Like most humans, whisky abhors isolation. A social drink, it comes alive when things come together. When groups gather. When knowledge is shared. When spirit interacts with wood, and innovation complements tradition. This natural affinity fuels many of whisky’s finest moments, and is central to the growth of a much-loved local institution: WhiskyBrother.
When founder Marc Pendlebury decided to follow his heart and open a niche store to quench the thirst of a burgeoning whisky community, he couldn’t have known that, within a decade, it would be one of the world’s foremost whisky brands. That’s not an opinion, it’s the verdict from the international Icons of Whisky 2020 awards where the Hyde Park shop was recently named Single Outlet Retailer of the Year. Put simply: there’s no better place to buy a dram.
It’s a massive achievement that shows how far WhiskyBrother has come since 2012, when Pendlebury quit his job, cashed in his provident fund, sold his car, and went about turning his eponymous whisky blog into a shop.
It was a frustrating time for local lovers of fine drams. Chain stores sold only a fraction of the vast and varied delights viewed online, and offered little advice or guidance. Buying a bottle was often more miss than hit. Pendlebury had travelled enough to know this wasn’t how it should be. “Whisky is a speciality product,” he says, “and it deserved a speciality retail environment”. It was risky, but he had the backing of his whisky family. “The message I got was that they would support a place that reflected the same passion they had for the product,” he explains. This common cause became the foundation upon which WhiskyBrother was built.
Co-owner Neil Paterson first met Pendlebury in high school. Their friendship grew along with an appreciation for whisky that began with adolescent raids on family liquor cabinets, before both built collections and organised monthly meetings. A successful specialist store seemed so unlikely at the time that initially Paterson held back. “I waited a little bit before I put my money where my mouth was,” he admits. But the moment the doors opened it was obvious that WhiskyBrother was more than just a retail outlet. It was a meeting point, the nexus that Joburg’s whisky scene had been craving. “It wasn’t about selling another beverage,” explains Peter Primich, a designer and whisky enthusiast who was there from the start. “It became something of a cultural movement.”
Informal gatherings soon became a Saturday-morning tradition for a crew of committed comrades. They’d bring their own bottles along and turn the shop into a knowledge-sharing classroom where devout students tackled their tasting assignments with glee. Grant Herholdt, a lawyer and avid collector, explains how different this was back then: “All you had was bottle stores by bottle-store owners,” he says. “This was a bottle store by whisky lovers.” It was all rather revolutionary. An impersonal, linear retail relationship had been turned into a circle.
And, over time, this circle grew and expanded. Their limited, highly rated range of exclusive bottlings includes a powerfully peated anCnoc, an intricate Arran finished in a Trebbiano cask, and a PX-matured GlenDronach that’s rich and juicy. They also created The Only Whisky Show, an annual wonderland where you go from intimate, inspiring masterclasses to tasting works in progress with expert Andy Watts and scoring under-the-counter sips from global ambassadors. The WhiskyBrother Bar in Morningside is a class affair, offering 1,350 whiskies and frequent tastings hosted by the team.
All of these are sadly on hold right now, but that hasn’t prevented the brand from staying alive while staying home. As I write, I’ve got one eye on their Whisky Makes Me Happy Hour livestream, an informal broadcast where Pendlebury keeps in touch with fans from around the world. No virus can quell his commitment. This dedication was recognised at the highest level when he was named a Keeper of the Quaich in 2017. Only the most prominent supporters of Scotch whisky are handpicked to join this illustrious international group. It’s a seriously big deal, but of little surprise to those who know him.
“Marc and his team have worked hard from day one,” says Yossi Schwartz. The founder of independent bottlers Single & Single sells his limited releases through very few retailers, WhiskyBrother being one of them. “If you do it half-heartedly everyone picks it up,” he continues. “You need commitment. And they do this 110%.” Doing what they do, with full hearts, is what makes this band of brothers so different. That extra effort is evident in everything they take on. They’ve gone beyond retail and built a community. They throw knowledge and passion in with every purchase. And, in these distanced times, they’re keeping the love alive and their clan connected.
• Join Marc and the WhiskyBrother team every Friday at 4pm during lockdown for their Whisky Makes Me Happy Hour livestream: crowdcast.io/whiskybrother
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2020.