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Visiting the Jack Daniel’s distillery is like going to a mini Disneyland for whiskey lovers. The road to the distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee is lined with signs welcoming you to “Jack Country,” and when you pull into the parking lot, you are warned the speed limit is 7, a playful quip on the number that adorns the brand’s label. Spread out across the property are the buildings where No.7 and all the others are made, and, while there are no whoops and screams to be had here (unless you count my little squeal at finally visiting the place), it’s still a fun ride.

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After touring the two George distilleries – Washington in Virginia and Dickel in Tullahoma (where I swooned over the gorgeous foliage up on the hills where the barrels are aged), our group has learned a lot about how whiskey is made. As you would expect on a tour of this kind. What I didn’t expect was how fascinating the whole process is to see, and how familiar the smell of the mash being created at each if the places would become. It makes me wish Instagram pics could be scratch-and-sniff.

It’s also been interesting to see where the water source for the respective whiskeys comes from. Jack is sourced from a cave that Mr Daniel used back in the day to become a master distiller at the very old age of 16. One thing we’ve heard over and over again: the better the water, the better the whiskey!

Of course, there has also been a lot of whiskey tasting. Seeing what has gone into each little sip makes me feel a tad more appreciative, and today it continues as we head to Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, this time to sample that most American of whiskeys, bourbon.

Number of whiskeys sampled: 11 – 5 at George Dickel, 6 at Jack Daniel’s, including the sweet Tennessee Honey, which, I’m told, goes well with milk.

Number of whiskey cocktails consumed: 1, post-dinner

Number of miles run: 4.1, from Nashville’s Hutton Hotel to Centennial Park, where a makeshift track field and makeshift Parthenon can be found.

Number of states visited in 1 day: 2 – hello, Kentucky!

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Those who know me well, know that while I may be little in stature, I am large in thought and deed. And upon first glance, while it might seem out of place to find me sipping on a whiskey or bourbon at the bar, that is precisely my tipple of choice. And, being small but hardy, it’s one that suits me quite well.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in my varsity days in laid-back Cape Town, while many friends would be drinking their way through the semesters and learning the lessons that come from that specific rite of passage, I would opt for orange juice, or – gasp – water. Fast-forward to me moving to Joburg and bam, double Jack-on-the-rocks soon became my order. Over the years, I’ve switched to the likes of Maker’s Mark and Woodford, after Jack and I had one too many falling outs. But it’s still been on my bucket-list to visit the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee and, to visit a couple of the other spots in that area too. On top of that, I’ve always wanted to visit Nashville, the heart of Tennessee, and experience the sounds of the capital of country music – not so much for the country, more for the music.

So, this is what I’m doing right now. Travelling from Virginia to Tennessee to Kentucky and back to Tennessee, Nashville to be precise, to take in the whiskeys and bourbons of the area. It’s a trip arranged by the Distilled Spirits Council – people who know this route and its history superbly well.

An evening train from New York’s Penn Station took us to Washington DC on Sunday night, where we hopped a quick ride over to Virginia and made the former abode of George Washington – he who was the United States’ first president – our home for the night. We stayed in the private quarters of Mount Vernon, Washington’s family home where he retired and also where he died at the age of 67. The mansion overlooks the Potomac River and it’s one helluva view – even at night with just the moon and all those stars that you can’t see in New York shining over it. So quiet too.

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Washington, was many things – general, farmer, negotiator – but, as I learned the next day, he was also an entrepreneur. When his Scottish farm manager suggested distilling whiskey as a good use of the wheat and rye crops he had, Washington went along with the idea, and still today, production goes on at his distillery, which was restored from its original 1797 state. We tasted some of the early product, and at 80% proof, I quite liked its clean, if pungent, taste. The first whiskey tasting happened at the very civilized hour of 12:03pm, a good a time as any to begin the great American Whiskey Trail.

Number of whiskeys sampled: 1 – George Washington’s limited edition rye whiskey.

Number of samples of Peach Brandy, akin to the kind Washington and wife Martha would serve to entertain guests: 1

Number of glasses of wine consumed: 2 on the train to DC

Number of miles run: 2.5, surveying Washington’s lawns, forest, gardens and the tombs where he and his wife are laid.

Soundtrack while travelling: The Foo Fighters’ brand new record, Sonic Highways

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Hearing Whoopi Goldberg call the late Miriam Makeba “a great chick, an awesome broad” will go down as one of my favourite moments from the Ubuntu series that wrapped up Carnegie Hall last night with a tribute to the iconic South African singer. Goldberg, who starred in the anti-apartheid movie Sarafina alongside Makeba, relayed, in an intro to last night’s show, how “every one and their mother” walked around New York trying to learn how to do the click from The Click Song when the hit came out in the ’60s.

Goldberg credits Makeba for opening her eyes to South Africa, and Africa as a whole, calling her a remarkable woman. In that same vein, Angelique Kidjo who led the evening’s performances is a powerhouse too. A true voice for the continent in so many ways. “I’m glad you came,” she said to the audience. “Thanks for not thinking I’d bring Ebola to Carnegie Hall.”

Between Kidjo and her guests, who included back up singers who worked with Makeba, Faith Kekana, Stella Khumalo and Zamo Mbutho, as well as British soul singer Laura Mvula, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Vusi Mahlasela, aka The Voice,  Makeba’s songs were performed in the halls of Carnegie Hall, the 120-year-old venue that has played host to everyone from Billie Holliday to the Beatles.

There have been so many stand-out moments during the past few weeks that the Ubuntu series, dedicated to celebrating 20 years of democracy in South Africa, has been running. Last night only added to that. Hearing Koenig, the lead singer from one of my favourite indie pop rock bands and a friends of Kidjo’s, sing the lullaby Laku Tshone ‘llanga and add his voice to a Pata Pata chorus was definitely a favourite moment. Vampire Weekend have an African rhythm to their sound that shows how the continent’s cultural impact can be felt across the seas.

Witnessing the might of Kidjo’s voice as it quivers and soars during the Tanzanian love song Malaika, another song Makeba made famous, was another favourite moment, even as it brought tears to my eyes. Laura Mvula, a young singer emboldened by Makeba’s spirit as a woman who stood strong and sang proud, performing her song Father, Father yet another. Kidjo and Mahlasela’s voices harmonizing on Vukani, a track Makeba sang with her former husband Hugh Masekala, another. And then, seeing Desmond Tutu dance along to the song Kidjo performed with Alicia Keys at the Mandela Day concert at Radio City Music Hall in 1990 (my first trip to New York) topped it all off. Keys, pregnant with her second child, was in the audience too, in her trademark hat and head-scarf, but didn’t join Kidjo on stage for Africa.

At the end of it all, the audience high on the goodness of life, Kidjo reminded us that the example of Makeba and other artists from South Africa showed when they sang their struggle songs and spoke out against apartheid that, “as long as we have music, we will be able to burn the evil out of our lives.”

Ngiyabonga, New York City.

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Ezra Koenig, Angelique Kidjo and Laura Mvula

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With, to quote Kidjo, the ‘incomparable’ Vusi Mahlasela

With Angeligue Kidjo

With Angeligue Kidjo


Good day from New York, where the Empire State Building was turned red last night for the midterm election results, on account of the Republicans winning the Senate. Onto things less disappointing…

* After years of build-up and months of hype, Interstellar is releasing on the big screen this weekend, and there is great excitement around that (you can join in a live Google hang-out today to see the cast talk about it). But Big Hero 6, the latest animated film from Disney, is also releasing, and while it isn’t ground-breaking like Christopher Nolan’s film is, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the not-your-average robot Baymax and his human friend Hiro in a full-length movie since the trailer released. The film had its LA premiere last night, ahead of this weekend’s opening.

* From one kind of robot to another, the Chappie trailer was posted yesterday, as promised. It’s positioned as a coming-of-age story with a difference – our protagonist is a robot, played by Sharlto Copley, who’s learning what it means to be human, thanks to his creator, played by Dev Patel, and Die Antwoord’s Yo-landi and Ninja. Mullet-haired Hugh Jackman, who wants to see the robot destroyed, is a highlight, as is the part where Chappie does the He-Man signature move that so many of us growing up with Masters of the Universe cartoons used to do. I also like that he has ears, making him a little more human-like in appearance. The film rolls out onto the big screen next March.

* Speaking of Die Antwoord…the duo also released their latest music video, which features cameos from Dita von Teese, Jack Black, Carla Delevingne, Marilyn Manson (fresh from his Beautiful People shenanigans on stage with Johnny Depp and Ninja in LA this past weekend). It’s directed by Ninja and not as hardcore as many of the other videos – which is saying a lot considering there is a lot of blood in this one. The video I’m really digging right now though, is Kendrick Lamar’s one for i. Give me dancing Mr Lamar any day!

* The fantastic Carnegie Hall Ubuntu series comes to an end this evening, with a tribute to Miriam Makeba, South Africa’s late, great singer who drew attention to the struggle in apartheid South Africa when she spoke at the UN in the ’60s. Hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, the event will feature Angelique Kidjo, as well as British singer Laura Mvula, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Makeba’s back-up singers, among others, paying homage to the woman we fondly remember as Mama Africa. I wrote about the series for City Press newspaper. I’ll be forever indebted to Carnegie for providing me and other South Africans with an antidote to homesickness over the past few weeks.

{Pic: Disney}

As Americans head to the polls for their mid-term elections, enjoy these pics of musicians with politicians

* Let’s talk robots and gangsters, shall we? Hugh Jackman posted a picture of the Chappie poster on his Instagram (he truly is one of my favourites to follow on there), complete with those blocks we used to play with as kids. Today we can expect a trailer for the hush-hush film from District 9‘s Neill Blomkamp, starring Jackman, Dev Patel, Die Antwoord and

* Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Godzilla‘s debut. The film opened in 1954 on November 3rd, with the beast made from bamboo, cloth, paper and wire – not a visual effect in sight! In a look back at the making of the movie all those years ago in WSJ, Eizo Kaimai talks about creating the model for the Japanese “gorilla whale” for Toho Studios’ film. The reboot released this year made $525 million, and we know there have been many versions and spinoffs, so what an incredible legacy to have been a part of creating.

* Darren Aronofsky has been made the head of the Berlin Film Festival’s jury. It’ll be the 65th anniversary of the fest, next year in Feb, and I still have never been to Germany’s top film fest. The rest of the jury members who’ll be joining the Black Swan director have yet to be announced, but Wim Wenders will be getting an honorary Golden Bear, so we know that much. Certainly other big announcements will be made in the run-up to the fest’s milestone year – as good a reason as any to go this time!

* Stephen King‘s new novel, Revival, comes out next week. NPR broadcast a part of an interview Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross did with him last year, when Joyland was coming out, and it’s fascinating to hear him talk about what frightened him as a child and what frightens him now. His take on religion and God and the supernatural, plus a little tidbit about how The Shining was almost set somewhere else entirely add to the treasures of this great chat.

* Beyonce has announced she’s releasing an old album with two new songs, which has made many people happy. But if you’re looking for new music, how about the latest single from The Hunger Games Mockingjay soundtrack by Scotland’s wonderful Chvrches or Wu Tang’s Ruckus in B Minor from their forthcoming album A Better Tomorrow?