The 2011 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa
A Cultural Experience In Cape Town, South Africa

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 10 November 2011
Category: Culture > Features
Tags: #whisky Comments View Comments


Another year, another festival celebrating whisky. How time flies! We attended the opening night in Cape Town, where the festival ran for three days. Here's a rundown of what you missed, or what to expect if you will be attending in Johannesburg, where the festival will be running until the end of the week.

This year I once again attended the opening night of the Whisky Live Festival, which is sponsored by FNB, as a member of the media. It's my third year covering the event (2009's coverage is here and 2010's coverage is here), and it has become one of my favourite annual exhibitions, so I was keen to find out what was new and to see how I could expand my knowledge of whisky further.

As usual, upon entering we received a copy of The South African Whisky Handbook 2012 (9th edition, Schreiber Media, ISBN: 9780620517539), which includes tasting notes for 200 whiskies and whisky trends to watch out for in 2012. It's an excellent source of information and if you're been collecting one every year you'll know that it slowly builds to being quite a handy reference library.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

We also received a tasting glass and a booklet with 12 coupons, a R10-discount food voucher, a R15-discount voucher on the purchase of any malt whisky valued at R350 or more at the Picardi Rebel stand, and a voucher for a 500ml bottle of Valpré, which you can use to cleanse your palate and keep hydrated. (There are also rinsing stations situated around the hall so that you can clean your glass between tastings.)

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

I'd recommend, as I always do, that you have a plan before you attend, and do some homework so that you have a better experience. Start by looking at the festival flyer [1.3 MB PDF] so that you know what events to look out for, some of which aren't held on the main floor of the festival, and what whiskies will be represented. There is also an A-Z listing of whiskies on the Whisky Live Festival web site that you might find useful as a reference, as well as a "whiskies at the festival" list, which I noted is inaccurate (items are missing) so be aware of that.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

Here are some of the highlights to look out for, as well as some of what I did this year (besides sample some Scottish single malts: The Singleton Of Dufftown (12-year-old), as I always like to do, and the Dalwhinnie 15-year-old; I missed out on the Talisker 10-year-old as the stand was too crowded while I was there):

The Macallan Aroma Zone
My favourite experience this year was The Macallan Aroma Zone, in which brand ambassador Candice Baker talked us through flavours and contrasts using The Macallan With Roja Dove aroma kit, which was created especially for The Macallan range.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

Before I get into that, however, it's important to understand a bit more about the importance that wood plays in the aromas and flavours of The Macallan range.

The range comprises single-malt whisky that is distilled at one distillery in Speyside, Scotland, from malted barley. The whisky is aged for at least three years in oak casks. The type of cask determines much of the flavour of the whisky. The Edrington Group invests heavily in wood, using a combination of Spanish oak (Quercus robur), which is more porous and therefore infuses the whisky with a darker colour and deeper flavours (spice, coffee, dried fruit), and American oak, which is less porous and therefore results in a lighter flavour and colour. (A sherry butt costs around £650 [?] (R8 200), compared to an American bourbon barrel, which is around £65 [?] (R820).) The Spanish oak comes from Jerez, Spain, where the casks are made by hand and then toasted and finally seasoned with dry oloroso sherry for up to 18 months. Unique to The Macallan, some of the American oak casks are sent to Spain, where they are also seasoned with sherry. Others are seasoned with bourbon for up to eight years.

We were each given 12 aroma blotters that had been infused with scents from the aroma kit. The first six illustrated concepts such as depth, diffusion, warm, cool, maturity, and immaturity. The next three were infused with scents that comprise the profile of The Macallan Fine Oak 10 Years Old: vanilla sweetness; tropical fruit such as pineapple; and a light spiciness such as cinnamon. We waved each blotter individually in front of our noses to sample the different aromas, then combined them to see how this forms a richer, more complex profile. Then we compared the whisky to see how the samples from the aroma kit correspond. On the nose we noticed vanilla, honey, and citrus. Then we tasted the whisky and noticed a natural spiciness, soft honey, vanilla, and a citrus undertone. Finally, we added a splash of water, which reduces the intensity of the alcohol and opens up the flavours, and found that the whisky became lighter.

Our final three blotters were used to illustrate The Macallan Sherry Oak 12 Years Old and evoked spiciness (nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger); dried fruit, peaches, and nectarines; and chocolate orange. When combined they create a warm, spicy profile that smells like Christmas. Once again, we then compared the whisky to see how it corresponds. The high proportion of Spanish oak results in bolder, deeper flavours and a richer, darker colour. You still get the sweetness but instead of vanilla there are now hints of toffee and sherry. The aroma offers hints of a sherry sweetness, nutmeg, and toffee. On the palette the wood and the sherry is very noticeable and a splash of water once again opens up the flavours.

With that, the workshop concluded. As it turns out, the session I attended was the first one Candice presented that featured the aroma kit so we were lucky enough to see its debut. I had no idea - she did a remarkable job and the result was an amazing, educational sensory experience for the participants, although an overwhelming amount of information was presented in only half an hour.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

Johnnie Walker Blue Label
Johnnie Walker always has an eye-catching stand and this year its purpose was to showcase the new design of the premium Johnnie Walker Blue Label blended Scotch whisky. The design of the bottle is a replica of the original that was introduced in 1870.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

For six coupons a representative talks you through three whiskies - Black, Red, and, finally, Blue - complete with a discussion of their histories, tasting notes, and an opportunity to sample them. I won't go into the tasting notes as I covered this extensively last year but this time the experience felt much more rushed. Those that attended last year and tried the Johnnie Walker experience, in which Black, Red, Green, Gold, and Blue were all showcased and offered for tasting comparison, may be very disappointed by this year's experience and may want to skip it (and save their vouchers for something else) unless they are particularly fans of Johnnie Walker whiskies. Those that missed out on it last year are still likely to find value in the selection of three whiskies that is offered, especially considering that they have the opportunity to sample the very expensive and widely covetted Blue Label.

The Schweppes Art Of Whisky Cocktail Making Zone
This year I decided to try one of the cocktail-making sessions that Schweppes usually hosts. These sessions, which last half an hour, are very popular so although they are free it's recommended that you go to the stand as soon as possible and book a spot for one or it's likely you'll miss out.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

We attended the last session of the evening and, unfortunately, some of the other participants were drunk and behaved inappropriately, which marred the experience for me. This is the first time I've experienced this at a Whisky Live Festival and it was quite unpleasant and unexpected as the festival has always cultivated an air of refinement even though it remains unpretentious and open to all.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

The session, itself, was lighthearted and informative. We were taught a few cocktail-making basics and some flair that goes along with that, and then we were taken through the steps of making two cocktails, with all the ingredients provided, which, naturally, included Schweppes products in the mix.

Afterwards we were presented with goodie bags that included a collection of cocktail recipes, including the ones we'd tried; some swizzle sticks and metallic coasters; and two very classy (Schweppes-branded) whisky glasses.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

Glenmorangie Pride 1981
Backlit and glowing in a showcase corner of the Glenmorangie stand was a bottle of Glenmorangie Pride 1981, a 28-year-old special-edition whisky, created by biochemist William Lumsden, of which only 1000 bottles have been produced and of those only one - the one on display - is available in South Africa.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

The alcohol content? An impressive 56.7%. (Not that that's relevant, of course.)

The price? R30 000.

What is noteworthy about the whisky is that after 18 years of maturation, from 1981 to 2001, it was transferred into Sauternes barriques (standard 225-litre oak wine barrels). (Sauternes is a French sweet wine produced in Bordeaux.) The barriques were obtained from Château d'Yquemofficial site ] in France and the whisky matured for another 10 years in this vineyard's barriques before being bottled in 2010. These 28 years are the longest maturation that a Glenmorangie whisky has ever undergone and this whisky is the oldest Glenmorangie whisky now available.

Of course, presentation is just as important as contents for a limited-edition whisky, so the company turned to Laurence Brabant, who is renowned for her glassware designs, to design the Baccarat crystal decanter [ project page ] and Wouter Scheublin to create the coffret [ project page ], which combines his interests in construction and mechanics.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

At the Whisky Live Festival a Glenmorangie representative very kindly opened the protective cabinet housing the coffret and bottle for me so that I could take a closer look at the packaging and have a clearer view of how the impressive mechanics of the box work to open up and "present" the bottle. I was told that there has been some interest from prospective buyers but that will only be concluded after the festival ends in Johannesburg later this week.

Final Thoughts
I have to admit that I was disappointed with this year's festival, especially seeing that it was smaller, something I noted last year and which seems to have become "worse" (for lack of a better term) this year. This means less of a variety, which immediately became noticeable as I wandered around looking for something different to taste, and, to be frank, it meant more of the same. Many of my favourites were there but so were many of the brands to which we have easy access and which we see represented every year. While it's important that they are there, one of the biggest thrills of the festival is having access to whiskies with which you aren't too familiar so that you can expand your knowledge and experience new flavours. There were gems hidden amongst larger and louder stands but it was not easy to find them. The smaller number of dedicated whisky stands (and larger number of lifestyle and event stands) also meant that more people tended to congregate at whisky-tasting stations and it felt more crowded in those spots and meant it was harder to see what was on offer.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

Additionally, last year's hub that focussed on single-malt whiskies from Scotland was a fantastic sensory experience manned by knowledgeable people from the industry who really brought alive the flavour map and the different regions of Scotland, which helped to build a picture of whiskey making in that country. Happily a number of these whiskies were represented at this year's festival but there was nothing on this scale to introduce visitors to a region or a topic. Scotland is only one of a number of countries with a robust industry filled with history and innovation. When do we get to learn about some of the others?

I think Glenmorangie is an example of a brand that does a great job of presenting something new along with the favourites. The first year I attended the festival I sat in on a whisky-tasting session hosted by Annabel Meikle, one of Glenmorangie's whisky creators. Last year I noted a rather impressive stand display of Glenmorangie Signet and Glenmorangie The Original. This year, as you have read, there was Glenmorangie Pride 1981, as well as special tastings that the brand conducted in a closed booth in the tasting hall (it requires two coupons), which I, with much regret, did not attend as I didn't have enough time. My point is, of course, that every year Glenmorangie offers something new for people to experience and I wish that some of the other brands that are familiar sights at the festival would consider this a best practice and attempt to emulate it.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

I'll end off with a similar stance to what I said last year, however. The festival is still a great way to increase your knowledge about whisk(e)y and it remains unpretentious, which is fantastic for people who would otherwise be intimidated. Unfortunately there is less for the more educated to learn than in previous years but if you're quite new to the world of whisk(e)y you'll find a lot to capture your attention. The people at the stands are fun to talk to and know their brands well so you can ask questions without feeling intimidated - they are there to help and to educate you.

The 2011 Whisky Live Festival

My only hope is that next year we see some revitalisation of the festival, which feels as though it is in decline. In other words, more whisky and more information out in the open, please!

Mandy J Watson was a media guest of the 2011 Whisky Live Festival.

Key Facts: Cape Town
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 2 November 2011 to Friday 4 November 2011, 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 9 November 2011 to Friday 11 November 2011, 18:00 to 22:00.

Ticket Prices     [ buy tickets ]
Entrance To Main Tasting Hall: R190 [?]
(includes a tasting glass, 12 whisky tasting coupons, a bottle of Valpré water, a copy of The South African Whisky Handbook 2012, 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: R265 [?] (tasting hall ticket and one workshop ticket)
Dedicated Driver Ticket: R90 [?]
(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: R315 [?]
Tasting Hall Three-Day Pass: R475 [?]
The Volvo Whisky Lifestyle Lounge: R525 [?]
The Volvo Connoisseur's Experience: R550 [?]
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 | Twitter
Ticket Information And Purchases: 2011 Whisky Live Festival

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