This is the first in a series of interviews with the people who will be presenting whisky master classes at the 2018 Whisky & Spirits Live Festival being held in Johannesburg from 31 Oct – 2 Nov. Consider it a primer for the actual master class itself!
First up is Robert Gray…
WTF: Hi Robert, can you give my readers a bit of background into who you are, how you got into whisky and what your role is currently in the industry?
RG: Hello Mark, my Name is Robert Gray. I am the national brand ambassador for the Moet Hennessy Portfolio here in Southern Africa. I look after Hennessy Cognac, Belvedere Vodka, 5 Champagnes namely Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Krug, Ruinart and of course the Beauty of Glenmorangie and the Beast of Ardbeg. Every now on and then I have to pinch myself… I look after amazing brands. My main role is to educate both external (Barmen) and Internal staff (Sales Reps). I also represent the brand during tastings.
I have been in the drinks business since 2008. I started out as a coffee barista in my early teens. When I was old enough to sell Alcohol legally I started helping out occasionally at one of the top restaurants in Mpumalanga. Funny, I had actually studied to be a Real Estate agent and a Pilot.
In 2014 Ardbeg released Ardbeg Auriverdes in Dullstroom at what can only be described as a whisky lover’s heaven, Wild about Whisky. (WTF: I heartily agree! Read about one of my trips to Wild About Whisky and you’ll be wanting to go too.) Dave Gunns had asked me if I could help out on Ardbeg Day and from this day onwards I was hooked on Whisky. I was offered a more permanent job and it is safe to say that this was one of the best moves that I ever made as there was no better Whisky (School?) Bar at the time and still remains on top of their game with over 1600 Whiskies at last count. In 2017 Wild about Whisky took me to Scotland where we managed to organise a short stint where I worked in the Warehouse and even made my own Wash (single malt beer before distillation). A trip of a lifetime!
I started working for Moet Hennessy and rgbc at the end of 2017 and after over a year of working for the company I can confidently say that I have not worked a single day. It has been such a pleasure!
WTF: How popular are Ardbeg and Glenmorangie in South Africa? What is the target market?
RG: Glenmorangie remains one of the top selling single malt whiskies in South Africa. Globally it is the 4th best-selling single malt whisky. This brand is targeted at a wide audience of consumers from the new whisky lover with the likes of Glenmorangie Original through to the seasoned whisky consumer where Glenmorangie Signet, possibly one of the most complex whiskies available, holds its own.
Ardbeg is one of the most loved peated single malt whiskies in South Africa. Anyone who has tried a peated whisky knows that it might not be for everyone but it honestly is just a matter of time until a whisky like Ardbeg grips you and then there’s no turning back!
WTF: Can you give us a brief overview of the Ardbeg and Glenmorangie expressions currently available in South Africa?
RG: Sure thing, here goes:
- Glenmorangie Original – Elegantly matured in American Oak for 10 years. Think peaches and oranges.
- Glenmorangie Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar D’Or – These Whiskies started life very much like Glenmorangie Original. The difference being that they’ve been extra matured in different types of barrels for an extra 2 years. It is key to remember that roughly 70% of the key characteristics in whisky come from the barrel.
- Lasanta – 2 years further maturation in Pedro Ximenez & Olorosso Sherry butts. This tends to create a spicier whisky but still has the Glenmorangie character at heart.
- Quinta Ruban – 2 Years further maturation in Ruby Port Pipes. This gives the whisky a breath-taking colour and a phenomenal taste of mint and chocolate.
- Nectar D’Or – Further matured for 2 years in Sauternes bariques. This is a very rare French dessert wine. To make matters even more special, we require these barrels/bariques to have held at least 6 vintages of the prestigious wine.
- Glenmorangie Extremely Rare – Matured in American oak for 15 years and then finished of in sherry barrels for 3 years. It really does taste like more!
- Glenmorangie Signet – Made using a portion of chocolate (Roasted) barley, matured in bespoke oak casks that only come from the north facing slopes in Missouri where the Trees will get slightly less sun, ensuring a slower growth, which means a denser oak and provides us with more characteristics from the wood.
- Glenmorangie Grand Vintage 1989 – Currently available in very limited quantities. comprises select parcels of 1989’s spirit, skilfully finished in a handful of highly sought-after casks – the most prestigious of which once contained Côte-Rôtie wines
- Ardbeg 10 – Skilfully matured in American oak for 10 years. Heavily peated to 55 Phenolic Parts per Million.
- Ardbeg An Oa – Matured in a variety of barrels. Named after the mull of Oa which protects the isle of Islay from storms and harsh weather.
- Ardbeg Uigeadail – Goodness gracious me! I don’t think words can describe what is going on here. Even Jim Murray, the author of Whisky Bible has a hard time accurately describing the sensation of this whisky. He did however rate it as 97.5/100. The highest rating ever achieved by a whisky. Named after our water source, bottled at 54,2% ABV. AMAZING! (WTF: Uigeadail is the holy trinity of whisky for me: peat, sherry and (almost) cask strength, all rolled into one. Love it!)
- Ardbeg Corryvreckan – Another peat lovers’ favourite. Bottled at 57,1% ABV. Named after the worlds 3rd largest whirl pool found near the distillery. Beautifully balanced with a distinctive peppery mid palate.
WTF: Check out my Ardbeg Uigeadail vs Corryvreckan head-to-head review and let me know if you agree or disagree with my conclusion.
WTF: Is this range going to be expanded upon locally?
RG: The core range will remain in South Africa for years to come however, once a year and usually in the first quarter Glenmorangie will release their private edition. This year we released Glenmorangie Spios which is our 9th release. Spios means spicy, a fitting name for this Glenmorangie. In 2019 we will be launching the 10th release.
Ardbeg also release their own limited-edition whisky every year usually at the end of June/Beginning of May. This year we launched Ardbeg Grooves which was part matured in our grooviest casks yet still dripping with wine from the previous use.
By becoming an Ardbeg committee member, you will always be kept in the loop and be the first to know about these new limited editions. To become a member simply sign up on our Ardbeg website.
WTF: What is your favourite Ardbeg and Glenmorangie expression and why?
RG: My personal favourite whiskies in the permanent range are the following:
- Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban – I think that this whisky is so well priced for what you get. It is non-chill filtered at 46% ABV and matured in my favourite type of barrel, a port pipe. This colour of this whisky never seizes to impress. The palate of a silky, mint chocolate is the perfect flavour for both sitting around the campfire as well as a stress reliever after a long day.
- Ardbeg Uigeadail – I love cask strength whiskies, I love peat and I love sherry. They are very few whiskies that have this combination. They are no whiskies that have all 3 components and yet is still be so unbelievably well balanced. Ardbeg Uigeadail kick-started my love for whisky and has kept that love burning so effortlessly.
WTF: What can we expect from your master classes at Whisky Live?
RG: At the master class we will be comparing the beauty of Glenmorangie’s tall stills to the beast of Islay’s untamed spirit, Ardbeg. Expect to have an in-depth conversation on what a whisky is and how we make our whisky taste so damn good!
Robert’s master class takes place on Thurs 1st Nov at 20:15. To book, head on over to www.ticketpros.co.za and search for “Glenmorangie vs Ardbeg”. Tickets cost R160.
WTF: Are you bringing any special whiskies along with you? Those secretive, “under the counter” drams?
RG: This year at whisky live we want to focus on our core range of whiskies because we believe that they’re unnecessarily well made. Upon occasion I do whisky tastings for clubs with some really special and rare stuff. If you or your readers would ever like to do a tasting please let me know.
WTF: Any tips for people new to whisky, or something the seasoned whisky drinker may not know about Ardbeg/Glenmorangie?
RG: To the new whisky consumer, I would like to say welcome to the unbelievable world of Whisky and remember if you ever find a burning sensation whilst drinking whisky, do not fight it, embrace it as this is the taste of your soul busy healing!
To the seasoned whisky drinker, I often used to wonder what happened to the expensive barrels after distilleries have used them. At Glenmorangie this is particularly important as we only use these barrels twice to ensure maximum flavour in our whisky. Once our barrels have been used we turn them into useful things like sunglasses, bicycles or even a surfboard. Pop into the WhiskyBrother Bar in Morningside, Johannesburg and have a look at our bicycle that is made exclusively using oak staves from our barrels. #BeyondTheCask
WTF: Thanks for your time Robert, I look forward to catching up with you at the show!
RG: Thanks Mark, see you there!
Read more 2018 Whisky Live WTF Insider Interviews
Insider Interview #1: Robert Gray
Insider Interview #2: Georgie Bell
Insider Interview #3: Michael D’Souza
Insider Interview #4: Kaitlyn Tsai
Insider Interview #5: Kevin Liu