Travel

Russians seek out a taste of luxury

A new elite in Russia is demanding the world's very best products, quality single malt among them. Marcin Miller reports
By Marcin Miller
It’s 1.20am on a Thursday in October. A party of four, we shake the snow off our boots and check in our coats at Prado, one of Moscow’s most chic style bars.I am astounded that we are considered fortunate to get a table, in the early hours, midweek. That’s the way it is in the capital city of one of the fastest-growing whisky markets in the world.Such is the opulence of the new Russia that each chandelier in Prado cost $20,000. The service is perfect and we are offered food before drinks. This is obviously a very expensive place. The sort of place you will find people who attend Moscow’s Millionaires’ Fair to look at the most expensive playthings; helicopters, cars, jewellery and whisky… The first-time visitor to Moscow will be struck by the contrasts, specifically those of old and new, rich and poor.The architecture of the city is extraordinary.Most European capitals are relatively small – it is more than feasible to walk around most of central Rome, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Paris and even London in a day – but Moscow is different. Because of the way the city developed, there is no single clear-cut centre, other than the iconic Red Square.Then there is the scale of the place; massive Stalinist towers and 10-lane highways in the middle of the city.In Moscow new neon-lit casinos sit next to Stalinist architecture next to 14th century cathedrals next to factories spewing out pollution. The overall effect is dynamic.The architecture reflects the richness and poverty of the city too. If the factories and tower blocks represent the old Soviet ways and the struggles of ordinary people to come to terms with a new, free market, then the numerous Vegas-style casinos – scary, Kalashnikov-toting bodyguards are de rigueur – are the natural environment for the Russian super-rich.Isn’t this all a bit political?What’s this got to do with whisky?It’s got everything to do with whisky because drink is a cultural phenomenon. From the cradle of vodka comes the world’s 17th biggest whisky market (in value) and its growth shows no sign of abating.It’s a young, dynamic economy which the whisky distillers have ear-marked as the next big thing.As Isle of Arran’s Euan Mitchell observes: “Cognac has long been the market leader in brown spirits in Russia but there is now a big move towards whisky and malt whisky in particular. Consumers there are fascinated by the diversity of styles to be found in malt whisky and they clearly love the challenge of finding the taste profile they prefer.” For BenRiach’s Billy Walker the opportunity is surprising.“While blended Scotch whisky has still failed to spark the imagination of the Russian market, the growing success of single malt whisky is a manifestation of the young successful Russian businessman’s penchant to buy at the premium end of the market.” It appears that whisky is well placed to profit from the burgeoning middle class in the stampede for status. It is this aspect that makes Russia unique, certainly for The Macallan’s Stewart MacRae.“It is quite different from other emerging markets in that super premium and luxury are growing the fastest. The age of the consumer is also much lower than in traditional markets.” You can see the growth of interest in brown spirits at the luxury end of the market first hand at Moscow’s only real bar (in that it doesn’t serve food) 30/7. The décor is a bit 90s, complete with full length glass windows, a black and white checked tile floor, MTV playing and a disk jockey at a mixing desk.However, it has a comfortable, stylish feel to it. Sitting on a stool at the long bar gives a good view of the 40 or so malts on the gantry – including Bruichladdich 12 years old and 1973 – as well as Marat, the entertaining and charismatic manager, and his staff in action. I’m informed that a Macallan 25 year old costs the equivalent of $80… The man in the street will buy his beer and vodka ($2 for a half-bottle) from a kiosk on the street. The new, moneyed class will see themselves as being part of the global village and, therefore, not as Soviet vodka drinkers; they will visit one of Moscow’s 34 or so specialist boutiques and avail themselves of the finest wines and whiskies known to man.The most significant of the specialists is the chain Veld 21. Founded by the late Yori Kobiashvili, a Georgian who represented the USSR at water polo in the Olympics, the business is now run by his son Dimitry.The head office also houses the first shop; it has a comfortable, clubby feel with sofas, chairs and framed family photographs on the walls. As you enter, you are flanked by glassfronted cabinets full of the most expensive and prestigious whiskies.The club feel is underlined by the selection of port, Burgundy and calvados on offer. The whiskies are from the US, Japan and predominantly Scotland. As well as collectibles and status symbols, there are plenty of well-chosen whiskies for regular drinking; these include a range of Signatory bottlings, The Macallan, BenRiach and even Compass Box Asyla (1796 roubles, £36).Whisky Paradise, in the city’s theatre district, is a Veld 21 boutique; everything is displayed beautifully and the shop has a very modern feel with light-coloured wood and floor lighting.Spirits are on the ground floor and wines are in the basement. The selection of whiskies is extensive; there are some Irish, some Japanese (including a Yoichi 10 Year Old Single Cask bottling) and some bourbon (Van Winkle 12 Year Old weighs in at 2629 roubles, about £52.50).Old habits die hard, so cognac has a presence but the overall emphasis is on single malt Scotch whisky. Highlights include older bottlings from Gordon & MacPhail; Glenavon 1953 (at 18094 roubles, £360), Linkwood 1946 (at 44696 roubles, £890). There is a collection of Fine & Rare miniatures from The Macallan as well as a good display of bottlings from Signatory and the Rare Malts releases.Of course, there are many top-quality whiskies for everyday drinking such as Longmorn (2162 roubles, £43), Cragganmore (2083 roubles, £41), Ardbeg 10 (2156 roubles, £43) and The Famous Grouse Vintage Malt.In all there are some 200 different whiskies with a total of more than 500 expressions. The best-sellers in this barometer of the Muscovite off-trade are The Macallan, Islay malts, Dalmore, Glen Grant and bottlings from Gordon & MacPhail and from Signatory.A couple of doors down the road from Paradise is Whisky World, a specialist retailer with a far more traditional feel to it. Although for me a less attractive retail environment, Whisky World has massive range displays from several independent bottlers including Chieftain’s Choice, Hart Brothers, Blackadder, Gordon & MacPhail and quite the biggest wall of Douglas Laing’s Old Malt Cask bottlings I’ve ever seen. If you are after a copy of Charles MacLean’s seminal Malt Whisky in Russian, this is the place to get it.Returning from the refined boutiques to the bar scene, the best fun is to be had watching young Muscovites enjoying themselves on a Thursday night at the Real McCoy.The bar has a fantastic atmosphere and an excellent, rocking house band playing Clash and Nirvana covers as well as rousing Russian folk tunes. Even here, the locals can choose from blends to a range of more than 20 malts (including Oban, Talisker, Glenlivet 12 and 18 and The Macallan).However, younger drinkers don’t drink Scotch; the Real McCoy is reputed to be the biggest Jim Beam on-trade account in the world. On the evening I was there, as with the whole of Russia, the thirst for whisky and whiskey showed no signs of abating.Salon Eau-de-vie.
Veld 21 organised a two-day festival of spirits in October 2005. Although cognac, calvados and rum were in evidence, the event was dominated by Scotch whisky; among those represented were Macallan and Highland Park, with Brand Ambassador Gerry Tosh very much in evidence. Billy Walker of BenRiach, Alex Carnie of Tomatin and Bruichladdich’s Jim McEwan had plenty of tales to tell.The stands of Arran Distillery and Glenfarclas were plenty busy too.According to Gerry Tosh; “With this being my first visit to Russia I found Salon Eau-de-vie to be an eye-opening experience. People would stop for long discussions on the whiskies and not just stop for a taste of the most expensive thing on the table. I found this amazingly refreshing.” Robert Ransom was spotted in conversation with a Russian general, who visited the show in full military uniform and reminisced about drinking Glenfarclas with his comrades whilst on active service.Other notable visitors included Whisky Magazine’s Martine Nouet who conducted a programme of Masterclasses, Thierry Benitah of La Maison du Whisky, Tim Morrison of the Scottish Liqueur Centre and worldrenowned whisky collector Guiseppe Begnoni. In all, more than 2000 people attended and next year’s event will take place during the last week of October 2006.Rabbie Burns.
More alarming than the brutal architecture and the disparity of rich and poor is the Russia’s long-standing love affair with Scotland’s best-known poet.The poetry of Robert Burns was translated into Russian more than100 years ago and remains a compulsory part of the school curriculum. It is disarming when Russians quote at length from Tam O’Shanter… Still, it’s good news for Isle of Arran Distillery. Its best-selling whisky in Russia is its Robert Burns blend.