It was once the tipple of your grandfather; now whisky has become the tipple of choice for a wide cross-section of South Africans.
Last week, the largest whisky festival in the world was held in Sandton at which, remarkably, ten bottles of a limited edition, 60-year-old premium scotch whisky, Glenfarclas, were sold for R360,000 apiece.
This is testament to the growing appreciation for the golden liquid within this country. But the sale won’t surprise those who have tracked SA progress in becoming the fifth-largest export market in the world for Scotch whisky. Last year, as much as £122m — or about R1.78bn — worth of Scotch whisky was imported to SA.
That translates into about 35,280l or 47,026 bottles, says Emily Stockden, chief operating officer of the Whisky Live Festival.
"The industry is flourishing — incidentally at the expense of the traditional SA spirit of choice, brandy. Whisky is the most-consumed spirit in SA with 4.1m South Africans drinking it, while the number of brandy drinkers has decreased to 3.3m," she says.
George S Grant, whose family has run the Glenfarclas distillery in Scotland since 1836, was one of the high-profile guests at Whisky Live. He says SA has become a major market for his whisky in just a few years.
"The whisky industry has grown tremendously in this country. We have had a whisky boom worldwide for about 10 years and, in the past five years, that explosion has reached SA," he says.
Grant says Scotch makers have had to up their game as many strong whiskies are now being produced by countries which do not have a history of whisky making.
"Scotch is basically the mother of whisky. Many countries have learnt how the Scots make it and then added their value and raw materials to the process. Japan is a case in point. The first Japanese person to make whisky lived in Scotland for decades and studied the beverage. We now see countries such as Russia and Taiwan creating high-quality whisky," says Grant.
The profile of the typical whisky drinker is also changing. "People are drinking less but better across the world," Grant says. "They want to taste what they are drinking and not just get drunk. People also have more disposable income than their parents and grandparents had. They want to spend it on a beverage that is in vogue but has history behind it. They don’t want to drink what their parents drank," Grant says.
Stockden says Grant has been a brilliant addition to the festival.
"His family have been in the business for 150 years and have probably the most comprehensive collection of old casks maturing for every year since 1953. Glenfarclas also sits in the top 20 index for investment auction whiskies," she says.
You might not imagine whisky as a conventional investment, but some have found that whisky is indeed a resilient long-term bet which holds up well as a strong safe-haven asset.
"Whisky has beaten gold and art in the past in terms of alternative investments and as the market grows, whisky investments will only become more valuable," says Stockden.
Nor was Stockden particularly surprised that 10 bottles of the 60-year-old Glenfarclas’ sold for R360,000.
She points out that in the past, some whiskies sold for more than R1m a bottle in SA. And, given that only 360 bottles of the premium Glenfarclas were ever made, it was a rare opportunity for whisky aficionados.
"It was mostly private buyers who bought them and I can confirm that at least four were opened and drunk," Grant says.
Donald Colville, brand ambassador for Diageo’s single malts, agrees that SA is an exciting market, especially for distilleries and corporations which sell whiskies with investment value.
Diageo is bringing 10 new single malts to SA and they were sold for the first time at Whisky Live. They include the Brora 38-year-old 1977 edition and a Port Ellen 37-year-old 1978 16th release. The Brora sells for R28,000 a bottle and the Port Ellen at R46,999 a bottle.
"We have learnt that South Africans are passionate about whisky" says Colville. "They, excuse the pun, have a thirst for knowledge. Yes, they drink whiskies from many countries but Scotches are the most popular here."
He is aware of SA’s premium single malt, Three Ships Whisky, but Diageo is not set to buy any SA distilleries just yet.
A notable private market has been Asians and other foreigners who are working in SA and benefit from a weak rand.
But for every CEO and top earner who will spend hundreds of thousands of rand on a bottle of alcohol, there are more humble earners who are just fascinated about whisky lore and culture. They may also enjoy drinking a beverage to suit their palate.
One passionate SA whiskyphile is Saverio Cardillo who has run a whisky club for eight years. He runs the club out of Bottega Café in Parkhurst and is considered one of the most accessible whisky experts in the country.
"I wouldn’t say I am an expert but I love whisky and the lifestyle connected to it," he says. "I was given a Glen Ord Single Malt some years ago as a gift and read up on it. It fascinated me how it was made and soon I was learning about whisky on a daily basis. I realised I could sell whisky and run a club where people could learn about it for free and enjoy it.
"So yes, it’s a hobby but it’s got to a point where I make more profit out of selling whisky than I do from other things," he says.
His niche has been selling whisky from distilleries which large liquor chains don’t touch, and selling fairly rare blends and vintages at relatively affordable prices.
"Whiskies worth, say R200,000 a bottle, aren’t really our game. We have some expensive bottles here but our goal is to sell interesting whiskies, some of which have collector value but which our customers will generally drink. Of course, we can order the unusual for a member who makes a request."
The Bottega Café boasts more than 400 single malts and blends. Cardillo sells bottles from (among others) Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Japan, SA, the US, France, Sweden, India and New Zealand.
Cardillo says he wants whisky to be accessible to all South Africans. In the past year many people in their twenties and thirties have joined the club, which has about 1,000 members. He will soon launch a revamped website for the club.
"We are hosting a bachelor party soon where we will have a tasting. I have seen that even though our younger members may be unable to afford the premium stuff, they educate themselves well and use smartphone apps and the like to source whiskies which offer good value. Our club members really love whisky and they’re buying it despite their disposable income being under pressure."
One of these apps is Whizzky. It can scan a bottle and provide information on that whisky.
Club members can order whisky online and collect it at the Bottega Café. Cardillo has also sent bottles to various places in SA and as far afield as Israel.
He has plans to organise tour packages to Scottish distilleries in the near future.
"It is amazing for a hobby to have offered so much. Who knew that South Africans could embrace whisky culture like they have?" he says.