Monthly Archives: December 2012

Walking tall

A few months ago I interviewed Taygan Govinden, the South African brand manager for Johnnie Walker.

First published in Prestige Magazine (November 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Note: Apologies on behalf of Prestige Magazine for the spelling error in the sub-title of the printed version.

PL: Locally you’re the man at the wheel of the world’s biggest whisky brand.  Tell us a bit about yourself.

TG: I’m Durban born and bred but I’ve also lived and worked in the UK and now I’m based in Cape Town.  My background is in analytics, which I think has stood me in good stead for what I’m doing now.  I’m a big cricket fan, and I enjoy sports in general.  Basically I’d describe myself in a nutshell as a passionately South African guy with strong family values.

PL: Johnnie Walker sold 18 million cases in 2011, leaving its rivals trailing by quite some distance.  The brand seems to be living its legend – keep walking indeed.  What’s the secret to its phenomenal success?

TG: The brand has a pioneering spirit that drives us to innovate as we respond and adapt to our changing consumer preferences.  Our heritage is based on the history and tradition of crafting big flavoured whiskies.

PL: The launch of Platinum Label forms part of some wider changes to the core portfolio.  Can you elaborate on what’s been involved?

TG: We’ve introduced two new variants – Platinum Label and Gold Label Reserve.  At the same time we’re gradually phasing out the old Gold and Green Labels.  We are committed to ensuring that our full range of whiskies meet both existing consumer demand and further positions us to fully realise the evolving consumer opportunities of today and tomorrow.  We believe that these changes will allow us to optimally realise these objectives.

PL: Whilst it’s still dwarfed by Blended whisky, Malt is on the rise.  Last year Glenfiddich became the first single malt to sell a million cases.  Green Label itself is the world’s fifth best-selling Malt whisky.  So it might be seen as somewhat curious – in an era showing early signs of an increasing appreciation for Malt whisky – that this variant should be discontinued.  Can you give us some insights into the rationale for this decision?

TG: We are evolving our range to meet existing consumer needs and build on our heritage of innovation of crafting flavours for contemporary tastes. The success we have seen with Gold Label Reserve in the Asian market gives us confidence that this variant offers a more compelling choice for our market.

PL: Will you be launching the Gold Label Reserve in South Africa?  If so, can you give us a sneak peek?

TG: Yes, we’re launching it locally in November. Our consumers can look forward to a blend of premium Scotch whiskies delivering a perfectly mixable whisky with a very smooth taste.

PL: Platinum Label replaces Gold Label, which will now be phased out.  What is the difference between the two?

TG: Platinum Label is an entirely new offering and not a reinterpretation of Gold Label.  It is crafted from the very best 18 year-old Scotch Whiskies with a new, distinct flavour profile.  While Gold Label is delicate and creamy, Platinum Label reflects a strong, sweet and elegant Speyside style with subtle smokiness, stewed fruit, malty cereal, smooth creamy vanilla, and tangerine sweetness.

PL: I recently passed through a duty-free store and I couldn’t help but notice that the price of Platinum Label is some 44% higher than Gold Label.   They’re both 18YO and I would imagine that Gold Label contains high-quality, well-aged whiskies.  What’s the basis for Platinum Label’s relatively more premium pricing?

TG: It should be priced at a 10% to 20% premium locally.  Platinum Label is a completely different whisky to Gold Label and so they should not be compared. The age statement is the only link between these two whiskies.

PL: What will be Platinum Label’s recommended retail pricing in South Africa?

TG: R999.99

My festive spirits

Take it up a notch. You deserve it. It’s been a long year. Here are my picks to amplify the festivities this season.  

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the Best edition 2012).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

There’s really no point in working hard if you’re not going to reward yourself.  So let’s just continue under the assumption that come the end of 2012 this will indeed be your very committed purpose.  You’ve put in the graft, now it’s time to ease back and treat yourself to some quality time.  If you have any sense whatsoever this will involve, at some stage or other, or at multiple stages, the displacement of a distilled alcoholic substance from bottle to bloodstream.  In case that sounds cavalier be advised that my intentions here are to advocate responsible proportions – quality over quantity.  The finer things in life…roll that around in your mouth.  It sounds good, it feels even better.  These are the elixirs to make this your mantra.

Vodka

Vodka – the most supremely versatile of spirits – is always a good place to start.  You can mix vodka with just about anything, and because of its subtle (some might say neutral) taste and aroma it’ll simply enhance its companion’s flavour with the desired kick. It will also suit any and every occasion.  Whether you’re drinking James Bond-esque martinis (shaken not stirred of course) at an elegant soiree, sipping sundowners overlooking a powder-white beach, downing iced-shots with Russian lingerie models, or priming a Red Bull injection before dancing away the night, vodka will stand you in good stead (unless you’ve had too much of it, in which case any kind of standing might be a challenge).  Now, there are vodkas and there are vodkas, and amongst the latter, towards the top of the heap, is Belvedere Vodka: Polish, made from 100% Dankowskie Gold Rye (I’m no rye expert but it sounds impressive), and quadruple distilled.  Belvedere is undoubtedly silky-smooth and of exceptional quality and heritage, but the tasting notes also suggest that there’s a little more to it: “Leaving notes of vanilla and rye on the palate, the finish is crisp and clean with lingering white pepper spice. It has a distinctive, creamy mouth feel. Its aroma is a blend of vanilla, rye and white pepper”.  Look out for their jeroboam (3l) and methuselah (6l) bottles – seated in magnificent cradles (so as not to spill a precious drop whilst pouring) – as you’re painting the town this summer.

Tequila

I shudder at the mere sound of the word. Most of us have had our fair share of misadventures involving tequila. I have a group of friends who have been known to pursue this Mexican gold with the enthusiasm of modern-day conquistadors. Once, crazed by ‘tequila feva’, two of them pinned me down whilst I was asleep, and a third squirted tomato sauce into my mouth till it seeped out of my nose. True story…probably best forgotten.  Anyhow, much as it may surprise you tequila is in fact a fine spirit, of the likes of whisky and cognac.  Once you pierce through the salt-and-lemon layer you’ll discover that there’s a wealth of elegant tequilas available to the more discerning drinker.  At least that’s the case internationally.  Here the selection is somewhat more limited; but fear not one of the world’s great tequilas is within reach.  My tequila pick for this festive season is Don Julio – the self-proclaimed “luxury drop” and Mexico’s best-selling luxury tequila.  I’m not too if “luxury tequila” is industry standard terminology but let’s not quibble – this stuff is damn good.  Aged in American whiskey barrels in the same way as is Scotch, Irish, and other whiskies, this is the type of drink that you sip and savour…but if you’re adamant about taking your tequila in shots you’ll be pleased to learn that the extensive cask maturation has smoothed out the customary rough edges: Don Julio won’t leave your face crinkled up like an old prune.

Rum

If we were to declare a definitive festive summer drink it would be rum – with its island heritage and fun-in-the-sun character it epitomises relaxation and good times; and none more so than Mauritian rum.  Renowned for its sugar plantations, which once produced more sugar than any other territory on the planet – astounding for such a small place, the island’s rum industry has exploded in recent times, with a proliferation of superb products such as those from New Grove and Chamarel.  Most recently though my fascination has been captured by Pink Pigeon, a vanilla-infused rum named after the one of the island’s more fortunate indigenous birds (that narrowly managed to avoid the same fate as its Dodo brethren).  Made at the Medine Estate, one of islands leading sucreries, it is has a stylish, laid-back aura about it – the bottle is tall, dark and sleek with a he-who-shall-no-longer-be-named style rubber bracelet around its neck and a cap covered by a pleasingly authentic wax seal.  Pink Pigeon has the potential to be the island’s first superbrand.  Ok, this is perhaps a bit optimistic but it won’t stop those of you in the know from enjoying it in the meantime – to best effect with your feet dipped in the ocean and accompanied by some sega music.  As they say in Mauritius – Position? Korek!  With the appropriate accent please.

Other

I wouldn’t want to forget my old friends gin and cognac. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, after all.  So I’ll be having my mid-afternoon tonics seasoned with Beefeater 24 and I’ll be bringing in the New Year with a few measures of Courvoisier XO (partnered with a Romeo y Julieta).  A word to the wise: their labels depict a stiff-upper lipped English yeoman and a shadowy Napoleon Bonaparte.  You may want to keep them well separated.

Dear, dear drams

No, I’m not expressing affection for my favourite drink.  I’m reflecting on whether I can afford to part with a few limbs to enjoy it, because some whiskies really do cost an arm and a leg.

First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the Best edition 2012).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

I’ve always found the free market to be a wonderful concept.  Left to their own devices the complex forces that govern economics will invariably find equilibrium – a phenomenon which Adam Smith, one of the fathers of economic theory, articulated as the “invisible hand”.  In my Darwinian view of the world this idea resonates with the natural order of things – it just seems right.  But is it really?  This order has manifested itself in the whisky sphere in recent times in the guise of booming demand interacting with sparse supply, and it has led to situation of spiralling prices…an outcome that is apparently without limits.  By the time this column is published a bottle of whisky would have gone on sale on our shores for the heart-stopping price of R1.4 million.

This might potentially be a new high for South Africa (it needs to sell first), but the trend towards extravagantly priced whisky is well established.  Globally the oldest and rarest whiskies from the most prestigious brands, Macallan, Glenfiddich, Dalmore and others, have been commanding millions (of Rands) for some time.  Right here the Balvenie 50YO very recently sold for R230,000, joining a handful of bottles to clear the R100 000 mark on the local market.  Even for whisky lovers like myself, for those of us who truly do appreciate the value of great whisky, these numbers are absolutely staggering, almost perverse.  We could just shrug our shoulders, dismiss the matter and carry on with our lives; and at the end of the day that’s exactly what we’ll have to do – after all there’s enough good whisky priced on reasonable enough scales to cater for most people – but it’s worth giving it a little bit of thought and asking a few questions nonetheless.

First though a little bit about the whisky with the golden, nay diamond, price tag: the Diamond Jubilee Blended Scotch Whisky by John Walker & Sons.  This is the same house that produces Johnnie Walker, the world’s best-selling brand of whisky, but somewhat confusingly, they’ve corralled some of their premium whiskies under a separate trademark.  For all intents and purposes though this is a Johnnie Walker whisky.  It was inspired by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, an auspicious occasion no doubt for those interested in that type of thing, but also a bandwagon for limited edition products of every stripe.  Regardless of whether the hallmark has been devalued by this stampede, the John Walker version stands out as the remarkable product that it is.  It’s a blend, as the name suggests, not a single-malt, which I found surprising for a whisky at this price level.  But perhaps I should question myself?  Many whisky producers are at pains to put out the message to that blends can be every bit as good as single malts.  This is probably self-serving, but I tend to agree, especially on an intrinsic basis.  Anyhow, the product comes with various jubilee cute-isms – all components are vintage whiskies from the same year as the Queen’s coronation, the marrying casks are made from oak from the Queen’s estates, the diamond-shaped decanter stands on six legs (one for each decade of the Queen’s rule), and bottling was effected exactly sixty years to the day from that of the Queen’s accession – and a long collection of accoutrements of which I’ll just list a few highlights – a silver decanter collar set with a half-carat diamond (the decanter itself being de rigueur Baccarat), a pair of bespoke lead crystal tumblers hand engraved with wildlife scenes from the Queen’s estates, and a cabinet made from oak from the same harvest and source as the marrying casks, as well as special timbers drawn from around the Commonwealth.  It goes beyond mere product – it is an objet d’art.  Indeed this is probably the one advantage of the elevated cost of such whiskies: it creates an opportunity to do something particularly special and imaginative with the packaging.  The Balvenie 50YO is notably accommodated in a cylindrical box made of 49 rings of seven Scottish grown timbers.

Impressed?  I am.  But the questions won’t go away.  I asked this one of various whisky creators:  Premium whisky has become so expensive that many of the oldest and rarest whiskies are completely out of reach for the average whisky lover.  Some of the pricing seems completely overblown and markedly unrelated to the cost of creating the whisky.  It could be argued that the industry is exploiting the current market dynamics to harvest excessive profits at the expense of its genuine, long-term, loyal consumers.  How would you answer such a claim?  The response that most struck a chord for me came from David Stewart of Balvenie who commented as follows: “I’m not involved in pricing but premium whisky has always been an expensive item, appreciated by few”.  Fair or not depending on how one might choose to interpret the word “appreciated”.

I personally don’t begrudge the situation.  The finer things in life, be they whisky or anything else, cost money, and, generally, are only available to a minority.  This is the natural order.  And it makes the moment of consumption – anticipated, hard-earned (in most cases), and long awaited – all the more special.  The lingering regret for me is that many of these types of whiskies are bought for collections or as investments.  There is a high probability that they might never be drunk.  This means that many of the ostensibly finest whiskies in the world are destined to remain locked in glass in perpetuity.  The John Walker Diamond Jubilee is sold with a 10cl taster bottle, but most of these won’t be opened either I would think because it’ll potentially reduce the value of the investment.  On that rather sad note – may the dram (make it a special one for the festive season) be with you!