The Whisky Virgin wonders what the gold, silver and bronze awards adorning some bottles really mean.
‘Is this your first time to South Africa?’ asked the taxi driver.
‘No. I’ve been coming here since the mid-‘90s. I started coming to Jo’burg about 12 years ago.’
I sat back for a few seconds – he was a fabulously chatty guy – and watched as Sandton’s increasingly weirdly-shaped buildings came ever closer.
I thought of other trips like this, sweeping down from Rosebank into a purple bowl of jacaranda blossom, of hidden radio stations, endless malls, no-go areas downtown where we had to go because that’s where the second-hand vinyl was.
‘What’s your business?’
‘So why are you here this time?’
‘I’m one of the judges in a cocktail competition.’
‘You can make cocktails from whisky? Really?’
‘Indeed. They’re becoming more popular. Do you drink whisky?’
‘I love whisky. Not the blended stuff of course. The malt.’
We chatted on. He was from Zimbabwe. ‘Now I have arrived. I am here. I can’t afford anything, but I have arrived!’
It seemed to sum up where Africa – and whisky in Africa – is at the moment.
The next day a group of us headed into Soweto. It, too, has changed since my last time there, which involved wandering around a beach party wearing a kilt and being mistaken for Captain Morgan in drag.
Yes, you can still eat from vats of tripe (a good thing in my mind), but the roads are paved, there are bars – and the welcome is as genuine as before.
‘Tell people to come,’ we were told. ‘This is a safe place. By coming here you show people it’s nothing to be feared. Welcome To Soweto!’
That night we went for a cocktail or five in Braamfontein, close to the shady parts of town where the record store was. The no-go area.
Now we were drinking on the outside terrace of the Anti Est bar watching the happy chaos outside. This is a new South Africa.
Welcome: Soweto epitomises the new South Africa (Photo: Harvey Barrison)
Africa has been the big gap in Scotch’s masterplan. No longer. Whisky cannot ignore the potential in South Africa, Nigeria, Angola (Luanda is the most expensive city in the world), as well as rising stars like Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya.
In terms of players, Africa could yet be Diageo’s get-out-of-jail card. No surprise that the firm has invested $1bn since 2010.
It has a head start on its rivals, but Pernod Ricard is there as well, William Grant has built steadily, while Burn Stewart and BenRiach are both South African-owned (partly in the latter case).
Why now? All the triggers for a Scotch explosion are there. A rapidly expanding middle class, growing economies (remember them?), greater political stability.
Africa has the youngest population in the world – there’s going to be 85m people of drinking age in the next decade – and, bar South Africa, it is new to spirits.
It is hardly perfect – there remains ghastly poverty, corruption and war – but Africa is changing.
It isn’t as straightforward for Scotch as it was. Irish (Jameson basically) is on the march, while Jim and Jack are swinging in.
That night in Braamfontein we were drinking vodka (hey, deal with it), while there are gin bars in Cape Town. What was almost exclusively a brown spirits market is broadening in scope.
Scotch, however, still has an allure which gives it a slight advantage in this increasingly cosmopolitan continent. While some dismiss the new consumers in Angola as people who just drink everything with Coke, it doesn’t take long to change those habits.
A decade ago, I was explaining to new consumers what whisky was made from. Today, thanks to the work of guys on the ground, Jo’burg has its own whisky specialist (the excellent Whisky Brother), one of the largest whisky bars in the southern hemisphere, Wild About Whisky, is in Dullstroom, and taxi drivers who know the difference between malts and blends.
I’ll wager he’ll soon be drinking whisky cocktails. Education is the key. Africa awaits.
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