The commercial whiskey industry in South Africa is around 40 years old. The country spends a lot of time educating the South African consumer about what is whiskey but at the same time whiskey is the largest spirit category in South Africa.
Whisky is the most popular spirit drink in South Africa. The country consumes nearly 39 million litres of it a year.
Bars serve a variety of brands ranging from scotch, single malt, blended and Japanese whiskies among others.
While beer is still the more common alcoholic beverage in South Africa, trend analysts say that high whisky consumption and sales are a result of increased middle-class spending.
“I graduated through whiskys and learnt more about it so it’s more of a lifestyle thing. As you grow, your circle grows, your experiences grow. You get to grow with it,” said Keabetswe, another whisky drinker.
Multinationals Pernod Ricard and Diageo have targeted South Africa as a lucrative growth market for their whisky brands, and have enjoyed years of surging sales.
Pernod Ricard sells more Jameson in South Africa than anywhere else apart from the United States.
Marc Pendlebury owns Whisky Brother – an online store and whisky bar in Hyde Park, one of Johannesburg’s most affluent suburbs.
The bar serves more than 1000 different whisky brands.
“For this country and for other similar countries in terms of emerging middle class, you know countries that are now… they’re economies are starting to grow and you’ve got a new middle class that have disposable income and they’re choosing to spend that potentially then on whisky,” said Pendlebury.
But the last four years of a stagnated economy in South Africa have left the whisky market with a glass half full thanks to thrifty consumers and strangled spending.
Whisky consumption dropped from a high of 43.2 million liters in 2014 to 38.7 million in 2016, data from industry monitor SAWIS showed.
Despite a tough economic climate, South Africa rose in 2015 from sixth in 2014 to the fifth largest export market in the world for Scotch whiskey by volume, behind only the United States, France, Spain and Mexico.
Whiskey 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.
Tasting sessions are all the rage and one way of spreading the whisky gospel.
Muzi Mathe is known as a whisky ambassador. He hosts small groups to talk about all things whisky including world trends and the accents of some of the finest of blends.
“Whisky connects people. It’s a very social drink, it’s a networking drink, similar to how you close a deal on a golf course – a glass or a bottle of whisky celebrates the finalization of a deal. So, for me it’s something that has taught me a lot of things about myself, about society and about life in general,” said Mathe.
The whisky market’s spirit drink adversary is brandy, which was first distilled in South Africa in 1672 and today, is cheaper than whisky.