Why Whisky's on the Rise in South Africa

31-10-2016 By Emily Stockden

Despite a tough economic climate, South Africa has risen again in 2015 from sixth in 2014 to the fifth largest export market in the world for Scotch whisky by volume, behind only the United States, France, Spain and Mexico. To put these numbers into perspective, £122 million worth of Scotch Whisky was imported into South Africa in 2015: at the current exchange rate, that’s approximately R1,78 billion worth of whisky, 35 280 litres or 47 026 bottles.

The industry is flourishing and incidentally at the expense of the traditional South African spirit of choice, brandy. Whisky is the most consumed spirit in South Africa with 4.1 million South Africans currently drinking it, while the number of brandy-drinkers has decreased to 3.3 million.

So what has caused this exponential rise in whisky consumption in South Africa? There’s no one reason; rather there are multiple factors to which we can attribute the increase.

Firstly, as the South African middle class grows, spending power rises. In a country where so few have so much, the ‘haves’ turn to premium products not only for their intrinsic quality and superiority, but also for what these products say about their owners.

The average age of the South African Whisky drinker is 36-years old; in other words, he is at the point where he is able to afford luxury goods and he wants to make sure that his friends and acquaintances are aware of his success. He has arrived. And nothing says ‘I have made it’ like buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label or Glenfiddich 21-year old, placing it on the table in front of friends and sharing it.

Secondly, while badging plays a definite role in boosting whisky sales, so does the growing level of interest in it. South Africans have a thirst for knowledge about whisky like no other. The South African Whisky Live Festival held annually at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg has the largest attendance in the world with over 10 000 visitors during the course of the 3 nights that it runs. Dave Broom, world-renowned whisky writer and industry expert has called the show “the benchmark for spirits shows globally” owing to the organisers’ willingness to innovate and remain relevant to their loyal following.

Now in its 14th year, South Africa's Whisky Live Festival attracts global ambassadors, master distillers and world famous whisky aficionados for the simple reason that the South African market fascinates the whisky industry at large. Nowhere else in the world do they see such a diverse audience not only in terms of race but also age and gender – that’s right, over 30% of Whisky Live’s audience are female. These women are attending the event in their own right and not as partners to men who have dragged them along. It’s a thing of the past to think that whisky is a strictly male drink and don’t make the mistake of assuming that women only like it in a cocktail either! In fact, Lagavulin – a smoky, intense whisky – has been called out as a drink of choice by many women interviewed at the 2015 Festival.

A third contributing factor to the growth of Whisky in South Africa is the cohesive nature of the category as a whole. Back in 2002 when the first Whisky Live Festival was held in Cape Town, it was previously unheard of for competitor spirits brands to come together under one roof in the spirit of educating consumers about how to enjoy whisky through sampling. Fourteen years later, it’s the willingness of the category to drive whisky appreciation and education that has kept it honest and true to its consumers.

Lastly, despite category-wide education initiatives like the national South African Whisky Live events – held in Durban, Pretoria and Cape Town, aside from the Sandton Festival – individual brands remain fiercely competitive. This results in consistent innovation and leadership in the world of spirits. Whisky brands defend their market share by redesigning packaging to keep it relevant, releasing new expressions with interesting flavour profiles, smashing barriers to entry by presenting whisky from a different angle (Scottish Leader’s “new perspectives, richer possibilities” campaign brings this to life) and offering cocktails and even releasing flavoured whisky that’s easier on the palate for entry-level drinkers.

Consistent innovation and category cohesion in the spirit of educating consumers ensures that the young up-and-coming will always aspire to drink whisky, learn to appreciate its acquired taste and graduate to enjoying the more complex – and more expensive – whiskies on offer.