Popular tipple: About 10,000 people attend the three-day Whisky & Spirits Live festival each year. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Popular tipple: About 10,000 people attend the three-day Whisky & Spirits Live festival each year. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

You can almost accurately read the foot traffic at whisky-tasting shows like the recent Whisky & Spirits Live Festival: the well-heeled captains of industry, who would have come straight from the office, usually target two or three stands. While there, they will knock themselves out asking a bunch of questions so the rest of us mere mortals struggle to get a look-in. Their female companions, usually dressed to the nines, will inevitably desert them to spend time in the gin corner.

“From 2016 to 2017 the bourbon category grew by 45%. The consumption habits have certainly changed
Lauren Penny, Sazerac Bourbons brand ambassador

The mere mortals, on the other hand, will go about tasting indiscriminately. Naturally, they make the biggest contribution to the racket in the premises, often drinking themselves to exhaustion. They get red in the face and invariably Uber home after the event.

In short, women throng the gin stalls, silver-tongued executives opt for the Scotch corner, while the rest of us amble around sampling anything that is thrust our way.

The bourbon stalls at the recent Whisky & Spirits Live Festival were relatively quiet, but that doesn’t mean the tipple isn’t quietly worming its way into the hearts of SA drinkers.

“The consumption habits have changed over the years and numbers are looking pretty good,” Sazerac Bourbons brand ambassador Lauren Penny says.

“From 2016 to 2017 the bourbon category grew by 45%. The consumption habits have certainly changed. People are starting to ask questions about what they are drinking.

“It’s not about just ordering any brand that’s available. Consumers are getting intrigued and wanting to know more. It’s exactly what we want people to do. It’s an amazing opportunity for the bourbon brand.”

For Penny, the major difference between bourbon and Scotch has to do with the taste. “Bourbon is classically sweet, and that’s got a lot to do with its basic ingredient being corn. So it’s similar to whisky in style but it’s got a beautiful soft sweetness to it.

“What’s more, it’s cheaper compared to some of the Scotch brands, so you won’t break the bank. It’s affordable and versatile at the same time.”

By law, bourbon has to have a mash bill with at least 51% maize. Once the mash bill criterion is met, the barrel-ageing process begins — to qualify as a bourbon, it has to be aged in a charred white oak barrel.

The other criteria is that bourbon has to be made in the US. It is believed Kentucky is the home of bourbon. The same way France has laws about how and where wine is produced, bourbon has legislation and practices that control its production. The laws enable the drinker to know they are purchasing a genuine product.

Bourbon made outside of the US wouldn’t be classified as bourbon, Penny says. “It would just be an American style. Bain [SA whisky brand] has got a very similar bourbon style to it but it can’t be classified as bourbon because it has to be made in the US to be called bourbon.”

Bourbon is bottled at between 33% and 45% alcohol by volume. In rare cases, it is also bottled at 47% alcohol by volume. Scotch is usually bottled at 40% or 43% alcohol by volume, though numbers such as 46% and 57% can also be found.

In SA, bourbon has been a hit with fans of classic cocktails, Penny says. “A lot of people are enjoying classic cocktails. The fortunate thing about the classic cocktails is that a lot of them were made with bourbon because they were pioneered in the States. South Africans gravitate towards bourbon for its sweetness.”

How is it meant to be enjoyed? I ask.

“You should enjoy it the way you want to enjoy it,” Penny says. “Classically bourbon is enjoyed straight-up, you know just like that, or with soda. It depends on your personal preferences. I always drink it straight-up or on the rocks.”

With increased advertising and education, bourbon’s popularity is bound to increase, she says. “South Africans seem to be overly exposed to Scotch, and it’s with reason. The Europeans are the pioneers of the whisky category. What a lot of people don’t know is that bourbon distillers started popping up in the US from the early 1700s, when the Europeans landed on the continent.

“Bourbon has just not really been advertised enough and educated enough across South Africa for people to actually understand how deep-rooted that category is.”