Anything but a Greek tragedy

Anything but a Greek tragedy

Greece has one of the biggest markets for whisky in the world. Tom Bruce-Gardyne reports

News | 04 Jun 2004 | Issue 40 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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If ever there was a drink designed for chasing away the winter blues it would be whisky.When the Irish monks first introduced their magic potion to the Scots, it was seized upon as a medicinal spirit to soothe sore throats and rub on aching joints.Even now the thought of a Scottish winter without Scotch sends a shiver down the spine, and when drunk as a hot toddy, spiked with aspirin, lemon juice and honey, it is still the best cure for flu ever invented. It certainly knocks spots of anything you can buy over the counter at the chemist.Strange then that the countries where Scotch whisky has really been thriving in Europe are all down in the south basking beside the Mediterranean. The Greeks, for example, hardly need a drug to anaesthetise the effects of a cold, damp climate. Yet they have made Scotch their number one spirit ahead of their home-grown, aniseed-based Ouzo.“Perhaps this dispels the myth that whisky drinking has anything to do with the weather,” says Mike Salmon, International sales director at Cutty Sark, “though sales do fall off in the summer.”Yet despite this seasonal down-turn, it takes a real heat wave for people to completely stop drinking spirits in Greece. After all much of what is consumed in the summer months is after midnight in the bars beside the sea.Apparently the bar-owners in downtown Athens simply shut up shop in June and reopen with the same staff down on the coast. Clearly other factors are at work. Firstly Scotch whisky is a relatively new vice to most Greeks.For many years it was expensive and hard to obtain. Then when the country joined the European Union in the early ‘80s and import restrictions were lifted, sales of Scotch soared on a wave of pent-up demand.Now available everywhere, the drink may not be as aspirational as it once was, but it still has the cachet of being a luxury import. A relatively benign tax regime has also helped.Perhaps most important however, is that the Greeks have a natural taste for spirits and appear to genuinely appreciate the bitter sweet flavour of Scotch. Unlike the Spaniards who drink vast quantities of whisky and Coke, as a sort of tartan ‘Cuba libre’, Greek whisky-drinkers are much less into mixers.So while the dog days of summer might send us crawling to the fridge for a chilled bottle of beer, a Greek will be pouring Cutty Sark or Johnnie Walker Red over ice and then adding water or soda. These are the two leading brands in a country that seriously believes in brands.With more than half of whisky drunk outside the home, being seen with the right bottle is crucial to most Greek consumers. Not for them the dubious delights of some unknown and unrepected brand from the bargain basement.As their Italian neighbours would say: ‘it’s all part of Bella Figura.’Just like fashion, labels matter to the extent that an estimated 80 per cent of the Scotch whisky brands sold in bars and clubs are asked for by name.Clearly the years of whisky advertising in magazines, on billboards and television have been having an effect.Switch on Greek television and before too long the familiar image of a man silhouetted in top hat and tails will come striding across the screen. If not Johnnie Walker, then a loveable cartoon bird will soon waddle into view promoting The Famous Grouse.The fact that the Greek government earn revenue from taxing television commercials means they have a vested interest in not banning them as has happened in most other European countries.Right now, however, the number of whisky ads has shrunk, squeezed out by competition from Nike and Coca-Cola in the run up to this summer’s Olympics.The Famous Grouse is looked after in the Greek market by Tim Patterson of the Edrington Group who says “the fact that there are no grouse in Greece has not been an issue”.As in Latin countries such as Spain, drinkers will often ask for ‘a partridge’ or ‘the famous one’. In fact Patterson is quite comfortable at the thought of people asking for a bottle of ‘Eina Perdika’ in a bar, as it shows the Greeks have taken the brand to be their own.By the bottle, for sharing among friends, is how a lot of whisky is drunk in Greece as an evening in a nightclub or ‘bouzoukia’ (ITL) bar would show.The experience demands a good deal of stamina and often begins after dinner at around midnight when most northern Europeans are safely tucked up in bed. Cutty Sark International’s Luke Tegner has spent many a night in a bouzoukia bar as part of his job. He explains how an evening might go.“Agroup of friends will get together and buy a table, paying more if it’s at the front near the stage.“After a number of lesser acts, the main attraction will come on at around two or three in the morning. It might be the Greek equivalent of Kylie or Beyoncé and people chuck flowers at them if they think they’ve been particularly good. Then, depending how much Cutty Sark they’ve had, it ends with everyone dancing on the tables.”In some of the more fashionable nightclubs there are often bottles of deluxe Scotch whisky waiting on the tables, such as Dimple Haig or Chivas Regal which is enjoying something of a resurgence.Clubbers are free to choose, but if they want whisky, the bottle on the table often represents good value compared to a standard blend. If Johnnie Walker Red Label, the country’s most popular blend, only costs 10 or 20 Euros less than a bottle of Black Label, most Greeks would happily pay the difference.Apparently many Greek bar owners are happy to put the same cash mark-up on the bottle whatever it cost in the first place.This enlightened approach inevitably encourages people to trade up and helps explain why sales of premium 12 year-old Scotch and the so-called super-deluxe whiskies of 18 years or more, are currently growing by 10 per cent.In shops the difference in price between say Red and Black Label is much more marked. When it comes to single malts, it is still very early days with total sales less than 50,000 cases a year, but these are definitely growing while the range available is expanding at the same rate.Like Spain the big success story is Cardhu – a brand that probably accounts for half the malt whisky drunk here. Now that Cardhu is to revert to being a single malt after the ‘Pure Malt’ controversy last year, the Greeks will have to hope there is enough to go round, otherwise the price might have to rise.With so much focused on this summer’s Olympics, there are fears of a distant hang-over brewing at the end of the year.With Athens a giant building site with all manner of projects frantically nearing completion, some are starting to worry about the final bill when it comes.But for most the mood is decidedly up-beat in a country able to boost that it drinks more bottles of Scotch per capita than anywhere else in the world.The only shame for the whisky industry is that there are only 10 million Greeks and no sign of a baby boom yet.
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