Tag Archives: Whiskey

Out and about with whisky

The Cape Town episode.  It’s much more than just a collection of whisky bottles – Patrick Leclezio checks out the bigger picture at the Bascule Bar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (July 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

When I first heard about the Bascule it was with reference to its impressive assortment of whiskies – 400 odd back then, supposedly the largest of any bar in the Southern Hemisphere.  Subsequently each mention of it, in the press in particular, fixated on this same angle; and whilst it’s admittedly worth the boast – what whisky lover wouldn’t be intrigued – it has also placed the bar in a bit of a one-dimensional pigeonhole: “Ah the Bascule, that’s the place with the large selection, right?”.  Things have moved on since then.  Firstly, any whisky bar worth its salt, and there are an increasing number available to us, should offer satisfyingly vigorous variety, and whilst the Bascule’s is now over 500 strong, there are others that come close to or even exceed it.  Secondly, the Bascule is far more than the sum of its whisky parts; it would be a grossly missed opportunity (and an injustice) to remain ignorant of its wider charms.  In this spirit I decided to dedicate an evening, some quality time, to get to know the place in-depth.

The bar takes its name – in case you were wondering – from the nearby bascule bridge (a type of moveable bridge that employs counterweights to open and close, hence giving access to naval traffic), the only one of its kind in the country.  It, the bar not the bridge, is ensconced in the Cape Grace hotel, amongst the Cape’s finest and a recent recipient of high accolades (from the TripAdvisor website – second best hotel in the world in their 2013 Travelers’ Choice Awards).  In a case of narrowly averted tragedy, a less travelled road (back then) almost not taken, the bar didn’t figure in the hotel’s original plans.  It was an afterthought – its existence indebted to the then-owner’s passion for whisky.  This may go some way to explain its position in the lower reaches of the structure.  As inadvertent as this might have been it doesn’t suffer as a result of it; actually quite the contrary – the subterranean floor level, the tunnel-like passages, the restricted natural light, the ship-type staircase (a “ladder” in nautical speak), and the direct access to the quayside all combine to give the place a certain unique cachet.  It’s cosy and intimate, elegant in a welcoming and comfortable manner, and, as I was to discover, infinitely interesting and engrossing.

My host for the visit was Bascule manager George Novitskas.  We sat down together – in the delightfully opulent high-backed chairs installed during the recent renovations – over craft draughts from the Cape Brewing Company (what better than some skilfully brewed barley to break-in the palate), a bottle of Highland Park 12YO (still in my opinion one of the most complete Scotch whiskies on the market), and a couple of mouth-wateringly delicious Wagyu burgers (the meat coming from cattle originating in Japan, and renowned for being the self-same source of the world famous Kobe beef) . This burger is the star attraction on a well-considered, elaborate, but mostly tapas-based menu, which is primarily intended as a snacking accompaniment for patrons.  George is very particular on this point: the Bascule is a bar, not a restaurant…although those seeking more extensive fare can always order from the hotel’s main eatery.

Inevitably, obligatorily, the whisky discussion began with the much lauded collection, which includes highlights such as the Glenfiddich 50YO, the Glenmorangie 1963, the Laphroaig 40YO, the Ardbeg 1975, the Glen Grant 1952, the Highland Park 30, and the Dalmore 1978 – enough to keep the more (most?) demanding connoisseurs well-satisfied – but this is only the beginning of the bar’s whisky attractions:  whilst the classics and some winter warmers are already available, a bespoke whisky-specific cocktail menu is being created for the Bascule by one of the country’s top mixologists;  customers can request to have their whisky served with a perfect ice-ball, made using a Taisin copper press, one of the few, if not the only one, in the country; and the bar also offers an extensive program of whisky tastings and a well-subscribed whisky club.

It’s worth dwelling on these last two offerings. 

Whisky tastings are all the rage at the moment – for corporate functions, for bachelor parties, or just simply for one’s general enjoyment and enrichment.  The Bascule provides two types of tastings.  The first is a self-tutored ‘flight’ of whisky – basically three related whiskies presented on a tasting mat that is inscribed with relevant information.  This strikes me as an ideal vehicle for musing over a couple of drams easily and on short-notice, whether in one’s own company or as a shared experience. The second is a tutored tasting – offered at three levels – the Introductory, the Intermediate and the Sommelier’s Choice – and conducted by one of the bar’s managers, each of whom, along with the rest of the staff, would have been trained on Dave Broom’s World Masterclass series.  These tutored tasting also feature the growing and (very) agreeable trend of pairing food with whisky.

The Bascule whisky club almost defies belief.  Members enjoy the place as if they’re in their own homes – and effectively that’s the whole premise of the thing.  One of the values of the Cape Grace hotel is to make visitors feel like they’re at home, and it has certainly succeeded with the club; for a nominal annual fee members are allocated a bottle locker which they can stock at much reduced prices.  To the gregarious, whisky-loving gadabout, and I know a few, this is like the proverbial manna from heaven.  Throw in six special, catered tasting events, an end-of-year members’ party, and the option to use the club for one personal function, and you’ve got a package that’s almost too good to be true.  The Bascule also gives each member a crystal tumbler with their name engraved on it – a discreet, understated symbol of their special status.

I may be under the influence of the Orkney peat buzz, the memory of that delectable marbled beef, or the lingering pleasure of an evening well spent, so dim my effusiveness down a notch if you will: the Bascule Bar is quite simply magnificent. The whisky community has embraced it, celebrities flock to it, and both locals and tourists are drawn to it persistently.  If you’re a South Africa-residing whisky lover then it is imperative that you should visit…often.  May the dram be with you.


When Irish eyes are smiling

I recently met John Quinn, the Global Brand Ambassador for Irish whiskey Tullamore DEW and one of the consummate gentlemen of the industry, and I had the opportunity to put a few questions to him.

John Quinn watching over Tullamore DEW.

John Quinn watching over Tullamore DEW.

WOW: You’re the Global Brand Ambassador for Tullamore DEW.  Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work, and your time away from work.

JQ: Actually I don’t seem to have much time away from work these days as I’m constantly travelling – this week in RSA, last week in UK and the week before in South America. My job entails travelling the globe educating people about Irish whiskey and its history and characters and particularly talking about Tullamore DEW. On the announcement of my appointment a newspaper in Ireland wrote an article entitled “Is this the best job in Ireland?”. He might have been right – if I spent any time in Ireland !

When I’m not working I help manage a ladies Gaelic Football team – I know sounds strange but I enjoy it  when I’m at home. I also play golf most weekends, but please don’t ask me my handicap.

WOW: What do you most like and dislike about your job?

JQ: I love being in new places and meeting new people. I especially enjoy encountering new cultures and experiences. On this trip I visited Soweto – a fantastic experience giving an insight into South Africa, of yesterday, today and even of tomorrow. I also really enjoy the educational aspect of the job – it’s like being a teacher in a class full of very enthusiastic students – very rewarding. Dislikes would have to be the airport queues!

WOW: I would imagine that you meet a tremendous number of whiskey drinkers, and that you must have close insight into the latest developments in the market.  In your opinion what are the latest Irish whiskey consumer trends?

JQ: The growth of Irish whiskey itself is a worldwide consumer trend – growing at 20%+ per annum, much faster than any other whiskey category and even faster than any other international spirit category. Within Irish whiskey people are very interested in new expressions, particularly new finishes. Our own TD 12yo Special Reserve which is a triple blend is in vogue in many places while our 10yo single malt is an example of four-cask finishing, unique in Irish whiskey. The other big development is the interest in single pot still whiskeys, a small but very interesting category. New ways of finishing are always interesting, whether for blends, malts or pot stills

WOW: What sets Tullamore DEW apart from other Irish blends (such as Jameson)? What makes Tullamore DEW such a special whiskey?

JQ: Tullamore DEW is a triple distilled whiskey like most Irish whiskeys, but what makes it different is that it is also a triple blend. That is what makes it unique. Blended whiskeys tend to be blends of grain and malt whiskeys, such as blended Scotch. In Ireland we make a third type of whiskey known as “pot still” whiskey – this whiskey is unique to Ireland. Tullamore DEW is uniquely a blend of all three – grain, malt and pot still, matured is Bourbon and Sherry casks.  You ask about Jameson – it’s a wonderful whiskey. It’s a double blend of grain and pot still whiskeys. Bushmills, also a great whiskey is a double blend of grain and malt whiskeys. TD is a triple blend, so that what makes all of them different.

WOW: Irish whiskey is on the rise, led by the astounding performance of Jameson during the last decade.  What does the future hold for Irish whiskey, both in terms of volumes and styles?  How far and how wide can it go in the next ten years?

JQ: Who knows how far it can go. Both Tullamore DEW and Jameson have been leading the Irish whiskey growth globally in recent times. That is what you would expect from the two biggest brands. But there is still lots of room for more growth. For example Irish Whiskey sells 6m cases approx annually. The Scotch business alone is closer to 80m cases. So who knows what the potential can be – for sure the growth will continue as the brands enter new markets and introduce new expressions.

WOW: Specifically, in terms of Tullamore DEW, what new variants can we expect in the near-ish future?

JQ: Already in RSA we have the original and 12yo Special Reserve. We will introduce our 10yo Single Malt in the near future and we hope to have another older blend, fully matured by 2015. On top of that we do have plans to gradually introduce some small batches. Part of the difficulty has been that sales have exceeded forecasts for the past 15 years so we don’t have a lot of older whiskeys available just now. We are setting some aside though for the generations to come. On top of that we are building a new distillery in Tullamore to cope with the growing demand. This will also allow us to introduce new expressions

WOW: You’ve visited South Africa before.  What is it about the country you particularly enjoy?

JQ: I love the diversity in South Africa. The country is completely different from one region to another – The Western Cape is a world from Gauteng and vice versa – both physically and socially. I holidayed in the Cape a few years ago – it was fantastic. Jo’burg on the other hand is so vibrant, so exciting from a business perspective. We didn’t even get to Durban this time and I remember the importance of how that was different again. I also love the South African wine. I even had a chance to try some South African whiskeys and while more in the Scotch style they were very pleasant and interesting.

WOW: South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports, and Jameson too has performed well here. Why do you think whisk(e)y has become so popular in this country?

JQ: South African consumers are a dynamic bunch. The structure of society means a lot of new younger consumers are entering the spirits market and in many cases want to try drinks different from the parents – so whiskey seems to be taking over where other spirits once led, such as brandy for example. It’s often a case of people looking for new tastes and both Irish and Scotch offer these in abundance

WOW: Wood is generally acknowledged as the principal influence on the flavour of a whisky.  How prescriptive is the Tullamore DEW wood policy?  Is this something that you oversee directly or is it largely managed by Midleton and Bushmills?  Do you have any special / interesting / distinctive cask profiles?

JQ: We manage it very closely in conjunction with our colleagues at Midleton and Bushmills. In fact as part of the William Grants Group we have a very strict policy on cask purchasing and management. The good news is that in WGs we buy our casks from many of the same suppliers as those to Midleton for example so our policies are closely aligned and of course we work in close cooperation to ensure the qualities and styles of casks are in line with our preferences.

WOW: In this regard is the liquid that you buy from these distilleries custom distilled?

JQ: From Midleton we buy the column distilled grain whiskey and the pot distilled pot-still whiskey I mentioned earlier. The malt whiskey for the blend comes from the distillery at Bushmills, obviously this is pot distilled.

WOW:  Irish whiskey (and Scotch) once upon a time used a small measure of oats in its mashbills.  Is this something that you might consider doing for Tullamore DEW?  What would be its contribution to flavour?

JQ: Yes that is true but it is not practised nowadays. The distillery being built at the moment will be for malt and pot still whiskeys and we will be using barley for both. As you can imagine we need to ensure the whiskey retains its very popular flavour. Who knows – we might look at producing whiskey from oats in the future but it’s not part of the immediate plan.

WOW: We’re very excited about the new distillery that you’re building.  Can you share some of the details with us?  When do you expect to fire up the stills and start production?

JQ: The distillery will be a pot still and malt distillery and in time we will also add column stills for grain whiskey distillation. It will be the only distillery in Ireland producing all three whiskey types. We expect the first spirit to start running from the pot stills next summer (July/August) – it is so exciting for all of us and particularly for me – the old guy

WOW: Are there plans for you to launch new brands once things are up and running, or will this distillery be dedicated to the production of Tullamore DEW?

JQ: The initial plan is for dedicated production of TD – but I expect we will look at the possibility of expanding our range as time passes – nothing hard has been planned in that regard though

WOW: What do you drink when you’re not drinking Tullamore DEW?

JQ: I love Hendricks gin and tonic, I enjoy wines of all styles but particularly Chardonnay/Chablis style in whites and Reds of all styles and countries. I enjoy a good beer when I’m thirsty but more often than not I will have a cider as I’m a coeliac (gluten allergy) so beer, sadly, is not good for me

WOW: Lastly, how do you prefer to drink your whiskey when you’re just having a casual dram with friends?

JQ: Either, with two cubes of ice or if it’s summer time I like with long with apple juice (freshly squeezed if possible – I had a great one at Cape Grace!) or with ginger ale. If it’s one of the older expressions I tend to drink it neat, slowly in a heavy crystal glass and with my eyes closed……

The lone wolf of the north

What does an isolated distillery in the upper reaches of Scotland have to do with the fair city of Cape Town?

First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Note: Apologies on behalf of Prestige Magazine for the factual error in the second paragraph of the printed version.  Wolfburn is not a town.

Wolfburn?  Never heard of it.  I thought that my colleague was making this up.  She’d recounted that in an office nearby a group of guys, specifically one with whom she occasionally met up over a smoke, had claimed to have built a Scotch whisky distillery (called Wolfburn).  I was dubious.  Granted the owners of BenRiach and GlenDronach happen to be Capetonians, but this isn’t Speyside; by and large whisky producers don’t exactly grow on our indigenous trees in the Mother City. It was worth investigation. So it was that a little later, over a glass of orange juice (I had been hoping for new-make Wolfburn, having heard that the stills had begun production in January), I met with one of the owners, an expatriate Scotsman who’d gathered up a team of local investors, to learn a bit more about this intriguing situation.

Wolfburn is located in the far northern Highlands, close to the towns of Thurso and Wick, the latter once having been a major fishing hub.  In the mid-nineteenth century upwards of a hundred thousand fishermen would descend on the area during the season.  This was hard work on a cold, rough sea and it invariably stoked their already considerable thirst for whisky.  There were two distilleries serving this demand, one of which was the original Wolfburn – named after the crystal-clear, pristine stream from which the distillery’s water, then and now, was and is drawn.  Few records remain, just a few references in excise documents, and there’s nothing left of the physical structure.  The only link to the past is in the name and the general location.  I found this sad in a sense – I’ve always been enchanted by the stories and the heritage of Scotch whisky – but we tend get caught up in the romance of history, and we often don’t realise that it comes with its burdens.  Old does not necessarily mean good, and old definitely does not mean efficient.

Freed of these shackles whilst honouring its predecessor nonetheless, the new Wolfburn has been designed to be as efficient as possible, but true to the spirit of whisky.  Its processes, equipment and layout are modern, but it operates on an entirely manual basis, with no computerisation whatsoever.  “It’s the right thing to do”, I’m quoting the visionary behind Wolfburn, “in a world where the bog corporates are building bigger and bigger soulless whisky factories that are barely even distilleries in the real sense of the name”.  This is the type of raw candour that stirs my blood; perhaps we have a new Mark Reynier entering the trade.  Wolfburn then is an up-to-date re-envisaging of whisky-making from the golden age. 

Producing whisky from scratch is an expensive and precarious endeavour; there’s no revenue for at least three years post ignition, and no significant profitability until long thereafter.  Not forgetting of course the usual business risks that come with any new venture.  Efficiency thus is key.  The core team assembled to make this philosophy a reality is made up of General Manager Shane Fraser, a long-time servant of whisky who’s worked at stellar distilleries such as Glenfarclas, Oban and Royal Lochnagar, and Mashman Matt Beeson who was stolen from the beer trade, where mastery of mashing is paramount.  No shortage of pedigree clearly.

What then of the whisky?  Because at the end of the day that’s what really matters.  The malt (made from Optic barley by Munton’s of Yorkshire) is all unpeated, and the still shape is similar to those at Glenfiddich.  The new-make – sadly missing at our meeting I’ll repeat (hint hint) – has had its flavour described as follows: “lovely malty notes with some great nuttiness”, and is being filled into a pleasingly broad variety of casks which should give the Master Distiller a splendid foundation for vatting: first-fill Bourbon barrels, first-fill Sherry hogsheads, second-fill Sherry butts, and second-fill Bourbon quarter casks (the first-fill was an Islay malt so the flavour  from these last casks is expected to be subtly smoky).  There are plans to sell young whisky, probably largely composed from the quarter casks, where maturation might be advanced because of the relatively extensive wood contact, but there’ll be no other compromises in pursuit of quick cash.  You won’t find Wolfburn in a blend (or a blended malt), you won’t find an independent bottling of Wolfburn, and you won’t find Wolfburn “spirit” (white dogs and whatnot).  The strict ethic that has been instituted calls for the production in its entirety to be dedicated to bottlings of proprietary single malts.  Go big or go home.

Wolfburn dunnage

Wolfburn dunnage.

Whilst we’ll all have to wait some three odd years before tasting the whisky, one can stake a claim pretty much immediately.  The first release – limited to 500 bottles – is already being sold at £135 per bottle, and disappearing rapidly I’m told: more than a quarter of the stock is gone.  Interested parties can send an email to info@wolfburn.com to get their purchase rolling. 

The pricing may seem steep for a whisky of barely legal age, but consider that although a few new distilleries have been commissioned in recent years it’s still a hell of a rare thing to own an inaugural bottling.  I’m not a speculator myself but this appears to be worth a long-term punt.  I know I speak for many whisky lovers though when I say that if I were to buy I would do so not for the investment but for the satisfaction that I would be one of the first – ever and for all time – to savour this sweet nectar.  And the almost fraternal Cape Town connection should make it all the sweeter.  May the dram be with you.

Out and about with whisky

The Islay episode.  A trip to the Big Smoke.

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2013 edition).

As it appeared - p1 & p2.

As it appeared – p1 & p2.

As it appeared - p3.

As it appeared – p3.


I share a tradition with a great mate of mine: whenever we see each other the one who’s done the travelling will bring the other a good bottle of whisky.  It’s not expected, it’s something that has just evolved, unspoken; it happened one day and has kept happening since.   Unfortunately we don’t see each other often – a factor of distance and circumstance – but when we do we tend to sit down over a series of solid drams, partaking of the seamless camaraderie and easy conversation that comes from long acquaintance.  I’m describing a synergy, I would think, with which many whisky lovers can identify – whisky and friendship each enhanced by the other.  Recently, when I had it in my mind to embark on a whisky pilgrimage, he was the first person I contacted to accompany me.

There are many conceivable places to which one could travel to pay homage at the altar of whisky, but I’ll venture out on a limb in an attempt to narrow the field: the location of most significance, the Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome of whisky, the area on earth more than any other imbued with its very soul, is a waterlogged little island, stranded in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, called Islay.  I ascribe this bold, rather categorical assertion to two observations:

Firstly, most obviously, is the voluminous presence of peat – the spongy, semi-decomposed vegetation to which the heritage of malt whisky is inextricably linked. It is at the heart of the lore. In the auld days it was peat which was most prolifically used to arrest the germination of barley and hence produce the malt for whisky.  Its contribution went beyond the functional purpose of creating a heat source, stretching into the essence of the whisky itself.  The smoky flavour which it imparts came to be a signature if not a defining feature of Scotch whisky.  And of all the whisky places in the entire whisky world there is none more synonymous with peat than Islay.

Secondly, less obviously from afar, but quite evident once you arrive, is the dedicated, unwavering, wholehearted, fixated focus on whisky.   Notwithstanding the sheep we spotted (and the odd cow), the few crops we were told were being grown somewhere (but of which we saw no signs), and the occasionally lines that are likely cast in the water, there’s not much else happening on Islay other than whisky, whisky and more whisky.   I doubt that there’s any other self-contained area in the world that’s more committed to whisky – to the exclusion of everything else – than this curious place, which has fittingly established itself as one of the five official whisky regions of Scotland.

So Islay presents itself convincingly and self-assuredly as a destination of preference for the whisky tourist.  Getting there however is another matter entirely; combine the obscure geography with foul weather and you get what can often turn out to be a logistical challenge.  Our hideously-expensive, short flight from Glasgow – less than a third of the distance from Durban to Joburg, some three times the cost – was cancelled because of a bank of low-lying clouds prevailing over Islay’s Glenegedale Airport, throwing our plans into disarray.  We started frantically evaluating alternative options.  Another airline?  There are none servicing this route (or any other route into Islay).  Renting a car and catching the ferry?  There are only three ferries a day and we’d miss the last one.  Luckily, by outsprinting the others on the cancelled flight to the customer services counter (with some measure of guilt, many of them being geriatrics), we managed to get ourselves on the next morning’s flight (the only inbound flight on a Saturday).  The locals informed us that this was a regular occurrence, ostensibly the reason for the high cost of the flight (the airline probably has to feed and accommodate one in every three passengers).  There are thus, seemingly, a few vital qualities required of a potential visitor to Islay – persistence and flexibility.  Once there though prepare yourselves to enter an unparalleled whisky wonderland.

Islay is only 40 kilometres long by 24 broad yet it boasts eight distilleries within that small area – or rather, as was pointed out to me by an industry veteran, seven distilleries and a micro-distillery.  Short of gerrymandering a similar sized territory in Speyside, this is pretty much as impressive a distillery density as in existence; it takes no longer than an hour to drive from any one to any of the others (unless, like me, you opt for a few unscheduled stops on the side of the road to investigate the boggy peat banks dotting the landscape).  They range in scale from Kilchoman, the micro-producer, to Caol Ila, which devotes the bulk of its output to Diageo’s muscular blended whisky portfolio, most notably Johnnie Walker Black Label.

A quick aside at this stage to deal with the issue of pronunciation; Islay’s Celtic heritage is apparent in the names of its distilleries, which can be phonetically baffling to the uninitiated, but lyrical and meaningful once through the door.  This is important stuff.   You don’t want to be sitting amongst the locals at the White Hart in Port Ellen on a Saturday night butchering their language as you’re calling for a dram.  Indeed Islay (eye-la) itself is often botched as “eye-lay” or, most horrifically, “iz-lay”.  This cringe-worthy scenario is best avoided – read on.  The two distilleries (and whiskies of course) with which people usually have the most difficultly are coincidentally located adjacent to each other: Bunnahabhain (Bon-na-ha-ven), meaning “mouth of the river” and Caol Ila (Ka-lee-la), meaning “Sound of Islay”, the body of water over which it perches.  The quest for linguistic purity though is not always straightforward, especially in Scotland.  Even within its parent company, there’s no definitive consensus about Bunna’s pronunciation; some enunciate the first syllable as “bun” (as in a pastry), whilst others, including Distillery Manager Andrew Brown, opt for “bon” (as in Jovi).  Other pitfalls include the overtly deceptive Bruichladdich (brook-laddie), the more subtly deceptive Bowmore (bo-more), and the confounding Laphroaig (la-froyg), with its close cluster of vowels. The remainder, Lagavulin (la-ga-voo-lin), Ardbeg (ard-beg), and Kilchoman (kil-co-min), roll themselves altogether more easily off an anglicised tongue.

Whilst we were out exploring the Port Ellen nightlife (somewhat limited), and exercising our Gaelic proficiency (somewhat erratic), my mate decided to order an Octomore, famed for being the most highly peated whisky ever produced.  As I alluded to earlier peat is central to life on Islay; it has been used by the islanders (Islayanders?) as a source of fuel since time immemorial, and whilst it might be less commonly used for that purpose today we were told that some people still haul out their “fals” (purpose-built peat hewing tools) and cut peat for the sport of it.  Peat is in their blood, metaphorically, and in their whisky, literally, although more so in some than others.  The peat levels in whisky are measured in parts per million phenols (ppm), and each distillery pegs an approximate point on the phenol scale for the bulk of its production. Ardbeg for instance has a standard peating level of 55ppm, the highest on Islay (and anywhere else), but will occasionally vary it for specific products: Blasda is much lower, Supernova is much higher.

Peat smoke is the most easily identifiable flavour in whisky, which I think is why it resonates with certain people.  This is probably a contributing reason for Islay’s iconic status.  I remember as a novice feeling a sense of satisfaction (hey, I’m getting this!) from being able to spot a peated malt.  The smoky flavour typical to Islay malts is even more distinctly recognisable; it is pungent and intense with medicinal, briny, and iodic overtones, stemming from the seaweed, and other coastal vegetation and material (including shells), from which the peat was compacted, and from its saturation by ocean spray.  This flavour sets it apart from other peated whiskies, made using other differentiated sources of peat – Highland, Orkney, Skye and so forth.  The Octomore (fifth release), which weighs in at a throat-constricting 169ppm, might be an Islay malt in name, but with its malt sourced from Bairds of Inverness in the Highlands, it doesn’t share the same defining genes as its peated Islay brethren.

Our itinerary kicked off at Bowmore, situated conveniently close the airport – especially given our delayed arrival.  Bowmore and Laphroaig, which unfortunately we didn’t get to visit, are in a sense the most complete distilleries on the island, in that they both still do their own maltings, or, rather, a proportion thereof, on site – a practice which has largely died out.  The others source malt either from the industrial maltings at Port Ellen, or from the mainland.  Now, a cautionary note:  distilleries are factories; they’re quaint, they’re old (mostly), and they’re picturesque, but they’re still factories.  They may fascinate me personally but I have (just) enough self-awareness to realise that this sentiment is unlikely to be universal.  So I’m going to focus on something altogether more consensually exciting – the whiskies!  As we meandered our way from distillery to distillery, enjoying the desolate Islay scenery through a steadily increasing perceptual haze, we enjoyed the most awesome of all whisky tasting adventures.  The magnificent bar at Bowmore, where we were poured stiff drams of the 15YO Darkest, the 18YO and the 10YO Tempest, gave way to the more rustic surrounds of Bruichladdich.  Energetic, experimental, and prolific; this distillery can probably claim the widest range of products on the island – certainly in the past decade.  What it lacks in aged stocks (there was no production between 1994 and 2000) it makes up in daring.  I was particularly pleased to taste Nostalgia, a limited edition 20YO whisky fast-finished (or aced) in Gaja Barolo casks – and a typical example of the distillery’s style for pre-closure distillations.   Our final stop on the first day was Lagavulin, where we were hosted to a tasting in an old style drawing room.  One of my favourite Islay malts, the Lagavulin 16YO, was trumped by the Distiller’s Edition (effectively the 16YO turbo-charged by a further three to six months of extra maturation in PX casks), and by the incredible 21YO, a treat of whisky, although somewhat steep at about R4900 equivalent.  We settled ourselves into the comfort of the leather armchairs, and, before we knew it, closing time had come and gone.  The distillery staff had to pry us loose to eject us from the premises – the whisky was that good.

The treasures didn’t ease up on the next round of visits.  Bunnahabhain served up the recently launched 40YO (outstanding!) and some sherry casks of less common variety, Manzanilla and Amontillado amongst them.  The distillery is splendidly isolated (even from nearby Caol Ila) on the Northern coast of the island; its casks in dunnage virtually on the water’s edge, greedily inhaling the ocean influence.  Finally, we made our way to our last stop, to Ardbeg, to arguably, and I do argue it, the most beautiful and picture-perfect of all Islay’s distilleries.   The white-washed walls, the elegant pagodas, and the seemingly-manicured layout of it spoke of a place in which tremendous pride has been invested.  In our good fortune we had resided in a superb, newly-renovated cottage on the premises (which is available to guests for rental) during the length of our sojourn, so from ambling around the grounds and soaking up the atmosphere our anticipation had been gradually building.  Ardbeg, like Bruichladdich, has gaps in its aged stocks; it was closed from 1981 to 1989, and it only operated on a limited basis between 1989 and 1996.  Necessity is the mother of invention and if ever proof was needed then Ardbeg’s portfolio duly provides it.  Using relatively young whiskies they’ve created a complex, integrated, unique and increasingly acclaimed range.  The Uigeadail, Corryvrecken and Alligator passed our lips – soothed against the cold by Ardbeg infused balm from the cottage – like three prodigies bringing gifts of incense…well, you get the drift.

My intention had been for an epic trip – of fast friends, great whisky, and moments to remember; I wasn’t disappointed.  The writer Iain Banks once suggested: “If you can’t find a Bowmore to fall in love with, you may have to consider very seriously the possibility that you’re wasting your money drinking whisky at all”.  I think the same philosophy is true of each and every distillery on Islay.  May the dram be with you!


Conversation with a master

Meet Ian MacMillan, a Scotsman’s Scotsman and a whisky legend who’s been crafting epic drams for most of his life. I caught up with him when he was in Cape Town recently.

First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2013 issue).

More or less as it appeared.  A few typesetting issues in this version.

More or less as it appeared. A few typesetting issues in this version.

I met with Ian at Harbour House in the Waterfront. I can’t share with you the details of the delicious lunch that we enjoyed, or the delectable wine, or even the crisp sunshine of that magical Cape day. These diversions though, pleasant as they might have been, were unimportant In the context of the occasion.What I can share with you are a few privileged insights from one of the world’s foremost whisky experts.

You’re the Group Master Blender and Head of Distilleries for Burn Stewart. Tell us about your path to this auspicious position.

I’ve spent 40 years in the industry, learning the trade from the ground up, and covering all aspects of distillation. Also, I consider myself lucky to have been blessed with good organoleptic ability, which is crucial, and to have been helped and guided along the way by some great mentors.

How do you spend your time outside of whisky?

I’m a passionate rugby fan. I support Scotland of course, and the Cheetahs when I’m in South Africa. I also have a serious interest in wine, to the point that I have a diploma to show for it.

You’ve visited the country often. What’s your impression of South Africa?

I’ve been coming here for 10 years, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each trip. I love the people, I’ve cultivated great friendships, and I can look back on some memorable, unforgettable experiences.

Is there any particularly special moment that you can share with us?

I once drank whisky out of the Currie Cup, shortly after it had been presented to the Cheetahs when they won the tournament. Our brand Scottish Leader is the official whisky of the Free State Rugby Union, so we had special access to the victory celebration. Special enough? (Hell yes)

South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports. Why do you think whisky has become so popular in the country?

I’ve noticed that South Africans have cultivated palates, that they’re very inquisitive and keen to explore the differences evident in whisky, and that they’re highly motivated to become knowledgable about whisky. Correspondingly, for many years now, there have been lots of good people on the local scene who’ve been working to feed this fire and educate consumers about whisky.

Islay seems to have established itself as a whisky Mecca. Its peated whiskies have developed a cult following. Why do you think this is the case?

It’s a unique place – a small island accommodating seven distilleries and a micro distillery – and it has become iconic because it embodies the true tradition and style of Scotch whisky. Originally all Scotch was made by malting barley using peat fires. I can’t drink smoky whiskies all the time, but when I do I particularly enjoy Lagavulin.

I would imagine that the influx of tourists has risen steadily. Are you worried that this might change the character of the island?

No, not really. Islay thrives on tourism, which is great for the local economy. The inaccessibility of the place and the generally inclement weather puts a cap on numbers and keeps things under control.

Bunnahabhain is well-known as the least peated of the Islay whiskies – the ‘gentle taste of Islay’. In the past there have been significant peated expressions. Are there any plans in place to release new peated variants in the future?

Yes. We started distilling peated whiskies again in 2003, which we’ve infrequently put on the market as limited editions. A Bunnahabhain Mòine (gaelic for peat) 10YO is slated for release in 2014.

You recently launched an unchillfiltered range of Bunnahabhain, replacing the previously chillfiltered versions. Have you been happy with the reception that the new range has received in the market?

Absolutely. It has been a transformative initiative, and the response has been phenomenal. We were the first distillery to take an entire range unchillfiltered. It’s been personally very satisfying – I fought for this move for many years.

The conventional wisdom is that chillfiltration removes flavour, however I recently came across a blind tasting experiment in which a group of four experienced tasters unanimously preferred chillfiltered versions of the same whisky. Obviously it’s difficult to draw conclusions from such a limited sample, but it raises interesting questions. Perhaps chillfiltration in certain cases might remove offensive congeners and actually improve a whisky. How would you respond to such a claim?

It would depend on the whiskies involved, and on those individuals and their palates. Chillfilitration might well disguise or ‘correct’ an error in distillation and/or maturation. In terms of our whiskies at Burn Stewart, there is no doubt that they’ve been enhanced by the removal of the chillfiltration process. You might want to note that Dave Broom (a leading whisky writer) concurs.

Whisky has been made in much the same way for hundreds of years. What, in your opinion, is the most significant change that has taken place in the modern era?

I’m a traditionalist. I don’t believe that whisky making should be computerised and automated. I find it sad that some distilleries are now run with virtually no people. Taking away the human element destroys the myth and heritage of whisky, and eventually it will lead to a blandness in flavour.

What can we expect from Bunnahabhain – that you’re able to disclose – in the medium term?

Burn Stewart has only owned Bunnahabhain for 10 years. The only variant at the time of purchase was the 12YO. We’ve introduced 25 variants since that time. The Bunnahabhain spirit ages particularly well, and it’s an exciting whisky with which to work, so we’ll continue to experiment. I’m specifically very excited about Mòine.

What’s your favourite whisky, Bunnahabhain or otherwise, and how do you drink it?

Whatever’s in my hand when the question is asked! Seriously, whisky is a mood drink so my preferences vary accordingly. I appreciate many outside of our stable (I mentioned Lagavulin earlier). I have a great respect for others in the industry doing the same job.

And I usually drink my whisky with a dash of water.

A message from Ian to all Prestige Magazine readers: may the dram be with you!

A nosing with Gordon Motion

Every now and again life treats you to a glorious surprise.  I was privileged during a recent visit to The Edrington Group’s head office in Glasgow to get to meet Gordon Motion and to be invited into his sample room for a nosing session.

Gordon amidst the tools of his trade,

Gordon amidst the tools of his trade.

This was my first foray into a Master Blender’s domain, so I was a little uncertain about what to expect beyond the obvious.  It proved to be a sensory feast.   I was told that the space was a re-creation of the sample room from their bygone offices of a bygone era – and indeed it exuded the old-style elegance of a Victorian library…that had substituted bottles for books.

Wood panelled splendour.

Wood panelled splendour.

Whilst the aesthetics were undeniably appealing and worth a linger, the focus soon shifted from the visual to the olfactory.   We nosed a variety of samples – those that happened to be on Gordon’s menu of tasks for the day – including new make spirit from North British, the grain distillery jointly owned by Edrington and Diageo, and Ruadh Maor, a peated Glenturret intended for Black Grouse.  It was particularly interesting to learn (or to be reminded, I had an inkling of it) that North British is the only grain distillery in Scotland using (more expensive) maize rather than wheat in its mashbill – the purpose being to achieve a buttery flavour and mouthfeel (similar to that of Bourbon).

Grain of a different sort.

Grain of a different sort.

Probably the most fascinating aspect of the experience though was the opportunity to nose the same original spirit of equivalent age from various different casks.  The massive influence of wood on the character of whisky doesn’t really need reinforcement, but in this case there was an added twist.  People often refer to European casks and Sherry casks interchangeably, as if they were the same thing.  The wood from which the cask was made, and the liquid which seasoned the cask are two different elements, and it’s worth bearing in mind that each makes distinct contributions to flavour.  Whilst most Sherry casks are made from European oak, this is not a universal rule; Edrington in particular has been seasoning American white oak casks with Sherry, and consequently producing whisky with a different category of flavour.  If I ever had any doubts about the scale of this variation they were quickly dispensed by the nosing, conducted side-by-side with a traditional Sherry cask sample (and a Bourbon cask sample for good measure).

The wood factor.

The wood factor.

I’ve always been a Macallan and a Highland Park fan.  The whiskies are sensational of course, but that’s just part of it; I generally like the way they go about their business.   You might have noticed, tangentially, that almost every whisky drinking moment in an influential movie or television series seems to involve a Macallan – not by random chance I’ll warrant.  These guys are a class act, and this visit served to confirm my impressions.

Whisky heaven

This labour of love, the first of its kind, offers a whisky experience beyond that of just shopping.

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2013 edition).

As it appeared - page 1.

As it appeared – page 1.

As it appeared - page 2.

As it appeared – page 2.


It’s rare that I lament being in Cape Town rather than Joburg. Recently however I experienced one of those moments, because my brother in whisky (and yours), Marc Pendlebury, opened South Africa’s first dedicated, speciality whisky store.  Located in Hyde Park Corner shopping centre (Hyde Park, Johannesburg) this gem of a shop is a mouth-watering development for local whisky lovers.  Marc is best known on the whisky scene as WhiskyBrother, one of the most established and prolific South African whisky bloggers.  I caught up with him long distance to ask him about the venture and about his whisky journey.


When did you become passionate about whisky and how did it happen?

I was a “whisky drinker” for several years before the passion took hold, which was about 8 years ago. It began when I received an 18yo Speyside single malt. It was unlike anything I ever had drunk up and it sparked my curiosity and a desire to understand how and where the differences arise with regard to flavour and whisky styles.

What’s been the most magical moment on your whisky journey?

I’ve shared many memorable moments with various whisky friends quietly savouring a pour of something spectacular, but my trip to Islay a few months back definitely qualifies as the most magical. The whole island is shrouded in whisky magic, and to have had the opportunity to meet the people behind the wonderful Islay malts and taste whiskies directly from the casks in the warehouses was a moving experience for a whisky geek like me.

WhiskyBrother was originally (and still is) your blogging persona.  How did you come up with the name?

Knowledge is a life-long pursuit, and as a whisky enthusiast I am continually learning and experiencing new aspects of whisky every day.  I didn’t think that I qualified for a moniker like Dr Whisky or Whisky Guru. The brother extension was about showing my intermediateness, as well as the camaraderie I so often find among my fellow enthusiasts. Also, I thought brother was much more approachable and accurately reflected my personality.

Can you share with us a bit about your background and your life away from whisky?  What are some of your other pastimes?

I like to keep busy, so it’s a constant challenge to try to balance my work and personal life. I’m currently finishing my MBA – I probably should have done so before starting on the shop but you can’t keep a passionate idea supressed!

Time with my family and friends is important to me. I’m a bit of a news, tech and social media junkie so I’m often flipping through the various news channels/sites/magazines or engaging on various social platforms. I also play touch-rugby once a week and try squeeze in a run, gym session or walk in the park with my dogs whenever time allows.

Tell us about that moment (or perhaps it was a process) when you decided to pack it all in to start a whisky shop.

It was very much a process! As a serious enthusiast I wanted to frequent a store that specialised in whisky, and so, about five years ago, I thought it would be something great to create, if the time came and it still didn’t exist. Well the years passed and no store appeared, so in mid-2011 I considered it more seriously and started playing with the numbers and scribbling business plan ideas. One thing led to another, and once I was successful in raising the capital in early 2012 it was full-steam ahead.

You stock an extensive selection of whiskies and whisky-related items.  What are some of the highlights?  Is there anything that’s particularly special to you?

My first highlight is the extensive collection! Seeing so many brands under the same roof is a special sight to behold. If I had to name a few of which I’m particularly fond, I would have to include: Macallan Fine and Rare 1989 (the only one in the country), Dalmore 1978 31yo, Glenmorangie Pride (now sold) and Glenfiddich 40yo.

Apart from these more exclusive and limited items, I am equally pleased to stock the ranges from smaller, independent producers including BenRiach, Springbank, GlenDronach, Kilchoman, Compass Box and Michel Couvreur.

What makes the WhiskyBrother store different from other liquor speciality stores that focus (albeit not exclusively) on whisky?  What can whisky lovers expect that would delight them when they visit your store?

The fact that it is strictly whisky, and only whisky. Whisky is a specialty drink and it deserves a specialty store. The store was built intentionally to showcase the amazing whiskies available and the design has included many components of whisky production and history – from the use of copper and untreated oak staves, to the presence of used whisky casks and images of distilleries.

Next would be the large selection on offer. It’s not about only stocking the big brands with the big marketing budgets. I’d like to think all whiskies are equal on the WhiskyBrother shelves; it is up to the consumer to decide on preference. I have as many brands and expressions as is available in our market, as well as a whisky or two you won’t find anywhere else in SA.

Lastly, a specialty store must provide specialty service. I am personally working in the store for the foreseeable future. The whisky consumer deserves to be assisted by someone who has solid whisky experience and can recommend, engage and inform.

My intention is to provide an experience, not just retail whisky.

What’s on top of the list for your next whisky adventure?

I’m currently organising a group tour to Scotland (and plan to make it a quarterly activity), and I’m working on getting a cask bottled that I personally selected.


Nice guy, great whiskies, impressive store.  Get over there and check it out.  May the dram be with you!

Whisky at the movies

Late last year I attended the première of Angel’s Share, hosted by Bunnahabhain in association with WHISKYdotcoza.  A whisky movie is a rare beast so for whisky lovers Angel’s Share is worth watching on that basis alone.  The only other whisky-themed movie of which I’m aware, courtesy of Mark from the Whisky Tasting Fellowship, is 1949’s Whisky Galore.  Angel’s Share also happened to win the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival – so ostensibly it has more merit than just whisky.

It made for pleasant if not exhilarating viewing, although I should qualify that I’d been sailing on the Bunna ship for a fair while before kick-off.  Anyhow, I won’t give much away but let me say that my most and least favourite moments were the demonstration of “flogging the bung” (new knowledge for me) and the heart-stopping Irn-Bru incident respectively.

It was also interesting to note that the Deanston distillery, the brand home of the locally prominent Scottish Leader, featured as the venue for some of the whisky scenes.  I need to get word to them that they’ll increase their visits tenfold if they hire the tour guide from the movie.  Whisky legend Charles MacLean, less comely but dispatching his duties with aplomb nonetheless, also featured in the significant role of “Whisky Master”.

May the dram (Malt Mill please) be with you!

BTW – Malt Mill was a real distillery.  Check this out (spoiler alert).

Pierre Meintjes with Dave and Lorna Hughes.

With the Allardie, David and Saul

Marsh Middleton with Bunnahabhain Brand Manager Johann Botha

Yes please!

Lin Murray and Alvin Visser


Pendock Uncorked…and Sulphurous

It seems that in my capacity as a writer I may need thicker skin.

I came across the post below whilst I was doing some web research for an upcoming piece.

Whisky Bloggers: an underutilized resource

Posted: October 24th, 2012 | By Neil Pendock

Apart from the obvious pleasures of eating Garth Schnier’s amazing food and sipping a wee dram of 50 year old Balvenie, the highlight of yesterday’s Sandton Sun tasting was meeting a brace of bloggers: Marc from Whisky Brother and Mark from Whisky Tasting Fellowship.  While it is well known that most people in wine are called Thys, seems that Marc/k is the whisky world equivalent.  Which reminds me of how a single malt column for late, lamented Wine magazine had me enthusing about a fabulous single malt from Mark Alan (Macallan, geddit?)

Well SA whisky writing really needs a whole barrel full or Marc/k’s if the double page spread on what to drink at Whisky Live in the BA in-flight magazine High Life, is any indication.

Five whiskies are recommended:

Johnnie Red (I kid you not);

Jameson (served in poverty class on BA, so that one’s a no-brainer);

Michel Couvreur (imported by “whisky whiz” Patrick Leclezio who wrote the story, so that one’s a no-brainer too, although a disclosure would have been nice, if not essential);

Ardbeg, claimed to be the most peaty malt at “an eye-watering 55 ppm” of phenol even though the Ardbeg site claims only 50 ppm;

60 year old Macallan in Lalique crystal decanter.  The third edition is recommended and the second went for R139K.  A decade older than the Balvenie and half the price, it sounds like a deal to me.

This is worse than that old fraud Mr. Min alliterating all over the place in Sawubona.  Come on, BA, pull up y’re socks!  I bumped into an old friend on the 7:45pm BA flight to Cape Town who told me that if you export SA brandy to France and keep it there for six months, it miraculously becomes French brandy.  As the Chinese word for luxury is “French”, this sounds like a plan for Distell.  How about it, Dr. Caroline Snyman, queen of brandy?

I was the author of that High Life spread (as the post explicitly points out) so I feel inclined to respond.

A selection of this kind is of course subjective by its very nature – any number of whiskies could have been justifiably chosen.  Given the parameters of the brief (each whisky had to be most something), and the publication and its audience, I stand by my particular selection; the mix ranged from the accessible and popular for the novice, and the voyeuristic and iconic for the initiated, to the obscure for the aficionado.

Neil Pendock’s rather scathing denunciation – of something that at the time seemed like an innocuous exercise – takes exception with each and every whisky in the selection.   So, point-by-point then:

–        A good measure of his disdain is reserved for the presence of Johnnie Walker Red Label.  One would think that someone who professes “healthy disregard for the anoraks, bowties and Emperors of drink and their new clothes” would champion the novice, but it seems not.  Too dumbed-down?  I don’t agree.  Johnnie Red is a definitive Scotch.  I maintain that if you’re starting out in whisky you should try it as a priority.  Its variety of flavours – smoke, salt, spice, and sweetness (oops, is that too alliterative?) – are beautifully representative of the broader character of Scotch whisky.

–        The implication that Jameson was selected because it’s served on BA is ludicrous.  It’s not only blatantly untrue, but also somewhat paranoid.  There’s no low-level, high altitude conspiracy at play here.  The selection was left entirely to me.   Jameson is on my list because it’s the whiskey that I most recommend to people who are unsure about or hesitant to try whisky.  Its flavours are interesting but understated, and it doesn’t have the overpowering ‘whisky taste’ that can sometimes put off the unaccustomed.

–        I am indeed one of the importers of Michel Couvreur whisky.  This information is readily available to anybody to whom it’s of interest.  I’m sure that Neil was able to learn of it with ease by either doing a Google search or by speaking to anyone within the whisky fraternity who knows me.  It’s worth noting that I retail each of the whiskies in the selection – and that it was clearly disclosed that I’m the owner of an online whisky shop.  I suppose one could make the case that I should have further disclosed that I don’t just sell but also import the Michel Couvreur.  It just didn’t occur to me at the time.   It certainly hasn’t been my intention to conceal the information, either in High Life or anywhere else.  My sincere apologies then to those who felt conned or misled by the inadequate extent of my disclosure.  Regardless though I think the merit of this whisky within the (important) context in which it was selected is difficult to dispute.  I would challenge anyone to identify a whisky easily available in this country that’s clearly more unusual than those from Michel Couvreur.

–        The issue of whether or not Michel Couvreur can be legitimately referred to as a French whisky is tenuous, but I don’t think that I’m stepping out of reasonable bounds by doing so.  It certainly can’t be called a Scotch whisky, and it’s only fair to give it some sort of an identity.  I’m sure that many products that are assembled in a particular country and claim to be made in that country don’t necessarily source all their components from the self-same country.  But that’s just an observation – this isn’t my fight.

–        I’m not sure to which Ardbeg site Neil is referring.  The official site doesn’t seem to reference a specific ppm value under its product information for the 10YO: http://www.ardbeg.com/ardbeg/whisky/ten-years-old, although I can’t discount that this may be shown elsewhere on the site.  I sourced my information directly from the local representatives of Ardbeg, and I then had it confirmed by Marsh Middleton, one of this country’s leading whisky presenters.  There are also a multitude of web references to 55 ppm.  I understand (and I entirely endorse) that factual accuracy is important, but if there’s an error here, which I highly doubt, it’s one that was made in good faith, and not through any lack of application.

–        Admittedly not too many people will get to try the Macallan but it inspires me as I’m sure it does others to know that it’s out there.  The appreciation of whisky is a journey, and aspirational destinations are part of what makes it so special.

Some might dispute my selection, absolutely, as it’s clear that Neil does.  There is always a measure of subjectivity involved in these types of exercises.  It may not be optimal, depending on your point of view, but I ask myself: does it warrant public insult?  And not just of the selection itself but of the author…  The pointed reference to whisky whiz in inverted commas seems unnecessary; to label me worse than a fraud even more so.  Neil has never met me and has never had anything to do with me, and he’d presumably only read one of my articles (he doesn’t mention anything else).   It seems astounding then (at least to me) that he’s taken it upon himself, on the basis of dubious justification and incorrect information, to publicly humiliate me and cast aspersions, without even the courtesy of courting a response.  Poor show.

I put the cool in caustic!

I put the cool in caustic!


Whisky diplomats charm South Africa

The world of whisky is so gracious and so evolved that it even has its own emissaries.  I recently had the privilege of meeting with and interviewing the Global Brand Ambassadors of two of Scotland’s leading single malts: Karen Fullerton from Glenmorangie and Ian Millar from Glenfiddich.

Big thanks to the local Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich teams, and to Manny and Phillip Myburgh, the inimitable owners of Café Della Salute on Sandton Square, for setting up and hosting the interviews.

Ian with the Myburgh brothers

Ian with the Myburgh brothers

Karen with local sidekick Niel Hendriksz

Note: The interviews were conducted separately, but the questions were the same so I’ve consolidated them below.

WOW: You’re the Global Brand Ambassador for Glenmorangie/Glenfiddich.  Tell us a little bit about yourself, your work and your time away from work.

KF: I was born on the west coast of Scotland, and then I moved to England as a young lass.  I started my career in wine, but I’d inherited a love of Scotch whisky from my father and my grandfather.  In 2002 I joined Glenmorangie in a sales capacity, and shortly thereafter I had the opportunity to work as the brand’s Ambassador in the United States for some five years.  I left the company at the time of the Moet Hennessy acquisition, to work on Dewar’s at Bacardi.  It was a fulfilling experience, and it gave me the opportunity to work with blended whisky, but I always dreamt of returning to Glenmorangie, which I was then lucky enough to do when I was offered this role.  In my leisure time I enjoy the outdoors – spending time in the mountains, running, and playing golf and hockey.

IM: I’ve spent 40 years of my life working in the whisky industry.  In fact I’m about to turn 60 and I’ll be celebrating the occasion with two very special bottles: 1952 vintages of Glenfarclas and Linkwood.  I worked in production until 2006, managing distilleries for first Diageo and then William Grant’s, before moving into my current role.  My responsibilities are varied: aside from my ambassadorial duties I work on whisky innovation, I manage a team of 18 ambassadors, and I act as a guardian of the Glenfiddich brand.

WOW: What do you most like and dislike about your job?

KF: My likes: travelling to interesting places, meeting amazing, likeminded people, the variety inherent in the role (every day is different), the access to special insights, and, I won’t lie, the perks: I get to stay in the best hotels, eat in the best restaurants and taste the best samples from the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg distilleries.

My dislike: the industry isn’t as progressive as I’d ideally want it to be, and this occasionally impacts on my ability to do my job.

IM: My likes: experiencing different cultures and meeting different people.

My dislikes: travel problems – I’ve just had a nightmare journey to get to South Africa.

WOW: I would imagine that you meet a tremendous number of whisky drinkers, and that you must have close insight into the latest developments in the market.  In your opinion what are the latest whisky consumer trends?

KF: We’re seeing the introduction of more and more multi-vintage, no age statement whiskies (for malt as well as blended whisky).  There’s a lot of mixing of whisky taking place in developing markets, particularly for blends; malt whisky to a large extent is still being drunk traditionally.  Most encouraging for those of us in this sector is the continued strong growth of malt whisky.

IM: Let me respond rather on both whisky development and consumer trends, which are somewhat interlinked. Malt whisky only makes up 9% of the Scotch whisky market but it’s driving innovation in my opinion.  There are large numbers of interesting new expressions being released onto the market and attracting people to malt whisky, an example at Glenfiddich being Snow Phoenix.  Whisky tourism is growing, people are experimenting increasingly, and we’re seeing a proliferation of no age statement whisky as whisky stocks (not ours, I should add) come under increasing pressure.  Glenfiddich will be introducing only a small percentage of no age statement whisky, but with transparency about the contents.

WOW: Glenfiddich cracked the million case mark last year – the first single malt to do so.  Whilst this signals the increasing prominence of malt whisky, the market remains very much dominated by blends.  What’s your view of the future of the whisky market?

KF: I think that the market will always remain dominated by blends, but continuing education about whisky, and the introduction of younger malt whiskies intended to bring down the price gap will continue to makes malt whisky increasingly prominent in the future.

IM: As long as the price difference remains blends will continue to dominate – although having said that the weighting will continue to shift.  I would predict that malts will make up 15% of the market in 10 years’ time.  Higher disposable incomes, increasing longevity, younger malt whisky drinkers and the opening of new markets are all contributing to a bright future for malt whisky.

WOW: You’ve been to South Africa before.  You’re pretty much obligated to tell me that you enjoy visiting so I’m not going to ask you that question.  Rather what is it about the country firstly and about the Whisky Live Festival secondly that you most enjoy?  What sets them apart in your experience from other countries and other Festivals?

KF: I really enjoy interacting with South Africans who I find to be energetic, warm and progressive. And of all the whisky festivals in the world I most enjoy SA and Stockholm.  SA’s Whisky Live is a lifestyle event; it’s social and there’s a great balance between seriousness and fun.  It’s broken down barriers to engaging with whisky.  I always find it refreshing to see the large proportions of women and younger people attending the festival.

IM: I find it a joy to visit this country.  It has a rich history and culture, and the people are happy.  It’s a great environment in which to work.  I particularly enjoy the SA social scene.  The festival is the biggest in the world and it gives us the opportunity to engage directly with the consumer which is an important area of focus for Glenfiddich.

WOW: South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports.  Whisky Live South Africa has become the most well attended Whisky Live Festival in the world.  Why do you think whisky is so popular in this country?

KF: For many of the reasons that it has succeeded elsewhere: whisky tastes great, it offers complexity, there’s a depth, a story behind Scotch whisky, and it’s a well regulated product.  The local education programs are also generally excellent.

IM: African spirits consumers are looking for something with credibility, and in this regard whisky stands on its own.  It makes a statement, and people are proud to be seen to be ordering whisky.

WOW: Wood is generally acknowledged as the principal influence on the flavour of a whisky.  Peat smoke is probably the most obvious.  What are the other influences that might be perceptible to the casual drinker?

KF: That’s not an easy one to answer.  In fact our Signet logo is made up of 32 interconnected icons, signifying that no single element dominates.  Having said that I’d suggest location and water source for Glenmorangie.  Our hard mineral water, which filters through stone for 100 years before we use it, has a significant influence on the fermentation process, producing particularly fruity esters.  Our tall stills, the tallest in Scotland (they’re about the height of an adult giraffe), also contribute to a distinctly lighter and finer spirit.

IM: Fermentation time.  This is crucial in building spirit character.  It brings out the fruity, floral and nutty flavours which we enjoy in so many whiskies.

WOW: What makes Glenmorangie / Glenfiddich such a special whisky?

KF: The tall stills that I’ve just mentioned.  Our expertise in wood management, which is highly scientific: we use a carefully calibrated mix of early and late growth white oak from the Ozarks.  Glenmorangie was also one of the first whiskies to use ex-Bourbon wood for maturation, and it was one of the pioneers of extra maturation (what others call “finishing”).  Our first extra matured whisky, a 1963 Glenmorangie, was released on the market as far back as 1987.

IM: Its long term credibility and trustworthiness.  You can be guaranteed that any Glenfiddich whisky will be enjoyed.  There’s also comfort in the fact that the brand is long established and is still owned by the same Scottish family.

WOW: What do you drink when you’re not drinking Glenmorangie / Glenfiddich?

KF: Wine, G ‘n’ T, and hoppy beers.  I also enjoy certain island style whiskies – salty, spicy whiskies with a rich sherry influence.

IM: I drink from my top 10, which is as follows: Glenfiddich 15YO, Glenfiddich 30YO, Glen Elgin 12YO, Scapa 14YO, Glenfarclas 14YO, Mortlach 16YO, Springbank 15YO, Edradour 10YO, Balvenie 21YO, and Bowmore 12YO.

WOW: Are you a purist?  How do you respond if someone asks you to mix a dram of Signet / 15YO with Coke?

KF: Don’t do that!

IM: I would certainly discourage it.

WOW: Lastly, how do you prefer to drink your whisky when you’re just having a casual dram with friends?

KF: It depends on the mood and time of day.  When it’s warm I’ll drink Glenmorangie Original on the rocks with orange zest, although I’m not generally a fan of whisky cocktails.  In the late evenings I’ll tend to favour older whiskies drunk neat.  For the most part though I’ll drink whisky with a splash of water.

IM: It depends on the whisky.  I take my drams of Glenfiddich 12YO with two drops of water, and I find that water is not needed with the 15YO.

Thanks again to Karen and Ian for sharing time with me.