In Gaelic it’s known as uisge beatha; ‘the water of life’. Some may simply order a ‘Scotch’, while connoisseurs know their whisky (Scottish) from their whiskey (Irish), and their malts from their bourbons.
But whatever you choose to call it, one thing’s for certain: the demand for whisky is booming in South Africa. With around four million cases sold here each year, the country ranks amongst the 10 top whisky markets worldwide.
“Whisky is now the top selling spirits category by volume and value in South Africa,” says Andy Watts, Master Distiller at the James Sedgwick Distillery outside Cape Town.
Much of that growth has come at the expense of brandy, once the most popular spirit in the market. The reason? Status.
“A decade ago, as the emerging middle class were looking for brands that demonstrated status, whisky began to overtake brandy,” explains Craig Doré of Really Great Brand Company, which represents whisky and bourbon icons including Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Jack Daniels. “The status that comes with buying international whisky brands simply trumps that of home grown brandy.”
“Whisky is seen as aspirational, and in emerging markets the status associated with not only drinking whisky but certain brands has certainly played a major role,” adds Watts.
That particularly applies at the top end of the market. Entry-level whisky sales are sensitive to sluggish economies and reduced spending power, but also respond to competition on price, while people are always willing to pay a little more for the premium brands.
“The emerging middle class continues to drive consumption,” says Mac Mabidilala, Africa Marketing Manager for international spirits group Edrington, who adds that the whisky category is growing across sub-Saharan Africa. “The Nigerian market represents a different growth opportunity for our business; the single malt category is relatively underdeveloped.”
Another new trend is the shift away from age statements on whisky. Once used as a mark of quality, a shortage of aged whisky has led distillers to produce ‘expressions’ that don’t proclaim a minimum age on the bottle.
“It’s a way for distilleries to get around their poor planning 25 years ago,” explains Doré. “If you have demand, but not the supply of aged whiskies, you have to blend together a product based on flavour rather than age. Often these expressions have some very old whiskies in there, but it’s not on the bottle so you won’t know.”
Today only one litre in every 10 produced is bottled as a malt whisky; the rest ending up in blends and “the hot trend now is to focus on flavour-profiling rather than age,” says Hector McBeth of online whisky retailer WhiskyShop.co.za, who foresees a major boom in both Irish and grain whiskeys.
“There’s definitely a revival around American whiskeys,” adds Doré. “The stronger flavours and sweeter nose make it great for mixing, but they are also perfect for classic cocktails. I definitely see a growing trend of America whisky becoming cool again.”
The growing appeal of whisky-focused festivals is another bellwether for the market. Since launching in 2002 the Whisky Live Festival has grown to attract 40 000 visitors to its four festivals held countrywide each year. A more boutique offering is the annual Wade Bales Wine & Malt Whisky Affair, which offers a select range of malts alongside dozens of local boutique wines. After sold-out success in Cape Town and Gauteng, the event launched in Durban for the first time this year.
Rising local demand for whisky has been matched by a host of new malts, blends and bourbons landing on local shelves.
Since 1977 the locally produced Three Ships has built up a sturdy reputation for well-priced blends, but under Master Distiller Andy Watts the brand has increasingly made its presence felt in the premium space.
Earlier this year it released a limited edition malt whisky finished in Pedro Ximenez (PX) sherry casks: the 800 bottles sold out in just 48 hours. No surprise then that the release of its 10-year-old single malt earlier this year proved a roaring success.
“We distilled the spirit in 2005 in copper pot stills, before it was laid to rest for 10 years in a selection of older American oak to complement the delicate flavours of the spirit… we decided to release the whisky by vintage, so each vintage would be different from the next,” explains Watts, who says the 2016 release of the 2005 vintage “will be our smokiest single malt to date. Going forward the style of these malts will be similar, but not the same.”
Watts was also responsible for launching the award-winning Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky.
“We wanted to create a whisky which was suited to our unique South African demographic,” says Watts. “By careful distillation and a solid wood policy we have created a whisky which we believe will attract new drinkers to the whisky category and also be of interest to experienced drinkers.”
Another local brand hopping on the whisky-wagon is Four Cousins. Better known for the pocket-friendly wines made in their Robertson cellars, the new range of blended whiskies – dubbed Scottish Cousin – includes a five-, eight- and 12-year-old blended in Scotland by the family-owned Angus Dundee distillery.
“Our blended whiskies contain a minimum of 25 percent malt, which is very high for a blended whisky,” explains Neil Retief, the youngest of the ‘Four Cousins’. “We believe the bigger volume of malt lifts the blend to an even higher standard.”
High-end single malt producer The Macallan is also looking to grow its share of the premium market. It recently launched its Fine Oak range in South Africa, reverting to whiskies with an age-statement on the bottle. More important than age though, is this Speyside distillery’s approach to barrels: Macallan whiskies are matured in European oak sherry casks, American oak sherry seasoned casks and American bourbon casks; the range of casks lending wonderful complexity to the malt.
The 12-year-old comes across floral and delicate, while the 15-year-old is a bold and complex whisky with raisins, fruit and spiciness. If you can find a bottle of the 18-year-old, expect an extra dollop of intensity and wood smokiness.
And that is perhaps the wonderful thing about whisky. There’s one for everyone. Whether you want the cachet of a trendy brand, the complexity of a connoisseur’s malt, or simply a blend to mix with your cola there’s a whisky on the market with your name on it.
Where to enjoy a dram
Cape Town: Bascule Bar
This cosy bar beneath the Cape Grace Hotel has long been the home of fine whisky in the Mother City. You’ll find over 450 whiskies, whiskeys and bourbons sourced from Kentucky to Scotland to Japan on the menu. Self-guided and tutored whisky tastings are available.
Johannesburg: The Whisky Bar, DaVinci Hotel and Suites
The MAXIM lounge is home to an impressive Whisky Bar with dozens of drams to tempt you. For dedicated fans, private ‘whisky keeps’ are available for you to store your stash on site.
Johannesburg: Eighteen05, The Saxon Hotel
The first branded Johnnie Walker whisky bar in Africa is a stylish spot which pays homage to the founder of the famed whisky marque. Portraits and historic photographs add a vintage touch to the space, while the menu is focused on rare and exclusive bottlings from the famed Scottish producer. Whisky and food pairings are offered, and don’t miss out on the bar’s signature cocktail, The Gentleman’s Wager.
Dullstroom: Wild About Whisky
With over one thousand whiskies on offer, this may just be the finest whisky collection in Africa. The expert barmen offers a range of unique ‘Whisky Tours’ exploring different styles of whisky, and are always happy to talk you through the extensive range of malts and blends on offer.