Will Venezuela go sour on whisky?
Posted: Sat Jan 10, 2009 12:40 pm
Read more at BBC NewsBy Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas
When people in Venezuela turned up at their New Year's Eve parties, many would have been carrying with them a bottle of the nation's favourite tipple: Scotch whisky.
Imported Scotch outsells local rums and other liquors in Venezuela by a ratio of almost two-to-one, making it the sixth biggest market worldwide. Indeed, Venezuelans claim to drink more Scotch than the Scots.
"It's effectively become the national drink," says Gavin Hewitt of the Scotch Whisky Exporters Association in Edinburgh, "and its popularity is still growing."
Whisky in Venezuela is certainly big business.
In 2007, Venezuelans consumed somewhere in the region of 3.4m boxes of whisky, and the trade is worth $151m (£104m) a year to the Scotch whisky industry.
In fact the only countries which consume more are the US, Spain, France, Singapore and South Korea.
"My sales of whisky tend to peak at Christmas and the New Year, as the wholesalers give us special offers which we can pass on to the customers," says Alejandro Castro of CeLicor, a liquor store in central Caracas.
"But over the course of the year, I always sell much more whisky than rum. If I had to choose between the two, I'd definitely pick whisky. It moves off the shelves more quickly and it's more expensive."
Up in one of the trendiest bars in Caracas, The 360º, which boasts amazing panoramic views across the city, people are sipping tall glasses of whisky and ice on the rooftop bar.
Everywhere you turn, you can hear English being spoken - a clear sign that the place is aimed at an upper class clientele and not Venezuela's poor majority. The price of the drinks reflects that too.
"Between all of us, a bottle like this doesn't work out so expensive," says customer Fortunato Castellanos, who's drinking a 12-year-old blend with two friends.
"The way people drink whisky in Venezuela has been the same for years - you all chip in for a bottle, add lots of ice and then drink it before the meal, while you eat and afterwards. That's probably why we drink so much of it here."
Nevertheless, it still seems strange that, in the country which produces some of the highest quality rum in the Caribbean, Venezuelans who can afford it choose to drink imported whisky instead.
"I doubt it'd make any difference if the price went up," says Fortunato. "Most people would still choose it over rum. Whisky's a social thing."
Isn't there an irony in that an ostensibly socialist country is consuming more of a luxury good such as whisky than richer countries with much bigger populations such as Germany and Japan? Not really, says Alejandro Castro.
"Whisky is no longer the preserve of the rich. These days almost everyone in Venezuela is able to drink it. It's not just an upper class drink.
"A bottle of scotch ranges from 33 bolivars (around $15 at the official exchange rate) to about 10 times that, so there is a whisky for almost every budget."