Friends are meant to be immortal. That’s their job: to always be there. So, when the news came that Don Paul, South Africa’s Mr Whisky, had died, the disbelief spread like a shockwave. Don couldn’t die. He was indestructible, he had beaten it before, he was a force of nature.
I first met him in Ballater where, on a balmy summer’s evening, he was dressed in a thick Aran knit jumper, shivering. “I can never get used to this bloody country,” he said, his face splitting into a bright grin, his eyes gleaming with mischief. So began a true friendship, one made that little bit stronger when it transpired that we were born in the same small Glasgow nursing home. Not that Don was a nostalgic Scot, he was an African.
His name was built in South Africa where he co-founded the Johnnie Walker tasting programme, then the College Of Whisky. “Most if not all of our material we use in whisky education for Brandhouse came from his pen,” says Rynard van der Westhuizen of Brandhouse. “Always smiling, always ready to add some marketing wisdom and savvy, he was a great whisky presenter and an astute nose…I will miss you my friend.”
“He was eloquent, wise and effervescent, one of whisky’s greatest ambassadors,” adds Mike Joubert, ex-Brandhouse. “I celebrate the life of a larger than life individual, a friend and a great marketing man.”
He was, but he also maintained a wickedly sardonic view of some of the extremes of marketeers and could - and would - puncture pomposity with one well-chosen phrase, though delivered with such charm that he would be forgiven instantly. “Don had his own way of doing things; sometimes causing hilarity, other times tears, but always getting a result,” says Neil Robinson at Oscar Tango, the firm Don founded. “Oscar Tango was built up around the brilliance of his creative idea generation and unique writing ability.”
In Cape Town his house became my first stop, a place of refuge, somewhere to relax and think, where the talk would be of books and art, of music and family and slowly, always, arcing back to whisky. There would be questions, arguments, a teasing out of theories, the creation of new ideas, new projects.
He wore his knowledge easily, amassing facts and then seemingly improvising a bravura presentation peppered with jokes, spreading the word in a new way, in a new whisky market to a new whisky audience. “He was the brains
trust of whisky, a fountain of ideas which changed the SA whisky landscape forever,” says Karen Chaloner who co-founded the College of Whisky and now jointly runs Whisky Live SA. “He inspired, touched and unlocked the mysteries, broke down the barriers, simplified the facts, always threw in humour, but most of all he was a magical storyteller. Thousands and thousands of whisky fans owe their whisky journey to Don.”
I remember a conversation by his pool one night, discussing the apparent recklessness of his countrymen. “This is Africa,” he said. “You never know if today will be your last, so you live it to the full.” He looked serious. Then the grin. He did live it to the full. The cup of his life was always brimming and he drank heartily from it.
“He was a person to be with, to relish and savour his keen wit and mischievousness,” says Nick Morgan at Diageo. “His generosity of spirit was matched by a profound wisdom which he also dispensed with liberality. He didn’t lack courage; I recall him diving from a yacht into the freezing July water of Islay’s Glas Uig and emerging smiling. When I think of Don I’m reminded of what wonderful people there are in this slightly crazy world of whisky and that we’ve just lost one of the best of them.”
He was a writer, a performer, a father, a mentor, an artist, a sculptor, the maker of ponds, a raconteur, a wit and my African brother. He was my friend. Go well, brave heart.