After seeing the Private Barrel Co whiskies being displayed and shared at the FNB Whisky Live Festival, it’s clear to me that the high-end whisky consumer is becoming more knowledgeable, more discerning and more inquisitive. It helps to have whiskies such as these Checkers have. This is a long term project and I’m very much looking forward to the next releases.
There’s really no substitute for a small, privately owned liquor store, a knowledgeable owner who knows your preferences, who can, with authority, suggest a new, interesting, rare whisky. Or is there?
In South Africa, we saw the good things that happened when financial muscle got involved in the sale of high-end whisky, when Ray Edwards took the Spar group cheque-book and grew Tops at Spar. He showcased some lesser-known distilleries and did great work on the responsible drinking front.
Bring in a major force – the empire that is Shoprite Holdings, via the Checkers outlets. It has the muscle to completely change the retail spirit market, so when they do something, whisky lovers should sit up and take notice.
The Financial Mail said http://www.financialmail.co.za/business/2012/12/20/the-shoprite-empire “Shoprite stands as the colossus of African retail with 1674 stores in SA, 214 in 16 other countries on the continent and turnover in its year to June 2012 of R83bn. Based on retail turnover in their latest financial years, Shoprite led Spar by almost R17bn and Pick n Pay by over R26bn.” So we’re not talking small change.
Checkers started selling whisky from single casks, bottled in Scotland under The Private Barrel Co label, exclusive to its House of Fine Whisky in select Checkers stores. Great idea, generating interest in whisky, bringing consumers to the stores and exposing the knowledge hungry South African consumer to whisky we cannot usually obtain. Or can we? Of course we can. We can purchase single casks, private bottlings, distiller’s editions and so on. There are many expressions around: traditional specialist liquor stores such as Whisky Brother have a reasonable range, and the internet based outlets, Patrick of Whiskydotcoza, Paul of Aficionados have or can get, Hector of Whiskyshop is probably SA’s most knowledgeable about single cask imports. So why the fuss?
What Checkers bring to the scene is muscle, retail knowhow and distribution, marketing expertise, desire, money and power. This is a new project and like most things they do, they will do it very well. What they don’t have, yet, is whisky credibility, but that takes time and good whisky. They are on the right track but need to make a few adjustments. More about that later. First, time for lunch.
Lunch was at the Cape Grace hotel for the launch of 4 new whiskies in the Private Label range. I enjoy these PR events – fun people, great food and someone else picks up the tab! What was great is that Checkers sent a large contingent, including their high energy marketing guru Neil Schreuder and Joseph Bronn, head of the liquor shop. Malika Van Reenen, ubercool chef at the hotel was on top form. Have a look at the lunch menu:I had perfectly prepared Norwegian Salmon instead of the prawn and perhaps had a bit more than my fair share of the chocolates with coffee, but hey, I’ll work them off at gym next week. The food and whisky combinations were superb, well done Malike and the Cape Grace. Yeast fundi Jonathan Miles, who now has all of the distilleries in Scotland checked off his bucket list, presented the whiskies.
The whiskies are a Benrinnes 15; Glenlossie 15; Glen Grant 17; Mortlach 14, all bottled at 46 ABV and without chill filtering. In my view, all very good and drinkable whiskies, my personal preference being the Glen Grant.
The official tasting notes appear at the end of this post and I welcome any comment, once you try out the whiskies. In fact, I encourage you to purchase a bottle of each. But this is not an unconditional suggestion. Get another expression – either standard range or from another independent bottler. Informal whisky clubs seem to be sprouting up everywhere, so trying out different expressions, splitting the costs, are a good way to spend an evening in animated debate with whisky lovers. Compare those expressions to others from the same distilleries, experiment, discover, enjoy the never-ending adventure that is whisky.
Back to the whisky road Checkers has embarked upon. Firstly, for the uninitiated, a single cask bottling is whisky bottled from one cask, sourced from one distillery. It can represent the best of the best, in the case of a good bottling. And it can fail, if the cask and content is not up to scratch. History – provenance – where does it come from, what route did it take to get here?
And that’s why the whisky guys round the table wanted to know detail. What is the future and what, exactly, is the origin of the whisky? Did Checkers purchase the barrels directly from the distillery or did they purchase from independent bottlers, and if so, which bottlers? Checkers source the casks from one independent bottler, run by Donald Hart and his son Andrew. I met Donald in Havana in 2004, while we were talking whisky. And Rum. Why Havana? Long story. Ask me for a drink sometime and I’ll share. Donald knows his whisky and his way round independent bottling. In fact in 2005 I brought into South Africa a bottling of a single cask of Aberlour – from Donald.
An independent bottler is dependent on purchasing barrels from the distilleries and, perhaps, private owners, who acquired a barrel many years ago. Some bottlings are wonderful, some aren’t. The key is who is behind the bottling, the pedigree. Sometimes an IB can be as good, or better, than buying a distillery bottling of a single cask. Nowadays, with the shortage of good malts, it will be very rare to find a distillery selling its best casks to the independents. The Distiller’s Editions represent the best and are the flagships. I’d like to see Checkers trying to do a deal direct with the distilleries for some of the whiskies. They have the financial clout to do it and should use their muscle. Perhaps they can spread the purchasing around so they aren’t too dependent on a limited range from one independent bottler. The range of casks available will be a lot wider. I also think that if the expressions come from an independent bottler, there should be mention of this on the label, with the name of the independent bottler.
I’ve asked a few master distillers to explain the process they go through when selecting a single cask for bottling under their own name. The answer is generally the same, and it goes something like this: (and feel free to insert a strong Scottish accent when reading aloud) “Well laddie, say, for instance, we have 5000 casks resting in our warehouse, and we nose them regularly. We then choose 200 or so that are very, very good. Then…and remember laddie, we don’t rush, there in the warehouse, we have lots of time, yes. Then we nose those 200 casks and choose maybe 20, maybe 30, that are exceptional, or have the potential to be exceptional. And then, after more time, we choose maybe 3 casks, and then, we choose one. And that cask is bottled, when the time is right. So you see laddie, that is how we choose a single cask.”
It was clear from the size and seniority of the Checkers delegation that they’re taking their Private Barrel Co project very seriously. They will perfect it, I’m sure, over time. There is expertise available here and overseas that is available to Checkers, if they want it. I’d also like to see more of this type of work by Checkers, make this an annual thing, do 4 single casks a year. It’s exciting. It’s fun. And the whisky is good.
Checkers used a panel to select the casks, including Karen Chaloner, queen of the Whisky Live Festival (come visit me in Soweto and Sandton this year) and Mike Orrey, who is quite comfortable in a distillery but better known as marketing genius. Both of them know their whisky, and know it very well. It’s a great move to have them involved and I hope they have a bigger role to play in the future.
Consumers in South Africa should take advantage of the online and traditional whisky outlets here, the people behind them are knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge with consumers. Checkers can’t have an expert at each store, so there is always a place for the independent retailers.
Prices – R 550 upwards, representing reasonable value. I recommend a purchase. Overall, I’m positive about what Checkers has done and wish them well for their efforts in the future.
Well done to Go4word or organising the event. Slick and professional.
OFFICIAL TASTING NOTES via the PR agency.
Benrinnes 15 year old Bourbon Cask
Aroma: Sweet dough and raisins
Palate: Sugared almonds with apricot and some maple syrup
Finish: Lovely and elegant with light notes of sweet tobacco
Glenlossie 15 year old Bourbon Cask
Aroma: Fresh and summery with gooseberries
Palate: Pineapple with some subtle spice and honey
Finish: Long and smooth with hints of dark chocolate
Glen Grant 17 year old Sherry Cask
Aroma: Butterscotch, chocolate and pears
Palate: A lovely palate of ginger, peppered spice and roasted nuts followed by some banana and pear drops
Finish: Long and very warming with a velvety texture and traces of liquorice
Mortlach 14 year old Sherry Cask
Aroma: Fruity with smoky vanilla notes
Palate: Treacle, chocolate and maple syrup notes flow into some spiced ginger and fudge
Finish :Deeply satisfying with some chocolate and ending with a hint of tobacco
Cape Town – October 2013