This is billed as the biggest whisky festival in the world. Over the years there has been a lot of buzz about it in Johannesburg trendy circles and I went along to the Sandton Convention Centre on 6 November 2013 to see what it was all about.
The evening began for us when we were still in the street outside the Sandton Convention Centre and we heard the sound of bagpipes. The pipers piped for much of the early part of the evening and then we got to see the men in their kilts. Kilts really are very attractive items of clothing. I do like a man in a skirt. I also like the sound of bagpipes, but Sarie Marais played on bagpipes is just weird. When I commented on that to a random stranger lights came on as he suddenly recognised the tune in its out of context setting. It was one of the most amusing reactions I’ve seen in a long time.
The “whisky” glasses are standard tulip-shaped wine snifters, not the low ball tumblers usually associated with whisky glasses – the nosing glasses used for wines are better for whisky too. I am building up quite a collection of these wine glasses from the various wine shows now, and tonight’s glass will make for interesting reading in view of my initial expectation of a tumbler.
I was told that there would be a guided tour for the media, but it seems as if this was not the case. My brother-in-law who joined me and I go to a guided tasting instead. My first guided whisky tasting, so lots of lessons to be learned. Check the colour (preferably against a neutral background like the wall behind us), guess whether it was stored in a bourbon cask (lighter colour) or a sherry cask (darker whisky). Generally younger whisky is lighter in colour than older whisky. There is a warning about the legal addition of flavourless caramel which changes the colour of the whisky so guesses about the whisky based on colour may well be wrong. That’s why we have to “nose” the whisky.
Before nosing it, however, we have to swirl the whisky around the glass, coating the sides thoroughly and then watch the ‘teardrops’ or ‘legs’ form and run down the side of the glass. If the legs run quickly, there are lots of them, and they are quite thin then it is probably a light-bodied whisky and/or a younger whisky. Of course, like anything else one needs an experienced eye to judge how quickly the legs are moving. This is not a skill one acquires in one evening, no matter how many whisky samples one gets to inspect.
Now we have to smell it. Sorry “nose” it. See what we can identify. Now we can taste it. Then we get to add a splash of bottled still water to the whisky. The water changes the temperature, raising it slightly so that the whisky will release more of its aromas. The man next to me points out that holding the mouth open slightly helps take in more aromas. I try it. The man next to me seems to be right but that might be my imagination.
Taste it again. The nose AND the palate are now working. I get to think about how the whisky feels. Smooth? Syrupy? Tingly? Does the flavour last long or disappear quickly? Is it warming? Is it dry?
When we arrived at the FNB Whisky Live Festival we were given a Whisky Handbook. This book outlines the six key flavours of Scotch whisky, which is what we are tasting. They are malty, peaty, pungent, woody, fragrant and fruity. We get the woody and the peaty. I find the smoky taste of the peaty flavour unattractive. Personal preference.
We wend our way through the various stalls. We try American whiskies, Irish whiskies, Scotch whiskies, African whiskies. (I am as patriotic as the next person but the one I taste is simply not nice – “paintstripper” is the comment of someone also tasting it.) I am told that there are Taiwanese whiskies, but I don’t find any. We try blends and single malts. We try whiskies that are three years old and whiskies that are 30 years old (I was told to try a forty year old whisky, but didn’t get that far – there are several listed in The South African Whisky Handbook 11th edition though). One of the things that I found interesting is that most stalls were completely surprised by the concept that one would empty the glass into a spittoon after tasting their product. Other than at the guided tastings spittoons were a rarity.
Speaking of African whiskies, I looked for the one which comes in an Africa-shaped bottle, but couldn’t find the Wild Reeds (Schoonspruit Distillers) stall. The bottle alone looks absolutely worth buying, never mind what is in it. This was one of the disappointments of the evening. Another was that this RMB Whisky Live Festival is so big that it defies one from getting round to everything. This is a good thing even though it is listed as a disappointment.
My father often spoke of “Dop en Dam” by which he meant brandy or whisky “dop” and water “dam”. Water plays an important role in the drinking of whisky and the FNB Whisky Live Festival has partnered with Valpre. Valpre were there selling their water. The free water in water coolers was for rinsing purposes only. Please buy the drinking water. I prefer sparkling water for drinking as water anyway, but we did use still water for adding to the whisky. The absolute bonus of the evening is that when one takes one’s empty bottle back to the main Valpre stand they exchange it for a small tree. My brother-in-law took our trees home to nurture. They will be planted on his farm outside Villiers.