The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 9 October 2012
Category: Features
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Single-malt Scotch lovers should be particularly happy with this year's selection at the annual Whisky Live Festival. Here's our roundup of what to expect, as well as specific whiskies to look out for and tasting notes of many of the highlighted whiskies.

This year's whisky festival caught many Capetonians by surprise as it suddenly manifested a month earlier than usual, without much warning. Then the feeling of unease set in - the web site's list of whiskies that will be available this year for sampling is smaller, with fewer new offerings, and the event is being held in Hall 4 at the CTICC (Hall 4 is where smaller events are run). Like the Cape Town Book Fair, it seems the Whisky Live Festival might be spiralling into oblivion. If so, that's terribly disappointing.

(On the plus side, Durban gets the festival for the first time this year, from 1 November 2012 to 2 November 2012, so I hope whisky lovers in the city will enjoy it. Johannesburg, the other regular city on the tour, is hosting the festival from 7 November 2012 to 9 November 2012.)

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Glenmorangie

Though it feels ever smaller there is still a lot to do and there's definitely demand from the public for an event such as this. On opening night the festival was packed with patrons and it became quite difficult to move around. It's unfortunate that the number of brands on offer seems to be shrinking, as is the physical size of the festival, as whisk(e)y is a cultural experience in which South Africans are particularly interested. Every year I say this, but let's hope it starts to expand again and the selection is increased.

This year I decided that I wanted to focus on whiskies to which I usually (unintentionally) give a glancing mention, as well as on whiskies that aren't as well known. Therefore, I only attended one event, which was a tasting of whiskies not available on the main floor. The rest of the time I spoke to people at the stands and tried to sample whiskies I haven't tried before while doing my best not to revisit my favourites (sorry, Talisker). A friend accompanied me who is very knowledgeable, which meant we could cover more ground and compare notes as we worked. The result is a large selection of whiskies in this article.

As usual, your festival ticket entitles you to 12 tasting coupons, a tasting glass, a R10 discount voucher for the food court, a R15 discount voucher for a purchase valued at or above R350 at the Picardi Rebel on-site store, a 500ml bottle of Valpré, and a copy of The South African Whisky Handbook 2013 (10th edition, Schreiber Media, ISBN: 9780922177621). The handbook is, as always, an invaluable reference that reports on trends for 2013 and includes tasting notes for 200 whiskies. Depending on the age and value of the whisky you wish to taste, it may require anything from one to three coupons, so plan wisely. You can also buy an extra coupon booklet, at a cost of R90, inside the hall.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Jack Daniel's



Whisky Tasting With Dave Hughes
Dave Hughes has a long list of credentials, including that of master distiller, and is highly regarded both locally and internationally for his knowledge, experience, and contributions to the whisky industry. At this year's fair he is hosting a whisky-tasting workshop featuring whiskies that aren't available on the main floor so you will have the opportunity to sample some whiskies that you may never have heard of.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Dave Hughes

For sampling and enjoying whisky Dave Hughes recommends the tulip-shaped glass (which is the shape of the tasting glass that you receive with your ticket) as the shape helps to hold the aromatics in the glass so you can sniff them deeply and catch all the hints. Tumblers have too wide an opening and this causes the aromatics to escape. The stem also allows you to choose whether you want to keep your hand away from the whisky or cup it so that the warmth of your hand warms the whisky slightly, which helps to release the aroma (although some experts will tell you that's exactly what you should not do). He also recommends that you don't swirl the alcohol in the glass as this releases too much of the aroma. In contrast, experts have previously told me that you should swirl it slightly to view the legs. To each his own, I guess.

We began with the Balblair 2000, a single-malt Scotch from the Highlands in Scotland. The "2000" refers to the vintage, rather than the age, as the distillery prefers to emphasise the year that its range was bottled in rather than the common practice of highlighting the age of the whisky. It is matured in first-fill American bourbon oak barrels and it has fruity hints but to my mind there wasn't much character to the whisky. (Apparently you should be able to pick up pear and some tropical notes.)

Second was the Kilchoman Machir Bay, a single malt from Islay in Scotland. Machir Bay is the name of a very pretty beach that Dave says is near the distillery, which is the newest distillery to have been built in Islay in 124 years. It has been built specifically with tourism in mind so the facilities and touring areas are geared towards learning about and appreciating whisky. The distillery is the most western distillery on the island and the farm on which is it sits grows the barley that is then used to make the whisky at the distillery. Dave Hughes said that the Kilchoman Machir Bay is a mix of mainly three-year-, a little five-year-, and a hint of eight-year-old vattings, although all the other sources I've referenced to (including the distillery site) contradicts this by saying that it's 60% three, 35% four, and 5% five. Unsurprisingly the Kilchoman Machir Bay has a very peaty, smoky taste and you may also be able to pick up some coastal saltiness. This was my second favourite of the whiskies we tasted with Dave.

The Glenkinchie (1995 Distiller's Edition) is a Lowland single-malt whisky that was distilled in 1995 and bottled in 2009. Dave Hughes commented that writeups usually say that Lowland whiskies have a lot less character than Islay whiskies and I had to agree when tasting this example. While it is very sweet, rich, and strong on the nose and I was immediately able to pick up rich honey and caramel aromas there wasn't much character in the flavour, though I did taste the caramel. Once we added a drop of water it diluted the taste even further, though the aromatics, of which I am very fond, remained strong.

Finally, there was enough time for us to sample the Ardbeg Ten single-malt Scotch whisky, also from Islay, which I have tried before and really enjoy - and it was my favourite of the four we sampled during this tasting. It is distilled on the east coast of Islay and has both the peat and the smoke infusions, though the peat is not as strong. There is also a hint of fruit and there's a bit of an alcohol burn that goes down your throat on the first sip but after that you are able to enjoy the complex flavour profile.

Dave Hughes commented that 10- and 12-year-old whiskies are usually "the best expression of what whisky should be like" so that's expert advice to keep in mind when you are choosing a selection to sample or buy. He then ended the presentation by recommending that we buy our whisky locally, rather than when travelling overseas, as the retail prices in South Africa are about 40% less expensive due to all the duties that are added in the UK.



The GlenDronach 1993 Cask No. 10
The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - The GlenDronach 1993 Cask No. 10

Every year either the GlenDronach or BenRiach distillery brings a cask to the fair and you can have a bottle hand filled on the stand, which is a great gift idea for a whisky-loving friend or a way to add something unique to your own collection). This year, to celebrate the festival's 10th anniversary, they searched for a cask that was numbered with a 10 and this was the only one that they had in the distillery, a 19-year-old whisky.

We were offered a taste, which we gladly accepted. The alcohol content is 53.7% but there wasn't much of a burn. The cask was originally a sherry cask so you'll pick up those sorts of notes on the nose and in the flavour profile. I could smell the honey and fruity notes, though I didn't pick up the chocolate taste.

Only about 370 bottles can be filled from the cask, which will be taken to all three legs of the festival, so if you are interested head to the stand early to ensure that you can still buy a bottle. Once it's all gone, it's all gone.



Springbank 15 Year Old
The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Springbank

From malting to bottling, the entire production and distillation process of the Springbank range of single-malt whiskies is handled at the Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown in Scotland. The whisky is produced using lightly peated barley and the coastal location infuses salty hints. At the Whisky Live Festival you can sample all three whiskies in the range - the 10 year old, the 15 year old, and the 18 year old - so I opted for the 15, which is matured in sherry casks. It is slightly sweet, with caramel hints and the expected peaty taste, though you lose a bit of the flavour when you add water. You are also supposed to be able to pick up dark chocolate and raisin flavours.



Black Bottle
The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Black Bottle

Black Bottle is a blended Scotch whisky that won double gold at this year's San Francisco World Spirits Competition, an achievement that's even more notable due to the competition's blind-sampling process. Although Black Bottle has been showcased at the Whisky Live Festival for a number of years but this was my first taste of it.

Black Bottle is a blend of malts from all the noteworthy Islay distilleries, so you should expect hints of peat, as well as smoke infused in the flavour, but it also comprises malt and grain whiskies from the Highlands, Lowlands, and Speyside so expect a sweeter profile and fruitiness.



Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky
I have been wanting to learn more about South African whiskies so I spent a few minutes at the Bain's and Three Ships stand and spoke to Andy Watts, the master distiller at the James Sedgwick Distillery near Bain's Kloof Pass in the Western Cape, where both Bain's and Three Ships are distilled.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Andy Watts and Three Ships

Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky is a single-grain whisky that uses only South African grain. The whisky goes through a double maturation process that has been garnering a lot of attention. First it's matured for three years in first-fill American oak bourbon casks, then it's removed and revatted in new first-fill American oak bourbon casks for another two years. The sweetness that you will experience on the tip of your tongue is the result of this wood-maturation process. You might also be able to taste a little bit of honey and spice. Apparently the South African market is particularly fond of fruity whiskies so this one is likely to become a local favourite.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky

The Bain's and Three Ships stand is hosting free tasting sessions with Andy Watts and I saw some very happy visitors leaving with gifts. Plus, if you live in Cape Town a visit to the James Sedgwick Distillery is a great idea for a day trip.



Bunnahabhain
By the time we arrived at the Bunnahabhain stand we had sampled quite a few whiskies and our palates and senses were beginning to suffer from over stimulation. However I wanted to get an idea of what the Bunnahabhain (pronounced "Boon-a-havn") range tastes like in order to know whether I should prioritise it next year as the distillery is on the north-east coast of Islay and produces single-malt whisky so it's very possible that it produces whisky that I might like, although its peat notes "are delicate and understated".

Unfortunately I was pretty much on my own as the expert was on the other side of the stand guiding a large group of people and none of the drink pourers that were assisting me were able to provide any guidance. Instead a brochure was thrust in my hand. This was very annoying as I expect stand assistants to be prepared - that is their job. In a room full of brands all competing for attention the stand assistants need to educate the public - and the media - so that people leave with the brand firmly stored in their mind.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Bunnahabhain

Bunnahabhain's big selling point is that the range has been reintroduced as "un-chillfiltered". In short, chill filtration is a process in which whisky is cooled very quickly and then sent through filters before it is bottled to remove esters (flavour compounds) that can cause the liquid to have a slightly cloudy appearance at room temperature. Caramel may also be added before bottling to standardise the colour. Of course, in this process subtle flavours are lost so Bunnahabhain's un-chillfiltered process retains those flavours, as well as the natural colour of the whisky.

The following video offers more insight into the un-chillfiltered philosophy:


[ YouTube link ]

I started with the Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, which has a light golden colour and a gentle aroma, though I couldn't pick up any specific notes. I struggled to taste anything at this point because I experienced quite an alcohol burn, as well as a strong afterburn (which was just more burning that was as intense). After I added water it softened the burn slightly and opened up the flavours but I still couldn't taste anything much due to the burn.

Refusing to be defeated, I then tried the Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, which didn't seem to have much of an aroma. The whisky definitely had a much smoother mouthfeel than the 12 year old but there was once again a strong alcohol burn that prevented me from being able to taste anything specific. Water helped to reduce the intensity of the burn but it didn't help to bring out the flavours. My whisky-loving friend liked this one the best but also commented on the burn he experienced with all three whiskies and how he was having similar trouble distinguishing aromas and flavours.



By this point I was feeling quite frustrated but I had one more to try, the Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky. It had a very light aroma but I even experienced an alcohol burn when I sniffed to try and pick up aromatics on the nose. My tasting notes say, simply, "burn, burn, burn" indicative of my frustration and inability to taste anything specific. Water opened up the aromas and flavours a bit but, for the third time, I came away unable to pinpoint anything specific.

I definitely think the range requires a second tasting session so I will look for another opportunity in the future, when I have a cleaner palate and more fortitude to fight past the alcohol burn and focus on the aromatics and flavours. I have included the official tasting notes here so that you can determine whether any of the range may be to your liking as you may not have the same alcohol-burn experience that we did (or you may enjoy it).



Glen Grant Single Malt 16 Years Old
The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Glen Grant

Glen Grant, a distillery in Speyside in Scotland, is hosting tasting workshops and you can sample the individual whiskies at the stand. The Glen Grant Single Malt 16 Years Old is the newest Scotch in the range and should be particularly popular in the South African market, with its preference for light, fruity whiskies.

I experienced slight alcohol burn on the nose and a strong afterburn once I had sipped the whisky. This whisky is better when not sampled neat and a few drops of water eased the burn and opened up the fruity flavours. I didn't find the flavour to be particularly strong but that seems to be my experience whenever I try fruity whiskies.



Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey
The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey

This little gem was sitting, largely unnoticed by passersby, on the side of the vast Jack Daniel's stand and, in contrast to the Bunnahabhain stand's assistants, the young representative I spoke to was very knowledgeable about the product. Jack Daniel's Original Recipe Tennessee Honey is classed as a liqueur as the alcohol content is 35% (in South Africa the percentage needs to be at least 43% for a drink to be classed as a whisk(e)y). Its base is Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 (and it retails at the same price) that has been blended with "100 premium A-grade honey" (in other words, real honey from bees), which contributes to the warm honey colour and forms the heart of the aroma and the flavour, though you might also be able to pick up hints of molasses and roasted nuts, which come from the whiskey.

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey is best served chilled and is incredibly sweet, so it's recommended that you add a block of ice to dilute the sweetness a bit as it may be too overpowering for some people. Much to my surprise this very smooth drink was my favourite discovery of the night (so much for my unwavering love of peat and smoke) - I even preferred it without the ice but I think a block or two would be recommended for most people.



The BenRiach Distillery Company
The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - The BenRiach Distillery Company

For our last stop we wandered back to the GlenDronach/BenRiach stand (the BenRiach Distillery Company bought the GlenDronach distillery in 2008) to learn more, and here we spoke to Bruce Wilsnagh. The BenRiach Distillery Company, a small distillery that only produces about 25 000 cases a year, is in Speyside in Scotland and distills quite a selection of single malts, many of which have a peated wood finish. The distillery likes to experiment and produce as much variation as possible - it will try anything to see what will work. As Bruce Wilsnagh puts it, "we try to be as different as possible". The result is that each year's bottling is slightly different due to changes in the crafting methods. The distillery also chooses and bottles single malts specially selected for the South African market and does its best to educate the market about the finer points of whisky.

Of the eight whiskies I counted that were on display at The BenRiach Distillery Company's stand (though there may have been more), we decided to sample The BenRiach Single Malt 15 Year Old Tawny Port Wood Finish (our choice), which is rich with honey and cinnamon and is finished in aged tawny port hogshead casks, and The BenRiach Single Malt 15 Year Old Madeira Wood Finish (Bruce Wilsnagh's recommendation), which has a particularly interesting taste profile that includes hints of watermelon and is finished in barrels from the Portuguese island of Madeira.




What Else To Look Out For
• The Johnnie Walker stand is once again a closed off, exclusive space, in which small groups are taken through a sampling of whiskies. This year it's Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, and Johnnie Walker Platinum Label, which had its worldwide launch in South Africa a few weeks ago. The experience will require four coupons.

• Glenmorangie continues to be represented well at the festival and this year you can once again attend expert-led tasting sessions, as well as sample from the range at the Glenmorangie stand. The tasting sessions are free.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Glenmorangie tasting session

• The Pick 'n' Pay Whisky And Canapé Pairing Zone is back, in which you can learn to make hors d'oeuvres and garnishes and pair them with appropriate whiskies. The sessions cost one coupon and, as with everything, it's recommended that you book a slot early in the evening.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - The Pick 'n' Pay Whisky And Canape Pairing Zone

• The Schweppes Art Of Whisky Cocktail Making Zone, which I wrote about last year, is also back and looked as jovial as ever. The sessions are free.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - The Schweppes Art Of Whisky Cocktail Making Zone

• Glenfiddich and Bunnahabhain are running expert-led tastings in the tasting room. Both sessions are free.

• Jack Daniel's is hosting free tasting sessions in a private section at its stand, the Jack Daniel's Barrel House.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Jack Daniel's Barrel House tasting session

• Glen Grant is hosting free tasting sessions in a private section at its stand, the Glen Grant Distillation Zone.



Final Thoughts
The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - single malts from Scotland

Even though this festival shrinks every year, it still provides value for people who are new to whisky and need an accessible forum in which they can learn more. For connoisseurs, however, it's offering less and less value, bar the opportunity to spend time with like-minded individuals and local and international experts. My concluding thoughts from 2010 and, most especially, 2011, still apply - even more so - so I won't repeat them.

The 2012 Whisky Live Festival, South Africa - Knights Whisky

Once again my quest to try the Japanese whiskies was thwarted. In the previous three years I've missed them every time because they've never been prominently on display though I've been led to believe they were somewhere in the hall. This year, they weren't even represented at the festival. That is a shame.

Mandy J Watson was a media guest of the 2012 Whisky Live Festival. Don't forget to read a second opinion of the 2012 Whisky live Festival, as well as our coverage of the 2009, 2010, and 2011 festivals as much of the information and tasting notes will be useful references for this year's festival.


Tags: #arts_and_culture, #whisky






Key Facts: 2012 Whisky Live Festival
Cape Town: 3 October 2012 to 5 October 2012, 18:00 to 22:00, Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC)
Durban: 1 November 2012 to 2 November 2012, 18:00 to 22:00, Durban International Convention Centre
Johannesburg: 7 November 20120 to 9 Novmeber 2012, 18:00 to 22:00, Sandton Convention Centre
Ticket Prices: Prices vary depending on city and day of the week. Tasting Hall tickets start at R185 [?], Designated Driver ticket is R90 [?]. There are also discount tickets for groups, multi-day passes, the Whisky Lifestyle Lounge VIP ticket, and The Connoisseur's Experience tour tickets.



On The Internet
Whisky Life Festival: Official Site | Twitter



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