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Scotch lovers flock to whisky bars for unique experiences

There’s a tangible aura one experiences when walking into a top-notch whisky bar. The mirror-backed shelves that reflect bottle upon bottle of known, unknown and unique bottles of the amber liquid are complemented by décor and furniture that exude a sense of genteel sophistication.

Appearances can be deceiving, but there’s no doubt that an evening at a whisky bar is a very different experience from quaffing a few beers at the local Dros.

And South Africans seem to be loving the fact that they have a select few bars dedicated to Scotland’s greatest export. Not surprisingly, these bars are popping up in response to phenomenal growth in whisky consumption over the past 20 years.

Pierre Meintjes, known as Mr Whisky because of his vast experience and knowledge of the industry, says that, by 2016, South Africa had become the world’s fifth largest importer of Scotch whisky by volume and seventh by value.

“If you go back to the 1980s, the market had grown to around 2,5 million cases,” Meintjes said. “We were known as a mature market back then, which meant we weren’t expected to grow any further. Then, from around about 1994 onwards, suddenly the market just started flying. And it grew to where it is now — about 4.5 million cases a year.”

The bulk of this is obviously in Scotch blends, as well as single malts, while the rare whiskies make up a fraction of the total market.

It is this minority that the contemporary whisky bars cater to, offering patrons the opportunity to have a taste of a rare dram, or to learn more about certain whisky styles, brands or regions. Among these are favourites like The Glenlivet and Aberlour.

Meintjes says this educational and experimentation aspect is central to the role of a good whisky bar. Knowledgeable, well-trained staff are therefore crucial to introducing newcomers to the pleasure of single malt whisky, or expanding the universe of experienced drinkers.

The opportunity to tick off tasting a very rare, and therefore expensive, whisky is definitely one of the reasons these specialised bars are eagerly frequented by lovers of the amber liquid.

‘This is central to the appeal of proper whisky bars,’ said Keval Ramraj, brand manager for The Glenlivet.

The leading bars tap into this with special tastings around themes or distilleries, or they offer early access to new releases and have created whisky clubs that offer members exclusive benefits.

“The rise in whisky bars has come about due to the demand for unique spaces by whisky consumers, for them to connect and network,” Ramraj said.

And it’s an opportunity that custodians of popular brands don’t want to miss out on.

“Whisky drinkers know and appreciate the quality and taste that they can expect from The Glenlivet range, and are passionate about the brand,” Ramraj said. “They are inspired by the story of The Glenlivet and tend to become brand advocates, recommending it widely to their friends and family.”

“The Glenlivet offers whisky lovers an experience to taste the definitive single malt: The single malt that inspired an entire whisky making region — Speyside in Scotland. It is a whisky that is universally known as the quintessential single malt against which all other single malts are measured,” he said.

Ramraj believes the future of whisky bars in South Africa is secure, given broad market demand for whiskies of all descriptions.

Add to that the experimentation that comes from exploring new drinks, and you have a recipe for success.

“Whisky bars tend to be the place where interesting whisky cocktails and blends breathe new life into the category as a whole. Therefore, I predict a strong increase in whisky bars as an integral part of this growth,” said Ramraj.

Our pick of top whisky bars

The Bascule Bar, Cape Town

The Bascule Bar

Where:

Cape Grace Hotel, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

Unique features:

Set between the popular V&A Waterfront and the marina, Bascule offers stunning views of Table Mountain.

For whisky lovers:

A whisky club offering special tastings, educational opportunities and member lockers in which to store their favourite Scotch.

Selection:

A living collection of +400 whiskies

A word from bar manager, Jayson Titus:

“I would say our biggest asset is our staff. Over the years a lot of members have asked for certain bar staff or waiters with whom they’ve built a rapport. We are constantly training our team to stay abreast of the latest trends and product knowledge.”

WhiskyBrother Bar, Johannesburg

WhiskyBrother Bar

Where:

Morningside Shopping Centre, Johannesburg

Unique features:

A dedicated, independent whisky bar offering possibly the largest selection of whiskies in the country.

For whisky lovers:

A treat for collectors and lovers of rare whiskies.  Whisky bar members enjoy exclusive tastings and events.

Selection:

+1 200 whiskies, with new additions weekly

A word from bar owner, Marc Pendlebury:

“We are a proudly dedicated whisky bar. This selection took years in the making, and more than half of these whiskies aren’t available in the country.”

The Chairman, Durban

The Chairman

Where:

146 Mahatma Gandhi Rd, Point, Durban

Unique features:

An exclusive venue that strives for the highest quality in all it does. The unique setup offers guests many cosy areas and lounges to enjoy themselves.

For whisky lovers:

An experience centred on exclusivity, quality and ambience that includes a 4m high whisky cabinet.

Selection:

+100 whiskies

A word from bar owner,Ndabo Langa:

“Our typical customer is someone who values quality, is probably laid back, mature and commands some kind of influence.”

Maxim Lounge, Sandton

Maxim Lounge

Where:

Davinci Hotel & Suites, Nelson Mandela Square, Sandton

Unique features:

Whisky lovers can buy a “keep” to store their favourite whiskies to consume at their leisure in the luxurious lounge.

For whisky lovers:

The World of Whisky journey that introduces guests through guided tastings to different whiskies from around the globe.

Selection:

+140 whiskies, added to monthly

A word from Davinci Hotel & Suites general manager Andrew van Hasselt:

“Guests are attracted by the fact that we are a hidden gem where they can enjoy privacy and discuss various business meetings and simply relax with a great whisky and cigar.”

Keval Ramraj THE Glenlivet Brand Manager
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