Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016


By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 15 April 2016
Category: Features
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This year's Whisky Live event in Cape Town features some old favourites as well as some new gems. Here's what to expect from the festival, plus learn more about The Balvenie, Wild Turkey, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Wolfburn, Glenfarclas, and others.

Capetonians may be surprised to learn that Whisky Live is on in the city at the moment. April is an odd time that has caught many people off guard but you still have Saturday night if you want to experience this year's selection of whiskies.

When the event, originally branded the Whisky Live Festival, was first held in the city it used to be a massive annual showcase every November that was set up inside the CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre). In 2012 it suddenly occurred a month earlier with a smaller selection on offer and I began to wonder about its future.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016

My fears were confirmed when there was no event in Cape Town in 2013 but, happily, in 2014 it reappeared as a smaller festival, the rebranded Whisky Live Showroom "boutique" event, at the Cape Sun hotel, but now in June. It was, however, a strange event in an odd location, which I think threw a lot of people off after years of a much larger festival experience. Last year the Whisky Live Showroom concept was repeated, once again in June, but at a much better venue, The Lookout in Granger Bay. While the selection was still disappointingly small and many of the big players didn't participate the boutique experience allowed smaller brands to have their moment and there was a lot to see and learn.

I've run through this whole little history because, I'll be honest, it's been weird the past few years and, as a result, I didn't write full show reports in 2014 and 2015 partly because of this. These name and date changes have been confusing for people so this rundown is to help everyone to get back up to speed as it seems that in Cape Town, anyway, small is the new normal and we're going to have to accept it. I'm privy to a number of reasons as to why this has happened (none of them, of course, are good) and the best we, as consumers, can do is support the show and our favourite brands and keep talking about, and buying, whisky.

This brings us to 2016 and what is now being called the Whisky Live Celebration....


This year's surprise April event kicks off the various South African Whisky Live events for the year (Celebrations in Durban in May and Pretoria in June and a full Festival in Sandton, Johannesburg, in November, as usual; notably the Soweto event is absent this year). It's once again being held at The Lookout and, unfortunately, this year's show seems even smaller than last year if you take into account the number of lifestyle partners on the fringes that aren't dealing with whisky, although the organisers have claimed that the festival is larger than the 2015 event.

However, as is the case with what happened last year, the smaller size, which is notably due to the absence of a lot of the larger brands, means that a lot of smaller importers and producers are more prominent and this means a chance to discover whisky that you probably haven't tried before - or you just haven't noticed because it got lost in the mix.



What To Look For This Year

Two years ago peat was notably absent from the Showroom so fans will be glad to know that Islay single malts are particularly well represented this year, with Bowmore and Laphroiag at the Peated Malts Of Distinction stand, Kilchoman at The Whisky Academy stand, and Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, and Bruichladdich at standalone stands. Jura, which comes from the island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, north east of Islay, is also available at the Peated Malts Of Distinction stand. Black Bottle, which is also at a standalone stand, used to be a blend comprising notable Islay whiskies but the new version, which was released in 2013, has softened the peat to increase the fruitiness.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016

Islay aside, whisky from Scotland is also represented by The Singleton Of Dufftown 12 and The Singleton Of Dufftown Tailfire, Grant's, Scottish Cousin, Hankey Bannister, Old Pulteney, Glenfiddich, The Macallan, Chivas, Johnnie Walker, Glenmorangie, Glen Grant, Scottish Leader, Glenbrynth, The Balvenie, Wolfburn, and Glenfarclas.

Irish whiskey is represented by Bushmill's, Redbreast and Spot whiskies, and Jameson.

American whiskey and bourbon are represented by Bulleit Bourbon, which only came to market in South Africa about nine months ago, and Wild Turkey, which was released locally at the end of last year (the Wild Turkey American Honey liqueur has been available here for a few years).

And, finally, South Africa is represented by Bain's and Three Ships Whisky.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016
It's possible that I missed a few whiskies but this summarises the bulk of what you can find at the festival.



The Balvenie

Last year at the end of show I had a great chat with The Balvenie's local brand ambassador Jonathan Miles, who also heads The Whisky Academy, but I didn't try any of the whiskies because by then my palate was incapable of discerning anything.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016

The distillery, which is in Speyside in Scotland and produces single malts, has quite a wide range on offer (although some whiskies can only be found in airports). This year the stand is showcasing three whiskies: The Balvenie DoubleWood Aged 12 Years, The Balvenie DoubleWood Aged 17 Years, and The Balvenie Caribbean Cask Aged 14 Years.

Jonathan Miles suggested I try The Balvenie Caribbean Cask Aged 14 Years, which is aged for 14 years in American oak bourbon casks that impart the usual vanilla and spicy notes. The whisky is then finished in rum casks from the Caribbean. These casks add to the golden colour of the whisky, as well as its sweetness.

On the nose the whisky is creamy, sweet, and fruity. On the palate you can pick up the vanilla with some oak and fruitiness. Once you add a bit of water to open it up you may also notice a touch of coconut - although that could just be wishful thinking.



Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey Bourbon is new on the market in South Africa. It is aged for six to eight years in a new American white oak bourbon barrel that has been charred for 55 seconds (the number 4 "alligator" char, so named for the pattern and texture that looks like alligator skin). This process releases sugars in the wood into the whiskey and adds a deep richness to the colour.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016

The whiskey comprises 75% corn (51% is the minimum for a bourbon), 13% rye, and 12% malted barley. On the nose you'll pick up the vanilla from the American oak, as well as a bit of corn, and the taste has hints of vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, and pear. It's recommended to be drunk both straight and as a mixer in cocktails.



The Lindt-The Glenlivet Pairing Experience

This year Lindt has teamed with The Glenlivet to showcase whisky and chocolate pairings.


The Lindt stand offers a wide variety of chocolates for visitors to try but the following pairings are specifically recommended for their contrasting or complementary flavours:

• Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa with The Glenlivet 18 Year Old, which combines honey, caramel, and roses in the chocolate aroma with sweet orange, raisins, and spice flavours in the whisky;

• Lindt Excellence Orange Intense and The Glenlivet 15 Year Old, which combines the chocolate's candied orange and almond with the whisky's fruit and nut notes, and a spice finish that contrasts the orange flavour; and

• Lindt Excellence Caramel With A Touch Of Sea Salt with The Glenlivet 12 Year Old, which pairs the caramel and salt of the chocolate with the fruity and pineapple flavour of the whisky.



Bruichladdich

Bruichladdich's stand offers three expressions from its current lineup of whiskies - Bruichladdich, an unpeated single malt with floral notes; Port Charlotte, a mix of peat (40 parts per million) with floral top notes; and Octomore, the world's most heavily peated single malt.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016

The distillery is situated on the west coast of Islay and the intriguing colour of both The Classic Laddie and the distillery's branding, which is usually what catches one's eye initially, is inspired by the colour of the nearby Loch Indaal "on the one sunny day of the year".

The distillery's story is quite fascinating. It was founded in 1881 by the Harvey brothers, subsequently changed hands a number of times, and then was closed in 1994. When private investors bought it at the end of 2000 they retained all the original equipment, including much of the machinery that had been installed by the Harvey brothers. Consequently no computers are used in the distillation process and the whisky is created by hand by true artisans. All the barley is Scottish (much of it comes directly from Islay) and the distillery is a major distiller of organic barley as well as a huge supporter of the use of organic barley in single malt Scotch.

Since Islay is know for its peat I was curious about Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley Unpeated Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, which quite a few people asked to try at the stand, but I opted for Octomore. Friends of mine at the festival had earlier tried the Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily Peated Islay Single Malt Whisky, which one described as "being immersed in braai smoke", and after sniffing the glass and taking a small, quick sip I could understand why they thought that but I still really liked what I'd experienced, and so I was curious to discover what the "heavyweight" would be like in comparison.

The Octomore offered at the stand is Octomore 06.1 Scottish Barley Super Heavily Peated Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, which is actually the lightest of the Octomore expressions, at 167 parts per million. (Octomore 06.3 Islay Barley Super Heavily Peated Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, at 258 parts per million, is the heaviest.) It's still a huge amount of peat, however, but I was surprised to find that it's not heavy or harsh on the nose or the palate. I wasn't able to pick up the salt or iodine on the nose (nevermind the lemon balm and mint) but I picked up strong salt and iodine flavours when I tasted the whisky. It was not unpleasant, however, and worked well with the malted barley and the hints of fruit. I then compared the nose to the Port Charlotte and now discovered I could pick up creamy, toffee, sweet notes on that whisky whereas before I'd only been able to pick up the heavy smoke.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016

These whiskies are fascinating and I'm hoping I'll get a chance to try them again in a less frenzied atmosphere as the stand is very popular and busy. (It's probably not helped by the free artisanal ice cream that you get, which is made with The Classic Laddie and was delicious.)



Kilchoman

A selection of whiskies from Kilchoman, which, in 2005, was the first distillery to be built on Islay in 124 years, is available at The Whisky Academy stand alongside Wolfburn and Glenfarclas (see below for both). Michael Miles of The Whisky Academy spent some time talking me through some of the Kilchoman expressions, as well as some facts about the distillery.

The distillery is family owned and run, near Bruichladdich, on a little farm that produces its own barley. It is one of only a handful of Scottish distilleries that still practices traditional floor malting, and is the only distillery that operates all parts of the process on Islay, from the growing of the barley to malting, distilling, maturating, and hand bottling, which has resulted in an expression called Kilchoman 100% Islay.

I've previously tried Kilchoman Machir Bay, the distillery's core expression, which is matured in both ex bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry butts. Kilchoman Sanaig, meanwhile, is primarily matured in Oloroso sherry hogsheads, which gives it the rich colour, with the remainder of the time spent in ex Buffalo Trace barrels. I haven't tried this one yet but it promises peat with hints of citrus.

Michael Miles told me that The Whisky Academy is especially proud of its association with Kilchoman - nothing that it's "a fantastic distillery to be associated with" - and does its best to bring in the distillery's special bottlings regularly. An example is the Kilchoman PX Finish Single Cask Release, which is matured in bourbon barrels for five years and then spends three months in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, which softens it slightly. It's bottled at cask strength (58.1% abv) and only about 270 bottles have been produced.



Wolfburn

One of the highlights of this year's show is the debut of Wolfburn, which you can find at The Whisky Academy's stand. Harry Tayler, the distillery's founder, is at the show and I got a chance to chat with him, in between moments in which people were asking him to sign bottles of the whisky.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016
Above: Wolfburn's Harry Tayler (left) signs fans' purchases.
I hope to post more on Wolfburn later in the year but for now here's a quick summary of the story. The original distillery, named after the Wolf Burn (river) from where it draws its water and situated near Thurso, the most northerly town on the Scottish mainland, was a significant whisky producer in the early 1800s but at some point later in that century it closed down, with no records indicating why. No photographs of the distillery or samples of the whisky remain so much about the original distillery remains a mystery.

In 2011 the new Wolfburn team found the remains of the distillery (little more than a few foundations), and noted that the water was still pristine and there was nothing upstream, so they secured a plot of land a few hundred metres down the river and purchased it in 2012. They discovered that the Wolfburn name was available - a number of other long-departed distilleries have names that are copyrighted - so they were able to take it as their own and reinvent Wolfburn for a new century. In August 2012 they began to build the new distillery, in October, November, and December 2012 the equipment was installed, and in January 2013 they began production.

The team was lucky to be able to secure Shane Fraser, who had previously been at Glenfarclas, as the distiller manager and Harry Tayler is quick to credit him for the success and quality of the whisky. He describes Fraser as a "perfectionist" who has "made Wolfburn his own".

Because this is a small operation but required a big investment to get it going the team required pretty swift releases - whisky had to be ready for the market at the three-, four-, and five-year mark - but there are experiments in place in a variety of casks, including Oloroso sherry casks, first- and second-fill bourbon casks, and quarter casks.

The first release, named simply Wolfburn, is now available and Whisky Live in Cape Town is the first show in the world to present it. It is very light in colour but that, of course, is due to the wood and not an indication of flavour or quality. The whisky is sweet, fruity, and gentle on the nose with a hint of peat smoke that you don't notice initially - it only manifests after a few sniffs. (The whisky is lightly peated at 10 parts per million.)

I am hoping I'll get another chance to try Wolfburn as I wasn't able to give it as much attention I would have liked because of how much else was presented on the stand and how much I learnt from the representatives there. It's hard to scribble furious notes and pay attention to what you're tasting.



Glenfarclas

Glenfarclas, which is also brought in by The Whisky Academy, is a single malt producer in Ballindalloch, Scotland, which is in the Speyside region. The distillery first began operating in 1836 and was bought by John Grant in 1865. The distillery has remained in the family and the John LS Grant, from the fifth generation of Grants, is now the chairman and his son and sixth-generation Grant, George S Grant, is the sales director.

The owners have a very laid back philosophy, believing that the worst that can happen is that the whisky gets a year older, and they are under no pressure to produce a certain volume each year. They've been using the same packaging and tube designs for years as they'd rather make whiskies worth drinking and not waste money on aspects, such as redesigning, that are not essential. The distillery uses six traditional direct-fired copper pot stills, which are the largest on Speyside, and rummagers inside the stills rotate to stop the wash from sticking to the stills, which is a consequences of direct firing. The direct firing shortens the stills' lifespan but the distillery believes the affect on the flavour is one of Glenfarclas' key differentiators.

The distillery laid down a lot of casks years ago in the family cask collection and so has stock from 1954 onwards (the 1952 and 1953 casks recently ran out). The Family Casks series, therefore, is a collection of vintage releases in single-cask bottlings, bottled since 2007, that indirectly chronicle the last 60 years at the distillery. It's worth reading through the tasting notes at the link above to see how different barrels dramatically influence the colour, notes, and flavour.

Report: Whisky Live Celebration, Cape Town, 2016

The standard range includes expressions that are 10, 12, 15, 17, 18, 21, 25, 30, and 40 years old, as well as Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength, which is one of Michael Miles' favourite whiskies. I initially declined to taste it because it was at the point that you reach during the evening where you can't really discern anything anymore but as the show ended he offered me a dram as an evening sendoff and it was still a great way to end the night.



Final Thoughts

As much as I think their support is integral to Whisky Live remaining sustainable I quite liked that the bigger brands weren't present - or were present but not in an overpowering manner - at this year's event. If Cape Town is going to be stuck with a smaller showcase rather than a massive festival I want the smaller producers to be more accessible and get more chance to interact with the public.

This year I once again had a great opportunity to speak to some interesting experts but this time I also got to learn about whiskies that I have previously overlooked in all the chaos or which are either brand new to Whisky Live or to the market so this been my first chance to interact with them.

There's definitely enough at the festival to make the ticket price worth it although, on behalf of paying consumers, I still hate the voucher system as 15 vouchers really don't go very far so it's best to attend with a friend or two, if you can, to give yourself more chances to try what's on offer. Plus, it's always great to discuss what you're experiencing with friends as everyone's opinion differs.

There's one night left on Saturday night, and I don't think tickets are sold out because this event was so badly publicised, so if you're a whisky fan go and have this experience this weekend.

Mandy J Watson was a guest of the 2016 Whisky Live Celebration in Cape Town.




Tags: #arts_and_culture, #cape_town, #whisky





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