The Bascule Whisky Bar @capegrace has collapsed. It’s time to rebuild. #basculegate

The Bascule used to be the main thread in the whisky fabric of South Africa. Its reputation spread far and as one of the great whisky bars in the world. The past years have seen the whisky culture grow. Specialist bars are becoming more prevalent in Cape Town and around the country. The Bascule has, unfortunately, slid down the drain. It is a situation that can be rescued, and I have some suggestions. But first, let’s go back into history to see what it used to be, what has happened, who caused it, why it happened and what should be done to fix it.

I’ve invited the hotel to comment on some of my views and offered them an advance copy of this article.  They have not replied.  The Cape Grace is, in my view, one of the finest hotels around. But it harbours an ugly stain.

None of the present staff directly contributed information that I have used in this article. The sources are past staff members, people in the liquor and hospitality industry, present and past members and my own observations.

The history.

Many years ago, in what I call “my former life”, I fell in with a bad crowd. Rather, I jumped in, head first. We used to spend a few nights a week at the Bascule, drinking way too much whisky, smoking far too many cigars and often ended the evening at a strip club. It was a dark time and I stumbled through those years in a chemical and booze fueled haze. Not my proudest time. Thankfully I remember very little of it. What it did show me is that no situation is so bad that one cannot recover.

When, in January 2006 that world came crashing down I needed to get my head sorted out and return to the real world. I gave the Bascule a miss for about a year. I returned, enjoying whisky for the taste, not the effect, with a new appreciation for reality.  I was newly single and began dating, which was a challenge on a limited budget. Thankfully I had whisky in my locker at the Bascule and every Tuesday night members enjoyed delicious Tapas, on the house.  Tuesday at the Bascule was when and where I would entertain the romantic interest of the moment.

In two years time my daughter turns 18 and will be of legal drinking age. She said that on that day she’ll sit with me at the Bascule and we’ll have a whisky together.  A couple of seasons ago my son and I watched most of the Manchester United soccer games at the Bascule – including that dramatic final day, when our team lost out to the neighbours in blue. Bascule is important to my family.

I’ve seen people graduate from the Bascule to reach great heights. Jean Yves Muller, the first manager, now holds fort at The Twankey Bar at the Taj Hotel. He is a hospitality guru and got me into Islay whisky with a Port Ellen 1974. Niel Hendrickz and Candice Baker started out as waiters and now fly the flag of LVMH and The Edrington Group respectively, speaking with authority and passion about Glenmorangie, The Macallan and whisky in general. Present manager George Novitskas is heavily involved with Jack Daniels tastings and is a popular presenter at Whisky Live festivals.

Whisky lovers used to be able to share our passion with the staff at Bascule.   When a new or rare whisky was available we could share a wee dram with the staff, chat about the flavours, the texture, the aroma, the whisky. We love to talk whisky, we love to share, we love to watch people grow.

In the past few years I’ve used the Bascule as my second home, a place I could go to relax, to socialise, to share about whisky, love, life and all things nice.  It was “whisky central”, where whisky lovers would meet.

The Bascule, at its best, was spectacular. The setting alongside the yachts at the V & A Marina, with Table Mountain looming large and powerful in the background, was the scene of some of the best times I’ve had.

It was an important venue in my life. But that was then. There are many other venues in Cape Town and have reserved my summer spot at 3 of them.

What happened?

It changed. The trouble was brewing last year, with staff motivation becoming an issue. When the great flood occurred in March 2013 and Bascule closed for 11 weeks, it reopened to mixed reviews.  There were some positives – no smoking, a revamped outside and lounge area, but the main bar area was no longer whisky friendly.  The number of seats was more important than the comfort of those on the seats. The deep, relaxing couches were gone, replaced by seats designed to increase revenue for chiropractors.  Regular members left, dismayed by the changes.

But far more importantly was the change in atmosphere.  The Bascule lost its soul.  It lost its place as the premier whisky bar in the South Africa and is now, at best, a distant 6th or 7th.  Wild about Whisky (with passionate owners and 900 or more whiskies); Katzy’s in Rosebank; The Devon Valley Hotel in the winelands;  Raleigh’s (cigar friendly) at the Westin Grand; Vista at The One and Only, the Spectacular Shimmy Beach Bar with its elegant Bunnahabhain boardroom are all better bars and better whisky bars. In Cape Town alone, Twankey Bar; The Orphanage; Alexander Bar are but a few of the top class “normal” bars around.

What is worse is that prostitutes are camped out at the bar. I’m not naïve – Bascule is at The Cape Grace Hotel, a superb 5 star property. Ladies for hire are a fact of life at many 5 star hotels in tourist cities.  But at Bascule, they have taken over. There are many stories around of customers being robbed and accosted by the women. A few Friday evenings ago I went with an old friend – someone who at one stage shared a wine locker with me. It was a sad site and my friend and I left, with her saying Bascule had become disgusting. That Friday it resembled a seedy pool bar, without the pool tables. There was a 19-year-old prostitute at the bar – and she left with an elderly German tourist. Another woman at the bar stole a bottle of cider – slipped it into her handbag. There was not a glass of whisky in site.

The staff members are disheartened. Clearly demotivated, their passion is drying up. They have been prohibited from having a sip of whisky offered by members (among them, whisky experts) while on duty. That dramatically reduces the education offered to the staff. What was the perfect breeding ground for the new generation of whisky presenters is no more.  They cannot even accept gifts such as samples of rare whisky. Whisky education is close to my heart but this seems to be unimportant at the new Bascule.

The present manager has no authority to order whisky. A bar manager who can’t order stock, especially this time of year with new releases, has a difficult job. His experience and expertise has been ignored, his ideas for improvement have, in the main, been shot down.

Despite the closure for nearly 3 months, members have been asked to renew their membership without an extension of time.  The offering to members has deteriorated over the years.

I’m aware of at almost a dozen whisky functions that were to have taken place at Bascule but didn’t, because of difficulties with the present set-up.  In revenue terms it’s something like R 100 000.00 lost, excluding the increase in revenue from marketing.

I heard the reason for Bascule closing for the length of time it did is that there were cash flow issues.  That surprised me – and I don’t agree with that view, as I understand that the hotel has substantial financial backing. I was also advised that it is unheard of for an hotel to close one of its main public areas for that length of time.  The fact that it took a long time for repairs and renovations to commence was “very strange” as someone experienced in hospitality, put it.

The general view among the people with whom I engaged was that the new set-up was not welcoming and that Bascule no longer had the attraction it once had.

Who is responsible?

In my view, the who is a character similar to Frank Dixon, played by Stanley Tucci in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks. Dixon is the Director of Customs and Border Protection at JFK airport. Perhaps suffering from Napoleon complex, he has some good points but is, comes across as soulless, heartless, bureaucrat who is concerned only with climbing the ladder and abusing his power. Despite a shocking display of cruelty in the presence of his superiors towards a helpless foreigner, Dixon is promoted.  He toes the line.

The who is Michael Liffmann, food and beverage Manager at the Cape Grace. I’ve sat with Michael who said that he very happy that he can get more people into the Bascule. He is proud of his progress towards his goal – to change Bascule from a whisky bar towards a craft beer and cocktail bar.  His management skills have left staff complaining, privately, of course, about his conduct, accusing him of destroying the Bascule, with no regard to its history, denying the staff opportunities to improve their education, treating them like children and having no regard to improving the whisky offering to the clients.

Why?

I don’t know. I have no idea why the hotel would take a world-class whisky bar and change it to a sub-standard pickup joint.

The fix.

The Bascule can do nothing and allow itself to fade away, become a haven to the ladies of the night and descend further into whisky insignificance.

I hope it doesn’t. I hope that it makes a few changes.

  1. Bring back the comfortable seating.
  2. Make a designated, comfortable outdoor area for smokers. Cigar lovers don’t want to be huddled under umbrellas in the rain during winter or blown away by the Cape south-easter during summer.
  3. Make a special area for the members.
  4. Have regard to the views of the members.
  5. Give George, the manager proper authority. He has the support of the staff and members.
  6. Remove Liffmann from the decision making process. He does not enjoy the respect of the staff  or any of the members I’ve spoken with.
  7. Get rid of the hookers.

There are more things to do, but let’s do the main things first.

The future?

Some of my mates have lockers there, so I’ll still go. Good whisky, good company.  For the summer, I have leather armchairs at two bars in Cape Town; a deck-chair on the beach at another and bar stools with my name on them at others. I’ve made a point of getting around to new venues, and what a great journey its been.

And yes, I still plan to have a whisky there with my daughter when she turns 18. The Bascule will improve.  It must.

 

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27 Comments

  1. Hey Bernard. Good article – I too don’t go to Bascule very oftern anymore. I’ve started my own collection at home and turned a single garage into a whisky bar – around 100 so far and counting :-).

  2. Over the years I have had wonderful experiences at the Bascule.

    Soma and company ran a professional bar which sadly has deteriorated over the past years!

    I have visited many high class establishments in the City, there are no hookers to be found and very few tolerate hookers. Go to the One and Only…never a hooker in site.

    Secondly, I have sat at the Bascule and witnessed several service complaints from international visitors to our beautiful city. This is quite embarrassing.

    I recently entertained a seasoned City journalist at the Bascule, in the presence of at least six hookers. I won’t share his comments here.

    The other serious problem is that the band is allowed to drink while playing. This causes embarrassing situations. Is it a whiskey bar or a piss-up bar? The Liquor Board should seriously look at this….given that the walk way through the Waterfront is used by families with small children.

    On the closing much can be said. Again I reserve comment on the flood, especially during a very hot February and March! Secondly why does a so called profitable bar close for almost 3 months. Would a top business close for such a long period?

    I have no doubt the Cape Grace has excellent accountants and would have claimed for a loss of profits, including bottle sales to members. So why are members not receiving an extension?

  3. Wow!! I think I have been visiting the wrong Bascule at the Cape Grace (are there two?). Cant believe we are talking about the same bar. I have been coming to the Bascule for about 5 years because their selection and passion for whiskies is second to none. Other than the decor change I cant see a difference in service or standards. In fact I will go out on a limb and say that the service has become better in the last year and a half. Yes there are hookers for time to time. This you will find in every hotel bar in Cape Town. Its not nice to see but its there.

    I was slightly upset when you mentioned the manager by name because I have met Mike a few times and he has always been very welcoming and professional. Going after one man is a bit childish of you.

    I’m glad that Bascule is making money now, because at the end of the day its a business, not a charity.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed your experiences there. Each person will have their own opinion about service levels. Michael is the person responsible and after countless emails and meetings requesting him to fix things up, as well as input from various other sources, suppliers and so on, it became clear that the problem could be pinpointed to his involvement. It was only after much behind the scenes activity did I decide to name him. Look at the next comment to give you an idea of service levels. I hope you continue to enjoy your time at Bascule.

  4. Hey Bernardgutman, I came accross your blog whilst looking for a whisky tasting with Andy Watts, which I’m sorry to have missed. I agree with you, Bascule is the heart of whisky in Cape Town. I had a fab whisky tasting recently with Bradley, one of the managers, I have to admit his knowledge and passion were infectious. I find it hard to match your picture to my experience, and the sundown drinks on the patio are to die for in the summer. Just saying. Sharon

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Sharon. Sundowners are special and Bascule certainly has a fantastic setting. Bradley is great – he is assistant manager, George’s right hand and is a credit to whisky. He loves what he does and is very good at it. I still go to Bascule, but very seldom. I will continue to do so to meet my mates. But I really hope that things improve, dramatically. It used to be so much better. And the big problem of the hookers, remains. Enjoy the whisky journey – book another one with Brad. Kind regards

  5. Bernard, I am amazed by this uncalled for character assassination on Michael Liffmann. The Bascule bar remains one of the icons of whisky bars world-wide and will be there for a long, long time. The professionalism of Michael, George and the staff is amazing. Their passion for whisky is amazing. Their continued desire to be one of the best, if not the best whisky bar, is amazing. I am fortunate to be able to visit the best whisky bars in the world and I always feel that the Bascule is right up there with the best.
    Michael Liffmann was involved with the Bascule from the very beginning and was instrumental in making it the fine bar it is today. Michael was also involved in setting up Raleigh’s and making it another excellent whisky/Cigar bar. But you should already know that!
    I am also disappointed that cigar smoking has been moved outside, but that is happening all over the world, and our law makers will be making it worse soon, if they get their way.
    The Bascule has my wholehearted support, as do Michael, George and the excellent staff there.

    1. Hi Jonathan

      Thanks for the response. With respect – and I mean that in all sincerity, as I do value your extensive whisky knowledge gained over more than 25 years in the industry – your views cannot be regarded as unbiased and you are not properly informed.

      What you have to say must been seen against the background of your relationship with Bascule and your role in the industry. I understand you are indirectly a supplier of whisky to the Bascule, so there is a financial link between you and them. Secondly, we know that any gross misconduct by the whisky supplier in question at the Bascule is overlooked – swept into the ocean – as it were. Just this year there were two extremely serious incidents that went unpunished. But that is secondary.

      Most importantly I understand that you very rarely visit the Bascule, your international travels in the yeast business taking up your time. Because of that you have perhaps not seen what has happened. I have visited often, have spoken with many visitors and have been passed information from various people in the know.

      We can debate how good Bascule is or isn’t. We’re subjective. But forget about us.

      What’s important are the views of the average customer, people not in the industry, that just want to visit a whisky bar. What’s important, also, are the views of people who work there and rely on the income (including tips) to survive. These views expressed in public: here, on various forms of social media and privately, are insightful. They speak of tremendous problems with the staff, threats of mass dismissals, resignations and unwarranted disciplinary action against any staff members that voice an opinion contrary to Michael’s. They speak of the whisky culture of Bascule being ignored.

      Perhaps, with your experience of whisky bars around the world you can guide the Bascule as to how to get rid of one of the main problems – the prostitutes. All I have heard are complaints from the public. Not one solution has been offered. What do you suggest?

      Michael, in the early years, was a credit to the F & B environment. Yes, he played a part in starting Bascule and Raleigh’s. But, so what? When past good work is brought up as an excuse for present behaviour, it does not wash. One cannot let past success be hauled out as an excuse for what he has done now. The staff complain bitterly, despairingly, about Michael.

      The Bascule may have your support, as you have theirs.

      But you don’t go there often for a whisky.

      You don’t rely on a salary from there to feed your family.
      The hookers don’t accost you when you are there.

      Please, I implore you, listen to the complaints.

      And help.

  6. Good for you for raising these issues Bernard. It is very sad that this venue is on its way down, if it hasn’t reached the bottom yet. As you say, there is always hope that sanity will prevail and management will take a good hard look at whats changed and why. Unless their revenue is up and they don’t care who is paying the bills, then it’ll be a time for a rendition of “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end.”

  7. Eish! Where to now for the launch and tasting of the new Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select?

    1. Hi Russell. I’m sure the launch will still take place at Bascule. It makes sense to have it there as George, who will probably present the new Sinatra Select, manages Bascule as well. I am keen to try the new release – looks very interesting.

  8. Very sad. There are changes coming in the way the whisky industry is driven, from the suppliers to the retailers and whisky bars. The old guard is being replaced by those with a raw passion for whisky, some of whom you mention in your article. The Bascule for me was always an experience, a place to savour a good whisky and chat to the bar staff who, in my opinion, were very knowledgeable. It seems revenue growth is being over-emphasised, at the expense of loyalty. I’m sure this article has the management at Bascule thinking – let’s hope so.

    1. It was a great place, Steve. When I chat with people about your place, Wild about Whisky, while they are impressed about the number of whiskies (how many now?) what they remember is the knowledge and passion of you and your partners. That is what they take away. The response from the Cape Grace emphasises the number of whiskies and increase in revenue. It misses the point, completely.

  9. Thank you for this. My girlfriends and I have been going to The Bascule for years. We’ve also witnessed men being scammed by hookers. We’ve seen them order bottles of wine and shove these into their handbags.

    This surprised me, as any alcohol that’s ordered in an establishment has to be opened by your waitron.

    It’s a shame to see this happen. More importantly, the hookers do tend to intimidate female clientele as well.

    1. The surprising thing, Natalie, is that the Bascule has got very good CCTV security. The fact that nothing seems to have happened to the hookers is very worrying. One wonders why Cape Grace has not dealt with this problem.

    2. Natalie, I received a facebook message from someone whose identity I will keep private. I will say that he is one of the foremost authorities in the world on hospitality.

      “Greetings Bernhard, heavy article to write, heavier to read but the truth carries the most weight. I am so sad as to where the place has been allowed to fall to. The people, the heritage and the reputation are being destroyed with such fierce force. Hope your words were taken positively and the correct changes made of which I agree with all of them. So sad. So bloody sad!!! Staff are wonderful but under valued, over dictated to and the soul has escaped a Cape Town gem. Kind regards (name withheld)

  10. Very insightful article Bernard, I must agree with Theresa. It became a home from home for me as well, but after my visit there last Wednesday and only approximately 20 people in attendance with live music, the place has certainly lost its appeal. Very sad indeed yet I trust it can be resurrected to it’s former glory.

  11. Cape Grace and its Food and Beverage outlets remain world class and continues to achieve global accolades.

    Bascule is home to one of the largest whisky collections in the Southern Hemisphere and continues to attract discerning international and local patrons. Since the refurbishment Bascule has delivered substantial revenue growth with a 20% increase in Whisky sales alone, boasting a menu showcasing over 520 whiskies from around the world.

    We strive to meet and exceed the expectations of our guests and partners and receive tremendous support from our suppliers and Whisky members, with new memberships being signed up on a weekly basis.

    Cape Grace places high value on staff motivation and engagement which is key to the success of the hotel and our F&B outlets.

    1. Thanks very much for your comments, Philma. I appreciate your input. Regrettably, what you say is not correct.

      I enjoy the Cape Grace, I really do. But Bascule has lost its way. It has a lot of whisky – so what. What matters more than the quantity of bottles on the shelves is the passion and knowledge behind the bar. It can no longer quote the number of whisky bottles on the shelves as sign of the quality of the bar. It has to compete on knowledge of the products. And there it fails, dismally.

      Your whisky sales and membership sales have been driven by membership to students, who take a membership, share it amongst a large group and drink themselves to oblivion. Maybe the numbers have grown – but that is artificial growth. Look at the quality of the offering. Speak to the service staff, who complain about the lack of tips from the new members that abuse their membership.

      You have remained silent about the prostitutes. You can see from the comments posted that this is a serious problem. Please – deal with it. I’ve sent many emails to your management pleading with them to sort out this problem. All I get is silence.

      Please, Philma – don’t rely on the usual PR speak. Sort out the problems.

      Kindest regards

      Bernard

      1. Johan, I agree that the CG response was lacking in substance. I am still waiting for a detailed response from Ms Gomes after her blanket denial here and on twitter. However, I hear that things are moving positively and there will be some changes. I’ll let you know once I have something concrete. I am hopeful that the CG will take heed of the comments from the public and customers and deal with the problems.

  12. I am so glad you wrote this Bernard! I completely agree with every word you wrote,
    I hope they take this seriously and sort improve soon before its too late! (Which I think it is already)

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