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Why Kenyans are in love with premium whisky

Businessman Chris Kirubi (left) with a friend at a whisky festival. FILE
Businessman Chris Kirubi (left) with a friend at a whisky festival. FILE 

The big question is not whether it really matters if whisky should be spelt with an “e”. The question now is if this whisky fad that is currently defining the alcohol landscape is a fleeting mirage spurred by an all-too-familiar middle-class excitement or a taste that is here to dig in its heels.

Whatever it may be, it’s an irrefutable fact that whisky – especially the single-malts - has become a statement of the achievers and the aspirations of the rest.

There’s no denying the fact that whisky has become the new statement of affluence in Nairobi. The growth of the middle-class isn’t abating; more young people have more disposable income to indulge in expensive single-malts.

According to Euromonitor International data, Kenya’s social class is projected to grow 28 per cent from 2011 to 2020, one of the highest forecasts in the world. This group will seek for luxury products.

Nairobi, itself, is experiencing a surge of whisky consumption. Hoist yourself on a bar seat at Caribana Whisky and Cocktail Bar, on Lenana Road, a hang out joint for the affluent 40-plus man and woman, and ask the head barman- Charles Njoroge, what their fastest selling products are and he will tell you it’s whisky.

Here you can get King George V, Scotch whisky, created to celebrate the Royal Warant given in 1934 to the Walker family to mark the exceptional qualities of their whiskies.

It goes for Sh7,500 a tot. It’s popular with a section of his niche clientele, who will comfortably settle a bill of Sh120,000 without bending a whisker.

“Whisky is our biggest mover,” says Charles, “we sell about 20 bottles in a night, and this is the all time highest in my 25 years in this industry.”

However, he notes, their larger clientele are the young professionals who are driven by flashiness and the need to be associated with the high-life.

Women, he says, have also jumped onto this whisky bandwagon and they are drinking it like men; on ice or with a light mixer.

Alcohol distributors are cashing in on this image-conscious market and the explosion of social media – a tool they unapologetically revel in - which allows people to talk about brands like never before.

According to a recent Mobile Life survey by TNS Global - a market research company – 40 per cent of mobile users are using social media to ask for product advice and recommendations while 25 per cent frequently post links of items they want or plan to buy.

This creates an upward pressure to use more premium brands as people see what their friends and peers are indulging in and feel the need to keep up.

Kenyans are at the forefront of this pursuit of premium brands. It is one of the fastest growing markets in the world for whisky.

Leading distilleries like Diageo are riding this tide of fortune. For the year ended 30th June 2013, for instance, the firm reported that net sales grew by 13 per cent as compared to 5 per cent in South Africa and 6 per cent in Nigeria.

“Scotch is the classic signifier of status - particularly among the younger men. Official exports of scotch whisky to Kenya rose by 73 per cent,” says James Pennefather, EABL’s Group Strategy Director.

EABL recently run a colourful campaign dubbed Love Whisky Festival to celebrate and create awareness of the whiskys available in the market.

EABL has every reason to rub their hands together will glee. Data from AC Nielsen shows premium whisky in Kenya grew 18 per cent from 12 per cent.

Johnnie Walker, one of the most widely distributed blended Scotch whiskies in the world grew by 42 per cent in the year ending Sept 2013.

Recently, the company reported a growth of 276 per cent in revenues of its Reserve portfolio of super-premium spirits, including the single malts range across East Africa.

Rival Pernod Ricard has also been working at positioning itself in the market having opened a local office.

Jameson is its most aggressively marketed and popular. Whisky is the most visible metaphor of the influence of the growing middle-class.

Jameson caters for the 25 to 28-year-old guy who aspires for great things in life. Only a year and half old in the country, Penord Ricard is already pushing an average of 4,000 nine-litre cases a month.

Nelson Aseka, Pernord Ricard’s Africa Regional Brand Ambassador in charge of whiskies, says Jameson, their fastest moving brand, is mainly fuelled by the romance of aspiration. They also have Chivas Regal and Glenlivet in their portfolio.

“Whisky sales account for 90 per cent of our business and this has been necessitated by the emerging middle-class,” he says.

“A few months ago, we launched the Jameson Select Reserve, the third country in the world to do that, because we realised that the 28 to 35-year-old middle-management guy needed something superior.”

If you want to put a face to this middle-class drinker you will have to go for a double at Explorer Tavern.

It’s a bar- wedged in a cul-de-sac in the Kilimani area of Nairobi that started as a group of friends who loved to meet and enjoy a glass or two of whisky.

As young high-flying professionals, their travels around the world opened them up to new discoveries of different brands of single-malts. The bar became a business by default.

Mark Mulandi, 38, a banker is a self-declared whisky enthusiast. But his love for whisky has developed over time. He started off with the lesser known brands and now spends Sh4,000 in a sitting when he drinks.

“The thing with whisky is not the quantity but the quality. Whisky drinking is about opening your tastes, yes, but it’s also a statement. I, and I speak for a number of my peers, are at a point where we feel that we have run around and are now settling down into a different kind of maturity and the drinks we partake should reflect this thinking.”

Explorer Tavern has a popular ‘Whisky of the Week’ concept where they sell single-malts at heavily discounted rates of about Sh400, a tot.

Because of this, whisky overtook beers as their fasted moving product, spiking from 38 per cent when they started early in 2013 to the current 75 per cent.

Tony Leting, one of the partners says: “What we are saying with this campaign is that quality whisky doesn’t have to be expensive. We started this as a group of friends who came together for the love of whisky; we want everybody to appreciate whisky to be a part of this journey of discovery.” Their bestselling brands, so far, are Glenkichie, Chivas Regal and 12-year-old Glenfidich.

“Whisky has become the new beer,” he says.

So whether you are sipping your Lagavulin at Sh3,000 a tot at the swanky bar at Villa Rosa Kempinski or rattling your ice cubes in your Sh700 a tot 15-year-old Glenfidich at Nairobi Hemingways Bar, you make a part of a long aspirational narrative to the hedonism of whisky consumption in Kenya, a ceremony of confidence in wealth and taste.

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