malts, there is another Scotch, and one which does not deserve to be considered lesser experience. That is blended whisky, that of the big brands that dominate the world. This whisky is blend of single malts created according to the desired character of the final spirit, and then cut with measure of simple grain whisky that gives understatement to its Highland yell.
This is the whisky that is the preferred tipple of England, the United States, Canada, and yes, New Zealand. Amongst the greatest is Johnnie Walker, especially if you engage with the ultimate, Double Black. But if you want another blend, one without the understatement, try Monkey Shoulder for little off-piste experience.
Named after the complaint formerly suffered by many malt-men when turning the barley by hand, Monkey Shoulder is blend of three famous single malts, two of which are invariably part of the character of Johnnie Walker as well; Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie.
While on the subject of England, no true drinks cabinet should ever be without gin: that quintessentially English spirit that owes its name – but not its dry, aromatic, stiff-upper-lip character – to the Dutch. And as if the Scots had worked themselves up to keeping the English gentry fully satisfied, one of the finest dry gins these days comes from north of the border, made by the great Scots whisky house of William Grant and Sons.
Hendrick’s gin has been called the perfect gin, by the Scots, of course, and it certainly fits amongst the finest of the gin craft’s spirits, where it takes place alongside such exceptional gins as Tanqueray No. 10.
So there are the imperial spirits, adding the essential companionship of the auld friend, as the Scots call the French, or the old enemy, as the English prefer, in bottle of cognac. Good brandy, and not just for the Christmas cake either.
There was time when British gentlemen displayed the excellence of their taste by indulging in the finest of French luxuries, at time when such things were illegitimate because of ongoing conflict with France. This enlivened them with soupçon of naughtiness.
Britain’s great houses were the ultimate beneficiaries of the smugglers’ trade for items such as French lace, perfume and the famous brandy from the Cognac region: all of which were even more thrilling because they were invariably associated with the ultimate gentlemanly thrill, sexual liaison beyond the marital bed.
Of these, it is cognac that has retained most of its traditional sophistication, spirit that is for most connoisseurs the epitome of French cuisine’s virility and finesse. It continues to be top drop, considered by some sophisticates to be the equivalent of champagne as the classiest of all.
Amongst the famous brands, Courvoisier has recently had unusual support from America’s hip hop stars that has driven its sales into the stratosphere, while Remy Martin sits alongside Johnny Walker in the top brand stakes. Both are worthy of inclusion, but there are also other options, not least of which is the little know Delamain. (See box story “Essence of taste”.)
But enough of the Old World. There is as much excitement in the New, not least from the transfer of whisky craft that happened when migrants flooded across the Atlantic in search of room to breathe, and to distil. Bourbon County in the State of Kentucky became famous for its adoption of country distillation, although nobody is sure why, as Bourbon County has never boasted any distilleries in its colourful history: unlike Clermont, Kentucky home of Jim Beam, family that has been distilling whiskey since 1795.
As well as adding the ‘e’, America’s distillers also contributed their own version of the still, column, rather tha

Visited 8 times, 1 visit(s) today

A focus on culture

Rabobank’s 520-plus New Zealand employees work from 27 locations – places like Ashburton, Pukekohe and Feilding and from a purpose-built head office in Hamilton. Its employees are proud of the

Read More »
Close Search Window