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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- Bring back the comfortable seating.
- 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.
- Make a special area for the members.
- Have regard to the views of the members.
- Give George, the manager proper authority. He has the support of the staff and members.
- 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.
- Get rid of the hookers.
There are more things to do, but let’s do the main things first.
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.