It is one of the oddities of globalization that while Diageo’s Johnnie Walker is the ninth-best selling whisky in the world, and number one in Lebanon, it will not be found in any pub in Scotland. A drinker in need of a dram of Pernod Ricard’s Chivas Regal, also one of Lebanon’s most consumed whisky brands, would equally struggle to find a bottle in whisky’s homeland. But in Lebanon’s maturing drinks market, distributors think it is high time to take whisky consumption to another level, emphasizing value over volume by pushing single malts, whisky from a single distillery, as opposed to the more popular blended varietries.
Ever since drinkers moved away en masse from local spirit arak for Scotch, whisky has been the number one spirit at around 450,000 cases (of 9 liters) imported every year, out-pacing the world’s fastest-growing spirit category, vodka, with 150,000 cases imported last year. But of all those crates of whisky coming into Lebanon every year the bulk are blends, with only 8,000 cases brimming with the more premium whiskies and single malts making up a mere 1,500 cases.
Not surprising given that the most popular brands are made specifically for export. In fact, there are only two Scotch whiskies in the top 10 brands worldwide, Johnnie Walker and Pernod Ricard’s Ballantine’s, according to a 2011 report by Drinks International. Last year’s winner of the “Best Single Malt Whisky” category in the 2011 World Whiskies Awards was not a Scotch, but Japan’s Yamazaki.
Realizing that a bottle of single malt will cost customers at least $30 at retail prices, distributors are looking to make a “personal connection” with customers, according to Gordon Dron, managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa for William Grant & Sons, manufactuers of Glenfiddich. “We’re not big into mainstream advertizing that’s not really our strategy at all, so it’ll be primarily word of mouth and direct one-to-one connections.”
Thier local distributor Gabriel Bocti have held single malt tasting nights at hotels, while Etablissements Antoine Massoud (EAM) hosted “The Malt Gallery” tasting nights at art galleries throughout last year. There is clearly demand potential, with an EAM auction of a 55-year-old Macallan in a Lalique decanter — one of 420 released — going for $12,500 in November.
“We want to create a culture of single malts; Lebanon has a big spirits market, and whisky is the most consumed category,” said Anthony Massoud, managing director of EAM. “The treatment of malts is like fine wines, with different expectations from each bottle. But people have little knowledge about malts or appreciation, so we want to transfer this culture and history to Lebanon and, very humbly, we are trying to make this a category available to the public. The aim is for sales of malts to go from 1,500 cases a year to 10,000.”
For malts to hit this figure and a single malt culture to develop, it will have to occur through a collective marketing boost by all the major distributors, namely Diageo, Vincenti & Sons (distributor of Label 5 and Glen Moray), Fattal (distributor of Dewar’s), as well as Bocti (distributor for Grant’s). Carlo Vincenti of Vincenti & Sons, for instance, believes this growth can only occur through greater evolution of on-trade sales of premium brands, “as you can’t launch a 16-year-old whisky in a supermarket.”
Global drinks giant Diageo will focus on premium blended scotch, launching Johnnie Walker Double Black (a variant of Black Label), but it also aims to bolster sales of its single malt brands Singleton of Dufftown, Talisker and Glenmorangie, to have a foothold in the category.
Raising a glass to the region
However, Lebanon is just the tip of the ice cube for distributors’ regional ambitions. “Lebanon doesn’t have a big population, but its influence over the whole region is significant,” said Dron. “Because of the relatively liberal [alcohol] policy here it makes this market a good place to connect with consumers.”
Lebanon is clearly key to such regional growth, yet with prises rising briskly, distributors could face a hard time selling premium whiskies in a depressed market, with overall drinks sales in 2011 down on the previous year. But as Massoud emphasized, “it is not about volume, but value. In the malt category price is irrelevant when there is a passion for the taste.”