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TASTING a whisky money CAN’T BUY…

whiskY is whiskEY right? WRONG… If you know the difference in the spelling you will know what I am talking about and would have enjoyed the recent FNB Whisky live Festival. If you don’t, however, nothing changes and you too would have enjoyed the event… You see kind sir, whether you know your peaty taste notes from your fruity aromas or whether you think Three Ships is a Scottish whisky, the fair would have catered for you either way.

My better half is a self-professed whisky newbie, you see, and all whiskies pretty much taste the same to her. Her palate is much more refined and fine tuned with years of indulgence in fine things such as the odd red wine, exotic cheese and handmade chocolates. The idea of a whisky event is not high on her to-do list, however, she agreed to accompany me  to this year’s Whisky Live and to her delight the first stall we paused at was a young group of gents who had CHOCOLATE to offer.

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Why on earth would someone sell chocolate at a whisky fair you would ask yourself?!? It turns out that chocolates – which are made well – will amplify certain flavours and aromas naturally present in whiskies. These chocolates on offer in particular are sugar free and suitable to diabetics!?! Wait what?? That’s correct! They use a natural ingredient called stevia to sweeten the bars, making it 100% sugar free. At R40 a bar it really is a steal and the cyclist in me immediately wondered how they would work if consumed on my next ride, insulin advantages and what-not. Back to the aromas though, before I tasted my first whisky I also stumbled onto this:

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At first glance it looks like a first aid kit out of World War One. Upon further inspection though it became apparent that these kits can also be used in conjuncion with a whisky tasting to highlight the aromas in your whisky. Much to my delight my lass was now much more impressed with the complexities involved in an event offering such a wide variety of experiences. Onwards to the tasting!

Tasting the odd dram
I must profess, I have been through quite a few whisky tastings in my young life. Some commercial, some intimate. Initially in err and youthful enthusiasm I would try and sample every kind that my eyes could see. However, this fair was different, with this fair I set out to be very selective in my tasting, searching for something special.

The first whisky I tried was a Glen Grant 10 yo. As always I was thoroughly impressed with the sheer amount of flavour that this distillery produces. Legend has it that it is owing to the long, thin copper stills that they use. Others think it’s because the master distiller has been there for ages… Whatever the reason, I am a huge fan of this whisky brand and it keeps impressing with every new blend that I try. 8/10

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Next up was a 15 yo Glenfiddich. This is a much rougher drink, something that makes you sit up and notice and I immediately craved the Glen Grant which I had just finished. Rustic, rough, earthy… This drink is very unique, but hard to enjoy. 6/10

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I chucked the remainder and proceeded to the folk at Ballantines. I have owned a bottle of the mainstream blend but this was my first experience of the 10 yo. Very complex indeed. Ballantines offers you whiskies at fractions of the prices they taste like. Strong wooden notes and I noticed that the charring of the barrels must have been intense. I am a fan! 8/10

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My second last stop of the evening was the new addition known as Private Barrel. Intrigued I signed up for a whisky tasting session which was expertly presented by someone who was still passionate even though this was his last presentation of the weekend – well done.

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Checkers have made the effort to discover a few rare whiskies from Scotland and present them to their customers in the Private Barrel label at REALLY good prices. My favourite was the Benrinnes 15 yo – WOW! This tastes like heaven, seriously. I must be completely honest in saying that this just might be the best dram I have EVER tasted (The Johnnie Walker in the latter part of this article excluded) – this says a lot. Its priced at around R500 per bottle, and I will surely get my hands on one as the quantities are limited (only 600 were bottled!). I read up a bit on this new discovery of mine and found that this distillery used to triple-distill their whiskies up until 2007 – surely the reason why this whisky is so smooth. Think about it though, the 15 yo contains whisky distilled this way, but someday the 15 yo whiskeys from this distillery will be produced using the new method… Even more reason to get your hands on this now! It’s a perfect blend between smoothness, peatiness and woody/tobacco aromas, all things I admire but seem to find in sollitude when it comes to whiskies. 9/10!

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The pick of the roost

I can say without a doubt that I left the best for last. In the center of the fair was the Brandhouse exhibition. Simply put, it was breathtaking. The attention to detail was meticulous, with displays on offer reminding one of art more than whisky.

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Brandhouse really is a force to reckon with and the brands that they exhibit all carry heavy punches: Bushmills, Dalwhinnie, Dimple Haig, Johnnie Walker… They had girls assisting you through modern technology to establish exactly what blend would be right for you.

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The choices are:

VIBRANT – Dynamic and lively with dried fruit, peppercorns, spice and intense flavours. Suggested brands are Johnnie Walker Red Label (recommended with ginger ale), VAT 69, Talisker and Caol Ila.

BOLD – Full-bodied flavour notes with espresso, smoke and wood flavours. Suggested brands are Johnnie Walker Black Label (recommended with water), White Horse, Johnnie Walker Platinum and Lagavulin.

RICH – Chocolate, cream, honey and subtle biscuit flavour notes. Suggested brands are Bell’s Extra Special Blended Scotch Whisky (recommended with soda water), Bell’s Special Reserve, Singleton, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve.

FRESH – Fresh fruit, citrus and grass notes. Suggested brands are J&B Rare (recommended with lemonade), J&B Jet, Black and White and Bushmills Original

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Apart from this funky new approach that brandhouse has taken they also had this jawdropping bottle of the 2014 edition of John Walker & Sons Private Collection. This is the first of six annual limited releases of unique small batches of remarkable blends by Master Blender Jim Beverage that will be released once-off and once a year. This year only 8 888 bottles were created and distributed around the world, one of which was available for the select few to taste, myself being one of 14 people – how amazing? This is what it looks like:

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The taste is really unique and I wasn’t dissapointed. Johnnie Walker aimed to produce a whiskey highlighting the smokiness of the Highland with this whisky and they got it spot on. I held the whisky in my mouth for a while, the dram taking me through quite a few experiences. Strange how your brain struggles to make sense of something that it experiences for the first time. It almost tasted peaty, but that’s not quite it… Its not really woody either, and smokey doesn’t describe the flavour either. I suppose my lack for words was exactly what they were aiming for, certainly something very rare, 9.5/10 for this dram.

All-in-all this fair was really well organised and I enjoyed it a bit more than last year – improvement is a good thing. Looking forward to the next one!

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