Monthly Archives: October 2012

Big, bigger, biggest

If you thought that it was all about the motion of the…uh…potion, think again.  Size does matter.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2012 edition).

As it appeared.

Every year the authoritative Drinks International publishes a supplement called The Millionaires’ Club.  To the pundit this is something of a bible – and accordingly I read it religiously.  It’s a snapshot of an intensely gladiatorial arena at the end of the annual “games”, documenting the performance – measured in millions of 9l cases – of the world’s big-time spirits brands.  In order to crack the nod a brand must post minimum annual sales of that magical thousand thousand, hence the name.

You might ask yourselves why this should matter to you.  Those of us who consider ourselves to be fierce individualists would probably insist that we make choices to which we are innately suited, rather than paying any attention to what the unwashed masses are consuming.  Or in other words – when it comes to liquor – we should drink what we like rather than worry about what others are drinking.  It’s a simple fact of life however that popular preference has significant sway on our own.  We are susceptible to a large extent, like it or not, to the influence of the world around us.  There is some sense after all, unconscious or otherwise, in recognising the value of something that has been evaluated and accepted en masse.  It is the ultimate endorsement, or so I console myself when falling prey.    Furthermore there’s also an undeniable pull to the beholding of scale: elephants, monster trucks, million case vodkas, and much other such oversized phenomena all offer a certain voyeuristic fascination, especially when they’re pitted one against the other.  Millionaires then is well worth a gander.

So, what’s big and getting bigger?  What’s out there – of significance – about which we might not know?  Do we need to re-evaluate our repertoires? I was seeking out and enjoying Grey Goose a good few years ahead of most fellow South Africans, thanks to Millionaires.  Do you know that Ballantine’s Scotch whisky – which is completely under our local radar – is the world’s third best-selling whisky?  And that’s including whiskeys!  What other tricks out there might we be missing? There’s only one thing for it – here are the highlights of 2011.

A quick note first though:  Millionaires categorises a brand as either global, regional or local, depending on its prevalence.  Global brands are those with wide reach and appeal.  Local brands are limited to just a few markets, or in many cases just a single market.  These are typically value-for-money brands whose success can largely be attributed to pricing, or culturally-specific tastes.   Regional brands fall somewhere in the middle.  I think we have enough Romanoff vodkas and Wellington brandies all of our own so I’ll be focusing on global brands, with the odd passing glance at a few regional brands and at one lone local brand.

All figures quoted represent millions of cases.


  1. Hennessy 4.93
  2. Martell 1.86
  3. Courvoisier 1.34

You should know:  Remy Martin declined to participate and did not submit any figures for 2011 – its volume for 2010 was 1.65.  Courvoisier, the smallest of the four dominant cognacs was also the fastest growing last year – adding to the previous year at a rate of 11,7%.  The Jarnac producer built this growth with the launch of a slew of age variants as well as other line extensions, notably C by Courvoisier – a bold, some are saying revolutionary, double-matured cognac with a “full-bodied, intense flavour profile”.  It is targeted it seems at the gangsta rapper brigade…and associated wannabes.  Word up.


  1. Smirnoff 24.7
  2. Absolut 11.21
  3. Nemiroff 8.03
  4. Khortytsa 7.5
  5. Grey Goose 3.79

You should know:  Smirnoff continues to consolidate its solid position – it has for some years now been the world’s largest global brand.  Meanwhile Ciroc, the ultra-premium grape-based vodka, has crested a million cases and was last seen passing the 1.5 mark, climbing a rate of 66.7%  thanks to the efforts of megastar rapper and brand ambassador Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.  Ciroc may technically be classified as a local brand (very unusual – given its premiumness), because its volume is almost exclusively concentrated in the US, but on evidence of this performance it won’t be for very much longer.  Around the world people are also increasingly calling for Ketel One and Poliakov, two premium vodkas that have been growing steadily during the past five years.


  1.  Bacardi 19.56
  2. Captain Morgan 9.2
  3. Havana Club 3.84
  4. Cacique 1.7
  5. Appleton 1.2

You should know: Rum continues to be dominated by the mix-it, party brands.  Only Appleton, with its credible portfolio of aged rums, is giving any hint of what might be to come.


  1. Johnnie Walker (Scotch) 18.0
  2. Jack Daniel’s (Tennessee) 10.58
  3. Ballantine’s (Scotch) 6.47
  4. Jim Beam (Bourbon) 5.86
  5. Crown Royal (Canadian) 5.0

You should know:

William Lawson’s posted incredible growth of 35,5%.  Is this the mass discovery of a formerly underappreciated brand?  There are suggestions that a pre-duty stocking in the massive French whisky market may be responsible, but time will tell.  If this is the case it’ll be corrected in next year’s figures, but it might be worth finding a bottle in the interim to see if there’s any merit to the fuss.

The introduction of flavoured “bourbons” such as Red Stag has been a big hit and largely accounts for the strong movement from Jim Beam and Wild Turkey in particular.

Jameson continues its long term surge, growing at an impressive 19,2% off an already large base.  Where though are the other Irish whiskeys?

The most monumental news however is the entry of the first single malt into the club (Glenfiddich of course).  Malt still plays a distant second fiddle to blends, but this signals a bit of a shift – in perceptions if not serious volumes yet.  Hopefully the supply can keep up.


  1. Gordon’s 4.3
  2. Seagram 2.77
  3. Beefeater 2.39
  4. Bombay Sapphire 2.32
  5. Tanqueray 2.1

You should know: Premium brands rose, whilst standard brands stayed static or sank.  The G and T set are packing their bags and setting sail for Bombay, with sales of the blue bottle leading the charge for the second year running at 7,9% up.


Whisky on the not-so-cutting edge

Building a better mousetrap in an industry where mice cannot be trapped

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2012 edition)

As it appeared.

Someone recently told me that Blackberry is on its way out, eaten up by Apple and Samsung, as good as gone, kaput.  I had no idea.  It doesn’t seem like too long ago that it was the next best thing.  Admittedly I’m not the best barometer when it comes to mobile technology.  I’m currently using my wife’s hand-me-down and I always seem to be one upgrade behind everyone else.  My finger is so far from its pulse that I wouldn’t know what was happening in this market until two years later.  Regardless it can’t be disputed that change is taking place at a breakneck pace – driven by rapid innovation.  Whisky, with which I’m decidedly more familiar, offers a stark contrast by comparison.  It’s an industry in which true innovation is rare – its product has been made in largely the same way for centuries.  Here it is heritage more than anything else which is the key to success: the common thread amongst the world’s big whiskies is that they’ve all been around for a while.

Unlike the cellular phone whisky is old and deeply traditional.  Change is resisted – in many cases it is institutionally resisted.  The running gun battles – hugely entertaining by the way – between the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the guardians of industry, and John Glaser, the most maverick whisky maker in living memory, have become almost legendary.  His company, Compass Box, named Innovator of the Year on four separate occasions by Whisky Magazine, has continually attempted to push the boundaries.  Most recently he and his team cocked a snook at the SWA with the release of their “Last Vatted Malt” – a dig at the latest regulations.   In reality though, as inventive as these guys might be within whisky’s narrow confines, a few oak staves here and few hazy blends there would hardly qualify as innovations amongst the Steve Jobs of this world (may he rest in peace).  Compass Box has prospered but I sometimes think that it’s the resultant publicity rather than the actual merits of its inventiveness that is more responsible – and this is said without casting any aspersions on the quality of the whisky, which is good, very good.

Whisky, during its long history, has of course seen a few genuinely transformative developments.    The column still paved the way for more affordable supply in greater volumes.  Blends, which today dominate the market, made whisky more acceptable and palatable to a broader spectrum of people.  More recently, the inception of “finishing”, also known as double maturation or even extra maturation, added a new diversity of flavour to the whisky repertoire by introducing exotic casks (port, rum, cognac and others) into the ageing process.  But these have been few and far between.  Today the industry is too tightly regulated to permit much more than a few Compass Box-type peculiarities.

I often wonder whether this status-quo is in our best interests as whisky lovers.  Are we not perhaps missing out?  Would it not serve the greater good to loosen the reins and see what happens?  I’m a renegade at heart so I’m always thrilled to see guys like Glaser tangling with the Establishment and giving the what-for.  The limits should to be tested, and the agendas of entrenched interests need to be kept in check.  But equally there must to be limits, otherwise this path may take us to places where we might not want to go.  Consider this eventuality: would the addition of external flavours (blasphemy!) not make for a better, or at least a worthwhile, whisky?  This is a realistic consequence of uncontrolled innovation.  The answer?  Perhaps – but would such a concoction still be whisky, the drink we’ve come to know and love?  Whisky’s identity, and indeed its value, comes from its connection to the past and from its mystery, rather than from any kind of mechanical functionality with which to be played and manipulated.   It is only whisky because five hundred years of documented history (and several hundred more lost in the mists of time) have told us that that’s how it should be made.

I attended a tasting not long ago which reinforced to me why I’m passionate about whisky rather than anything else, cellular phones included.  During the function I tasted two whiskies aged in similar Oloroso sherry casks (probably sourced from the same bodega):  the first younger (a 1992 vintage), the second significantly older (a mystery whisky).  Strangely, inexplicably, the 1992 was considerably darker and its sherry flavours more pronounced.  Furthermore the mystery whisky exhibited citrus notes – highly unusual in sherry casks.  This is the type of phenomenon – in this case the visceral, unpredictable organicity of the casks – that makes whisky so special and so enigmatic.  There may not be the potential to release a new app every few days, but whisky makers can and do build better mousetraps just by focusing on the fundamentals and leaving the rest to a time-honoured, intangible “magic”.  In its different casks, in the shape of an individual still, and in its varying terroir whisky has the power to surprise and to astound.  May the dram be with you!

What to do at 30 000 feet

Get yourself one of those dinky bottles, take a sip, sit back and read my article in the October edition of British Airways’ High Life magazine.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared – p2.

May the draaam be with you!