The Kenyan whisky drinker, which type are you?

What you need to know:

  • There is the new non-conformist drinker who likes to tinker with the liquid, mixing it up with everything from spices to herbs, other whiskies, and even fruit juice.
  • As the world celebrates the whisky week, BDLife spoke to manufacturers, brand ambassadors, bartenders, and a mixologist to understand popular whiskies, how Kenyans like their drink, and the growing sophistication.
  • Ms Othim says in the EABL portfolio, single malt scotch whiskies are doing better than other varieties.

There are five types of whisky drinkers in Kenya. “The traditionalist, progressive, activist, exhibitionist and creative or trendsetter,” says Flavia Othim, the head of spirits at the East African Breweries Limited (EABL).

To the conservative drinker, whisky can only be drunk in two ways: neat or on the rocks. There are neither in-betweens nor additives.

Then there is the new non-conformist drinker who likes to tinker with the liquid, mixing it up with everything from spices to herbs, other whiskies, and even fruit juice. To this drinker, there is no one way to enjoy a drink.

The whisky category has continued to grow sharply, with new drinkers coming on board as fast as innovative ways to enjoy whisky are invented.

As the world celebrates the whisky week, BDLife spoke to manufacturers, brand ambassadors, bartenders, and a mixologist to understand popular whiskies, how Kenyans like their drink, and the growing sophistication.

Ms Othim says in the EABL portfolio, single malt scotch whiskies are doing better than other varieties. Singleton, for instance, is becoming popular among the more affluent consumers.

There is also the “Classic 6” — consisting of Cardhu, Talisker, Lagavulin, Cragganmore, Glenkinchie, and Dalwhinnie whiskies, which have grown in triple digits, she adds.

“In as much as we have blended whiskies in the market, Kenyans love single malts more because the value proposition is better,” she says, adding that Johnnie Walker is still the flagship whisky brand for EABL with Johnnie Walker Red being the manufacturer’s biggest volume driver, followed by Black.

“The newer ones such as Gold Reserve are picking up well, especially in high-end outlets where they are used in gift hampers. It is more of a celebratory whisky. Blue is more niche and is popular among affluent consumers,” she says.

The discerning consumer is now more aware, and even particular, about details such as the country of origin, the distillation process, and the maturation of the whisky they pay money for.

“This has made the single malt category grow very fast among both connoisseurs and new drinkers because consumers find the flavour profiles well-differentiated,” adds Ms Othim.

Alexandre Helaine, the Moët Hennessy market manager for Eastern Africa, says the pandemic and closure of clubs made people realise they could buy premium whiskies at lower rates from liquor stores, which pushed up sales.

“We have been experiencing low stock levels of Ardbeg and Glenmorangie in the last three months. In Kenya, the brown spirit category [where whisky falls] is growing faster than the white spirit category,’’ he says.

George Wanjii, the head of digital at online alcohol store, The “V” Bar, agrees, noting that unlike 2020 and the beginning of 2021 when the market experienced a surge in the number of gin drinkers, this year has featured more whisky drinkers, with the majority of consumers going for single malts.

“Glenfiddich 12 and 15-year-old and Johnnie Walker Double Black are doing well and so are bourbons such as Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s, a Tennessee whisky,’’ he says.

Unlike gin, vodka, and wine drinkers who experiment with different brands, Mr Wanjii says he has observed that whisky drinkers are more loyal to their brands and order the same brand repeatedly and there is a growing preference for flavoured whisky with “cinnamon and honey being trendy.”

Bourbon, he says, is also growing in popularity among Kenyan drinkers. By what margins, though?

“From our sales records, we have noted a sharp rise in orders for JimBeam.”

The type

But who is the average whisky consumer in Kenya? What defines them? How do they like to enjoy their drink?

Ms Othim says the traditional consumer drinks their whisky in a particular way, say whisky on the rocks or neat.

“This is the classic conservative who is drawn by factors such as the heritage of the distillery. They are more self-assured and harder to please. The progressive palate drinks any fine scotch whisky. Singleton drinkers fall under this category.”

There are also activist drinkers who drink for status and the ‘‘exhibitionist’’ who likes to create an aura around the drink by sometimes taking pictures.

“This is where most Kenyan whisky drinkers fall under. They believe whisky is for celebration, which is why it has become a popular gifting component,” she says.

The creatives or trendsetters are drinkers who like to mix it with different elements to develop varied flavours. Usually, these are not looking to drink whisky on the rocks, but are more about outward expression.

Even so, some consumers tend to transverse between different categories to explore, depending on their mood, the occasion, and the influence from family and friends.

Sophisticated palate

For most whisky drinkers, developing a sophisticated palate is a long journey of hits and misses, says Mr Helaine.

“No one starts with single malts because they are more expensive and the flavours are intense. You start with blended whisky which you can mix with soft drinks. Once you have grown your palate and taste, you go on to old single malt, which is the Rolls Royce of the single malt category,” he says.

Most drinkers of single malts, he says, prefer their drink with ice or plain to mixing it with other elements. This is because brown spirits have strong flavours and character that are best perceived without mixing.

“Glenmorangie, for instance, goes well with a maximum of one mixer,” he says.

At 46 percent ABV, Ardbeg which is under the Moët Hennessy and Glenmorangie portfolio has a higher alcohol content than most spirits in the Kenyan market which range between 35 and 40 percent. Has this drink found its place in the market yet?

“Within the single malt category, some consumers like peaty whisky such as Ardbeg. To balance the flavours and eliminate sweetness in whisky, the alcohol content has to be higher. Legally, the alcohol content for single malts has to be a minimum of 40 percent,” Mr Helaine says.

“Ardbeg is not for every palate. It has very specific flavours that appeal to specific palates. Drinkers who like smoky whisky find it appealing. At the moment, we are seeing a heightened preference for sweet scotch whiskies among Kenyans,” he adds.

On the performance of Glenfiddich in the Kenyan market, its national ambassador Mulunda Kombo says the Speyside drink is one of the fastest-selling single malt scotch whiskies.

“The Kenyan whisky consumer is demanding not only quality but knowledge of the whisky category as well,” he says.

This knowledge has yielded both commercial returns and improved brand perception.

The drink is as popular among men as it is among women, with consumers falling between 25 and 55 years.

“This drinker is an irrepressible maverick. They challenge the status quo in their work and society and are always learning, recreating themselves and defining their path,” he says, adding “between the discerning consumer and an evolving on-trade, we have a bright future.”

Macallan whisky, which was introduced in Kenya in 2021 has also picked up, according to its regional brand ambassador Shirleen Muita.

She says the drink is popular in affluent circles where a bottle of Macallan (12 years) Double Cask sells at between Sh7,500 and Sh10,000.

“We are hoping to launch more Macallan ranges in the Kenyan market soon to cater to the curiosity among Kenyan drinkers,” says Ms Muita, adding that most Macallan drinkers like to consume it either neat or on the rocks.

Marketing campaigns

Like in other markets, whisky trends and popularity in Kenya are dictated by the type of marketing campaigns conducted by the particular brand locally.

“There is a tendency to experience an increase in sales of a particular brand when there is heavy influencer marketing online,” Mr Wanjii argues.

As these experts agree that more Kenyans are acquiring a taste for fine and aged whisky, is there a feeling that the drinkers are missing the essence by mixing whisky with too many elements?

Ms Othim does not think so. She argues that alcohol consumption is about tastes, preferences, and fads.

“The majority of new, youthful whisky drinkers find the taste of whisky somewhat harsh. They are looking for easy ways to drink it and are not stuck on traditional ways of neat or whisky on the rocks. This is why they mix it up to get the taste that works for them.”

She adds that the consumption of whisky is starting to follow the gin trends.

“I foresee a day when whisky won’t have to be brown, bitter, or at 40 percent ABV. The world is moving towards moderation and there will be a lot of innovation in this space as people become more health-conscious. We are likely to see ready-to-drink whisky, which may allow it to establish itself stronger than gin and vodka have,’’ she says.

Mr Kombo agrees, saying that days are gone when whisky had to be drunk in a particular way.

“Whisky is diverse and so are consumer palates. Bars such as Revolver, Sinnerman, and Tortuga survived the pandemic and are now thriving because of their cocktail portfolio. This is a testament to the Kenyan appetite for creative and innovative ways of enjoying a drink,” he says.

The Kenyan female palate is still flavour-forward and sweet, Ms Othim adds, and that drinkers want to have a drink that “sits well with their taste buds and stomach.”

“We are inspired by the cocktail culture in other markets, which we all want to try out at home. This sense of exploration is what is driving the different ways of whisky drinking,’’ she says.

A highball cocktail

Lately, the industry has been bringing in globally-recognised bartenders to showcase their craft and train their Kenyan counterparts.

On what this means to the whisky market, Ms Othim says the consumer stands to get a better deal.

“When you walk to some bars in Nairobi today, you do not need to say the name of a drink. Instead, you simply describe the flavours you want on that day and the mixologist prepares that,” she says.

With lots of choices, Kelvin Thairu, a master bartender says, for instance, no single drinker who walks to Hero Bar at Trademark Hotel in Nairobi and orders a drink similar to that of the patron before them.

“Some will take it either neat or on the rocks. Others like it with a splash of soda or water. What I have seen lately, though, is that many drinkers enjoy whisky in a highball cocktail,” he says, adding that bartenders are pushing boundaries by introducing “new ways of enjoying whisky like boilermakers where you chase a beer with a shot of whisky.”

Whisky week

Mr Wanjii of “V” Bar says they will be celebrating the whisky week by educating customers about different products and how to drink them.

“We have observed that consumers are more likely to order whisky than beer and wine on online platforms. This corresponds with report findings of IWSR on drinks and beverages e-commerce. The rise of virtual bars and preference for premium single malt whiskies will continue in the foreseeable future. The more educated the consumers are on the products, the better the reward will be for us as dealers,” he says.

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