Category Archives: Whisky column

My monthly whisky column in Prestige Magazine

The dynamite of Black and White

Simple names for serious booze

First published in Cheers Magazine (March 2020 edition).

We live in world that has become so complex, so overwhelming, so time-intensive, that I’ve made it a priority to strive for simplicity in my life, although with all the distractions and confusion out there I need to regularly remind myself about it.  And I’m not alone, by far.  Simple logic, simple pleasures, finding the essence of things – these are universally appealing ambitions, capable of explosive impact.  Simplicity offers clarity, and clarity can be priceless.  I spend a lot of time thinking about and sampling booze, probably too much time (and the jury’s out on whether it’s helping me achieve any clarity), so it surprised me recently in light of this priority to simplify, to make an observation that had previously eluded me.  There’s a multitude of simplicity in the naming liquor brands, specifically the use of black or white.

Their monochromatic simplicity aside, these are colours that serve as basic, widely understood symbols, conveying at their core powerful inferences: white as purity, innocence, goodness, and black as elegance, luxury, power, mystery, and at its darker end, degrees of malevolence.  Bruichladdich Black Art, the maverick Islay whisky, playfully taps into this vein to great effect, exuding an enigmatic, slightly dangerous unknowability – perfectly invocating the unusualness of the product itself, with its luscious, layered, almost magical notes.  Was it made in a still or a cauldron?  In Scotland or Middle Earth?  I remain unsure.

One of my favourite whiskeys is Bushmills Black Bush.  I love the rich, fruity, velvety flavour, especially in the context of its not-taking-the-piss price tag.  The name signals the luxury of the liquid, no doubt, but it supports my hypothesis even further – and in this case, a rare case indeed, it’s the people, the fans, that can take the credit.  This whiskey actually started out with a distinctly non-simple and rather cumbersome designation: ‘Old Bushmills Special Old Liqueur Whiskey’, but given its identifiably dark colouring, due to maturation largely in Oloroso sherry casks, and its black label, patrons started calling for it in more basic terms: “Barman, I’ll have the Black Bush please” – the ‘Bush’ being a contraction of Bushmills – to such an extent that this name was formally adopted.  A whiskey of the people, for the people, by the people, or as close to it as you’ll get – although the Scotch whisky Black & White has a similar story (I kid you not), being previously named ‘House of Commons’.

The white-is-good-black-is-evil axis is turned on its head by Johnnie Walker’s White Walker whisky, a commemoration of the Game of Thrones universe, and its nefarious, implacable arch-villains.  They didn’t “keep walking”, being eventually eliminated in one fell swoop, and some of them didn’t walk at all, riding horses and even a dragon, but fear and loathe them as we might, they were redeemingly handy with ice, which is what the name alludes to, so in evoking this basic whisky drinking requirement (for many) it strikes a resonant chord.  A more conventional deployment of ‘white’ can be found in Dewar’s “White Label” whisky, a stamp of quality that has served the product well since its inception in 1899, keeping Dewar’s enduringly within the world’s top 10 best-selling blended Scotch whiskies.  Tommy Dewar, the man credited with taking the brand global, literally and figuratively as he tirelessly travelled from country to country and continent to continent drumming up business, is likely the one who imparted the name.

The world of whisky is littered with appellations using these two colours – from Johnnie Black, Black Velvet, and Black Bottle, to White Horse and Jack Daniel’s White Rabbit Saloon, and even Blackadder, disappointingly named after John, a Scottish preacher, and not Edmund, the character played by Rowan Atkinson – but they certainly aren’t whisky’s exclusive preserve, being employed across a variety of spirits.  Rum and tequila use white in particular, and black sporadically, to distinguish one style from another.  Bacardi injected some Spanish flair into the practice with Carta Blanca, their standard white rum bottling, and Carta Negra, a rum aged in heavily charred casks, producing the intensely dark colour referenced by the name.   Noir King, taking a leaf from the same book, albeit in French, used the word to proudly proclaim the first ever black woman-owned cognac.

Perhaps the most poignant rendition of the theme though is O de V’s Gin White and Gin Black, which not only use the colours as their core descriptors, but which attempt to interpret them in the construction of the liquid itself: “This is the idea that we have pursued, trying to find a recipe of botanicals that characterise ‘Black’ and ‘White’”, using fruit and bold floral ingredients for the black, and softer, more fragrant elements for the white”.  It is simplicity at its poetic finest.

You may ask yourself why this matters; these are just words, pick one, pick another, it’s all the same – it’s what’s in the bottle that’s important.  The fact is though that the words, the branding, and the packaging influence our perception of flavour and our enjoyment of the drink, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual and the type of spirit.  This is the reason why some vodkas, to use an obvious example, despite being intrinsically indistinguishable from cheaper counterparts to the average palate, can and do sell at relatively high prices.  And the phenomenon shouldn’t be disparaged – rather the employment of any and all reasonable means to elevate enjoyment deserves applause.  You take your kicks where you get them, gratefully.  Smirnoff Black may not taste altogether very different from its 1818 stablemate, but the indulgence transmitted by this simple idea of black puts it in a different class.  Black and white, they’re a celebration of the simple things in life.  Cheers!

Scenes from a Scottish buffet

A few whisky highlights from the past few months

First published in Prestige Magazine (Issue 100)

Old stock

If you’re even slightly familiar with whisky then you’ll know about maturation, and its importance.  This is the process by which whisky is “aged” in casks, thereby acquiring the most part of its eventual flavour.  Older whiskies aren’t necessarily better whiskies of course, but there’s something special about them.  The individual flavour that they’ve cultivated is scarce.  It can’t be replicated without the long passage of time, and even then maybe not at all.  When a whisky reaches an epic milestone, like 50 years of age, or say 51, then it becomes a rare privilege to be able to experience it, one that should be seized with both hands.

These opportunities are usually few and far between.  Whiskies of such ancient vintage are gut-wrenchingly expensive, out of reach for many, and albeit intriguing not worth the cost for others.  Sadly, those who can afford them often make such purchases for investment or collection purposes, with the result being that many of the world’s oldest and most prized whiskies never get put to palate.  They’re destined to sit encased in glass for eternity.

Cragellachie Single Malt, renowned for its popular 13YO and 17YO whiskies, has recently launched a crusade towards redressing this injustice…well maybe not a crusade, but a damned good initiative.  The self-proclaimed “bad boy of Speyside” is going against the malt, so to speak, by taking a cask of 51 year old whisky and offering it to whisky lovers around the world…for free!  In a world of cynical and rehashed marketing campaigns this is as sincere and creative as it gets – well done to them.  Dubbed Bar 51, the South African leg of these events, a pop-up bar disseminating the epic tastings, took place in Joburg at the WhiskyBrother bar on 21 and 22 November 2019, and in Cape Town at the Athletic Club & Social on 26 and 27 November 2019.  May the dram be with you and may it be a Craigellachie!

Balanced peat

Does anyone remember the transition of Black Bottle from the former green glass to the current black glass version?  The step-up in flavour, richness and quality was remarkable.  In particular the balance of the blend was spectacularly improved.  This may not have been as pleasing to hard-core peat freaks as to the rest of us, but most I think will agree that the mellowing of its trademark smoke with dark fruits and anise was a boon.  There is little to be faulted in Port Charlotte’s Scottish Barley, but the brand’s latest exponent, a 10YO launched recently in South Africa, has followed a similar (if less pronounced) trajectory to Black Bottle. It still showcases the big peat, make no mistake, but it’s accorded more prominent roles to the other players, toffee, sweet oak, and vanilla in particular.  The 10YO perpetuates Port Charlotte’s (and indeed Bruichladdich’s) infatuation with wine casks to great effect, especially with its extended maturation.  Long may it continue.

Big sherry

Glendronach has been on the local scene for a while, but it recently underwent a change of ownership, the reins assumed by industry giant Brown Forman.  The upshot for us whisky lovers is that the brand now wields distribution clout that is considerably stronger.  You’re significantly more likely to find its core range, comprising a 12, 18 and 21YO, in your preferred bars and liquor stores.  If you’re partial to the traditional sweet, spicy Pedro Ximenez flavours in your whisky (and who wouldn’t be) then this is great news for you.  Glendronach is noteworthy for employing the highest percentage of PX casks in the industry.  Caramba!

Two whiskies to reaffirm your faith

First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (March 2018).

During the course of my relationship with whisky I’ve rarely been disappointed.  Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs, but the troughs are usually my fault, isolated to occasions where I’ve abused its good graces.  More typically, over the years, it’s treated me to a series of wonderful encounters and experiences, nurturing between us a warm glow of contentment.  It has invigorated me when I’ve flagged, rewarded me when I’ve risen, encouraged my friendships, and made for good company at pretty much any time in between.  Most impressively, it keeps surprising me.  We’ve known each other well, for a long time now, so this is no mean feat.  They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it can obviously breed more positive regard as well – like delight.  I’ve had a few of those moments of late, brought on by two newcomers, which, if you’d like to instil a bit of fresh life into your bond with whisky, might be worth your attention.

Glenmorangie Allta

The tenth and latest in the unfailingly interesting, envelope-pushing Private Edition series, Allta fiercely perpetuates the spirit of this campaign.  I was lucky enough to “sense” this whisky along with a few others, Original, Cadboll and Lasanta, at the Glenmorangie HQ in Edinburgh, in an enthralling circular space known as “The Snug”, which showcases pretty much every whisky produced by the company in the modern age – wow!.  It was my first hit of Cadboll, and my first of Lasanta since the the finishing casks were changed from exclusively Oloroso to Oloroso and PX some four years ago.  The former, post-graduating from Muscat and Semillon casks, is a delicious sponge cake of sweet, polished flavours that’ll appeal to a broad range of palates, but especially to fans of Nectar d’Or.  It’s a Travel Retail exclusive so look out for it next time you’re going abroad.  The latter is a personal favourite, but I detected something on this occasion, a burnt flavour, somewhere between toasted sugar and an extinguished match, that I hadn’t previously noticed.  Whether this observation is derived from the new cask profile, or a function of my past inattention, is less important than the additional layer it ostensibly bequeaths to my perception of an already full flavoured whisky.  I won’t be waiting another four years.  The main show though was Allta, gaelic for ‘wild’, a nod to its raison d’être, a strain of wild yeast growing on the ears of Glenmorangie’s own cadboll barley identified by none other than the company’s whisky chief Dr. Bill Lumsden, and now catalysing this whisky’s fermentation.  An aside: the yeast was cultivated for production by South African-affiliated yeast supplier Lallemand.  The underlying rationale for Allta is that yeast variations are an unfortunate rarity in Scotch whisky.  In Dr. Bill’s words: “Yeast’s influence on taste has been overlooked for years, but it’s an area ripe for exploration”.  Perhaps taking a leaf from the Japanese whisky play book, which prescribes prolific experimentation with yeast, he’s created (yet another) whisky worthy of its place in this hallowed collection.  The liquid has much in common with The Original, its half sibling of similar age and cask profile, but is palpably fuller and more robust, bristling on the palate like a Rioja.  Earthy and herbaceous on the nose, waxy, bready and floral, with hints of mint and corn, it relaxes into a sweet, typically vanilla finish.  The distinctions pedestal yeast’s contribution to flavour, as I’m sure was the intention.  This in my opinion is a whisky to be bought and appreciated for three reasons: for its own innate value, for its place in this riveting Private Edition whisky story (to be enjoyed like a series of riveting, unmissable novels), and for making tangible the role of yeast in whisky creation.

The Snug 1.JPG

The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

The Snug 2.JPG

The Snug at Glenmorangie’s HQ

Arbikie Highland Rye

Estate producers Arbikie are liquor all-rounders, better known for producing vodkas and gins.  How then, with no relevant credentials, do you get noticed on your first foray into an arena as crowded as Scotch whisky?  The answer: do something no-one’s ever done before (or at least, not for a long time).  The Arbikie Highland Rye’s premise is that it’s the first Scotch rye whisky produced in the last hundred odd years.  I guess that this makes it just a single grain in the Scotch Whisky Association classification, but unofficially I’ll happily concede that it’s rather unique and special.  Now let’s get the bad news out of the way upfront – this is a one-of-its-kind product, with a limited bottling of 998, factors driving a unit price of some R4.5k, which is clearly excessive for a young, barely legal whisky.  Then again, there’s no pretence of value for money – that’s not the idea.  There’s also lots of good news to even things out.  My experience of Arbikie Highland Rye left me with some striking impressions.  Firstly, rye brings something to the Scotch party – there’s enough here to persist and forge onwards with this experiment, which I believe Arbikie is doing; Secondly, this is one of the richest, fullest three year old whiskies I’ve ever tasted.  Whether it’s the rye, the casks, the small batch craftsmanship, or a combination that’s responsible can be debated, but the result is remarkable regardless.  Lastly, rye and sherry do great bedfellows make.  This is an unusual combination, which I’d never encountered before.  American straight rye whiskey is legislated to be aged only in new oak, and although the industry is increasingly breaking these shackles, variations are not commonplace.  But they should be.  Going by Arbikie Highland Rye – which has been “enhanced” in PX casks for 3-6 months – there’s evidence that this partnership works a treat.  If you’re in the fervent niche that’s dedicated to exploring new whisky horizons you may just have to throw pecuniary caution to the wind.

As it appeared: https://whiskymag.co.za/two-whiskies-to-reaffirm-your-faith/

 

Off the overly beaten track

Lesser known but exceptional.  Patrick Leclezio reviews three to-be-sought-out whiskies.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2018 edition).

Bang for your buck

An antidote to perverse pricing.  PATRICK LECLEZIO identifies five whiskies vying hardest for value.

First published in Whisky Magazine South Africa (June 2018)

It’s easy to get carried away by whisky fever.  I know because I’m particularly susceptible; I’ll wax lyrical at any given opportunity, and I’ll clamour for the fancy stuff.   There is a plethora of great candidates with much to be recommended.  In fact whisky as a whole just lends itself to this enthusiasm.  The flavours are varied and interesting, and have struck a chord with a multitude of drinkers.  The stories equally are compelling: rich histories, beautiful settings, and colourful characters weave an engaging narrative.  And the industry is highly capable, having carefully cultivated and exploited these attributes.  It’s no surprise then that people tend to get passionate about this drink.  In my circles I’m often talking up all sorts of fine whiskies – usually the type that comes with an increasingly hefty price tag.  Do they warrant their cost overall, or has the market been hypnotised by the hype?   I could make the case that whisky is just a beverage.  You drink it and then it’s gone.  Are we paying the appropriate premium for perceived increments in quality?  It’s a difficult, objectively almost unresolvable, question – but I made a broader associated realisation recently.   Over the years I’ve gradually passed over the cheaper-end whiskies in my bar, subconsciously assuming that I’ll get better satisfaction from the more expensive stuff.   I needed a reality check, so I challenged myself to seek out five whiskies each costing under R500 that I could casually drink with equivalent fulfilment as my top-shelf selection (or even more fulfilment – because who doesn’t appreciate getting the same for less).  Here they are in no particular order.

Bourbon: Maker’s 46

Straight bourbon is probably the most tightly regulated of all spirits.  This situation has its positives and negatives.  Amongst the latter is the narrow band of flavour to which it is inevitably consigned, although lately, encouragingly, this has been levered wider by some innovative product initiatives.  But these can only go so far.  More exciting still is the introduction of a spate of drinks that are straight bourbon (in spirit, no pun intended), but not straight bourbon (according to the letter of the law) i.e. they usually start off as a straight bourbon, but then diverge in one way or another.   You’ll be able to identify these by their labelling, which typically reads “Kentucky Straight Bourbon…” addended with a qualifier of some sort.  Maker’s 46 is one of these.   It is effectively the same  liquid from the standard-bearing Maker’s Mark, but aged for a bit longer, during which time seared French oak staves (the divergence / qualifier) have been introduced into the barrel.   The result is a full-flavoured, hot-cross-bun of a bourbon.   There’s vanilla, toffee and biscuits here, all expected in a wheated bourbon, but I was surprised by the prominent spice, from the staves I’m guessing , and by the thick depth of the flavour:  this is one heck of rich whisky.  Maker’s 46 just squeaks into the budget, but it nails my approval by a wide margin.

Blended Scotch: Dewar’s 12YO and Dewar’s 15YO

Whilst I’ve sort of lost track of it over the years the 12YO Dewar’s had always been a personal favourite.   Nothing seems to have changed.  Dewar’s was a pioneer of “marrying” – the process during which whisky stands and settles for a few months after blending or vatting.  There are other influences of course, but this is likely a contributing factor to its extraordinary balance.  These components have clearly all got to know and like each other.  There isn’t a single argument, and there are no underlying tensions.  All the flavours work together in perfect, contented harmony within and across the nose, palate and finish.  The glorious, integrated array of fruit, cereal, spice, honey and oak in the 12YO will not disappoint, and the 15YO does it again with some added complexity.  You’ll be hard pressed to find better blended Scotch all-rounders at these price points.  Sadly they’re a bit sparse in South Africa compared to some of their peers, but it’s worth hunting around until you find them.

Blended Irish: Black Bush

If I played golf this would be my hole-in-one drink.  I’d want the celebration to be unreservedly enjoyable, I’m picturing a chorus of clicking glasses and vibrant camaraderie, but without excessively punishing my pocket.  Black Bush is the ideal catalyst for this outcome, and indeed many other wonderful occasions.  What it promises on paper: high malt content, predominant Oloroso cask ageing, significant maturation, it delivers emphatically in its full-bodied person: an intense out-of-the-park flavour that is husky, fruity, and spicy, with a masculine background of leather and perhaps tobacco.   If I had to plot the broader continuum of whisky pricing versus performance, definitely featuring a quadrant I’d label “perverse”, Black Bush would dominate the opposite position, at the head of the “charity” quadrant; for what it is they’re almost giving this stuff away.  An enduring classic.  I’ve never had a glass of Black Bush in which I didn’t delight.

Malt: Monkey Shoulder

I’ll allow myself to stand corrected but I think Monkey Shoulder is the only whisky named after an injury – one sustained by distillery workers whilst shifting barley with shiels on a malting floor.  It’s the type of quirkiness that defines this young, fun, monkey-mischievous whisky.   In days past it might have been called a triple malt, with its parts originating from three malt distilleries: Kininvie, Glenfiddich, and The Balvenie, but today it is known as a blended malt – a sadly underrepresented style, those with such clearly identifiable provenance even more so.  For this reason alone, that it’s one of few representatives, it’s a whisky worth noting.  That it’s also smooth, approachable, uncomplicated, and reasonably priced – an ideal introduction to malt whisky drinking, but with enough range of flavour, especially for what is ostensibly a young whisky, to keep the more seasoned interested – puts it over the top and into my group of hard-hitting stars.

As it appeared: http://whiskymag.co.za/bang-for-your-buck/

The return of Port Ellen and Brora

Rising from illustrious graves.  PATRICK LECLEZIO deconstructs the excitement.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2017 edition).

The biggest news in whisky in the last few months has been the mouth-watering declaration that the Port Ellen and Brora distilleries are to be refitted, and reopened in 2020.  This is most whisky lovers’ (much conjectured) fantasy come true.  We’ve been living of late through a golden age of malt whisky in which the inception of new distilleries and the revival of previously terminated or shuttered distilleries (so-called silent stills) have been common occurrences:  examples range from the massive Roseisle and the boutiquey Wolfburn, Kilchoman, and Kingsbarn on the one hand, to forerunners like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, and more recently Tamdhu and Glengassaugh on the other.  But this is different.  Special.  Exceeding the “ok, cool” reaction that the others would have elicited, and tipping the scales at “yahoo!”.  New distilleries are unknowns, and reincarnates like Ardbeg and Bruichladdich have largely created their standing during this latest phase of their existence.  Port Ellen and Brora though are the Van Goghs of whisky, unregarded and mostly used as blending fodder whilst active, then garnering massive acclaim after their demise, and attracting followings during the interlude, Port Ellen in particular, that it would be trite to describe as “cult”.  With this gong still reverberating, let’s take a look at what these announcements really mean.

They boil down to three simple realities really:  we’ll have access to whisky that until now has been very expensive and limited, it may or may not be what we expect, and we’ll have to wait a long time still before getting our hands on any of it – a situation in totality that should both fire and temper our enthusiasms.

When time was called on Port Ellen and Brora in 1983 – part of a widespread series of closures by the Distillers Company Limited (Diageo, effectively),  including now heralded distilleries such as Dallas Dhu, St. Magdelene, and Rosebank, driven by flagging demand – whisky was at a low ebb, and bottled single malt was a small speck on a blended landscape.  In fact the first book featuring tasting notes, ubiquitous today, and the first magazine devoted to Scotch whisky (inconceivable in a media environment where we’re drowning in whisky commentary) were only published in 1986.  In the modern age Port Ellen’s production, predominantly, and Brora’s, entirely, during their active years had been allocated to blending, so they were to a large extent unknown quantities.  The only bottling of Port Ellen between 1967 and 1983 was a 12YO commemorating the Queen’s visit to the distillery in 1980, and the first known Brora bottling was released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1989.  Independent bottlings became relatively common, but it was only with official bottlings in the late nineties and turn of the century (now a feature of Diageo’s annual special releases), and in Port Ellen’s case extended maturation, that the legends were created.  The quality of the whiskies and the fact that no more of it would be produced (ostensibly) combined to arouse messianic devotion – and pricing to match.  The Port Ellen First Release, a 22YO of which there were 6000 bottled and offered at £110 in 2001, sells for some £4500 in 2017.  Prices have escalated exponentially with each subsequent release, with Brora following a similar pattern.  The prospect thus of larger supply, of being able to access these fine liquids at reasonable prices, is undoubtedly cause for celebration.

But don’t pop your stoppers just yet.  Making the same whisky as was done 30 years ago is not a given – as conceded by Diageo in its press release of 9 October: “Port Ellen Distillery on the famous whisky island of Islay, and Brora on the remote eastern coast of Sutherland, will both be reinstated to distil in carefully controlled quantities, with a meticulous attention to detail, replicating where possible the distillation regimes and spirit character of the original distilleries”.  The strains of barley and yeast employed, and the calibrations of production – especially from a more manual era, may be difficult to duplicate and replicate.  There is an additional challenge too: whilst Brora was merely “mothballed”, the original buildings and stills left intact, Port Ellen was partly demolished, its equipment, the stills included, scavenged by other distilleries within the group.   The whisky will undoubtedly be wonderful, but whether it’ll have the same austere, pier head flavours (as redolently described by Dave Broom) that made its name is debatable.

Any celebration is also somewhat premature.  Production is anticipated to begin in 2020 once “planning permission and regulatory consents, detailed design, construction and commissioning work” have been secured and completed, although it seems logical that Brora should be ready ahead of Port Ellen.  Be that as it may the gain of a year or so in this initial period is of little significance.  As with any whisky the production will be just a small part of the overall time frame.  In various interviews on the subject Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, has disclosed an intention to release the two whiskies as 12YO’s, whilst also acknowledging that there may be preceding smaller releases.  A 12YO would put us at 2032 – a long wait indeed.   Any earlier release would likely mean NAS, perhaps playing with the maturation regimen (smaller casks, new oak) and perhaps vatting with (dwindling) pre-83 stocks – although I think they’d be hard pressed to take this risk, given the premium that these command unadulterated, and the higher purpose that they can serve in perpetuating the hype (now more useful than ever).   The Port Ellen’s and Brora’s to which we’ve become accustomed (those lucky few amongst us) are perceptible only on a distant horizon.

The order of the day then appears to be patience, in pursuit of a probable but uncertain payoff.   Our patience though is unlikely to be arduous.  One of the shining beacons of Scotch whisky, and whisky in general, drawing in and engaging people from far and wide, is its variety.   The number quite evidently will keep changing but at present there are 98 active malt distilleries in Scotland producing innumerable expressions, two of which, sharing certain similarities with a Port Ellen and a Brora, I’ll recommend to keep you company in the cold nights ahead, before your much anticipated rendezvous  with their future emissaries.  Lagavulin, a few kilometres from Port Ellen, produces a rich, peaty, and complex 16YO whisky of exceptionally elegant balance.   It is a defining Islay malt.  On the opposite coast to Brora but unmistakably its Highland brethren you’ll find Oban, and in multiple bars and liquor stores around the world you’ll find its popular 14YO, a gorgeously fruity, aromatic maritime malt, imbued with fine wisps of smoke.  Ask Santa to add these to your stocking.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Whisky Dec 2017 p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Whisky Dec 2017 p2

As it appeared – p2.

An enduring love affair

PATRICK LECLEZIO sits down with the guys tending South Africa’s passion for Scotch whisky.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2017 edition).

If you were ever searching for evidence that South Africans have good taste, you’d find a rich vein in our affection for Scotch whisky.  It’s a preference that says something about us: we’re discerning without being fussy, and cultivated but not pretentious.  We’ll connect over a glass of the good stuff, in silent nod to this shared understanding, whether we’re crusty old dogs, boardroom bigshots, or slinky models.   Like brothers-in-law married to a set of outstanding sisters, we’re bound together by our good judgement and common devotion.  In fact the extent and duration of our ardour has been impressive indeed: South Africa has for decades now been amongst the top ten export markets for Scotch whisky.  We might have had suspicions though, until not long ago, that this affection was unrequited.  No longer.  Thanks largely to the ministrations of companies like Intra and Distell it can now be confirmed jubilantly that we love Scotch and that Scotch also loves us – the relationship is unreservedly mutual, and richly reciprocated.  This commitment to one another is emphatically evident in Distell’s landmark investment in the industry – which wedded three distilleries (Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory) to South Africa.  I recently chatted to Andy Watts, their Head of Whisky Intrinsic (and an all-round whisky legend!), and Dino D’Araujo, the Spirits Category Marketing Manager, about the company’s role in these matrimonial developments.

PM: When did Distell first get involved with Scotch whisky beyond representation and distribution?

DD: Distell was initially involved with building the Scotch industry in South Africa as a distributor of a number of iconic brands. When these agreements ended in the 1990’s, Distell and Burn Stewart Distillers (BSD) formed a joint venture for Africa and distribution of the brands started in South Africa.  This was then extended with the purchase of BSD in April 2013.

PM: What was the rationale for the acquisition?

DD: Scotch whisky remains an exciting category globally and in South Africa so it made sense for Distell to move from joint venture to acquisition, building upon an already sound working relationship with BSD. The acquisition further strengthened our international portfolio and added scale and synergies.

PM: We’ve heard that Distell recently bought a stake in the Best brand.  Does this indicate an intention to focus (a) regionally within Africa on (b) value-for-money Scotch whisky?

DD: Distell has a long-standing focus on growing in Africa.  The acquisition of a 26% stake in Best Whisky opens the door for synergies as we progress towards taking a controlling stake. We also believe the combined portfolios will help to fast-track the portfolios of both Best and Distell in Africa across multiple value tiers.

PM: What are the next steps for Distell regarding Scotch whisky, both globally and particularly with regards to the South African market? 

DD: Whisky we believe will retain its inherent appeal with consumers around the world and South Africa is no exception, where the category is in excess of 4 million cases. We find that both our Scotch as well as our South African whisky portfolios are well poised for growth domestically as consumers become more discerning in their choices. We will be focusing our efforts between both portfolios.

PM: Andy, what is the scope of your involvement in BSD / Distell’s Scotch whisky operations?

AW: I was appointed into the newly formed Distell Centre of Excellence Intrinsics just over a year ago. My roles cover the overall quality of the whisky which goes into the bottle as well as looking at the production methods we are using across our different distilleries – identifying opportunities for synergy as well as standardisation of good practice. The timeframe is still relatively young but already projects are being implemented in Scotland at Tobermory, Bunnahabhain and possibly Deanston within the near future. These projects are being driven by the highly capable team which we have in Scotland so my involvement is not on a day to day basis.

PM: I’m guessing that Distell has a different approach to and a different vision for whisky making compared to BSD’s previous management.   Can you give us any insight into these differences – and specifically give us examples of how they have already and how they may impact the whiskies and the product range going forward?

AW: Distell’s approach to all of its operations is to produce world-class products in the most efficient and effective manner. The team in Scotland is a new team with the operations under the capable leadership of Alan Wright. Again my involvement is not on a daily basis but the immediate task is to produce consistent base malts which will allow us to grow the current malt range as well as apply innovation to continue to be at the forefront of whisky evolution.

The only real change between the old and new Burn Stewart / Distell International operations is a focus on cased own goods business rather than the bulk supply of whisky to third parties.

Remember we have whiskies that have already been produced and that were in maturation long before the acquisition took place, therefore the focus is on the future and how we do things going forward to achieve those goals.

PM: Related question: what changes / improvements has Distell made to the whisky making process at BSD, if any?

The changes are more in terms of an upgrade and improvement to some equipment and not one of changing time-honoured process. The legislation governing how whisky is produced in Scotland is very transparent, and we strictly comply to the laws. I am fortunate enough to taste all of the expressions before they go into the bottle and I am very excited at the work being done both on the blending front with Dr Kirstie McCallum, and on the production side under the guidance of Stephen Woodcock, the Distilleries Manager.

PM: You’ve been an SA whisky man for a long time. Some people and some companies can wear multiple hats, some can’t. Do you think the acquisition has enhanced / will enhance both categories within Distell, or do you think one will be favoured at the expense of the other?  What are the roles that each is expected to play?

AW: We make South African whisky, considered a ‘New World’ whisky region, as well as Scotch whisky, one of the most pedigreed areas for whisky production in the world.  For me, it is easy to wear the two hats as I don’t feel that the two categories compete with each other. I am still very involved with our SA marketing as the “face” of our South African whisky portfolio but I do not see that role spreading to our Scottish family. We with very capable distillers, blenders, ambassadors and marketers who will continue to grow the awareness of our Scottish portfolio as more and more of our whisky come on line in future years. We will continue to be innovative on both fronts whilst ensuring the core ranges grow accordingly.

PM: Lastly, what’s your favourite whisky within the BSD portfolio and why?

AW: Having not really being exposed to BSD whiskies before the acquisition it was fun when all of a sudden I could try just about anything! However I have come to enjoy Deanston 12-year-old, matured predominantly in ex-Bourbon barrels, un-chill filtered and bottled at 46.3%. I think Deanston is one of our hidden gems – one, which going forward, will appear more frequently on whisky lovers’ “to try” lists.

Nose: I enjoy the soft vanilla which gives way to some citrus notes as well as the oak of the cask.

Taste:  Again nice vanilla but with a creamy honey feel whilst holding in your mouth. Upon swallowing then spices begin to come through which makes it a very interesting whisky to me.

Overall: Possibly a little sweeter than the general Highland malts but one which really had me hooked from the first taste and one which I believe will make an exceptional entry level malt to anyone wanting to start their journey into the wonderful world of whisky.

Distell locally offers a range of Bunnahabhain whiskies, atypical, unpeated Islay malts, as well as the Black Bottle and Scottish Leader blends, the former a well balanced mix of peat and sherry influences, and the latter’s 12YO a light, accessible blend well suited to our climate (I’d recommend it in Mizuwari style).  We wait with bated breath for the arrival of Deanston, Ledaig and Tobermory to our shores.  May the dram be with you.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Magazine Oct 2017 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.