Food & Drinks

Cocktails stir up sale of whisky and cognac


Mixologist Peter Kinyua (left) making a Mint Julep cocktail while being assisted by Macallan Single Malt Scottish Whisky Brand Ambassador Sherlyne Muita at Ibury Lounge in Nairobi on October 7, 2021. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG


  • To woo new drinkers who dislike harsh alcohol, Scotch and cognac makers add flavour to make it palatable.
  • Mixing cocktails at home was already a trend before the pandemic.
  • Despite whisky being perceived as an old man drink,  it is increasingly appealing to the young.

Whisky can be off-putting, especially to an untrained palate. But as Kenya becomes a new whisky frontier, drink companies are pushing their brands by teaching new consumers a different way of enjoying spirits, besides neat and on the rocks.

Macallan, eyeing a bigger share of the high-end single malt whisky market, is the latest to tap into the trend of cocktails and mixed drinks.

The Macallan has been in premium outlets since 2012 but it is seeking to grow its sales and woo more female and younger whisky drinkers.

Sherlyne Muita, the Macallan brand ambassador said that they are now refocusing on a new generation of sophisticated consumers.

“We saw this mixer category growing quite rapidly over the past few years. Consumers aged 21 to 30 have been increasingly drinking cocktails at home and we want to tap in that niche,” she said.

According to Ms Muita, the Macallan 12-year-old is made of triple cast and is more of a recruiting kind of drink and it is easier to use in cocktails.

“One can experiment with it and we want to be among the first country’s doing it,” she said.

For cognac maker Hennessy, Alexandre Helaine, the market manager Moët Hennessy Eastern Africa said its cocktails provide a unique drinking experience that people worldwide have come to love.

“We see an appreciation for mixing Hennessy with soft drinks. To keep the flavours and the taste of the cognac, mix it with ginger ale or apple juice,” he said.

When bars and restaurants closed during the pandemic, Hennessy launched an initiative dubbed #HennessyMyWay. Bartenders in Kenya and around the world created Hennessy cocktails online.

In Kenya, five bartenders pushed the boundaries on creativity, making Hennessy cocktails with delicious twists with homemade ingredients and syrups.

Mixing cocktails at home was already a trend before the pandemic. But the Covid-19 crisis, with lockdowns and on-premise closures, accelerated the trend.

On hotel menus, there are now many timeless cocktails, including gin and tonics, Moscow mules, margaritas, and daiquiris, among others. The cocktails have not only sparked consumer interest but also boosted sales particularly from younger consumers who want something different and are not as loyal to one particular spirit or brand, said John Mwangi, customer marketing manager at Bacardi-Martini.

“Cocktails have definitely boosted sales on-premise,” he said.

“Over the last three years, sales in bars and restaurants have grown, both for classic cocktails and popular cocktails featuring trendy spirits and different ingredients,” he adds.

He said that Bacardi-Martini, the maker of William Lawson, is rewriting the cocktail game in the Scotch blended whisky market.

“Traditionally, whisky did not a feature prominently in cocktails. We came in and started activations and events so that people can learn how to enjoy whisky. Whisky used to be perceived as gentleman’s drink, kind of a controlled drink,” he said.

Dan Mugo who is a mixologist and a trainer at Bacardi-Martini said that once people tried a different kind of cocktail, they kept coming back for more.

When they introduced William Lawson, Mr Mwangi said, their challenge was more of how to change the mindset of drinkers that it was cheaper blended whisky, competing in the big whisky league.

“One key thing that worked for us is we enticed new entrants. We told them to take the drink as they want. No rules. We realised that young guys are not into the hard stuff yet,” he said.

Despite whisky being perceived as an old man drink, Mr Mwangi said that it is increasingly appealing to the young.

“The old guys are finding new and different ways of drinking whisky and we are recruiting new drinkers through cocktails. Because when sampling hard liquor for the first time, it can be unpalatable that one avoids it. Cocktails ease people into the drink, they gradually fall in love with it,” he said.

So what are the rules of making cocktails?

“The pandemic has changed the rules of drinking; people want to have a drink the way they want, and in the best place possible, at home. Previously, the highest consumption happened in bars and restaurants,” Mr Mwangi said.

However, what is stroking the appetite of drinkers is the flavour and how colourful the cocktails are. And to make them as appealing as possible, whisky makers are battling to train bartenders on how to make them.

On Wednesday, Kenya Breweries Limited unveiled a Diageo Bar Academy, aimed at improving bartenders’ capability to offer quality alcoholic drinks to consumers.

The academy plans to train 10,000 bartenders in eight months, an addition to the 6,000 they trained in February this year, with two-thirds of them being women.

Joel Kamau, the commercial director said part of the training involves cocktail trends and guidance on safe bars re-opening. It will also train disabled bartenders, in partnership with Sight Savers.

“The taste and preferences of consumers are evolving daily, there is a need to reskill bartenders ahead of the holidays,” he said.

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