The 2010 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa
A Cultural Experience In Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 5 November 2010
Category: Culture > Features
Tags: #whisky Comments View Comments

In South Africa, November means whisky festival time. Once again the three-day event is being held in Cape Town before it moves to Johannesburg and we attended the opening night event, sampled a variety of whiskies from around the world, and learnt more about the culture of whisky making.

This year my day of whisk(e)y started with a pre-festival tasting that was organised by Brandhouse and was presented by local whisky expert Rynard van der Westhuizen and Scottish whisky maverick Bruce Campbell, both of whom are also participating in this year's festival. I'm going to post more about this experience next week, which was a great combination of informative and entertaining, so for now I'm going to jump straight into the 2010 Whisky Live Festival, which is once again being sponsored by FNB.


Wednesday night was the opening night of the festival in Cape Town, where it's running at the Cape Town International Convention Centre until tonight before moving to Johannesburg next week for another three days. Paul Gilowey of Cape Town Daily Photo attended with me and upon entering we received a copy of The South African Whisky Handbook 2011 (8th Edition, Shreiber Media, ISBN: 9780620486095), which includes tasting notes and 2011 trend information. As I said last year (and likely will say next year) it's the kind of thing you really need to have on hand a couple of days before the festival so that you can consult it and plan which whiskies you'd like to try on the night, and then go armed with the correct tasting information, but it's also great to have it after the fact, especially if you make notes in it during the festival, as it is a valuable reference resource for when you want to make purchases or to brush up on your knowledge of whisky.

The Famous Grouse and Three Ships Whisky

At the festival you will also receive a tasting glass and a book of vouchers. One voucher allows you to redeem a free bottle of Valpré water, which you can use to cleanse your palate between tastings (and there are also stations around the hall to enable you to rinse your glass), another gives you R10 off a food purchase at the Food Deli, a third offers a R15 discount for a malt-whisky purchase at the Picardi Rebel stand to the vaule of R350 or more, and the other 12 are tasting coupons, which you hand in when you want to try a whisky - the number you will require per tasting depends on the brand and the age of the whisky. You can buy more vouchers at the Whisky Magazine stand.

American Whiskies And Bourbons
Last year American whiskies dominated in terms of grand-scale festival visibility and the first brands to catch my eye, and therefore my first tastings last year were Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare, which are on display again this year. Later in the evening we ventured through a giant Jack Daniel's truck, which was one of the focal points of the festival, and learnt all about the history of the brand. This year the Jack Daniel's presence, at a stand this time, was more understated and sophisticated, with Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey (47% abv) being prominently promoted. This whiskey has a beautiful dark amber colour and is quite potent, with toasted oak and vanilla flavours.

Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey

We also saw Maker's Mark, though I didn't try it but I will make an effort to do so next year. This Kentucky bourbon is presented in a striking bottle that's sealed with red wax that runs down the top of the bottle.

Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky

This year one of the hall's focal points is a giant Johnnie Walker "box" in the centre of the room. You have to stand in a queue to get inside, with only a few people taken at a time, and it costs five coupons, which makes a significant dent in your coupon collection, but the reason is that it's an informative 15-minute journey through five themed rooms in which you get to sample all five Johnnie Walker whiskies one by one.

First up is Johnnie Walker Black Label. It has a predominant smokiness to it and dried-fruit/raisin flavour, as well as woodiness, which comes from the cask it's been aging in for 12 years.

Johnnie Walker Black Label

Next is Johnnie Walker Red Label, the world's largest selling whisky. It's known for being vibrant and full of character, and is predominantly spicy. You get smokiness, sherry and spiciness on the nose and "a burst of flavour on the tongue - a creamy vanilla flavour and a sweet chilli zing," according to the expert.

Johnnie Walker Red Label

Johnnie Walker Green Label, a 15-year-old whisky, is predominantly fruity. On the nose you can smell sour cherry and stewed peaches, which follow through on to the palate.

Johnnie Walker Green Label

Johnnie Walker Gold Label was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the House Of Johnnie Walker. It's an 18-year-old whisky, although some of the lead whiskies that are used in its composition are much older. This whisky, unlike most, should be stored and enjoyed chilled, so keep it in the freezer. It takes a while to open up because it's stored cold. It is lacking the burn of some of the other Johnnie Walker whiskies because its lead (or signature) whisky is Clynelish, which is a delicate, not smoky, whisky. (A lead whisky is the primary whisky from another distillery that is used in the composition of a blend - a blend being, of course, a whisky that is a combination of more than one other whisky, usually single malts.) You will taste some caramel flavours and raisins and may sense some almond and spiced honey. It's recommended that you have this whisky at the end of dinner, preferably paired with a block of chocolate.

Johnnie Walker Gold Label

Finally, you will get a chance to sample Johnnie Walker Blue Label - a rare 19th century-style whisky that is a blend of high-quality predominantly single-malt whiskies, some of which are from distilleries that no longer exist. It's a dark-gold colour with shades of amber and there is smokiness and sherry on the nose. It's best sampled by first cleansing one's palate with ice-cold water and then you should immediately be able to taste deep, smoky flavours, followed by dark chocolate.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Single-Malt Whiskies From Scotland
In a large area in the middle of the hall is a section that houses the single-malt whisky collection and this is where I would recommend you start if you don't have a particular plan in mind for the festival. At both entrances to this section you will find manned augmented-reality displays for the technically intrigued - as the guys move a physical coded printout around the screen rotates in unison to indicate different whiskies. Inside this section there are two engraving stations on the sides so that you can have bottles you've bought engraved to give as gifts and there is a large, round counter in the middle divided into four themed stations: Light & Delicate, Rich & Delicate, Rich & Smoky, and Light & Smoky. I'd recommend picking up a folded Flavour Map at one of the engraving counters and then starting at one of the sections and either working your way around to sample from each section or sticking with one quadrant and trying all the whiskies within that section to experience the nuances of that flavour quadrant. Reference the Flavour Map as you go along to see exactly where the whiskies reside, as well as which region of Scotland the whisky comes from.

Single-malt augmented reality

I started at Light & Delicate and sampled the Dalwhinnie 15, a mellow Highland single-malt whisky with a gold colour, hints of peat on the nose, and honey and vanilla flavours. Other whiskies represented in this category include the Oban 14 and the Glen Elgin 12 (Speyside). (Speyside is a small region towards the north of Scotland, partially surrounded by the Highlands, and it's the home of over half the country's distilleries.)

Light And Delicate Single Malt Whiskies

At the Rich & Delicate station you can find The Singleton Of Dufftown, a 12-year-old Speyside single malt, and the Clynelish 14 (Coastal Highland), although it's actually slightly in the Light & Delicate quadrant on the Flavour Map. On the nose of the Singleton you will pick up rich, fruity tastes of vanilla and wood. Once you add water to open it up the flavour develops into black currant and you will still be able to discern the fruitiness before a coffee flavour develops in the finish. It's a good choice for those who wish to get into drinking single malts as it lacks smokiness and peat so it's an easier introduction for people, and it's also well priced at R299, whereas the other single malts are more expensive. Clynelish is one of the most northerly distilleries in Scotland, right on the north-east coast. This means that maritime influences are apparent and there is a saltiness to the whisky. You can also sense honey, vanilla, and marzipan. It has a waxy mouthfeel and a slightly dry finish and, as you may have noted from what I wrote above, it's the lead whisky in Johnnie Walker Gold Label and has the overall impact on that whisky's flavour.

Rich And Delicate Single Malt Whiskies

Next was Rich & Smoky. Here I could choose from the Cragganmore 12 (Speyside), the Caol Ila 18 (Islay), which isn't on the printed map but is on the larger maps that are on display in the section, and the Lagavulin 16 (Islay). Caol Isla is lead whisky in Johnnie Walker Black Label and Johnnie Walker Green Label so I decided to try the Caol Isla 18. It's smoother on the palate than the Caol Isla 12-year-old and it's about 70% rich fruit, which will remind you of Christmas cake and raisins. The other 30% is evocative of "maritime smoke", or "smoke on the beach", as the expert also describes it.

Rich And Smoky Single Malt Whiskies

Finally, the selection at the Smoky & Light section included the Caol Ila 12 (Islay), Talisker 10 (Island), and Glen Ord, a 12-year-old Highland single malt. I was very keen to try the Talisker, which is a key component of Johnnie Walker Red Label and Johnnie Walker Green Label. It is fiery and peppery and adds the smokiness to Johnnie Walker Red Label.

Smoky And Light Single Malt Whiskies

What Else To See And Do
This year there was some heavy handedness in promoting responsible drinking with a garish crash display outside the hall (which I unfortunately didn't get a chance to photograph) and more subtle reminders and prompting going on inside the festival space. Brandhouse's more tasteful initiative includes a call to action for people to sign a pledge on a nearby wall that they will not drink and drive, which is being promoted at a stand that is showcasing a Formula 1 car and Johnnie Walker Red Label branding.

Don't drink and drive

On a lighter note, keep an eye open for whisky renegade Bruce Campbell, who I met at the whisky tasting earlier on the day. You can't miss his caravan and exuberant showmanship. Be sure to ask him about the "Bruce Campbell Way" of whisky making, which uses progressive methods to shorten the time it takes to mature whisky, while reducing the costs and tackling some of the ingrained Scottish traditions in the process.

Bruce Campbell

I think the overall best-looking stand at this festival is the Bushmills stand. It is styled to look like the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, which is a section of interlocking basalt columns that were caused by a volcanic eruption. This beautiful spot is the home of Bushmills Whiskey, and you can sample a number of Bushmills whiskies at the festival, including Bushmills 16 Year Old Single Malt (recommended), Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt, and Bushmills Original.

The Bushmills stand

The Bushmills stand

At the BenRiach stand you can fill your own bottle from a special original cask (number 5968) which contains a limited release 1995 single-malt whisky (52.5% abv) from the Speyside region that has been brought here especially for the festival. Each bottle, of which there are only 498, is numbered and once it's been hand filled you receive it packaged. This is a great gift for any whisky lover and even if you can't afford to buy one it's worth visiting the stand to see the cask and watch the bottles being filled by hand.

BenRiach hand bottling

[Correction: This paragraph has been edited since first publication. Initially I thought all the parings were with Melissa's items but there were options such as Von Geusau Chocolate, avocado maki, and gorgonzola cheese.] The supermarket chain Pick 'n' Pay is represented this year at a stand, offering whiskies paired with types of food that you can buy at Pick 'n' Pay stores. The whiskies aren't available at Pick 'n' Pay - you'll have to pick them up at your local bottle store - but the idea is to help you understand how food and whisk(e)y can be paired to complement the flavours so you know what to serve next time you have a dinner party or guests visiting.

Once again whisky workshops with experts are being held on the sidelines of the festival. They cost R100 per workshop and only accommodate small numbers. There are also a few competitions tucked away at some of the stands so keep an eye open for those.

There was one disappointment this year of which you need to be aware - the event is noticeably smaller. However, do not let this discourage you, as there is still much to see and do - and there's certainly more than any one visitor can experience or sample in one evening so you still have to go with a game plan. Drift around, see what catches your attention, or decide beforehand what you'd like to sample and then seek out those stands first.

My advice is to ask questions. The people at the stands are all very knowledgeable and passionate and the event is entirely unpretentious. A lot of visitors don't know much about whisky and attend to learn more, and the people manning the stands are there to help. If you don't know what to ask, the simplest thing to say is: "Tell me about this whisk(e)y". If you do have questions, a lively debate is likely to ensue. Therefore even though the festival is smaller, you can still derive much value from the experience by listening and asking questions. This is key to enjoying the festival and feeling as though you have had your money's worth. You can sample and leave or you can use this as an opportunity to learn, coming away from it as a better whisk(e)y connoisseur.

Mandy J Watson was a guest of the 2010 Whisky Live Festival. See Paul Gilowey's post on Cape Town Daily Photo here.

Key Facts Share
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 3 November 2010 to Friday 5 November 2010, 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 10 November 2010 to Friday 12 November 2010, 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 2011, a R15 discount voucher for a malt-whisky purchase at the Picardi Rebel stand to the value of R350 or more, and a R10 [?] food voucher redeemable at the Food Deli)
Whisky Workshop Tickets: R100 [?] per workshop
Combo Ticket: R255 [?] (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: R520 [?]
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: 2010 Whisky Live Festival Comments Speak Your Mind

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