Monthly Archives: November 2012

What is The Angel’s Share?

Perhaps not what you thought.  It’s the first whisky-themed movie of all time…to the best of my knowledge.  So for all whisky lovers it’s a must-see.  In this regard I might be able to help.  Read on.

Bunnahabhain, in association with WHISKYdotcoza, will be hosting an exclusive nationwide première of The Angel’s Share on Wednesday 28 November at Cavendish Square in Cape Town.  Readers of this blog, WHISKYdotcoza Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and WHISKYdotcoza customers are being offered the opportunity to win five double tickets to the event.

The invitation.

If you want to be amongst the first people in the country to see this movie then please write to us at  info@whisky.co.za and provide us with your name and contact details.  Note that you’ll only be eligible if you “like” our Facebook page. The deadline for entries is Sunday 25 November at 22h00.

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The ultimate liquor shopping experience

In the town where I was born lived a man who sailed to sea and he told us of his life in the land of duty-free. 

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

Note: Apologies on behalf of Prestige Magazine for the grammatical error in the first line of the printed version.

The Beatles’ classic is actually a children’s song – not, as many would believe, a cryptic drug anthem.  It overflows with an unbridled, childlike enthusiasm, which I wanted to reference here right now, because it’s how I feel, as I’m sure does any lover of fine spirits, whenever I step into the duty-free liquor wonderland.  The expression “like kid in a candy store” has never been more apt.  You may think that this sounds like an overblown infatuation, perhaps a contextual attraction – after all what else is there to do in airport whilst you wait for a flight?  If you did you would be wrong.  There are several rational, emphatic reasons why duty-free (sometimes referred to as travel retail) is as good as it gets when it comes to buying booze.

Price

The original (and on-going) purpose of a duty-free store is to offer for sale goods that are exempt from certain taxes and duties which would otherwise be levied within that jurisdiction.  This doesn’t always guarantee good pricing – as with all retail businesses it depends on the individual operator.  It does however confer a significant advantage, and, given an efficient retailer, a nexus where competition, good purchasing, and effective management have satisfactorily come together, the results can be astounding, so much so that many of these duty-free retailers have become redistributors as well.  It’s cheaper for many in the trade to buy from them because of the volume discounts that they command than to buy directly from official distributors or even the suppliers themselves.  My regular port of call is Dubai Duty-Free, one of the muscular superheroes of this milieu.  I’ve taken the liberty of noting a few random examples, adjusted for bottle size, alcohol content and exchange rate, and comparing them to local pricing (as represented by Makro, our most cost-effective retailer, to further make the point).

The extent of the advantage varies from product to product but the general trend is unmistakable.  An average discount of 25% across this basket speaks for itself.

Premiumness

I don’t have access to any data but common sense suggests that frequent travellers would be wealthier, and have a tendency to command more disposable income than less frequent travellers or non-travellers, in a very general sense of course.  They are also a focused and entirely captive audience. Travel retail has thus evolved into a highly prestigious shopping ambit.  Airports accommodate many of the world’s most exclusive luxury brands, the Cartiers and Louis Vuittons, the Dom Perignons and Cohibas, precisely to capitalise on this phenomenon.  In the sphere of distilled spirits this translates into a benefit that I find particularly interesting.  The latest, premium offerings are almost always available in duty-free before they’re launched anywhere else.  Suppliers often use travel retail outlets, specifically those in busy high-profile airports such as Heathrow, CDG, Changi or Hong Kong, as a showcase for their brightest stars. As a result the duty-free shopper will invariably have immediate access to the best-of-the-best, and at the best pricing to boot.

Variety

A well-stocked duty-free shop is a veritable Aladdin’s cave.  You may not find the sheer volume of variety that you would in a wholesaler or liquor superstore, especially in the budget categories, but there is always broad range of quality, international brands on offer.  You’re likely to find products that may not be available at all in your home country, or limited edition duty-free exclusives that are unavailable anywhere other than duty-free.  I recently came across a Yoichi 20 year-old Japanese whisky, the 2008 World Whisky Award winner for best single malt.  Good luck finding this in South Africa.  The duty dynamic, the fact that many countries allow repatriation of duty-free purchases calculated by bottle instead of volume, has also led to the proliferation of unusual sizes in duty-free, most commonly the 1l bottle, but 3l and 4.5l bottles, rare everywhere else, also abound.

Promotions

In case the preferential price isn’t enough motivation, suppliers tend to reserve a big chunk of their promotional budgets for duty-free.  The most popular is the buy-two-get-something-free deal.  And the something-free can be significant indeed – a high-quality bag or case, or a 350ml bottle – especially when you consider that the pricing is already razor sharp.

A quick note in conclusion

The idea of a duty-free shopping was conceived by Irishman Brendan O’Regan who opened the first store at Shannon Airport in Ireland 1947.  I’m already grateful enough to the Irish for inventing whiskey, but this really puts them over the top.   I think I’m going to wear green permanently in tribute.

Out and about with whisky

The James Sedgwick episode.   You don’t have to fly to the auld country to visit a top-notch distillery.  They’ve got the old and brown at Sedgwick’s in Wellington…and I’m not talking about sherry.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

PS: The title in the printed version is not mine.  I wouldn’t refer to whisky made in SA as Scotch, even jokingly.

The dominant feature at South Africa’s premier whisky distillery, the sight that first attracts the eye on arrival, is an iconic-looking pagoda.  It may be vestigial, like most of its counterparts in Scotland, but it’s impressive and imposing nonetheless; like a steeple it proclaims the presence of holy ground, although of a different sort.  This particular pagoda is modelled (like the stills too) after the one at Bowmore.  In fact it soon becomes obvious that the Scottish influence is everywhere.  Most of the whisky produced here at Sedgwick’s is clearly Scotch in style and flavour.  Even the surroundings, the arresting, picture-perfect mountain vistas, suggest a fleeting resemblance to the Highlands.  It’s an observation that stirs mixed feelings for me.  I’m glad that I’ve made the trip, but somewhat embarrassed that it’s taken me so long.

In past years the products made here were criticised for being poor quality facsimiles of the genuine thing, inferior substitutes to be bought on a budget.  Today these outdated perceptions can be consigned to a rubbish tip where they belong.  The whisky is top-class.  Of course, as if often the case with South Africans, it often takes foreign validation before we believe this of one of our own.  Three Ships, the distillery’s flagship brand, was given one of the industry’s greatest accolades earlier this year when its 5 year-old was named the best blended whisky by the World Whisky Awards.   Let me clarify in no uncertain terms exactly what this means: that’s the award for the best blended whisky in the world, including those from all the big guns: Scotland, Ireland, and even Japan, one of the most prolific countries of recent times in the accumulation of whisky prizes.  Last year Suntory’s Hibiki, the Japanese whisky which Bill Murray so memorably turned into a household name (I use the term loosely – whisky households only), specifically the 21 year-old, took this selfsame award.  So the magnitude of this achievement for a young whisky from a young, isolated, whisky producing country is massive indeed.

Strolling around the distillery it’s easy to see how this came to pass.  The word that comes to mind, appropriately in more ways than one, is “shipshape”.  It’s modern and clean, so much so that I could have eaten my lunch off the floor.  The equipment is dazzling – I mentioned the pot stills but also worth noting is a gleaming automated column that looks like it could have flown me to the moon during its leisure time.  I couldn’t put this to the test because it was hard at work distilling grain whisky.  These buggers are very expensive, so clearly there’s been sufficient confidence in the product and its prospects to have laid down some serious investment.  Most importantly however there’s a sense that these guys, the brains behind the operation, have high-level insight into the making of great whisky – which they’re systematically putting into practice; our host explained to us how malt whisky, and separately grain whisky, was best distilled during particular seasons of the year for optimal results.  It’s an operation with an undeniable pedigree.

Notwithstanding the accents, the column stills (there are two in fact – the other’s an older, manual model) and the good weather, there isn’t much difference between Sedgwick’s and the better Scotch malt distilleries.  And it’s no accident.  The source of the Bowmore connection is Master Distiller Andy Watts, who trained at that eminent Islay facility, and subsequently implemented the fruits of his early experience locally, clearly to great effect.  This is all well and good – who better to learn from than the best – but I was also hoping, maybe for no other reason than to stay my own discomfort, for some local flavour.  It had taken the award for me to pay any significant attention to the distillery and its whiskies, to my discredit as a South Africa-based whisky lover, and now it seemed important to me that they should be something more than a Scottish (or other) clone, however good.

This is obviously not a novel idea.  Sedgwick’s however is owned by Distell, a brandy-focused behemoth, for whom whisky is still a bit-part player.  There are twelve year-old casks lying around in their maturation warehouse, ready, mature, delicious, waiting for the call.  That’s not to say that nothing has happened.  Things have definitely happened – Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky, whilst not intrinsically unique (I find it somewhat bourbon-ish), makes for an interesting proposition in that it is distilled entirely from local maize – and are set to continue happening – apparently there are experiments in progress to develop whiskies with a Pinotage cask finish.

Is this enough though?  I can’t help but think of a parallel.  During the darkest days of malt whisky, when blends had completely taken over, it was the independent bottlers who kept the tradition of the single malt alive.  Sedgwick’s juice is kept strictly in-house by company policy, but imagine the possibilities if this were to be relaxed.  Something radical perhaps, a bold new genre – a muscadel cask finish or maturation in indigenous wood.  Who knows what may happen yet.  May the dram be with you!