The Finer Points Of Whisky: A Connoisseur And Renegade Face Off
A brainwavez.org Cultural Experience In Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 10 November 2010
Category: Culture > Features
Tags: #whisky
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Last week, a few hours before the Whisky Live Festival kicked off in Cape Town, Brandhouse hosted a whisk(e)y tasting for members of the media and whisky aficionados, which was a great way to set the mood for this year's festival. The tasting was led by two experts in the field, South Africa's Rynard van Der Westhuizen and Scotland's Bruce Campbell.

Scottish celebrity chef and whisky lover Bruce Campbell is attending the Whisky Live Festival this year to promote Bruce Campbell Classic and renegade whisky making so Brandhouse organised a whisky tasting with Bruce and local expert Rynard van der Westhuizen to introduce us to whisky making from polar opposite sides of the whisky landscape, thereby bringing balance to the force.

Whisky tasting

Bruce Campbell, through his Scotland From Home campaign, has been throwing the traditionally conservative whisky fraternity into turmoil with his progressive whisky-making techniques that he's been developing (collectively called the "Bruce Campbell Way"). He examines established traditions and then figures out modern ways to replicate the effect of those traditions in order to save time and money. He has travelled all over Scotland to educate the country's master distillers in his methodologies, some of which you can see in the video clips on the Scotland From Home web site. There is an ongoing debate as to whether his methods are successful and his whisky is palatable, and therefore I recommend that you find out for yourself by seeking him out at the Whisky Live Festival and putting him to the test.

Some of his revolutionary techniques include combatting the evaporation problem that happens in oak barrels (and which science has yet to combat) by using a plastic barrel (so clever - it's like the whisky equivalent of the space pen conundrum!), drying malted barley over a charcoal fire instead of smoking it in peat fires (which takes far too long and requires peat), and chucking in whatever is on hand to enhance flavours more quickly (more technically known as using the Whisky-O-Matic 2000 to replicate the different whiskies using additives and flavourants).

The afternoon was very entertaining, with whisky expert Rynard van der Westhuizen providing a wealth of information about how whisky is made, as well as leading us in the tasting of the seven whiskies detailed below. At times Bruce would interject his renegade opinion to ensure that we received a balanced view, and he even demonstrated some of his techniques during the session and invited us to sample the result. Rynard explained the preparation and distillation processes, as well as how different flavours are contributed to a final product, which included an explanation of the flavour wheel whose primary points are malty, fragrant, fruity, peaty, pungent, and woody.

Rynard also introduced us to the basics of whisky tasting, which include examining the colour, swirling the liquid in the glass to examine the legs, sniffing the whisky to determine what's on the nose, and adding a drop of water to bring out the flavours before you taste it (if you look in the glass as you do it you can see how the water briefly displaces the alcohol).

Whisky tasting

We started with Bushmills Original, the only Irish whiskey in the group and then moved on to Cameron Brig, which is an example of a grain whisky. A grain whisky is a product of one grain distillery and is made from cereal (mainly maize). It's distilled in a column still and is matured for at least three years.

The Singleton Of Dufftown, a 12-year-old single malt from the Speyside region of Scotland, was our example of a single-malt whisky. A single-malt whisky is a product of only one malt distillery - it's not a blend of a few whiskies that are combined to form a new taste; rather it's "a single, powerful flavour". It's made with barley yeast and water and is distilled in a pot still.

Whisky tasting

We then learnt about the differences between a blended whisky and a blended malt whisky before sampling J&B Rare, which is a blend of 42 whiskies (36 single malt and six grain). The master distiller uses such a wide selection in order to produce a specific flavour, most of which is due to the combination of flavours from the blend but some of which is also contributed by the barrels in which the J&B matures.

Oak barrels play an important role in whisky making, and two types are typically used. American oak barrels, which have previously held bourbon, contribute vanilla to the final taste and are the cause of the light-gold colour of the whisky. European oak has previously held sherry and contributes dried fruit to the taste. The liquid is a darker, more amber colour. Bell's Extra Special Old Scotch Whisky is an example of a whisky that has been matured in European oak barrels.

Johnnie Walker Red Label, which is matured in sherry casks is another example. It's a blend with a lead whisky, the single-malt Talisker, that contributes a smokiness. We were instructed to splash a little on our hands, then rub them to dissipate the liquid before cupping our hands around our noses to smell the smokiness. The Talisker's spicy pepperiness is noticeable on the side of the tongue once you taste the Johnnie Walker Red Label.

Our final tasting example was Johnnie Walker Black Label, which Bruce Campbell then tried to replicate on the spot using only what was on hand. You can see how quick he is, as well as the results in the video below, which succintly sums up the jovial, educational atmosphere of the afternoon.



Tasting Notes
These are the tasting notes that Rynard van der Westhuizen presented:

Bushmills Original
Colour: Light gold and bright.
Nose: Fresh and light with notes of apricot and cut grass.
Taste: Sweet and quite buttery. Dried grass, light citrus and some malt chocolate.
Finish: Refreshingly dry and spiced finish. Good balance and texture.

Cameron Brig
Colour: Dark and golden.
Age: 5 years.
Nose: Vanilla.
Taste: Sweet, light and spicy.
Finish: Dry.

The Singleton
(a 12-year-old single malt)
Colour: Deep gold with polished-mahogany highlights.
Nose: Toasted hazelnut, rich fruit (baked apples and dates).
Taste: Crunchy nuts, fruity Speyside sweetness, blackcurrant, brown sugar, and espresso coffee.
Finish: Medium to long. Dry and crisp then a sweet, nutty, delayed warmth.

J&B Rare
Colour: Rich bronze.
Nose: Honey, robust and full bodied with a touch of apple wood.
Taste: Slightly sweet, subtle wood notes, delicate maltiness and a touch of fruit.
Finish: Crisp and clean.

Bell's Extra Special Old Scotch Whisky
Colour: Attractive, natural gold.
Nose: Grainy, heather, moss, and spice.
Taste: Slightly sweet, nutty, and spicy.
Finish: Initially sweeter, the malt has generous intensity before the warming spices take command.

Johnnie Walker Red Label
Colour: Golden in hue.
Nose: Aromatic and spicy.
Palate: Bursts onto the palate with the freshness of spray from a crashing wave, followed by the zing of spices. The sensation in the mouth is complex - "sweet chilli" is a good description of this taste and tingling sensation on the tongue.
Finish: A long, lingering, smoky finish.

Johnnie Walker Black Label
Colour: Rich golden amber.
Nose: A complexity of aromas: dry smokiness mixed with raisin sweetness, freshened by orange zest and citrus oils.
Palate: Smooth, with a deep complex flavour. Packed with rich, smoky malt, peat, and sherry fruitiness.
Finish: Gentle, smoky finish.

(In case you're wondering, my two favourites were Cameron Brig and The Singleton Of Dufftown.)

Rynard van der Westhuizen will be presenting whisky-tasting workshops, similar to the one I attended, at the Whisky Live Festival and Bruce Campbell will be manning his stand on the festival floor, where you can discuss the finer points of renegade whisky making and learn more about Bruce Campbell Classic.





On The InternetShare
Scotland From Home: Official Site | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube
FNB Whisky Live Festival: Official Site | Facebook Group | Facebook Fan Page | Twitter
Ticket Information And Purchases: 2010 Whisky Live Festival



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