The whisky industry is constantly changing. Now it’s the new world’s turn to reshape it.
Caracas, Venezuela, 2am Friday night. Pneumatic breasts and curves the like women’s magazines have abandoned long ago. The women can’t believe their looks and the men can’t believe their luck. I am in San Ignacio, the city’s main entertainment and shopping complex to the east of downtown, a collection of 17 (I am told) bars and clubs, and numerous shops. Apart from the sound of South American-accented Spanish in the air the clubs are like many others around the world: suited, brooding hulks on the door, music pounding to vibration level, and excited partygoers all dressed up and hoping to get the nod for entry.
But here the queue is not dipping in to its pockets to pay a cover charge. No, the currency of entry here is whisky. And to name drop, the preferred currency, the US dollar of Caracas club country, is Johnnie Walker Black (closely followed by Buchanan’s and Old Parr). You want to come in? Then order a bottle of Johnnie on the door. It’ll be delivered to your table with glasses, ice and water for the group. How civilised. There were seven of us so the entry price was two bottles.
A few days later, in a trendy Tex Mex restaurant in Puerto la Cruz, a five-hour drive north east of Caracas, a group of young women huddled around a bottle of Buchanan’s chatting. The food is spicy fajitas and burritos, the wallpaper is a black and gold Striding Man pattern.
It is fresh approaches to whisky, from countries unencumbered with how things should and shouldn’t be done, that will reshape the industry in the coming years. Slowly, slowly, the old rules will no longer apply.
Famously, in 2003, Diageo announced that it was the quantities drunk by the Spanish (and demands from the Johnnie Black blend) that led to single malt Cardhu becoming a vatted malt. It was a move that sparked furious discussions about standardising rules among members of the Scotch Whisky Association in the classification of whisky across the industry. Spain is Scotland’s biggest export market worth around £300 million a year, but it nevertheless still came as a surprise that one country’s consumption of one whisky could spark such a stir in the industry and get one famous whisky to change its years of history in a one fell swoop.
There would have been similar stirrings earlier this year across Scottish distillers at the news that Japanese whisky had been named the best in the world ahead of its more esteemed rivals. The international competition is organised by Whisky Magazine and has 16 industry experts involved in a blind tasting of more than 200 whiskies. Yoichi 20 Year Old, distilled on the shores of the Sea of Japan, won the single malt award – the first outside of Scotland to do so – while Suntory Hibiki distilled near Sapporo (of beer fame) picked up the best blend award. Exactly what changes were made as a result of the news is unknown but it would be a surprise if Japan’s honour didn’t cause more than just some Scottish head scratching.
So what does this all mean? Quite simply, the way the industry works is being shaped by the new world of drinkers. Whether it’s the way Venezuelans drink it, the amount of a particular single malt the Spanish drink or the success of the Japanese distillers, the main players in the game – Scotland, Ireland and the US have to sit up and take notice. And adapt.
It’s an industry that understands adaptability or it wouldn’t have thrived for hundreds of years. It knows how to survive and it knows how to change to survive. So is it ready for the next big wave of influence: India and China?
Shailendra Singh, is MD of Percept Ltd, an influential Mumbai marketing agency, and a man who mixes with cricket stars and former Miss World’s. He drinks whisky. I asked him what it was that drove India to become the biggest whisky market in the world.
“With a dynamic changing social scenario there is a growing chunk of singles and young couples with disposable and double incomes, and nuclear and split families in the city,” Singh explained. “The idea of entertaining out and loosening up with a crowd over a drink has found great popularity with the young upwardly mobile brigade.”
Mandeep Grewal, brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker and responsible for growing the brand in the British Asian market agrees. “Punjab state has the highest per capita whisky consumption in the world. Unfortunately, the whisky is consumed in high volumes with no knowledge about the product at all. Whisky brands just play a role in exhibiting the social status of the consumers.”
The same drive by status is also one that can be expected in China, and expect its significance in the industry to grow. John Lamond, Master of Malt, points out in his Global Report elsewhere in this book that exports into that market grew by 1030% between 2001 and 2006. The base off which it grew might be small, but growth like that cannot be ignored, nor fail to influence the industry.
There is a significant difference between the two markets, notably a thriving local whisky industry in India, protected it must be said by the huge tariffs imposed on imported spirits by the Indian government, which run into hundreds of percent. So a lot of the drive to the top has been due to successful Indian brands such as McDowell’s No.1, Signature, Bagpiper and Seagrams Blender’s Pride.
Singh, however, says the rich and famous still stick to international brands like Chivas Regal, The Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, and so on. (Although certain Indian premium whiskies like Royal Challenge & Antiquity are also popular among this crowd).
He also recognises an important factor that will influence both India and China significantly: the influence of immigrants from these countries.
“Jack Daniel’s is the most well-known American whiskey brand in the country today. The brand has capitalised on a youth appeal in relation to rock music to attract its target segment. This whisky has a number of Indians returning from the US as its brand ambassadors and evangelists, having experienced the product on home shores. Presently, bourbon sales are driven largely by Indians returning from the US.”
China, like India, has shown that its people can thrive across the world, yet continue to retain links with their home country. It’s an important factor in changing habits and in many ways importing beliefs on what carries status.
I’ve seen the effect easily enough myself. The influence of Canadians working in the Bermudan financial system means bars are full of cries of “[Canadian] Club and ginger.” Other visitors in turn import the drink back to wherever they come from. And so habits spread.
Then there is the influence of food (covered in Trend 3 in more detail). Curry is too broad a term for the cuisine of India and beyond but if whisky is seriously going to crack that market it simply has to become accepted as a drink that is good with its food.
In the UK, Kingfisher beer thrives thanks to the huge number of Indian restaurants. Cobra, it’s fair to say, was probably invented largely on the back of their existence. Trend 3 shows whisky can be a drink to pair with whisky and JW’s Grewal already sees the potential. “Whisky has a great potential in the UK restaurants, “ he says. “Success to me would be when restaurateurs would confidently recommend consumers different style of whiskies with variety of dishes. I believe that the future would be looking at specialist Asian cuisine rather that all the Indian food bundled into one word ‘curry’.”
Amrut Distilleries, an Indian company that uses barley grown in Punjab and Rajasthan, has already marketed its own single malt at Indian restaurants in Scotland, in a bid to follow the Kingfisher success. Who (and where) is next?
After many years, have whisky and food pairings finally come of age?
Let’s just say I was sceptical. When food and whisky pairings first hit popular street, I probably wasn’t alone in thinking it was just a marketing gimmick. There was just a little bit of ‘wine can do it so why not us?’ This goes with this, this goes with that and we sell more whisky. And, why not? Then a few years ago in Cape Town, whisky writer Dave Broom introduced me to the whisky and oyster combination, one of the more famous of the pairings. The iodine sea taste of the oyster really does go well with whisky. And damn good fun it was as well, as we downed the mollusc and dram as shots, one after another.
Whisky and food pairings have been around for a number of years although it is, of course, impossible to pinpoint exactly when it became ‘popular’. Craig Paterson , chef and owner of Cape Town’s Beluga Restaurant, says in South Africa it’s been in the last five years as drinkers have sought to find out more about whisky. American whiskies, it must be said, seem to have embraced whiskey-food combinations a lot more wholeheartedly than others and Jim Beam’s Scott ? boldly says, “Jim Beam has been an ingredient in both food and drink recipes for centuries.”
But it is Wendy Neave, the restaurant and events manager at the Amber restaurant in the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre in Edinburgh, who perceptively links the rise in pairings to the change in how people have approached their choice of ingredients that end up on their plate. “Whisky and food pairings seem to have come onto the scene within the past few years, perhaps at a time when there has been a renaissance is the appreciation of local seasonal cuisine,” she says. Sparked by environmental concerns about flying out-of-season produce around the world, and egged on by celebrity chefs promoting the idea, it is now de rigeur at dinner parties to present what’s fresh and available from where you live, not what’s being grown 24/7 in a greenhouse in New Zealand.
Which is the perfect boost for whisky and pairings. Whether your thing is fresh Scottish salmon with a 12 Year Old Speyside malt or hickory ribs with your bourbon, something feels inherently right about combinations that have obvious regional connections.
But there is still a long way to go before every Tom, Dick and Whisky Harry can reel off the names of their chosen dram and dish in the same way they do with “white wine with fish and red wine with meat.” Wine after all has got such a headstart in the game. As Neave says, “Wine has been the traditional accompaniment to food for a long time and changing attitudes is not easy. I would not say that matching whisky to food is widely accepted. Within the realms of enthusiasts and the industry it has now become the norm, but go into a restaurant on a Friday evening and everyone is still drinking wine with their meal. At Amber restaurant we have more success than most in encouraging people to try a whisky with their meal, but this tend to be with cheese or dessert following wine with the main course.”
But there are enough signs that this is no longer a novelty. Beluga is one of many restaurants that hold regular whisky dinners, mainly in association with the whisky companies granted. And in the UK, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (SMWS) pairing evenings have become famous for innovation, with evenings that have matched game, curry and even chocolate at not only their venues in Edinburgh and London, but many other cities including Durham, Liverpool, Manchester, Derby, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea and Belfast. With branches worldwide, you can also take your pick from sushi in Osaka, Christmas dinner in Melbourne, a grill party in Zurich and tapas in Stockholm.
And the Americans, oh the Americans, we can always rely on them to change things at pace. Their style could be described more as whisky-food integration than pairings. Of course it’s not uncommon to use Scotch in recipes but it’s the American distillers who have gone a step further. Visit the popular restaurant chain TGI Fridays and you’ll find a range of Jack meals in the section called Jack’s Grill (JD’s Chicken, JD’s Ribs and Shrimp and so on) as well as a JD’s barbeque sauce among others. And it all makes sense really, after all, who doesn’t think of barbeques and Jack when they think of the US?
And it’s the American industry’s enthusiasm that probably gives whisky pairings its greatest boost. Scott ? says “We [at Jim Beam] always encourage experimentation with food, just like with our bourbons. Fred Noe, seventh generation Beam family distiller, would say that if you make a face when you drink it, you should try cutting it with a bit of fresh water or a mixer. I haven’t seen many bourbon recipes for delicate [white] fish, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t been done or at least attempted. I can envision some spicy prawn or scallop recipes though… might have to try that tonight!”
It is attitudes like that which open up markets; and Jim Beam have backed their words. In 2004 Thanasi Foods announced the release of Jim Beam Soaked Sunflower Seeds, a snack product soaked in the whiskey and available in three flavours; Original, Barbeque, and Jalapeño. Later that year the company added Jim Beam Soaked Beef Jerky to the range. Jim Beam also has a licensing agreement with Vita Food Products to manufacture and sell Jim Beam barbeque sauces, marinades, mustards, steak sauces, hot sauce, wing sauce, pancake syrup and glazes. Vita also produces a range of Jim Beam hot smoked and fresh, marinated salmon. Another company, Top Shelf Gourmet, specialises in Jim Beam bourbon-infused fresh pork and poultry products, including Jim Beam Bourbon Barrel Ham, Pulled Pork, and Pulled Chicken. And Bradley Smoker produces a line of smoking briquettes made from actual Jim Beam Barrels, and Jim Beam branded smokers. Whisky now officially embracing foods anyone?
One man with a challenge on his hands when it comes to whisky and food is Mandeep Grewal. He is brand ambassador for Johnnie Walker with a role to nurture the portfolio within the British Asian market, which inevitably will include some tie ups with the nation’s favourite food, ‘curry’ (the all encompassing, if inaccurate, term for south Asian food). He has conducted a few whisky-food matching evenings and is looking to develop more on regular basis in the future. It’s not an obvious tie up, but then the spiciness of both is an obvious door opener. Originally from the Punjab region of India, Grewal also identifies the following flavours: “I work with creamy vanilla (mostly found in the Lowland Malts or Grains), fresh fruits (from the Speyside malts), rich fruits (from the Highlands) and the earthy smokiness (from the Islands or Islay Malts). You can have two views about matching food with whisky. One is to match the closest flavours in both (food and whisky) to complement each other and the other is to bring out the two extreme flavours.
Knowing the strengths in flavour of different whiskies when it comes to food can only help choices and the whole experience.. It’s the variations between the types of whiskies – Irish, Scotch and American – as well as the many differences within the sectors which can make pairings such an exciting part of drinking whisky.
For Paterson, in Scotch it is the dryness with fresh fruit aromas, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon; in Irish the lightness, so it’s the aromas of fresh cut grass, floral, honey and citrus; and for American it’s the toasted oak, vanilla and caramel flavors.
Scott ? says, “While Jim Beam shares similar characteristics with Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y – namely in sweetness and possibly wood – it contains noticeably less earth in both nose and mouth. Bourbon as an ingredient in food and cocktail recipes has a tendency to draw out or amplify flavors, especially in hearty meats and sauces.”
And if you are still struggling to pick up the tastes in whisky and food, Paterson offers the following advice: “To many people, when they have their first sip [and mouthful of food], I’d be honest and say their palate is not mature enough so they are really not sure what they just had and rather go for something that has a sweeter taste or a cocktail.
“I say have another sip, savour the whisky and then, once you discover the underlying flavors and you actually start to understand what and how pure whisky is your palate becomes mature and actually starts to develop. That’s when you will start to understand [what is happening between the whisky and the food].”
Sounds good to me. So what are we waiting for…
Now whisky is being enjoyed by everyone, from the traditionalists to the cocktail drinkers, there is only one way to stand out from the crowd – seek out a personal whisky experience.
In the spirit of writing this piece I have just opened a bottle of Duncan Taylor 40 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt, which was distilled at Bunnabhain. Its presentation box is classy, the tears on the glass of my first pour impressive and the release of oils when I added water the most swirlingly exciting I have ever seen. Cask strength, don’t you just love the bite. This is a fine whisky, right from the packaging to its taste.
But what makes this bottle so special is that it arrived as a gift from a friend on my 40th birthday. It’s mine, this hand-numbered 120th bottled out of 193. Not mine like I picked it up off a supermarket shelf. It was in the cask the same amount of time I have been alive. That second sip just tasted better. Excuse me while I savour its taste and the 40 years.
Of course, every sip of whisky is personal. That goes for whether you are Jack and Coke drinker who dreams of cool rock’n’roll days with the band on the road or you prefer emotive thoughts of rugged windswept coasts while enjoying a peaty Islay alone by the fire.
But what some whisky drinkers are looking for these days, amid a flurry of choices, special editions and different barrel finishes, are real, good-to-brag-about personal experiences with their whisky. My 40 Year Old birthday bottle gives me just that. When my cousin returns from work I shall pour him a glass and bore him with tales of my life. And we will laugh at a particular moment we remember way back when. Can a whisky really do this? Well, it just has.
The whisky industry, to its credit, has not sat back in its worn leather chair in the last few years. It has reinvented itself in a flurry of cocktails, shooters, mixers and let’s be honest, anything else which keeps sales up. It’s not even been afraid to drop a few bits of the kilt and bagpipe stuff if it helps to persuade a new audience that whisky is a good drink. Heaven knows, we certainly don’t need anymore of this imagery rammed down our throats to enjoy a good drink anyway.
But credit where credit is due, taking whisky’s image into the modern age is largely down to Jack Daniel’s Whiskey (although their marketing people still cleverly mix Harley imagery with wizened old Tennessee men doing things the traditional way to project the brand).
Jack (who needs a surname?) led the way in dropping the pretence and letting people enjoy their drink just the way they wanted. And so they attracted the younger crowd.
I went into a London bar recently and asked for a whisky. It was packed with youngsters.
‘We don’t serve whisky sir,’ I was told. ‘Just bourbon.’
And not just bourbon. Just Jack actually. About 40 bottles of it lined up and changing colour in time with the lights behind it. Red, blue, green, yellow, just Jack. I thought it churlish to point out that Jack himself would probably prefer to hear, ‘We only serve Tennessee Whiskey’, so had a couple and raised a glass to his modern-day marketing people, who are probably less bothered, especially in bar which serves just Jack..
But even though Jack Daniel’s has attracted mass-market adoration, it’s not against adding a little personal-experience gloss to its image. For a reasonable sum, a Jack lover can travel to Lynchburg, meet the head distiller and choose his own personal barrel, then head home and wait till it’s ready. And let’s be honest, talking to your friends about your barrel in Tennessee for a few years has got to worth as much as when you finally get to taste the first drop.
Of course, there are many places where you can buy your own barrel and enjoy the years of its maturation and then finally its liquid. And that is the point. Why order a glass from a bar, when you can pour your own from your own barrel? Which is a convenient point at which the maybe redefine ‘personal’ experience. Because, as we all know, it’s not entirely ‘personal’ is it. It’s as much about one-upmanship as anything else.
A friend once attended a 21st birthday of another friend’s son. Centre of attraction was a barrel of Scotch which had been bought by the father on the birth of his son and stored. Just think of the wait. A full 21 years and here it was. Was the son excited? Er, no, he was drinking alcopops with his friends far from the barrel he had metaphorically had to drag through his life. It was left to the dad and his friend to enjoy the whisky. It always had been.
Earlier this year on a whisky tour a grabbed a slice of my own personal whisky experience. Arriving early in the morning at Benromach, it was nice in these days of shiny Visitor Centres, it was nice to discover the guy who was rolling the barrels into the warehouse as we arrived, also doubled as the tour guide. And a fine guide he was too. But what really interested me was the personalised bottling.
At the end of the day I suppose all I walked out with was a bottle of Benromach. But to get it was a bit different to walking the supermarket aisles. Here, at the Forres distillery, the manager had to be called to remove the duty-paid lock. Then tests were carried out to measure the alcohol levels. A quick taste straight from the barrel. The first for three months I was told. Then I pour my whisky into my bottle, cork my own bottle and seal it. The manager hand writes all the details onto the label and finally asks me to enter my dteails into a leather-bound book. He was right, the last personalised bottle bought was three months earlier.
Just a bottle of whisky. Ok, if you insist.
This is a story about very fast vehicles, handlebar moustaches and peeing in your pants.
But let us start at the beginning. Which in the case of this story happens to be a giant, red, inflatable arch, covered in the logos of motor racing sponsors.
I am standing on the icy-cold and rock-hard rugby field of Tarkastad, a small farming town in the Eastern Cape, and have just pulled on the cream overalls of Boy Stone, South Africa’s current off-road racing co-driving champion. His name is embroidered over my heart in red logo type and my boxer shorts and a GQ T-shirt are all else that stand between me and the minus something winds whistling through the air.
It is just minutes from the start of the time-trial of the Tarkastad 400, the 5th Round of the South African National Off-Road Championship. And I am about to become a co-driver for Greg Harvey, who, along with the man whose overalls I am wearing, won the SA championship in the Special Vehicles category last year (They also won together in 1998, and Harvey with another co-driver, Lionel Acton, in 1995).
Harvey has not raced since picking up the championship trophy for the third time, six months ago but has invited me to join him for his ‘last’ race, here in in his home area. He is chairman of Settlers, the off-road club which organises the race; his company, Queen Motor Spares, are the sponsors; and his wife, Ronell, is the race meeting secretary; so you could say he’s pretty closely involved with the weekend’s event.
A mud-splattered truck inches its way along the first few metres of the start line, spraying water into the ground to keep down the dust for when the vehicles eventually screech away. The spectators, who are hanging around the ‘pits’ chatting to drivers and peering into engines, as if a genie will appear when the mechanics rub something next time, don’t seem the type that would be bothered by a bit of dust.
But the ground-wetting ceremony has another useful function to my mind: it creates a cartoon-like start, with each vehicle battling to get grip on the newly greased surface, then shooting off as if they’d been held back by elastic when the first few, wet metres have been successfully negotiated. Dust is replaced by mud. It makes for great TV.
It is is my extensive off-road experience from TV (I saw it on Supersport once), that must have been the attraction for Harvey in picking up the phone and asking me to join him as co-driver. Either that or he’s heard of my co-driving skills from my wife.
‘Left, left, I told you left. Oh, yes, sorry, I didn’t see that. No, you carry on while I check the map again.’
And, it seems, news of my talents has spread far and wide. For when I arrive at Tarkastad to register for the race I see that we have inexplicably been seeded 10th out of 51 starters (a lineup which includes Giniel de Villiers who raced in the Dakar rally earlier this year). Our seeding is presumably down to Harvey’s three-time champion driver status and my co-driving skills in equal measure.
As we queue with the other vehicles, waiting our turn behind the start line for the time trial, two racers in matching shiny-blue overalls approach me and ask if there is a one-minute delay between the start of each vehicle.
‘No, it’s two minutes’, Harvey tells them. ‘Where are you starting?’
‘Oh, we’re 10th,’ I respond with a self-satisfied smile, then nod, hoping they’ll go away and not watch my attempt at getting into the car for the first time. I don’t think I’ve got in a car through its roof before.
Around us there are many racing ‘couples’ in matching overalls, all doing their best to look macho in the slightly homo-erotic stretch outfits, tightened with the little elastic waistband, which I avoid doing up. Every second racer or mechanic seems to have a handlebar moustache. Stretch outfits. Handlebar facial hair. It looks like the platteland’s annual audition for the Village People.
But they could be all be dressed as Mary Poppins and singing children’s nursery rhymes as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got the matter of peeing in my pants to consider.
‘When was the last time you wet yourself?’ Harvey had asked me. ‘Because we don’t stop; it wastes time. If you want to go, you have to do it in your overalls.’
But before I have time to consider my options, it’s ‘Go, go, go’ of a different sort and we are off across ridiculously rough terrain at ridiculously fast speeds. Human-sized sharp rocks, and inhuman-sized holes blur past while my body bounces around in the cab like a newly burst piece of popcorn.
‘What’s the odo reading?’ Harvey asks through the radio that links our crash helmets.
‘Eighteen,’ (the time trial is over 36km).
‘We’ve got a puncture. But I’ll drive on,’ he adds, realising it’ll be quicker to continue than wait for me to get out and ‘help’ him to change it.
Soon afterwards a back tyre goes as well and we slip and slide our way through the rest of the trial, arriving back with seriously shredded rubber to a few ironic cheers.
Later I discover that, remarkably, even with the double blow, we qualified 15th for the start of the race, just eight and a half minutes behind the leader.
During my time in Tarkastad I notice two things in particular. One is the number of genuinely friendly people who ask if I am/was scared and two, the number of people who say; ‘I drove with Greg once…’
There is a real interest among locals as to why I am doing this and what the experience is like, but I am more concerned by those people who leave the word ‘once’ hanging in the air when they say they drove with Harvey. Why once? Does no-one go again? And why do they smile when they wish me good luck?
Maybe it’s because doing up to 180km/h on dirt tracks with no windscreen is a seriously exhilarating, seriously-worth-smiling-about experience. For that is the speed we were apparently doing at times. That, and the other extreme of creeping along as slowly as is necessary to avoid slipping off rocky paths and over the edge into some nasty looking drops.
The only time we touch tar is to cross a road, points at which marshalls and spectators wave us across safely while performing a variety of finger gestures to let us know how we are doing.
It’s like being trapped in a PlayStation game that you can’t turn off. And the other guy has got the controls.
Greg Harvey has been racing since he was 16, but got into this type of racing in 1990 when he bought a rolled Nissan bakkie at a police auction. ‘I just patched it up and decided to have some fun,’ he says.
Three years later the fun had turned serious and Harvey flew to America to import his first car. ‘I raced in all the nationals from ’94 to the end of last year.’
Which is not a cheap thing to do, it has to be said. A new Jimco, the type of car Harvey races, costs around R1,2 million. A back tyre, of which you need many, is R2,500, while a rim is about R5,000. I remember these figures because my lack of tyre-changing speed led to us buggering up two perfectly good tyres and rims in the trial. Ahem.
Overall, Harvey estimates that it costs about R120,000 a year to race competitively. ‘Travel is the expensive part,’ he says. ‘Costs of getting to the venue, accommodation and food, is not just for yourself. There is the co-driver, the pit crew; you need about five, sometimes more.’
Harvey then launches into the pros and cons of a manual/automatic gearbox, a subject close to his heart, because ‘after switching to a manual I won my first championship.’
It’s obviously a favourite theme as hours later I hear him telling another racer in the bar: ‘You have to change to a manual; you’ll never win that championship until you get rid of that automatic.’
As we line up for the start of the race I am comforted to see that it is a manual gearstick by my right knee, although how Harvey sees it in the first few kays, let alone the road ahead, is a mystery thanks to the dust kicked up by the 14 vehicles that start ahead of us.
Early on I miss a left and we overshoot into the driveway of a house, and are forced to turn just metres from the front door. One of the staff, who is cleaning the pool, looks up in bemusement. I resist the urge to wave.
Despite this hiccup we make steady progress through the field, passing other vehicles with regularity. The finger-waving spectators are getting increasing excited as they require fewer fingers to tell us our position. Harvey is back.
As we come up behind each vehicle, my job is to press the horn so they’ll (hopefully) move out of the way. The first time I send down a couple of polite ‘beeps’ and nothing happens, so Harvey tells me down the radio, ‘Right, when I say so, just sit on that hooter.’ He moves to within millimetres of the bumper of the bakkie in front, I do my horn job and they move out of the way. Nice.
On the couple of occasions when the vehicle in front won’t budge, Harvey gives them a not-too-gentle nudge in the back while apologising to me for his language. Being linked to someone by radio for the duration of such a physically demanding event is the closest you’ll ever get to thinking what they think. Every cough, splutter, and ‘fuck off out the way’ is there. And if breathing expresses emotion then Harvey is breathing pure determination.
We carve our way though the field, moving up to fourth overall and second in Special Vehicles.
My job is simple enough: shout left or right when I see an orange marker, press the horn hard, and pass Harvey rags when mud spins off the wheels and sprays his visor.
The pink plastic bracelet I am required wear (like the one they give you in hospital as you are wheeled in surgery) is a reminder of the potential dangers, as are our blood types painted onto the sides of the vehicle.
But quite frankly, peeing in my pants has been top of my agenda for quite some time. Let’s just say ‘going’ in a moving vehicle – even if you want to – is not as easy as you’d think.
I might not be the best co-driver in the world but I now hold the record for running from the posts to the toilet at Tarkastad Rugby Club.
GQ (South Africa) September 2001
It’s in the final scene of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Where the smokin’, drinkin’, swearin’ real-life heroine finally gets together with the stuffy and traditional Mark Darcy. It’s cold and she’s standing there in the snow in her skimpy ‘I want sex’ tiger-print knickers. He’s all suited up and looking a bit bemused after just coming out of a shop. So there they are, deciding whether to lock tongues, and he hands her a present – a Montblanc diary.
Now you won’t have been too interested in this while watching the film because it was near the end and you’ll have been waiting for the kissing bit, but the gift was symbolic not only for the movie but also for what is happening at Montblanc itself.In the movie it’s the token which brings together two very different characters (and opens the door to a sequel).In Montblanc’s Hamburg HQ (no, it’s not a Swiss company) the 96-year-old makers of quality pens also looking to combine the qualities of tradition (Mark Darcy) with a modern twist of fun (that’ll be Bridget) as it evolves into a fully fledged luxury goods company.
As CEO Norbert Platt says, ‘We have run a tight ship in recent years in making this brand a bear in terms of its power and respect. I think now we can let the bear dance a bit.’And the latest step to making this bear shake his thing is the launch of the men’s fragrance Presence, which arrived in South Africa in July (it was the best selling male fragrance in Europe in June). The fragrance is significant because the brand is taking a step outside the boardroom, and moving along from pens, paper, breifcases and cufflinks. It may not be the Full Bridget just yet but at least Darcy is starting tap his feet to the music.So have they succeeded?
Well, the fragrance is masculine, powerful and elegant (in line with existing characteristics) but it also adds a spark of sex. Just take a look at the woman featured in the adverts…The product is also significant because it is a rare licence agreement (with Cosmopolitan Cosmetics). In general Montblanc makes its own products because as Platt says ‘It is truth towards your brand. The customer complains and some other brands simply say “we do not make it”’.
Despite agreeing that the fragrance is a big move Platt still believes it is firmly a Montblanc product because of the message it sends out.‘We argued about the name. The licensee wanted to call it Mont Blanc Homme but what does it stand for? We needed a name that stands for what our customer wants to be. And people want to come into a room and have an aura. Which is why we called it Presence. It’s what the brand represents.’
So can the brand become more important than the product then?‘Yes. It is the carrier of the message and the carrier of a value system.’It’s something Naomi Klein’s recognises in her book No Logo (Flamingo) ‘The effect…of advanced branding is to nudge the hosting culture into the background and make the brand the star. And why shouldn’t it be? If brands are not products but ideas, attitudes, values and expriences, why can’t they be the culture too?’
It’s fair to say Montblanc has become a part of our culture? After years of producing top-notch pens who doesn’t associate them with intelligence, learning and self-expression? Pick up one of their pens or pencils and, you too my boy can be all these things.
Platt, of course, knows more than anyone that the famous white star which has been the company’s symbol from (almost) the beginning, offers more than just a way to put ink onto a piece of paper, however, smooth and comfortable the action may be. ‘Why do customers buy the key product? Not for functional reasons. You can buy a Bic for a couple of rands and still draw lines. It’s for expression – love, appreciation, gratitude, fidelity, power.’
Platt joined Montblanc in 1987 after 15 years with Rollei in both Singapore and Germany and was at the head as the company forged ahead with diversification. First it was with ‘safe’ associated products like paper and diaries, but watches, cufflinks and wallets followed, even more fashion-led products such as sunglasses and women’s bags.So is fragrance the first step into the fashion world? After all, it’s common knowledge that fragrance is the financial cornerstone of many a fashion label so why not the launch pad of a new one?
Apparently these are not the plans in Platt’s management generation.‘We would not become an extremely fashionable couture label. We would not get into fashion in the next five, not even ten years. We could do classic, stylish masculine lines, but not female. Of course we have had requests for licences. We could do that tomorrow. I don’t rule out making a few ties but the pillar of our communication is hard goods.’
Anyway, to a degree Montblanc are already in the fashion world through their accessories, and recent growth – leather goods were up 50 per cent last year and watches 40 per cent, albeit off a small base – show they are not afraid to encroach into other areas aggressively. But the steady careful approach built up over nearly a century appears to still be the cornerstone.‘We are the Lion King in our jungle,’ Platt says, ‘but when you move outside of your part of the jungle you have to be careful because there are other animals.’So not scraps between Montblanc and the king’s of the fashion jungle to look forward to then.
But there is one product that reveals Platt is serious about putting a smile onto that famous whitestar. It’s a 5.5 x 4.5cm, leather folder (R380) to hold those precious Post-It notes you carry around.Now all we need to do is wait for Bridget Jones II: the Montblanc Diary.
Sunday Life, 1997
When it comes to toys for boys, Michael Beachy Head’s got the best in the neighbourhood. He’s bought 10 fighter jets: for tourism, for profit and for acrobatic fun.
You’ll black out and puke,’ Michael Beachy Head warns me. ‘But don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal, you’ll come round.’ Beachy Head is one of only three civilians in South Africa licensed to fly fighter jets. He’s explaining what will happen if I accept his offer to come up with him in his Buccaneer S2B when he’s performing acrobatics. ‘When you puke make sure it’s inside the flying suit and not in the plane,’ he adds. Then he reconsiders. ‘Maybe we should fly straight on your first flight up.’ Maybe he’s right.
He waves his hands about in intricate patterns, twisting and turning them to reveal the manoeuvres he has planned for a future display. I’m convinced. I’ll be watching from the ground, thank you.
Beachy Head is owner of Classic Jets – based at Cape Town International Airport – which takes part in airshows and displays around the country. His grand plan is to establish South Africa on the lucrative international airshow circuit.
The UK and US currently dominate the industry, with the UK specialising in World War II aircraft such as Spitfires and Mustangs and the US concentrating on the home-built market and vintage propeller-driven aircraft. The heavy-duty jets in which Classic Jets specialises could provide South Africa’s own niche. The answer will come in March/April next year – the date of the first Cape Town international air festival. Beachy Head is convinced the jets will attract large numbers of people from around the world.
‘I want to make South Africa the world centre for this type of aeroplane,’ he says. ‘They don’t fly anywhere else in the world. If you consider we got 27 000 people here for the rugby World Cup, I reckon we can do that every year. I don’t think the South African public has woken up to what a huge industry this is overseas. This a four billion dollar industry in Europe. That’s the gates, the rides and all the associated activities.’
At present Classic Jets is building up its fleet so that Cape Town can comfortably fly in formation with international airshows such as Farnborough, England, and Oshkosh, US, which attracts three-million visitors – including 250 000 foreigners – during its four-day show.
Three heavy-metal jets are currently at the airport. Another seven are being refurbished in the UK, the main source of ‘second-hand’ jets for Beachy Head. Securing the planes is not an easy task – it’s not as if they feature regularly in the classifieds. ‘Old jet, was used in bombing raids, no longer needed. One careful owner. Offers invited.’
‘In this arena everyone else knows what everyone else is doing out there, so if something happens in Australia I know about it,’ says Beachy Head. ‘Equally, if anything happens to this Buccaneer,’ chief engineer Terry Cook adds, ‘they’ll know about it in England.’ Beachy Head is also on the ‘hit list’ of the Ministry of Defence in the UK, which means he is contacted when an aircraft becomes available for sale. Assuming he’s interested, the next step is to ensure that the jet can be refurbished to flying standard. ‘The capital cost of the aeroplane is actually irrelevant,’ he says. ‘It’s only worth something if it flies and has a full support kit and all the documents. In its base state a plane’s worthless, just scrap metal. So they go from zero to priceless.’
Getting a priceless jet home involves a long hop; these planes may be fast but they also burn fuel at a rate of about two and a half tonnes per hour. When the Hunter T8 was flown out from England there were eight legs: to Genoa, Italy; Iráklion, Crete; Luxor, Egypt; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Nairobi, Kenya; Lilongwe, Malawi; Pretoria; Cape Town. Many authorities can’t believe these jets are civilian planes – Tanzania, for instance, refused the Hunter air space – but a strong link with British Aerospace generally helps smooth the path.
Okay, let’s imagine the international airshow is a big success. Mr and Mrs Wealthy Tourist have already visited Cape Town to see these monsters in action and they’ve got the simulator on their computer at home. They might come back for a bit of the same each year: fast planes and slow beaches, wild Kruger Park and calm Table Mountain. Then again they might want to get up there with the action. This is where the big money-spinner comes in for Classic Jets. Please fasten your seat belts for the ultimate joy ride (puke and blackouts optional). Would it be fun? Yes. Would it be exhilarating? Yes. Would it be expensive? US$20 000 (R91 000) worth of yes.
For that money Mr or Mrs Wealthy Tourist would get an hour’s familiarisation in a Hunter, an hour in a Lightning, and half an hour’s air-combat manoeuvring in which two jets ‘fight’ each other. If you don’t get your dollars’ worth you’ll certainly go the full distance. The 440 kilometres from Cape Town to George takes all of 19 minutes in a Lightning and the trip to Arniston (two hours’ drive) can be covered in six minutes. Getting kitted up takes longer than the flight itself. Astonishingly, the great white hunters are already queueing up: there is a list of more than 100 people from around the world ready to splash out US$20 000 on this lavish fly in the sky.
For those without that sort of money, this collection of jets still has many attractions. The Lightning Preservation Group in England, for instance, has about 17 000 members. There are only two English Electric Lightnings in the world that still fly. Classic Jets owns them both. ‘An operational museum,’ is how Beachy Head sees it.
And for all those people who think Beachy Head is simply keeping all the best toys for himself, well, he’s inviting the poor kids to play too. Have no doubts, this is a commercial venture, but it’s also fuelling something positive. At the weekends, a volunteer ground crew is gaining experience and gaining valuable training, as well as being close to something that would otherwise be out of reach. On a grander scale Classic Jets operates an RDP initiative: it plans to use commercial sponsorship money to train three commercial pilots in 1997 and one ground engineer is already undergoing training.
‘I knew we’d be generating revenue out of this and that it’s an avenue for raising sponsorship [Shell pays for the fuel], so why not channel some of those funds into doing something for greater aviation and underprivileged communities?’ Beachy Head says. Cape Flying Services in George is being used to screen potential pilots and will also train the successful applicants. ‘Obviously someone can’t go straight from high school on to a fast jet like this or there will be a big smoking hole in the ground, but there will be nothing to stop them progressing if they’ve got the aptitude.’
Beachy Head also believes a company that can generate so much enthusiasm and excitement because of the nature of its business needs involvement in the RDP for its own credibility. ‘It shows it’s not just a bunch of yuppies screaming around the sky in a fast aircraft. A lot of people get wrapped up in the fun side of aviation and like all the fast bits and the pilot’s swagger and all that, but there’s a lot of hard slog and hard graft. The amount of books I’ve got on that aeroplane would cover the floor of the average lounge and you’ve got to know all that stuff.’
But make no mistake, these jets turn heads. Even the ground staff at the airport – who, you’d imagine, would be pretty blasé about flying machines – stop and stare in anticipation when Beachy Head climbs into the cockpit of the Buccaneer – the only one in the world that is still flying. This time he’s teasing; the thunder of the engine is simply a routine test. They’ll have to wait for the next time, when he goes up and puts those elaborate hand displays into action. He climbs out smiling; he’s clearly enjoying himself. I ask him about a story that was in the news recently. It involved a display at a high school fête, a budgie that fell off its perch, an angry old lady and a noisy jet. ‘I just wanted to give the people watching a bit extra,’ Beachy Head laughs.
© Copyright Independent Newspapers 1997