Whisky business

‘After working in distilleries for 40 years, my apprenticeship is almost over,’ says Ian Macmillan, master blender for Burn Stewart Distillers, with a wink.

As a lad,Ian turned a summer job at Glengoyne Distillery into a career, one that’s seen him explore the planet’s whisky reserves. I’ve managed to track him down using cunning investigative techniques: he’s at SA’s largest whisky bar, Bascule at the Cape Grace hotel, having just finished a tasting of Bunnahabhain single malt.

Stocking well over 400 different types of whisky, there’s one to suit every palate. There are whiskies from as far afield as Canada, India, France and Japan.

‘The Japanese tried to imitate Scotch whisky for years,’ says Ian. ‘They copied the stills, the casks; they even named an island where they made whisky “Scotland”.

‘It was also thought that the secret to good Scotch must be in the water, so they shipped in water from Scotland in huge tankers. And of course, by the time it got to Japan, the water was stagnant.’

‘But that was all a long time ago. These days Japanese whiskies have a distinct flavour profile. They can be gloriously fruity and rich.’

Ian says that he’s a true traditionalist and that master blenders should work their way up the way he did. ‘The saddest thing for me in the whisky industry,’ he says ‘is that in some well-known distilleries you don’t see people anymore, everything’s automated and that destroys the myth of what Scotch whisky is all about. Whisky may be made with just three ingredients (barley, yeast and water) but I believe there’s a fourth – people.’

Ian spent the first decade of his career moving fromdistilleryto distillery perfecting the craft of distilling Scotch whisky.

‘When I first started working at Glengoyne,’ Ian reminisces, ‘my parents said, “Oh lord, you’ll become an alcoholic”.’

What he did become, however, was a Keeper of the Quaich – a society dedicated to the promotion of Scotch whisky.

Two inductions into the society are held at Blair Castle in Scotland every year. Here, kilts are donned, songs are sung and a Quaich filled with Scotch is passed around the great, echoing ballroom.

‘The Quaich is two-handled for a reason – to separate friend from foe,’ says Ian. ‘If you pass it to someone and they don’t reach for it with both hands, this means they want to keep a hand free for the dagger in their sock…’

Experience a private tasting with Ian – using both hands of course – at the 2010 FNB Whisky Live Festival from 3 to 5 November at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and in Johannesburg from 10 to 12 Novemberat the Sandton Convention Centre.

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