Why do dictators love Johnnie Walker?
In a tiny village in the heart of the Afar region, in one of the most remote corners of Ethiopia, on a dusty shelf, in a bar that was scarcely more than a collection of chairs and stacks of dusty bottles sits a bottle of Johnny Walker. The sole recognisable bottle to our little group of adventurers, the little red figure in his distinctive tailcoat and pompous cravat winking back at us from the worn wooden shelf, a scene repeated in 1000’s of bars throughout the continent.
Johnnie Walker is the world’s most distributed spirit with the claim that six bottles of Johnnie Walker are sold throughout the world every second! This means that no matter where you venture, whether it’s into the heart of Africa or the deepest recesses of Asia a bottle of Johnnie Walker will probably be available no matter how far your travels take you. Its history in Africa enjoys a colourful and long standing legacy – it came floating up the Zambezi river in the cases and trunks of Scottish engineers. The square bottle made it easy to pack and the high alcohol content means that whiskey remains drinkable even in the muggy surrounds of the African jungle. When I questioned my tour guide on the aforementioned trip to Ethiopia he told me that whiskey very much represented a sign of wealth in Africa. While everyone drank beer, the impression seemed to be, wrongly or rightly, that only the affluent indulged in a wee dram.
It’s easy to see exactly how much a customer has spent; the various bottles are colour coded in order of price from the entry level red to the pricier black, green gold and the most expensive blue. There is also a raft of other iterations of the spirit which cater to the higher end of the market, including the wealthiest of the African ruling classes and the plethora of dictators who have dotted the continent over the last century. Johnnie Walker which has been around since 1908 floated out along the trade routes of the old empire into the darkest corners of the globe. When prohibition ended Johnnie Walker was able to meet the demand posed by the American market due to their adoption of the Coffey still which was rejected by the Irish distillers who had until that point been the world leaders in whiskey sales. The brand has built on this early success to become among the most recognisable spirit in the world.
“Johnnie Walker is a useful signifier of success,” Nick Blazquez, the head of Diageo for Africa, told The Economist. As such, the company is downplaying the drink’s Scottish origins, and marketing it purely as a status symbol. And the company is putting in the proper amount of thought, time, and money into the effort:
- A 20-story billboard on the side of a skyscraper will stridently sell the citizens of Nairobi on the merits of Johnnie Walker Black.
- Print ads featuring Olympic gold medallist Haile Gebrselassie will run throughout Africa, in a deal reported to be worth $100,000 to the Ethiopian runner.
- The company has a history of training bar staff in the finer points of serving Scotch, a drink many have never worked with before.
Source: IWSR Top 100 2014
Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong –Un and Mohammar Qaddafi are three of the world’s most infamous dictators who had in common not only a love of power but also a confirmed penchant for whiskey and specifically Johnnie Walker. Mugabe celebrated his 85th birthday with 2,000 bottles of Moet champagne along with 500 bottles of the Scottish spirit. As incomes across Africa have increased so too has the continent’s appetite for Scotch. The world’s burgeoning middle classes in places like Africa, China, and India are helping to fuel the massive rise in demand for whiskey worldwide. The last available figures show that demand for whiskey increased 34% between 2009 and 2010, with Johnnie Walker outperforming the market aided in no small part by sales in East Africa doubling to 790,000 litres in 2010.
Thus the simple answer to our initial question seems to be that Johnnie Walker is the most readily available spirit which can be used as a conspicuous display of wealth to anyone who’s watching. Research made available through Diageo (Johnnie Walker’s parent company) suggests that the rest of the African continent can be convinced to trade up from their locally brewed beers, just as other emerging markets have. In countries and regions where the chief currency is power, and appearances fuel the perception of that power, symbolism becomes king. It seems as though even the most power driven individuals of the world will still bow before one monarch – His Majesty, Johnnie Walker.