A scotch whisky distiller, when asked recently if he made any blends, was gloriously sniffy and dismissive of blended whisky. It would have been interesting to see and hear what he would have made of the Johnnie Walker Directors Blends, which I got to taste last Thursday (November 28) in London.
Among the 110 exhibitors at the September 25-27 show were Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Brown-Forman, and Rémy Cointreau, plus a slew of smaller brands seeking representation in the market.
MBS director Andy Bishop, formally of the London Bar Show, told Drinks International that the show had grown since its debut last year. He said he expected 9,000 visitors by its conclusion, up from 6,000 in 2011. He said: “The show is 30% bigger than last year. The big companies have gone to town with their stands.”
“On day one we tend to have a lot of bartenders. The importers and distributors come on day two and three.”
The show is largely Russia and ex-Soviet Union-centric, with around 60% of visitors, estimated Bishop, having travelled from outside of Moscow, particularly from other Russian cities and neighbouring countries such as Latvia and Ukraine.
Much of the activity around stands was demonstration and sampling-led, with more established drinks companies clearly viewing the show as opportunity to educate bartenders as to the uses and USPs of their brands.
For smaller companies such as the UK–based vodka, gin and liqueurs company Chase Distillery, the Czech produced Babicka vodka – also headquartered in the UK – and the Swedish vodka DQ, the primary reason for exhibiting was to appoint a Russian distributor.
Alex Verdutti, sales director for eastern Europe at DQ’s parent company Nordic Spirit, underlined the difficulties in breaking into the Russian vodka market, particularly the luxury channel. “Everybody knows that there is corruption here but it’s an important market for brands. Last year [when we exhibited] four or five companies were interested [in distributing DQ] but they all wanted a big marketing budget. One asked for €10m in the first year.”
James Chase of Chase Distillery was also at MBS to find a distributor for the brand. “It’s like trying to sell sand to the Arabs,” he joked, referring to the Hertfordshire distillery’s major line in vodka. “The gin has been popular, but people are taking to the vodka. The flag, the name…we [the English] are ‘in’ at the moment.”
More established in the market is Nikka whiskey, part of the Asahi Group. Russia is a top-10 export market for the brand and, according to international sales manager Emiko Kaji, Russia represents a big opportunity for the brand’s premium expressions. “In Russia there is an opportunity because Suntory is concentrating on its cheaper lines, like Kukubin. We don’t want to sell cheaper products here, we want to focus on the higher end.”
Nikka, which exhibited both premium blends and single malts at the show, including a range of aged Taketsura and Yoichi expressions, continues to expand its export sales, with Kaji reporting 30% volume growth in the last year.
Asahi has overcome difficulties with bottle sizes in the US (where spirits must be in 75cl form) to land its first shipment of Nikka this year, and through the group’s subsidiary Independent Liquor, the whisky brand will be available in Australia early next year.