Kenyans quench new thirst for fine liquor


The head barman at Nairobi’s Caribana, Mr Charles Njoroge, displays some of his top shelf whiskies. Such liquor are the best quality available. Photo/LIZ MUTHONI

There was a time a bottle of single malt whisky would remain on the top shelves for months.

But this is now a thing of the past, with the top shelves in Kenyan bars gaining popularity as customers willingly pay for the finer spirits in the market.

The sale of expensive spirits, especially wines and whiskies is going up, mainly driven by the growing well-travelled, cosmopolitan and thirsty middle class with increased disposable incomes.

Bar owners are quickly stocking up their top shelves to meet this new demand, especially for single malt whiskies.

Top shelf refers to the most premium brands of liquor available and is mainly displayed at the top for all to see.

Customers are willing to pay thousands of shillings for a shot of their favourite premium brand.

“Kenyans are travelling more and get exposed to different drinks. With a little more money in their pockets they are demanding, and willing to pay for these premium drinks,” said Mr Peter Gikonyo, the foods and beverage manager at Sankara hotel.

People are spending more eating and drinking out as incomes grow.

Aspiring young executives and budding entrepreneurs are major drivers of sales for these drinks, as they want to be seen as connoisseurs of top quality spirits

These has led to a shift on the top shelve with Johnny Walker (JW) Black Label that was previously considered expensive drinks in this market becoming mid level drinks.

Most of the premium brands retail from Sh1,000 and can go up to Sh5,000, a tot. The 30 millilitres. JW Blue, the top end of the brand, retails for Sh2,800 at Cin Cin bar in Fairmont Norfolk, Sh2,500 at Sankara and Sh1,500 at Caribana.

The head barman at Caribanna, along Lenana Road, Mr Charles Njoroge says that for most of his patrons, quality comes before costs and that customers are willing to pay for their favourite tipple.

With over 20 years experience behind the counter, he has learned his customers’ preferences and also introduced them to quality drinks.

Caribanna is positioning itself as a major whisky pub in the city with a wide range of brands on its shelves.

Some of their premium drinks include the 25-year-old Highland Park which retails for Sh2,500 a tot and Aberfeldy 21-year-old single malt that goes for Sh2,000.

Most consumers order a double tot.

At the Sankara bar, which mainly attracts local business people meeting for a drink after work, the 21-year-old Royal Salute—made by the producers of Chivas Regal —retails for Sh4,500.

Royal Salute whiskies globally retails between $200 (Sh16,000) and $900 (Sh72,000) a bottle.

For the bar owners, margins on the lower end spirits are smaller though profitability is on the amount of volumes sold, including cocktails

“Spirits have higher margins for bars whether they are sold as a tot or used in cocktails,” said Mr Njoroge, adding that cocktails are also quickly catching on in the market, especially with women patrons.

A cocktail is an alcoholic mixed drink that contains two or more ingredients, with one being a spirit.

Mr Gikonyo says stocking liquor that is not moving is an unnecessary cost.

“Dead stock is money. If a drink has not moved for three to six months we remove it from the inventory,” he said, adding that rarely does this happen due to the demand both from international and local visitors.

Also cashing in on the increased consumption of top range spirits are the local distributors including East African Breweries, Viva Production and Kwal who are capitalising on the increased demand by introducing new brands and the purer versions of older types.

During EABL’s recent investor briefing held last month the “strong performance in spirits”, was one of the drivers towards the company’s profitability.

Spirits recorded increased growth in sales with JW growing by 263 per cent.

“The tax relief on spirits was quite important last year,” said Mr Peter Ndegwa, EABL’s Group financial director, adding that it has made it easier for consumers to access premium spirits.

The company is building on this momentum to “focus on premium spirits.”

Viva Production, distributor of premium brands including Chivas Ragal, The Glenlivet, Jameson, Martel and Absolute Vodka launched the Black Famous Grouse in the market last year, a purer version of the original.

But the distributors have to compete with the grey market and people buying directly from duty free or shops abroad to sell in local pubs.

The distillation of whisky has been performed in Scotland and Ireland for centuries with most of the premium brands being from these countries.

They are various types of whiskies with the most expensive being the single malt.

Oldest whiskies

Early this week one of world’s oldest whiskies— 70 years —was unveiled in Scotland by the family-owned whisky specialist, Gordon & MacPhail.

The Glenlivet 70 has been described as “smooth” and “stupendous” single malt by the UK based Whiskey Magazine.

Only 100 full-size bottles of this exclusive whisky will be available to buy in 2011, with the 70cl, the alcohol volume, decanter having a recommended retail price in the UK of £13,000 (Sh1.74 million).

Wines and champagnes are also gaining popularity in the market.

More and more Kenyans are demanding finer wine and buying by the bottle in pubs as opposed to the house wine.

This has seen pubs stocking different brands besides holding wine festivals.

You can find a good bottle of wine in the market retailing from Sh10,000 per bottle with some retailing at much higher prices such as Sh43,200 for a pinot noir, a red wine, or a white wine for Sh39,000.

But these are not fast moving products compared to those that retail for about Sh2,000.

Globally, top shelf liquor sales have bounced back, a sign of economic recovery.

The Distilled Council of the US in January 2011 released the sales of the super-premium spirits.

Sales of spirits grew by 11 per cent to $3.1 billion in 2010, after falling by 4.1 per cent in the previous year.

Total sales of spirits by suppliers rose by 2.3 per cent to $19.2 billion.

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