Stepping into WhiskyBrother, one of South Africa's only specialised whisky stores, is like crossing into a Scottish maturation house. The temperature drops, it's darker than the hyper-polished, shiny-white Hyde Park Corner it's nestled in, and it's quiet. The hundreds of shelved bottles have a presence of their own, a heavy dark consciousness that permeates the air. Nothing in here should be mixed with a Coke.
Marc Pendlebury (32) started the niche store 15 months ago. "I was unhappy at work and, instead of finding a new job in corporate, I decided to follow my dream," he says. "I was spending a fair amount of my salary on whisky and knew a few guys doing the same, and we were all feeling miserable together at the current offering of what's locally available."
And so, four years after Pendlebury started his blog WhiskyBrother, the store was born.
It shelves Scottish whiskies (a South African favourite) but also bottles from Ireland, the United States and Japan. It was designed to mimic a maturation warehouse. Says Pendlebury: "I wanted to keep it a bit colder with a stone floor, and I included a lot of the materials used in making whisky, like copper, oak and casks."
The whisky tastings Pendlebury offers some evenings are booked out weeks in advance, an indication of the rising popularity of the drink and the need many South Africans feel not only to imbibe the good stuff, but also to understand the history and know what's in each bottle. And it's pricey: compared with a R20 wine tasting at Fairview Wine Farm, WhiskyBrother sells a ticket for six whiskies at R250.
And people are willing to pay – globally more whisky is being consumed now than ever before, says Pendlebury. "With the emerging middle class in South Africa and the world we're seeing an emphasis on craft, on quality and on niche products. There's a certain discernment and an appreciation of quality. People don't want to settle for what's generic and what's high volume anymore."
That is certainly the case with the so-called "water of life". Pendlebury has sold a handful of whiskies in the R50 000 range, and has himself drunk from a R260 000 bottle.
The price is based on a number of factors, but the most pertinent one is rarity. Some only release a handful of bottles globally – below 100 – and people will buy them for reasons ranging from ego to the sheer joy of the drink.
"Whisky should be judged on your enjoyment of it, and the flavours you get," says Pendlebury, "but if you abstract slightly more, whisky is also about how it got in your bottle, how long did it take, who was involved. When it comes to tasting notes even the type of oak used to make the barrel becomes a factor."
Some whiskies take 30 years to mature, and it's astonishing to think that "the whisky has been just quietly sitting there maturing while the rest of the word changes and wars get waged and the cycle of life continues," Pendlebury muses. "There's a magic there."
Marc Pendlebury: 011 325 6261, [email protected]