The team behind Private Barrel Co. doesn’t always agree on which whisky they like best, or whose round it is next. But they do all agree on one thing: their quest to get the very best whisky at the cheapest price to the most people. They call it “whisky to the people”. Or, more specifically, “exquisite, limited, single barrel whisky to the people”.

As the very first independent bottlers of single cask whisky in South Africa, they’re a bit like the African version of Aladdin and his magic lamp. Only the lamp is a barrel, and the genie is the whisky. And the team are Aladdin – rubbing casks around Scotland to reveal the most magical, exclusive whiskies available and then releasing them to fulfill your every whisky wish. Here’s how, and why, they do it.

If Private Barrel Co. are Aladdin, then Checkers Liquorshop is the fairy godmother (to mix our fairy tales) behind it all, making this story come alive. About five years ago, a conversation took place between two men: one was adamant that wine was the nectar of the gods; the other had full belief that the angels knew better and that whisky was the only tipple worth sharing. Soon enough, the wine-lover began to see the error of his ways, and one day he rang up his whisky-loving friend and asked “Well, when are you going to find some whisky for us?” And so the seed was sewn for a range of whiskies bottled exclusively for Checkers.

What followed was an exploratory trip to Scotland, with no brief other than to see what they could see. The sourcing team spent two weeks immersed in whisky, saw close to 30 distilleries, and came back with a vision: to offer whisky lovers at home something new, something entirely unique. Single cask whiskies, but only those that are “interesting and different: so from distilleries that wouldn’t normally bottle a single cask, or distilleries not available in South Africa, or unknown expressions from known distilleries (the Highland Park was matured in a bourbon cask, for example, completely different to the Highland Park whisky connoisseurs are used to). We try to cover different regions and do things that people don’t know at all… so we’ll find whiskies that normally go into a blend and do a single malt; or we’ll do a year that you won’t normally see – a 9YO or 11YO.” (Side note: They also came back with a holiday album filled with pictures of the whisky equivalent of the Travelocity Travel Gnome: a bottle of Gordon MacPhail 8YO, which travelled with the team from the Isle of Skye, to the Highlands, along the River Spey and beyond. Look closely and you’ll see the whisky within the bottle getting lower and lower with every snap of course.)

Fast forward to today and what that translates to is a range that includes:

Ben Nevis 19-Year-Old
Glenburgie 16-Year-Old
Highland Park 12-Year-Old
Bowmore 14-Year-Old
Mortlach 14-Year-Old
Benrinnes 15-Year-Old
Glenlossie 15-Year-Old
Glen Grant 17-Year-Old
BenRiach 17-Year-Old
Glendronach 20-Year-Old
No. 39 12-Year-Old Single Malt (sold out)

It’s an impressive range now, to be sure, but the road here was not always as smooth as the whisky that quenched the travellers’ dusty throats. When the Checkers Liquorshop/Private Barrel team first started contacting distilleries to source single casks for independent bottling, “the response was not positive at all,” recalls a team member. “Of course they had no idea who we were, what we were about, why we would want it, and what we would end up doing to their brand. It was a real struggle initially.” They persevered though, and began working with the Meadowside Blending Company – who were already known and respected by Scottish distilleries. They then had to nurse difficulties at home from critics who scoffed at the source of their first casks. “But we had to think about our consumer first – we couldn’t come in with a cask from a famous brand that would cost whisky lovers as much as R3000 a bottle. For this reason, that first year we had to pass on a 32 year old Bowmore – a cask that still haunts us. But it would have been R5000-R6000 a bottle.”

With those first bridges crossed, Private Barrel Co. was on a slow, but steady, boil. While they still continue to work with the Hart brothers at Meadowside, they now have enough whisky-cred in the industry to source directly from distilleries as well. Which means bottlings like the BenRiach 17YO, Glendronach 20YO and Glenburgie 16YO…

But it is their very first bottling – the Mortlach 14YO – which still holds pride of place, both in their hearts and their own whisky cabinets. “It was just such an exceptional whisky. This was before Mortlach started doing their own distillery bottlings, so it was something completely unique and it was amazing quality. More than that though, it was our baby, our ‘Wow, this is actually happening’ moment.” That first batch has long since sold out, but they loved that baby so much they did a sister batch, of which there are around 30 bottles left countrywide. Can anyone say ‘Treasure hunt’?

Today, the Checkers Liquorshop/Private Barrel Co. team continues their own treasure hunt to bring South African whisky lovers single cask whiskies completely exclusive to them. The criteria are simple: the whisky must be different; it must be fairly, accessibly, priced; it must be exquisite.

ACCLAIMED WHISKY AFICIONADO: Karen Chaloner