Whisky connoisseur Saverio Cardillo. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Whisky connoisseur Saverio Cardillo. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

In a quaint little Johannesburg restaurant at the heart of Parkhurst’s bustling 4th Avenue, the walls are lined with bottles of whisky. You might miss it at first glance, but as you look closer you’re transported into a Willy Wonka-esque world of rare and unusual whiskies from across the world.

Whether you’re a connoisseur or a novice, you’ll be drawn in by Bottega owner Saverio Cardillo’s passion and his live catalogue of unusual whiskies.

As he reminisces about whiskies he’s tried over the years and lists his favourites — all dependent on his mood, of course — his explanations have the smooth finish of an 18-year-old Scotch that’s matured to perfection.

Cardillo’s obsession with whisky began about eight years ago and, just like the magic of Willy Wonka’s factory, his collection of more than 600 malts will impress even if you aren’t particularly a whisky lover.

"I just started drinking single malts and enjoying them and then I became curious and started diversifying with as many regions and ingredients as I could find," he says. "The fundamentals are so simple yet the tastes so diverse. I started broadening my horizons and tasting more and then I started buying more and more whiskies."

A lot of people just collect the [whisky] as an investment, but if I pay for it I’m going to drink it. I definitely don’t want to die not tasting it if I’ve bought it
Saverio Cardillo

People are understandably overwhelmed by whisky. Figuring out whether it’s spelt whisky or whiskey; choosing between Scotch or bourbon; deciphering the differences between single malt, double malt, twice distilled, triple distilled, Irish, Scottish or Japanese ... It’s a daunting task to join the ranks of seasoned whisky drinkers.

Cardillo takes the edge off with his whisky club and private tastings.

"I love sharing with people my knowledge and my experiences," he says.

"I never say there’s a bad whisky — it’s entirely on your palate. There’s nothing wrong with Johnnie Walker, but there is life after Johnnie Walker," he says quite seriously.

An expensive taste: The Port Ellen 37 Year Old Distilled 1979 is priced at R49,995 a bottle
An expensive taste: The Port Ellen 37 Year Old Distilled 1979 is priced at R49,995 a bottle

Cardillo’s club has 1,800 members, from 18-year-olds excited to show off to their friends to 80-year-old collectors. He has created the perfect platform for anyone curious about whisky — the club deals in whiskies ranging from R170 to R34,000, and Cardillo facilitates the tastings, trading and sourcing of premium whiskies.

"The R34,000 ones are a lot harder to sell, but you get niche collectors," he says. "A lot of people just collect the bottles as an investment, but if I pay for it I’m going to drink it. I definitely don’t want to die not tasting it if I’ve bought it."

With trade starting in the tens of thousands of rand for particularly rare bottles, whisky has transcended from being an after-work drink or Christmas favourite to an asset. And, as the popularity of the drink and the thirst for investment grow, whisky clubs and events are gaining ground around SA — and the figures are staggering.

Acquiring the taste

Whether it be whisky aficionados or 20-somethings looking for an all-you-can-drink challenge with a fun twist, Whisky Live’s annual Whisky & Spirits Live event at the Sandton Convention Centre has become something of a pilgrimage. The big drawcard is the collection of premium whiskies available and the opportunity to taste them.

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

Whisky Live started in 2002 in a small marquee at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Founders Karen Chaloner and Sian Neubert had a passion for whisky and brought a number of brands together under one roof to educate consumers. The company today hosts whisky events in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, in addition to the Johannesburg festival.

Amid the tastings and experiences — and far removed from the average bottle you’d find at the corner bottle store or the airport duty-free shop — you could happen upon the likes of Diageo’s special releases, individually numbered limited-release investment whiskies.

At last week’s Whisky & Spirits Live, the Port Ellen 37 Year Old Distilled 1979, bottled at 51% alcohol by volume (ABV), was the most expensive on offer, at R49,995 a bottle.

"It’s also the most expensive of Diageo’s special releases yet, now in their 17th year, as the distillery has been closed since 1983," say Whisky Live co-owners Ken Varejes and John Cook.

Setting the scene: The Transvaal Scottish band performs at Johannesburg’s Whisky & Spirits Live festival. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Setting the scene: The Transvaal Scottish band performs at Johannesburg’s Whisky & Spirits Live festival. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

At R28,000, the second-most expensive was the Brora 34 Year Old Distilled 1982, bottled at 51.9% ABV, while the Convalmore 32 Year Old Distilled 1984, bottled at 48.2% ABV, was the third-most expensive at R15,000.

"Given that SA is in the top 10 export markets by volume for Scotch whisky globally, as well as our rising middle class, the whisky explosion that we’re seeing is supported by events like Whisky & Spirits Live that drive the growth of the entire whisky category," say Varejes and Cook.

"Exhibitors recognise the event as a platform to educate consumers, allow them to taste before purchasing — which is key when a bottle can cost from a few hundred to thousands of rand — and display their brand intrinsics through experiential marketing at their stands."

From Dewar’s Fine Whisky Emporium, which brings together John Dewar’s love of chickens and fine whisky in a quirky stand, to blending your own whisky at the Three Ships micro-distillery or designing your own jar at the Consol stand, the festival has turned tasting and trading whisky into an immersive experience and bridged the gap between the Cardillos of the world and the novices.

"The highlight has been that [Whisky & Spirits Live is] still in the running to remain the world’s largest whisky festival based on attendance. With over 10,000 people through the doors over the three nights of the event, South Africans consistently prove their thirst for knowledge by coming out in their numbers to support the event," say Varejes and Cook. "Whisky Live is a global franchise and our biggest competitor for this title is France."

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

Among the big names on display this year were local whisky Three Ships, which is becoming a firm international favourite and competing with the big guns.

Three Ships master distiller Andy Watts says: "The romance, the stories, the intrigue of raw materials spending a period of maturation in casks to make the end whisky capture the interest of so many.

"The limited-edition Three Ships 15 Year Old Pinotage Cask Finish, retailing for R1,500, is our most expensive whisky. There are only a couple of hundred bottles left of the original 3,500 launched and the interest has been incredible. This whisky is a world and SA first — finished in a cask previously used for the maturation of pinotage, the unique SA wine cultivar cloned in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold.

"Many people have also taken to the investment potential of our products. Many buy these limited editions in threes: one to keep, one to drink and one to resell in a few years. When we launched SA’s first single malt in 2003 it retailed at the time for R125. The current resale value could be as high as R10,000 per bottle."

More than just a fad or a drink for a toast with business partners, whisky is tempting taste buds and investment portfolios alike.

menons@businesslive.co.za

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