Innovating with Whisky in South Africa

Innovating with Whisky in South Africa

Published : 22-01-2020 - Categories : Commercial Distilling , Craft Spirits , Legislation

In a previous Article we looked at Whisky Legislation in South Africa, specifically the challenges it poses, and the restrictions we face.

A question I often get from our Clients and Trainees is: “Within the laws and regulations, can I innovate with Whisky in South Africa, and how do I do that.”

The answer to this question is YES you can, and in several ways.


Now please note that the opinions raised below is our own and is based on a literal interpretation of the law, with some guidance taken from foreign laws and products currently sold in South Africa, hence precedence has been established.

For complete and authoritative opinions you would need to submit your product and process to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) who regulates South African Liquor Products and Product Approvals.


How do we Innovate with Whisky in South Africa?

So, if we refer back to the South African Whisky Legislation as discussed in a previous article, the following methods of innovation remains open to us in the Whisky category:

Grains and Malts

South African law does not limit us to a specific Grain type, nor does it limit us to using only one grain. As all grains have different flavor profiles, by playing around with different grains or different combinations of grains we can create different flavor profiles. We can also use uniquely South African or African grains – the indigenous heirloom varieties that were never commercially farmed, but are now being cultivated for, among others, Artisanal Bakers. Here the Craft Brewers have also contributed greatly to the arsenal of the Craft Distiller, making new, unique and different Malts available for us to play around with, Coffee Malt, Chocolate Malt, Dark Malt, Pale Malt, etc.

Treatment of Grains and Malts

No mention is made in South African law to treatments of Grains or Malts, nor is there any limitations anywhere in the law as too what we can do to the Grain or Malt prior to use. The fact that we allow Peated and Smokey Whisky’s in South Africa (which is made by Grain and Malt treatment) means precedent exists. Therefore, smoking grains or malts prior to their use in the whisky fermentations should be allowed and will add unique and different flavors and aromas too the Whisky.

Mash vs Wort Fermentation

Although the standard fermentation process for Whisky is a Wort Fermentation (solids out) applying the Moonshine Fermentation process of Mash Fermentation (solids in) too the Whisky process means that you will get a lot more Grain flavor in your final product. Something that most Whisky drinkers are not used too.

Yeast Type

Our legislation requires the use of Yeast (obviously), but as long as that Yeast belongs to either Saccharomyces Cerevisiae or Saccharomyces Bayanus, we can use any yeast we want. As certain yeast strains produce certain congeners or flavors during respiration and fermentation, by playing around with the type of yeast we use in the fermentation we can create new and different flavors in our final product.

Fermentation Temperature

The hotter the fermentation, the more congeners form. The colder the fermentation, the more control we have over the congeners that form. This is Fermentation 101, but sometimes “Hot and Dirty” is the way to go. As with Rums and some Sour Mash Whisky’s, high temperature fermentations create Carboxylic Esters. REMEMBER: We need to distinguish between the Carboxylic Acids which are bad, and the Esters which are desirable. After distillation it is recommended to age the spirits containing Carboxylic Esters longer than normal to allow these fruity esters to phenylate - creating honey, leather and old book profiles, desired in most aged products. Playing around with the fermentation temperature therefore also allows us to innovate with our products.

Distillate ABV Percentage

The higher the percentage ABV during distillation, the lower the flavor profile. The lower the percentage ABV during distillation, the higher the flavor profile. Basic distillation knowledge. Now, unlike some countries that have requirements as to the distillation strength of Whisky, South African law only has a maximum of 94.8%, and a requirement that you should be able to taste the raw material used in the mash. It is however still quite common for the Whisky to be distilled at 70 to 80% or 80 to 85%. Distilling at a lower percentage, especially when using a unique grain type or grain treatment, will however retain more of those unique flavors, and thereby create a unique product.

Barreling ABV Percentage

The higher the percentage of the spirit in the barrel, the more solvent it is and the more volatile. The lower the percentage, the less solvent and the less volatile. Both these factors affect the flavor profile of the product obtained from the barrel, both via absorption from the wood, and through the effect it has on the Angel’s Share and the corresponding “breathing” of the barrel, as well as the convection currents formed inside the barrel.

Barrel Wood Type

Although Oak is the standard for barrels, South African law does not require the use of Oak barrels for Whisky (unlike Brandy). This means the Craft Distiller can play around with Acasia Barrels, Pear Wood Barrels, Cherry Wood Barrels, etc. etc. Each of these barrels imparting new and different flavors too the Whisky aged within.

Barrel Wood Treatment

The 4 levels of Charring and the 3 levels of Toasting are well known variables during barrel aging, and important ones, considering that 70 to 80% of the Whisky’s flavor is obtained from the Barrel Aging process. But there are other treatments as well that can be applied too the Barrels. Tobacco Smoked barrels for instance, where tobacco leaves are burned inside the barrel and this smoke infuses into the wood, ready to give that flavor off into the Whisky.

Barrel Previous Use

The Holy Grail of Whisky Barrels has always been the Fortified Wine Barrel, Sherry specifically, and in the past the used Cognac barrel. As consumption levels of these products dropped, and correspondingly the availability or the barrels, the reuse of American Bourbon and Whisky Barrels (many of which by law is only allowed to be used once in the USA) became the new standard. But the previous use of the barrel makes a great impact on the product obtained from the barrel. So why not play with it? Imagine Port Barrels, Muscadel Barrels, Pinotage Barrels, Rum Barrels, etc. being used in our Whisky. Imagine the new world of flavors and aroma’s we could open up.


Yes, South African law is strict in what we can and cannot do with Whisky (and other products), but even within these strict guidelines we have room to maneuver. Variables we can play around with. Things we can do differently.

Yes, the result may not be in everyone’s taste – and yes, some purists will probably hate it – but the thing about Craft Spirits is that we don’t HAVE to please everyone. We can dare to be different. We can provide people with choices and options. We can and should innovate, take chances and try producing something new that no-one else has ever done.

It is the Craft Distillers’ responsibility and privilege to put choice back in the hands of the consumer.

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