Moscow Takes to Whisky
I first encountered Laphroig, a highly distinctive malt whisky, in the mid seventies in the sweltering heat of the Sultanate of Oman. The surreal experience was courtesy of our dinner host, a fellow-Scot and head of a shipping and trading company that was the importer. Laphroig, distilled on the Isle of Islay, and with a tangy taste from the peat the water flows through before being tapped at the distillery, is a rare and unusual malt. Production was quite small and the annual allocation for Oman was so small, our host co-opted all of it for his personal bar.
It left a lasting impression and when I returned to the UK, I found it available only in Harrods and Selfridges, reflecting the relatively niche market worldwide for single malt whiskies in those days.
Rumour has it that Laphroaig was the only whisky that could be sold legally by apothecaries during the US prohibition in the 1920's, because of its medicinal taste.
Today, Laphroig and other malt distilleries are producing as fast as they can to meet demand that is burgeoning worldwide, and nowhere faster than in Russia, particularly Moscow, where a bottle of 15-year old Laphroig sells for just over 3,000 rubles.
Russia has even its own luxurious Whisky magazine, with 30,000 copies; founded last year by the Courier Publishing house and Charles MacLean, a whisky expert and author. The chief editor, Elena Sitnikova, recalls that whisky has always had a following here, even during the Soviet era, with Chivas Regal, Ballantines, and even The Macallan single malt available, do those who could afford it.
“Today whisky is more accessible and more people can afford it,” she says, noting that a blended scotch such as White Horse is available for 500 roubles a bottle.
While the magazine is designed primarily for whisky lovers, it also aims to be useful to beginners, educating them on the differences between the different whiskies in aesthetic and gastronomic terms.
The largest sales of whisky in Russia are, like elsewhere, the blended whiskies. These are a blend of grain whiskies and malt whiskies, usually a 2:1 mix with the master blender seeking to get the widest taste appeal and lowest net cost. This category of whiskies includes Johnny Walker, Grants, Teachers’, and a host of others, including low price blends that are attracting new consumers to the brown nectar, such as Scottish Collie, Rob Roy and Glen Clyde — which rarely see the light of day on a British off-licence shelf.
One of the fastest growing segments, although tiny overall, is the single malt category of whiskies. This is produced from 100% malted barley (fermented with yeast) in traditional pot stills. Single malt whisky is the product from one single distillery and only plain water is added. Cask strength whisky, which you will find in the more elite shops, is bottled without adding water, so it is usually 54 to 60 or more percent of alcohol by volume (ABV) instead of the usual 40%. In the USA, total whisky sales fell last year, but sales of single malt whiskies grew by 8%.
Malt whisky sales in Russia took off six years ago and have been accelerating in the last three years, according to Zhanna Chernetsova, marketing director of Veld21, the largest malt whisky importer in Russia.
She attributes the 50% year-on-year sales increase for her company’s malts to the fast growing economy, and high disposable incomes fueling a desire to experiment away from traditional vodka.
“There are more rich people every year and they want quality alcohol, with a history behind it.”
Alexey Novoselsky, brand manager for William Grant & Sons at distributors Vasco CIS, says “Ten years ago I could not have dreamed of a situation where single malts are competing against cognac.”
Today Grant’s family reserve, a blend, is the second largest selling scotch in Russia. “We are growing faster than the market,” says Eddie Mullen, the UK based export manager for Russia.
Single malt whiskies vary tremendously in taste, often dictated by the geography of where they are distilled and the source of barley and water. A walk through Paradis, a French-designed liquor store on Tverskoy Boulevard, opposite the Itar-Tass building is like a Scottish geography lesson – From Auchentoshan, through Glenlossie and Knockando to Usquabach they have a selection of 500 scotch whiskies on sale, with prices ranging from 600 rubles a bottle to 3 million roubles for a bottle of The Macallan. This whisky, distilled in 1926, and stored in a sherry cask, imported from Jerez, was bottled in 1986, making it a 60 year-old scotch (age is calculated on time in the cask, not in the bottle) and is kept under lock and key in a glass cabinet. That is the most expensive bottle of Scotch I found on a trek through Moscow’s elite liquor stores.
Next door to Paradis is Mir Whisky, another source of rare and hard to find whiskies, but not surprisingly, some of the most popular brands such as Grant’s. In all, there are around a dozen stores in Moscow selling very expensive rare whiskies with price tags of 30,000 rubles and up.
Grant’s allocated a few bottles of 50 year-old Glenfiddich to Russia, but they were sold out by Christmas, even at 1mn rubles a bottle.
The origins of whisky are heatedly debated and a strong case can be made that proselitising Irish monks brought the secret of distilling ‘the water of life’ to Scotland, where it spread as fast as religion.
Whisky production was small scale and one could almost say a mobile industry, as farmers and distillers sought to evade the excise man and avoid a heavy tax. In the early 1800’s, there were an estimated 400 illegal stills in the Edinburgh area alone. Only when the tax was drastically reduced in the 1823 Excise Act in Britain, did most distilleries legalise themselves and expand into large permanent premises with the tall, large capacity stills that are common today.
But the whisky distilled in Scotland had limited taste appeal outside it’s home country. Two events changed that.
In 1830 an Irishman patented the Coffey still, making the continuous distillation of grain possible; and later that century, an ecological disaster struck French vineyards eradicating the vines, including those used for making cognac.
From then on malt whisky was doomed to be an ingredient of blended whisky which rapidly found a market in England and further afield until the 1960’s. William Grant & Sons, founder of the Glenfiddich distillery on Scotland’s Speyside in 1886, facing a situation in the 1960’s and 70’s where many small independent distillers were going bankrupt, or being bought by large corporations, decided on a bold plan to promote Glenfiddich as a single malt and sell it to the world.
Their success has been emulated by many others. While most of the 100 distilleries still working in Scotland today have been absorbed by multinationals such as Diageo, Allied Domecq and Pernod Ricard, William Grant & Sons is one of the last independent family-owned whisky companies. In 1999, William Grant and another Scottish company, Edrington, took over Highland Distillers, privatising it in the process. Highland Distillers is most famous for its Famous Grouse blended whisky and The Macallan, single malt whisky which has established a strong following in Moscow.
If you are wary of the tastes and prices that go with the single malts, it is possible to sample them by buying a 50 cl miniature bottle. Veldt21 sells over 30 varieties from Asyla to Tamnavulin in its shops.
There is more to whisky than Scotch
The first distillery was in Ancient Egypt.
From its modern history of the last 200 years, whisky, or whiskey to use its Irish spelling has spread around the world.
Ireland has a number of distilleries producing characteristically smooth whiskies such as Jamiesons, Bushmills, Powers and others which are all available in Moscow.
The USA, most famous for its Kentucky Bourbon whiskies (distilled from corn), has many distinquished examples available in Russia from Jim Beam and Jack Daniels to Maker’s Mark and Old Rip van Winkle.
You could call Scotland, Ireland and the USA the founders of whiskies but the popularity of the grain spirit has spread and you will now find on select shelves in Moscow whiskies from France, Japan, Australia and India.
3, Zvenigorodskoye shosse, Moscow
7/2, Tverskoy boulevard, Moscow
Whisky World (Mir Whisky)
5, Tverskaya boulevard, Moscow
46, Novoslobodskaya st.,, Moscow