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Will ‘rapid ageing’ of whisky become generally acceptable?

‘In South Africa those techniques won’t work because our legislation requires a three-year ageing period’ – Hendre’ Barnard of Distillique.

SIMON BROWN: I should disclose upfront that I am a whisky drinker. It is my preferred drink, and I’m chatting with Hendre’ Barnard. He is the marketing manager at Distillique. Hendre’, I appreciate your time. An article I read during the week out of FT, if I recall correctly, talks around instant ageing of whisky using heat or light, or some people are even looking at using sound – in other words, instead of waiting 20 years for a 20-year-old whisky, probably doing it in a year or two. Is this something which the whisky industry looks at askance and says, “This is not the way it should be, or has been done for the last 500 years”?

HENDRE’ BARNARD: Well, Simon, the thing that you have to understand is there’s a difference between ageing and wooding. Now, if we look at these techniques that the guys are applying for ‘rapids’, what they call rapid ageing, most of it is actually just rapid wooding, like increasing the absorption of flavour and colour and taste and so forth from the actual wood in the barrel. But ageing is something completely different. Ageing is where the components that are absorbed from the barrel, as well as the components left over in the distiller after the distillation run …. actually mature or change over time – mostly through oxidation. But there are other interactions like esterification and so forth that also take place. 

Now, any chemical reaction can be rushed. If I could make a simple example, if you are dissolving sugar and water and you pour it in the glass, it’s just going to sit in the bottom and a little bit is going to dissolve. But if you stir it, you agitate it, it dissolves faster; if you heat the water it dissolves even faster. You can do that with any chemical reaction. What these guys are doing with the agitation, with the sound, with the light, with microwaves, with oxygenation and so forth, is they’re trying to change the variables of the reaction to speed it up. 

The problem is when you do that you can do it to the benefit of one component but it will be to the detriment of another component. So it kind of depends on the market they are actually targeting because, to be honest, the general consumer very rarely can pick up the more subtle notes in a whisky, whereas a whisky connoisseur or somebody that really appreciates it, like yourself, will maybe pick up the subtle notes more clearly. A lot of these rapid ageing techniques, as I said, concentrate on the wooding aspect, which is the prominent note. It’s the top note. It’s the thing that most people will pick up and recognise. 

So the question becomes whether or not somebody would actually appreciate what they’re doing or not. To make a long story short though, in South Africa those techniques won’t work because our legislation requires a three-year ageing period.

So ‘rapid techniques’ have no space in the South African or the Scottish or the Irish markets. These techniques mostly originate in the United States, where there is no ageing requirement for most styles of [their] whiskey.

SIMON BROWN: I’m thinking, for example,  we have good old-fashioned white wine, and then we do a spritzer. Spritzer is kind of an offshoot. I’ve never had a spritzer and am probably not going to. It would be a different category almost entirely. Perhaps it would need a new name even, in a sense, if it started to gain traction.

HENDRE’ BARNARD: Well, the thing is, whether it’s going to get traction or not is going to depend on whether we change the legislation or not because, if we take South Africa’s markets specifically now, that product would be completely illegal in South Africa. We already have a situation where there are American brands on the shelves in South Africa made in this manner, or maybe just aged for two years. They are being sold in South Africa, although that product is illegal in South Africa because to sell in the country you have to comply to the legislation of the country. So if it wasn’t aged for three years it shouldn’t be on the South African shelves. 

Now, this is already creating a situation where local producers, especially small craft producers, would love to put a whisky on the market but they can’t because they cannot afford to wait for three years to have the product ready. But now you’re allowing foreign products on the shelves that are not applying to the same rules, and that disparity is creating a lot of friction at the moment. Guys are having to resort to barrel investors and so forth just to get the product in the barrels so they can sell it in three years, but you’ve got a competitor in the USA, [who] one month after production suddenly his product is on the shelf in South Africa. 

So, unless we get the law changed now, that market will never get the opportunity to grow. Not in the terms of whisky or brandy; rum is a different story.

The rum craze is already starting in South Africa, and there is no ageing requirement in South Africa for rum. So a lot of the rum producers are already using these rapid techniques.

SIMON BROWN: I hear you on that. And in fact, I know someone down in KZN who’s trying to quickly make his own rum, and he’s doing it in weeks. That seems a bit wrong. 

A quick last personal question. Perhaps this is a vanity question for myself in a sense. When you’re having an everyday whisky, sitting on a Tuesday evening at home perhaps, and you want a whisky, what is your personal sort of go-to whisky…?

HENDRE’ BARNARD: Well I’m more a bourbon drinker. I’m not a big fan and have never really gone for the whole peakiness of the Scottish whiskies. I do enjoy the Irish whiskey for me personally; it’s a bit smoother. But I do prefer a Wild Turkey or something like that if it’s a commercial brand, a big brand. Those are the type of products that I prefer personally.

SIMON BROWN: We’ll leave it there. Hendre’ Barnard is the marketing manager at Distillique. 

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When the going gets tough

Now the elite anc cadres can order a “Triple Johnny Runner”, leaving more time for looting of our public purse and tenderpreneuring!

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