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Posted on April 15, 2011
The Scotch Whisky Experience visitor attraction in Edinburgh. Photograph: David Cheskin/PA Venezuela
Venezuela produces some of the Caribbean’s best rum, but go to any bar, party or beach and you see that the national drink is imported Scotch whisky. Invariably served with lots of ice, it outsells other liquors by a ratio of about two to one, making Venezuela one of the world’s biggest markets.
Ask Venezuelans why a tropical country in the midst of a socialist revolution should drink so much – more than 3m boxes a year – and the answer is simple: because we like it, and we can.
It has been thus for decades since oil turned this corner of south America into a dysfunctional petro-state which can afford to import luxury cars – Ferraris and Hummers bounce over Caracas potholes – and other symbols of wealth and status.
While the super-rich sip 18-year-old blends on yachts off Margarita island, the poor opt for cheaper brands, which you find passed around at family dinners, roadside bars and domino games.
“Ever since I can remember whisky was the thing. Rum is for when you can’t afford the good stuff,” says Freddy Afanador, 62, the driver of a battered taxi. Tequila, vodka and gin are exotic curiosities that tend to gather dust on liquor-store shelves.
President Hugo Chavez has assailed his compatriots’ taste for alcohol in general and imported Scotch in particular. “Is this the whisky revolution?” he once thundered.
Whisky sales are growing fast across the region of Latin America, especially Brazil, making it one of the most important markets.
For Yang Chen, the appeal is simple: “The smell of charcoal, smoke and fruit and strong flavour are enough to attract any man. Life goes very fast nowadays, and it is a great pleasure to sit down and enjoy a whisky slowly,” he observes.
The 45-year-old executive is exactly the kind of customer the Scotch Whisky Association is wooing: he usually drinks Chivas Regal or Johnny Walker, but says he is always willing to try something new.
The Chinese market for Scotch is worth £80m a year – around 2.5% of global sales – but the association predicts it will double in the next five years. Ministers recently signed a deal to improve legal protections for the brand.
Jim Boyce, whose Beijing Boyce blog covers the capital’s drinks and bar scene, says that for many Chinese customers the appeal is “the cachet of spending big, trying something rare and showing your status. But I’ve been to tastings where people are really interested. You have people who appreciate baijiu [Chinese liquor]; it’s not a huge leap to learning about malts from different parts of Scotland.”
Not everyone back home in the Highlands is happy about this growing thirst, however. “I’ve been in touch with aficionados in Scotland who are afraid China will get into it in a big way and buy everything up. Production is not that big,” Boyce says.
In the hit 1984 ITV series Jewel in the Crown, set in the dying days of the British Raj, a minor maharani screams on tasting a single malt gifted to her by Charles Dance – she thinks he’s trying to poison her. Though the British introduced Indians to the drink, what passed for whisky in India until barely a decade ago was mostly locally-produced alchohol distilled from molasses – amber-coloured rum, actually.
“There’s been a huge change since the early 2000s,” says whisky expert Sandeep Aurora. “Until then, the idea of whisky was one big blotch. People were ignorant about the different kinds of whisky. When I first introduced rare whiskies at appreciations, people would ask, ‘Are you sure it hasn’t gone bad after 30 years?’ Now there’s a very high understanding – people are fascinated by the depth and character of the drink, whether it’s rare, single malt or blended scotch whisky.”
So much so that even the gender barrier has fallen. In the past, at parties women had to be content with pink and green cocktails – or a vodka, at best. No longer. And last month Aurora helped open India’s first women’s whisky club. “We already have 56 members, and 38 more want to join,” she says.
Many of the new scotch connoisseurs, no doubt, are from the new rich created by the economic boom. Import of liquor is also easier now, though the tariffs remain very high. But as the recent experience of Outlook editor Vinod Mehta showed, all this high-value quaffing doesn’t go down well with the masses, still surviving on cheap molasses liquor.
When Mehta recently wrote that he had drunk Blue Label whisky for the first time at writer Khushwant Singh’s 96th birthday, so many readers protested that he promised it would remain a “once-in-a-lifetime indulgence”.
But for India’s elite, genuine and good whisky has now become a lifelong passion.
? How the world fell in love with whisky. Jon Henley reports