It was white. Booths looking like something out of a sci-fi movie. In each of them, one wall is covered with a huge blow-up picture of fruit, or charcoal, or vanilla; on the other, a textured material: sandpaper, silk etc. On the tasting table as well as the whisky, there’s cups containing aromatic substances and each booth is also playing a different soundtrack. As a way of explaining the different sensory attractions of whisky it’s as great an idea as I have seen. It was created by The Really Great Brand Company for this year’s Whisky Live in South Africa. As RGBC handles Edrington, ‘Morangie, Drambuie and Jack Daniels this is a pretty comprehensive one-stop shop in learning about whisky as a whole, as well as specific brands, and having a generic function as well as brand specific one is surely part and parcel of any effective education campaign.
This multi-faceted, sensory assault is complex, but also drills down to the simple truths at the heart of whisky, that understanding comes through flavour. Yes, I know, I’ve said it many times before and you know what I’m gonna keep right on repeating it. Get these basics right and then you can build. Fail to root a brand (especially a single malt) in this simple framework and you will struggle, especially with a new consumer in a new market.
Maybe it comes naturally to South Africans. This is, after all, a country where the ability to be creative with the simplest of materials comes naturally. It’s brought home at craft markets filled with fantastically coloured woven bowls made of telephone wire (which come to think of it is maybe why everyone has mobiles), guitars made of old oil cans, intricate beadwork jewellery. I pick up a cd by the late Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and see the same creative impulse at work: taking hymns and improvising on them, making new art from old, getting down to the roots and bringing a new understanding.
Strangely, people still seem surprised when I tell them that I’m going to South Africa for a whisky show. “Whisky?” they say. “Don’t you mean wine?” So I explain (again) that it’s one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, that there’s a new generation drinking whisky, that its shows are the biggest, busiest, brashest and craziest of anywhere in the world.
Yet, there are issues concerning how long this momentum can be maintained. South Africa is, once again, at a crossroads. The fact that it is seemingly constantly at a crossroads will perhaps stand it in good stead. The challenge is how to grow the market further when the government insists that whisky must be bottled at a minimum of 43% abv and bottles have to be 75cl, while in most countries it is 40%/70cl. It might suggest a country which likes booze and lots of it, but it restricts the number of whiskies, particularly limited releases, which can legally come in, effectively eliminating independent bottlers, top-end releases, Japanese whiskies. Not many firms new to this (new) market are willing to create a new bottle for a few cases. So, the irony is that here we have an innovative, forward-looking market filled with drinkers who want to learn about whisky (for all the hectic nature of the show, this year the workshops are all full, the interest in the minutiae growing) but whose access to it is restricted by bureaucracy.
South Africa is ready to take the next step up, but is finding it difficult to take it because of this issue and also because of a lack of a wider range of distributors with national reach. How it moves forward is important not just for the local market, but for the wider success of whisky in the rest of Africa. Will it succeed? I listen to the Brotherhood of Breath’s improvisations, look at the art, think of the fact that the country even exists and conclude, yes, it will... but probably in the most oblique and surprising way possible.