Someone has dropped mescalin into my mojito. At least it feels that way. Why else would there be white figures leading unicorns around a fountain in the dark, stones coming to life and bird people flapping past me in the moist Cuban night? Later, as I dine, the spectral figures slide across the floor looking through us. The drums start. Then the chanting.
Slowly every thread of Cuban myth, mystery and music is brought together. I'm still looking at my glass wondering if that's really mint as a garnish.
In the morning Havana seems the same: flags of washing, people shooting the breeze, plastercovered workers starting on the next restoration job and yet it's changed. Havana is a city which you remember through sound: rattling cars, horns, shouts, laughter, the gravelly rhythm of the cocktail shaker, endless renditions of the same old tourist favourites. Now that sound has greater depth. Last night showed that the Guantanamera generation is no longer in charge, that Cuba stretches from santeria to hip-hop, that this new generation of video artists and contemporary dancers, of myth-makers and shape shifters are playing with the concept of what 'Cuba' is. That it is down to the support of a drinks brand is remarkable. Havana Club's new campaign ('Havana Cultura') is an attempt to both understand and articulate its roots but in a contemporary way.
How does that relate to whisky? Just replace Cuba with Scotland. Whisky, in its 'mature' markets [United Kingdom, France, US, Japan] struggles with its image, so much so that in the UK at least many firms have, for perfectly sensible business reasons, decided that richer pickings lie elsewhere. In the UK, there is previous little work in trying to grow a whisky brand, the issue is about maintaining share.Could whisky do something similar to Havana Cultura? It's happening in some new markets already because whisky has less baggage there.
In effect it is a new drink. For the mature markets there is a cultural mindset to be challenged.The issue isn't simply whisky, it's Scotland itself. The question needs to be asked what is Scotland and if you are playing the roots card, take the heritage route, then what kind of 'Scotland' are you going to talk about? The 19th century model which, we forget, was an artificial construct; or a 21st century nation? Is whisky reflecting Scotland's vibrant contemporary culture? Yes, the advertising imagery has moved on, but where are the alliances with modern Scottish music, contemporary art, dance, fashion?Where is the engagement with the new generation of bartenders who can make or break not just brands but categories. From where I'm sitting the equivalent of whisky's Guantanamera generation are still in charge. What firms will be bold enough, what retailers, writers, magazines, consumer events, be radical enough to start a new way of looking at whisky?
It's not that my head has been turned by the sensual delights of drinking rum in the Caribbean, but because rum has almost unwittingly got it right and is now building a more nuanced, layered message for itself. It's clearest manifestation is 'Havana Cultura' but other brands are embarking on similar strategies.
What has to be appreciated is that the consumer's mindset has already changed. If you are simply standing around, dram in hand, waiting for your new customers to march through the door then the whisky will have evaporated before they turn up.
New routes are needed, new messages, new methods of engagement.
There are lessons to be learned from the buzz and bustle of Live in Joburg, new cultural possibilities opened up by the astonishing Noh drama on stage in Tokyo.If whisky is to be a 21st century spirit in its mature markets then it needs to wake up to the fact that the 21st century is here.