The 2009 FNB Whisky Live Festival, South Africa
A Cultural Experience

South Africaby Mandy J Watson
Posted: 6 November Comments View Comments

The 2009 FNB Whisky Live Festival is the largest whisky festival in the world. It's running in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa, this month so we went along on the opening night to bask in warm, golden glows and determine just how much whisky one can sample in an evening. (The answer: not nearly enough!)

I need to begin this article with a bit of a disclaimer: I am no expert. This is only my second professional foray into the world of whisky (the first was a few months ago at the Bascule Wine, Whisky & Cocktail Bar at Cape Grace, courtesy of BlackBerry). Although I enjoy it, I have yet to develop the palette and the skills to appreciate it like a pro - but I am slowly learning.

The FNB Whisky Live Festival is running at the CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre) in Cape Town, South Africa, until Friday 6 November, and then it will be moving to Johannesburg from 11 to 14 November. It is the largest whisky festival in the world and I was invited to attend as a member of the media.

I was allowed to bring a friend from the media with me so I invited whoever from Cape Town Daily Photo would be free, which turned out to be Paul, and we met up in the foyer, admired our media passes, and joined the excited throngs. When you enter you receive a tasting glass, a copy of The South African Whisky Handbook 2010 (ISBN: 9780620454070; SchreiberFord Publications), and a voucher booklet and your adventure begins.

The handbook, which was especially produced for the festival but which has lasting value as a reference guide, is incredibly useful and informative, although, ideally, it's actually something you want to have read before you attend the festival so that you are prepared with tasting knowledge, if you are a beginner, as well as a plan of attack as to what most interests you and what you want to seek out to taste. It has a tasting guide, notes on trends for 2010, and tasting information for 190 whiskies. It's a little cumbersome to use in that the whiskies in the tasting guide are divided into country/region of origin (American, Scottish, rest of the world) and then alphabetically, but only each region's opening-page number is given in the tasting-guide contents (which, itself, is only on page 49 and hard to find), so if you're looking for something specific from within a region (and you will be) you still have to page through to find it - not the easiest thing to do when you're wandering around a festival hall juggling a tasting glass, the handbook, your vouchers, and possibly your bottle of Valpré - but this is a minor quibble.

Buffalo Trace

We started off by wandering around to get a feel for the festival's layout and contents and to look for photographic opportunities, the first of which we found at a stand showcasing mainly bourbon, a type of American whiskey made primarily from corn. All the whiskies are from the Buffalo Trace DistilleryWikipedia ] in Kentucky. (I, unfortunately, don't have much by way of tasting notes for these.) We were offered the opportunity to taste them and up first was Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is made with (we were told) 70% corn, which is the standard for bourbon (the Buffalo Trace web site, however, says the composition is a secret). We learnt that bourbon increases in alcohol volume as it matures in the barrel because the water content evaporates faster than the alcohol due to the temperature of the warehouses, through which steam is pumped specifically for this purpose. In contrast, Scottish whiskies decrease in alcohol volume over time as they mature as the barrels are stored in cold environments in which the alcohol evaporates faster than the water content can.

To compare, we were then offered a taste (my fantastic notes say it is "sweeter") of Sazerac Rye, which is, as its name implies, a rye whiskey made from a mash of at least 51% rye. The Sazerac Company bought the Buffalo Trace distillery in 1992.

American whiskies

Next was Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey, specifically the Gold Edition, which is smoother and spicier and smells woodier. Blanton's was the first single-barrel bourbon and is quite the award winner. It is available in collectable bottles (you can see some examples on the Blanton's web site), that offer different signature stoppers (eight, I think) and wax, although you can buy a stopper display with the full set.

Finally, we sampled Eagle Rare, a 10-year-old single-barrel bourbon.


Right after that we were whisked off to a GlenmorangieWikipedia ] tasting session hosted by Annabel Meikle, who was - literally - fresh off a plane from Scotland (we attended her first class) and had been invited to attend the festival specifically to conduct these classes. She is one of Glenmorangie's whisky creators and sensory experts and this was one of my favourite experiences of the festival as there's nothing like an engaging, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable expert to bring a topic to life. ("I'm starting a campaign to get people to drink their whisky before dinner when they have a nice, clean palate.")

Glenmorangie, a Highland distillery situated in Tain, Ross-shire, (north-east) Scotland, is apparently the number one selling whisky brand in Scotland. The shape of the bottle was recently changed (it's been the same since 1970) to give it a distinctive edge on the shelf. Glenmorangie was the first company to pioneer the technology of transferring from one barrel to another.

We started off by sampling The Original, a 10-year-old whisky, which is produced in ex-bourbon casks. We swirled the whisky gently in our glasses to observe the viscosity and release the aromas - tulip-shaped glasses are better for this as it prevents the aromas from escaping. The top notes are fresh, fruity, and citrusy and the whisky is sophisticated and soft with a sweet, then juicy taste and a dry, nutty finish. A good whisky's flavour opens up once water is added (in contrast to a whisky that is not good quality, in which case it "flattens") and it softens the burn so we then added some water to experience how the notes and flavours shift. With water Glenmorangie whiskies become softer and sweeter and more of The Original's vanilla flavour came through.

Next we sampled The Quinta Ruban ("'ruban' is the Gaelic word for 'ruby' or 'red'"). It is matured for 10 years in ex-bourbon casks and then transferred to ruby port barrels, where it's kept for an additional two years and this imparts a dark, striking colour to the whisky and it becomes more viscous. The Quintan Ruban provides more texture on the palate. It has chocolately notes (and is apparently very good paired with chocolate) and it has a lovely long finish and velvety feel and is a good choice for after dinner. Once we added water and sampled it again we noted that the whisky is fruitier (hints of peach and apricot) and you can detect notes of spice and wood.

We were starting to run out of time (the session only lasted about 15 to 20 minutes and the time flew by) so we opted to sample The Lasanta ("warmth and passion" in Gaelic) very quickly (and never got to The Nectar D'Or). It is matured in Spanish Oloroso Sherry casks after the 10 years in ex-bourbon casks. It has top notes of caramel and warm chocolate. It's warm, spicy, and rich. With water it's fruitier and the water brings out hints of coffee and the sherry influence from the barrels.

Our time was up far too quickly and by the end of the session we were quite the jovial group. Annabel will be holding classes for the rest of the festival so do your best to attend one.

As by this point we were a little... unable... to sample more whiskies so we decided to swing by the FNB VIP lounge to pause. The lounge is reserved for FNB's premier and private clients but media representatives were also given access, which was very welcome as there aren't many places in the hall for one to rest or just take a moment out of the way to peruse the handbook or count remaining vouchers. Inside we found comfortable seating and were offered free drinks, masterfully mixed by Liquidchefs, and hors d'oeuvres, which included a wonderful cheese selection and (non-vegetarian) sushi.

Three Ships

Once rested we jumped back in to see what else we could find. I was intent on seeing - and hopefully tasting - the two Japanese whiskies mentioned in the handbook, and I also wanted to find the Glenfiddich Single Malt Scotch Whisky 50 Year Old [ Wikipedia ], so we began wandering around specifically to try and spot them. In the process we saw most of the festival exhibits (I say most because there were a few things tucked away in corners that we may have missed - be aware of this when you go - and we never did find the Japanese whiskies).

The Classic Malts Selection section

The Classic Malts Selection section (say that three times fast after you've partaken) presents a vast range of single-malt whiskies and the handbook has a corresponding chart called the Flavour Map (on page 47), which plots the whiskies' flavour depending on their smoky, rich, delicate, and light tendencies, so you can see where they lie in relation to each other. The section also offers complementary bottle engraving so keep this in mind while you're browsing in case you want to buy some early Christmas presents. (Never fear! There is an FNB ATM inside the festival area.)

The Back To Basics Zone

Whisky ingredients

The Back To Basics Zone is a huge area in the middle of the exhibition hall that houses a large display explaining the basics of whisky making and information about whisky making from around the world. It takes quite a while to read so I would suggest taking photographs of the panels that interest you and reading it afterwards, as time is precious, or going here when you're on a food break (very important, of course - and there is a small food court nearby, for which you get a discount voucher in your ticket pack). In the Back To Basics Zone you will also find the Schwepps Art Of Whisky Cocktail Making Zone and the Macallan Maturation Zone (which holds demonstrations at 19:30 and 20:45). We, unfortunately, missed the events at both of these areas.

The Old'e English Shaving Shop

Wandering around we happened upon a number of interesting sights, including Mr Cobbs The Barber, a shop run by The Old'e English Shaving Shop (an establishment at the V&A Waterfront), which was offering shaves (very un Movember, though, but then we don't really celebrate that in South Africa). The Old'e English Shaving Shop "offers quality hand made shaving brushes, shaving lotions and after shave perfumes to discerning gentlemen the world over" and its products are manufactured in Cape Town and sold at the store and via the web site.

MacNificent GlenDronach

The Old'e English Shaving Shop's classic car (number plate: SHAVE 1 WP) was parked nearby and was quite the crowd pleaser and if that doesn't capture your imagination then transforming yourself into "MacNificent" at the Scottish Leader stand might, although the hole for your face was a little too high up for me. At the GlenDronach stand you can hand fill your own bottle of GlenDronach Single Malt Whisky from a 1994 single cask.

Tag Heuer and Crystal Direct

A number of brands that complement whisky (or the lifestyle) are also being exhibited. They included Lexus, Tag Heuer, Chopard, Von Geusau Chocolates, and Crystal Direct.


Right at the back of the hall we found a giant truck (number plate: MR JACK WP) branded with Jack Daniel'sWikipedia ] - a very popular American whiskey in South Africa (the rest of the world, too, of course). It wasn't immediately apparent but if you go around to the back you can join a Jack Daniel's tour that takes place inside the truck in three compartments.

The Jack Daniel's tour

On the tour we were introduced to the story of Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel and we learnt about Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the Jack Daniel's whiskey-making process.

Jack Daniel's on display

Also on display, right at the end, was the Gold Medal Decanter series, which commemorates the seven award-winning honours that have been bestowed upon the brand (the first in 1904 at the World's Fair in St Louisan aside for South Africans ]) and we were offered a sample of "Lynchburg lemonade", Lynchburg, Tennessee's other signature drink (the recipe sans Jack Daniel's and the only one you can actually order in the town as the county in which Lynchburg and the distillery are situated, Moore County, is one of only a handful of "dry" counties in the US).

Glenfiddich 50 Year Old

You may be wondering what happened to that Glenfiddich 50 Year Old that I mentioned earlier. We finally found it - we had been walking past it all night but it's encased, at waist height, in the bland, black, outer wall of a VIP section so you won't necessarily immediately see it if you're looking up trying to find elusive Japanese whiskies. All the fawning fingerprints on the glass made it very difficult to photograph, too. So I can't say that I've tasted it but I have seen it. The bottle is pretty.

Final notes: whisky workshops, some of which were immediately sold out, are running on the sidelines of the festival in separate meeting rooms. They cost R100 per workshop and can only accommodate small numbers. Plus, keep an eye out for the numerous competitions tucked away at stands. Many require your business cards so make sure you take a handful with you.

Whether you're a member of the media or just a regular visitor to the festival it's impossible to experience everything on offer but the festival is fantastic - luxury is presented in an unpretentious way and the experts at every stand are happy to answer your questions and provide interesting facts to help you understand whisky better, which results in a better tasting experience. The event is highly recommended. Just remember - it's the quality of the cask, not the age of the whisky, that makes the difference, so choose your sampling selection wisely.

Mandy J Watson was a guest of the 2009 FNB Whisky Live Festival. Paul Gilowey's Cape Town Daily Photo post about the festival is here.

Key Facts: Cape TownShare/Bookmark
Getting There: Wikimapia
By car or taxi: Take the N1 from the Northern Suburbs, the N2 from the Cape Flats, or the M3 from the Southern Suburbs and head to the city. Take Eastern Boulevard and follow the CTICC signs. At the Waterfront turnoff turn left towards the CTICC instead of right towards the Waterfront.
On foot: The CTICC is on the foreshore (near the Waterfront entrance and the harbour - walk away from the mountain), next to The Westin Grand hotel and across the road from The Cullinan hotel. You can't miss it but if you do, ask any local for directions.
When: Wednesday 4 November 2009 to Friday 6 November 2009, 18:00 to 22:00.

Key Facts: Johannesburg
Where: Sandton Convention Centre, Sandton, Johannesburg
Getting There: We're not really sure but this might help.
When: Wednesday 11 November 2009 to Saturday 14 November 2009, 18:00 to 22:00.

Ticket Prices     [ buy tickets ]
Entrance To Main Tasting Hall: R180 [?]
(includes a tasting glass, 12 whisky tasting coupons, a bottle of Valpré water, a copy of The South African Whisky Handbook 2010, a R15 [?] discount voucher redeemable at the Picardi Rebel on-site store on any purchase of malt whisky valued at R300 [?] per bottle or more, and a R10 [?] food voucher redeemable at the CTICC Deli (CT) or the By Word Of Mouth Deli (JHB))
Whisky Workshop Tickets: R100 [?] per workshop
Combo Ticket: R225 [?] (tasting hall ticket and one workshop ticket)
Dedicated Driver Ticket: R110 [?]
(provides access to the tasting hall and includes a R30 food voucher redeemable at the food hall and a bottle of Valpré water)
Tasting Hall Two-Day Pass: R300 [?]
Tasting Hall Three-Day Pass: R450 [?]
The Whisky Lifestyle Lounge: R495 [?]
The Lexus Connoisseur's Experience: R450 [?]
Parking (Cape Town): R25 [?] (special tickets available in the CTICC foyer)
Parking (Johannesburg): cost unknown

On The Internet
FNB Whisky Live Festival: Official Site | Facebook Group | Facebook Fan Page | Twitter
Ticket Information And Purchases: 2009 FNB Whisky Live Festival Comments Speak Your Mind
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Category: Culture > Features

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