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The Whisky Whiz On How His Whisky Took Him Far

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On a cool April afternoon in Johannesburg, we are at 4th Avenue in Parkhurst – a charming suburb with stylish resto-bars, Afr0-chic boutiques and eateries spilling on to the streets – for a rather heady experience in the middle of the day.

Every tipple, every bit of trivia is crucial for this entrepreneur on the block. At the Bottega Café, which gets full on weekends and most weeknights, owner Saverio Cardillo is always present to offer customers a hands-on experience and bespoke tastings of whisky.

He pulls up a chair and gets talking animatedly about the bottles of the fermented beverage that imperviously fill the glass showcases lining all the walls of his café.

For starters, he says there are two ways to spell it – and that could be a conversation starter at any party. The Irish spell it ‘whiskey’ and the Scots ‘whisky’.

“I call it the heaven journey. It is a little point that no one knows about. Every single person that walks in here and does not know about it, they walk in and say ‘wow!’ because it is like a little onion, that you can just exfoliate all these layers,” says Cardillo.

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The restaurant is small and intimate but the umpteen bottles of whisky in every crevice and the cabinets behind you, make it akin to a distillery, minus the bulky barrels.

Cardillo’s love for whisky started only over eight years ago when he was first gifted a Glen Ord by one of his suppliers.

“I tasted it and it was phenomenal. That is how I got into single malts and started dabbling in all the Ireland malts…”

A South African with Italian heritage, Cardillo says he has a palate for Scottish whisky. And for this interview too, whisky-tasting is a prelude.

He gets us to taste the Pogues Irish Whiskey, which is very gentle, soft and easy. My colleague tasted the Jameson Distillery Edition with the orange, brown sugar, ginger, peach and salt taste.

As a first-time whisky-drinker, I understood that not all whisky tastes bad, thanks to Cardillo, who knows how to pick the right taste for different palates.

“This is what it’s all about. People come in, sit down and drink their whisky and they don’t get intimidated when they come to my restaurant,” he says.

The Bottega Whiskey Club, which he started in 2013, boasts of over 2,000 members, mostly from the financial sector, lured to the club through word of mouth.

“We have four types of clients – those that know nothing about whisky and we try and educate you and try and accommodate your palate. Then we get the guys that have been to Scotland and have been collecting for years and years and only buy limited editions. Then you get the guys who buy whisky to stock up their bars. Then you also get the collectors that will drink their whisky,” he says.

The restaurant has over 700 malts, which they use for their whisky-tasting events. They pair the whisky with cigars and sometimes come up with different food pairings.

Surprisingly, for a self-taught whisky expert, Cardillo says that he is not a collector.

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“I am not like that. I am the type that needs to know what is in that bottle. I would hate to die one day knowing that somebody is going to be drinking my collection not knowing what was in that bottle,” he says.

But for those that do like to collect their whisky as a form of investment, Cardillo believes they could earn significant returns.

“We have bottles that we bought for R500 ($40) or R600 ($49) and now they are worth a lot of money. The increase in value of the whisky depends on if the distillery closes down. If they are no longer making any more of it, then the demand for that bottle of whisky increases,” he says.

Currently, the Jameson Gold Reserve has been discontinued, so he advises whisky drinkers should buy as many as they can of it, as the value of the bottles are bound to increase by 10%-15%.

“It currently retails at R893 ($73)… So you could look at doubling your money in a couple of years. For example, the Compass Box, they made just over 5,680 bottles; I was retailing them at R2,000 ($163), but I see now three years down the line, they are auctioning them and selling them at R4,800 ($392) to R5,000 ($408),” he says.

However, a whisky club as a business is not as lucrative.

“We turn a lot of stock [from the business], but if I had to do it purely as a business, no, I would not make any money from it. Not when you consider the rentals and other expenses. The club is purely for coming to see what we have and tasting the different kinds of whisky,” says Cardillo.

There is no right or wrong way to drink whisky.

“What you like and what the next person likes are two different things. You can’t get intimidated. You are only supposed to drink the whisky with ice or you are not supposed to drink the whisky with the ice. There are so many rules that are just falling away now,” he says.

The best way to put this to the test is to pour a neat whisky in a glass and drink it. You will be able to taste all the different aromas. Thereafter, pour yourself another glass and pour a bit of water and you will be able to taste the barrel’s wood. It will become spicy as you see the whisky open up, as it becomes cloudy, and you will be able to see the oils release.

Saverio Cardillo. Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla.

“This is why I say when people ask me ‘how are you supposed to drink your whisky’, I say ‘it depends entirely on your palate’,” says Cardillo.

“I once had a gentleman who walked in here the other night and he ordered a Johnnie Walker Blue Label and he drank it with cream soda. I didn’t even cringe.”

His is not limited to just tasting whisky, he also resells whisky for collectors hoping for returns on their long-held bottles.

“…[I] am a little bit sceptical about selling their collections. I sell on behalf of them, and I don’t put my name behind it and I don’t sell it using the name of Bottega. I let everyone know that it is somebody else’s collection,” he says. Cardillo receives the commission from the proceeds of the sale.

“If something goes wrong with the lid or counterfeiting in whisky or it leaks, that is my reputation at stake, and that is what I have to be careful about,” says Cardillo.

Cardillo took his hobby and turned it into a calling imparting knowledge to discerning drinkers, making him a limited edition among restaurateurs.

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