Whisky Wednesday

Wednesday was Whisky Night in the shape of a grand five course dinner at Le Châtelat Boutique Hotel in Sandhurst. As the Highveld skies rumbled and flashed to the tune of a major thunderstorm, guests sipped Johnnie Walker Blue Label and made small talk in the fin de siècle (19th century, that is) splendor of Johannesburg’s plutocratic north. The main event was a charity auction of a single bottle (number 142/200) of Johnnie Walker Blue Label 1805 which was snapped up by generous George Naidoo for R370 000.

My column in this week’s Financial Mail discusses an introduction to the Scottish stuff via bush logic, something close to my heart as I type these words on a deck above the Olifants River with a kudu in foreground.

jw Whisky Wednesday

Just like Ol’ Man River, the whisky barrel just keeps rollin’ along. SA is now fifth largest market for Scotch and the FNB Whisky Live Festival, rolling into Cape Town on Guy Fawkes’ Night (5-7 November) and Johannesburg the following week (12-14 November), is the largest whisky festival in the world. Pipe bands, kilted distillers and 180 whiskies from afar afield as India and Japan, will be unleashed on wonks and the curious in the annual celebration of distilled beer.

WLF organizer Sian Neubert notes “unlike wine, whisky is not vintage dependent, so each year we have to come up with something different.” Apart from the dozen new whiskies to be launched, the biggest innovation this time will be the performance theatre of Let’s Sell Lobster, the dynamic training duo of Fasi Malherbe and Dale den Dulk. Dale’s brother Emil imports such icons as the Peat Monster, Hedonism Maximus and Buffalo Trace Kentucky Bourbon while dad (also called Emil) is the brains behind De Toren, the best SA red never to have won five Platter stars. When that happens (surely only a matter of time) the whole team is off to the Okavango Delta.

The lobster duo have their work cut out for them as service providers for the wine industry initiative to train 2010 sommeliers in time for the Soccer World Cup. The cultural divide between waitstaff and Bacchus is bridged by identifying wines with animals – Cabernet Sauvignon, that most powerful of red grapes, is matched with an elephant while a big, bold and aggressive Shiraz is a rhino. “Our aim is to deliver confidence” confides Malherbe, and it works.

The zoo translates to whiskies: lowland whiskies are like impalas, light of body, skittish on the palate and vaguely camp with thin legs running down the glass. Bourbon is a lion with the serious roar of the American tourist while Lagavulan is a lone buffalo, known as a dugga boy in the bushveld, hence the Duggavulan – aggressive and in your face.

26-year old Malherbe and 27-year old Den Dulk have ripped up the whisky script of stereotype drinker a crusty old fisherman in a holey Arran knit. As Malherbe explains “our aim is to demystify all the pretentiousness surrounding whisky.” Of which there is no shortage.

Let’s Sell Lobster was started three and a half years ago over drinks at the bar of Dick Enthoven’s Spier spread in Stellenbosch. Malherbe studied fine art and design at Stellenbosch while Den Dulk was brought up on De Toren. Both realized the problem with training restaurant and game lodge staff was “hoity-toity snobbish presenters” and a breakdown in communication. Just exactly do notes of capsicum with whiffs of cassia taste like to your average waitron?

The duo decided to apply bush logic and relate flavour and aromas to wild animals and to transfer whisky knowledge through “edutainment.” This does not only extend to the training of service staff. The Lobsters have founded a company called Under the Influence, which helps consumers discover the finest wines and spirits through delivered ensembles with course material, corporate entertainment evenings and wine and spirits courses hosted at the Roundhouse Restaurant in Camps Bay.

The Whisky Live Festival sees the franchise rolled out to the Scottish stuff, so stand by to be offered a double leopard on the rocks by someone in a giraffe suit. That old whisky tippler Rudyard Kipling, author of the Jungle Book, would approve.