Traditionally, whiskey has been associated with the old, the arrogant - the boring. Think bloated colonial-era politicians and industrialists tucked away in smoky gentlemen’s parlours, a cigar in one hand and a tumbler of whiskey in the other, this expensive tipple greasing the cogs of commerce, trade and politics as they wheel and deal.
Thankfully, this perception is fast being erased by the unstoppable forces of globalisation, democratisation and upward mobility: whiskey is becoming the drink of choice for charismatic trendsetters and young professionals, and Africa, in its rising prosperity, is following suit.
The continent’s burgeoning alcohol market is an expression of its economic growth. Indeed, high-profile figures in the drinks industry see Africa as a key developing market, with Alexandre Picard, Chairman and Chief Executive of French spirits company Pernod Ricard, asserting that “brown spirits” will power this market expansion as African consumers move towards more affluent international categories.
Often seen as the gateway to other markets on the continent, South Africa is leading this trend. From Johannesburg to Cape Town, whiskey’s popularity is increasing among the rising middle class, causing it to become one of the country’s most-consumed spirits. There are various reasons for this: firstly, middle class consumers want to advertise their wealth by associating with glamourous, global brands. Secondly, competitive individual brands consistently innovate to maintain and improve market share. Thirdly, South Africans seem to have an interest in whiskey that surpasses all other markets. The annual South African Whiskey Live Festival, for instance, boasts the biggest and most diverse attendance in the world. Each year, more than 10 000 people crowd the event, over 30% of them women.
The interest of South African women in this so-called “water of life” matches those of their sisters around the globe. Becky Paskin, Editor of The Spirits Business, asserts that women are finding that whiskey is “not just a man’s drink.” This partly has to do with taste, but mostly what attracts the fairer **bleep** is the history: as mentioned, fine whiskies have long been the preserve of the world’s powerbrokers, representing power and temptation. As women rise in politics and gain more territory in the workspace, they choose drinks that reflect their ambition and independence.
This is evidence that “women are absolutely the future of whiskey” according to Fred Mannick, author of Whiskey Women. But they are also its past: during the colonial period, women distilled whiskey at home, it being, at the time, as much as a cure-all panacea as an enjoyable beverage. Back to the continent, a third-century Egyptian women is credited with inventing an early still, a prototype of the machinery used today to produce distilled spirits.
Past, present or future, women will always do as they please, and that includes knocking back “male-only” beverages with the boys. In Africa, this means a growing spirits industry that has shed its staid image in favour of one that is more sophisticated, fun and gender-inclusive.