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Why Scotch is sexy in Spain

Tom Bruce-Gardyne explores the reasons, both cultural and political, behind Spain becoming the world's biggest consumer of Scotch whisky and with an image quite unlike any other
By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Caught between a rock and a hard place, between the greed of the government and the power of the supermarkets, selling Scotch whisky in Britain is no picnic these days. Once the taxman and the retailer have taken their cut, precious little profit remains on standard blends which account for 90% of all Scotch whisky drunk in the UK. If consumers knew the Chancellor was siphoning off £7.20 from every £12 bottle purchased, the whisky-drinking classes would probably have taken to the streets by now – but it hasn’t happened yet. Even in whisky’s homeland, the national drink now seems to be Smirnoff Ice. Requesting a dram in one of Glasgow’s hip young bars is more likely to be greeted with hoots of derision than delight. If you’re a whisky salesman it’s enough to make you weep, or at least hit the bottle. What’s the alternative? A two-hour plane journey south takes you to a completely different world – a sun-kissed paradise where whisky reigns supreme. Spain has overtaken first Britain, then the States and finally France to become the world’s biggest consumer of Scotch whisky. Some of the French are a little upset about this and suggest that if you factor in the cross-border shopping in the Pyrenees – where thrifty Frenchmen can save 10 to 15 francs a bottle – France is still ahead. Regardless, there has been a seismic shift since the late 80s when Americans swallowed four times the quantity of Scotch the Spanish supped.Scotch whisky enjoyed prestige status for many years in Spain as it was a valued and scarce commodity. Under Franco, it was imported under strict quotas to stock only the most exclusive bars and clubs. It was also considerably more expensive than the Spanish brandy which was the favoured tipple of the less affluent. Spain’s entrance into the EU in 1986 led to an immediate lifting of import restrictions and a dramatic drop in the price of whisky. The brandy producers could only look on as the whisky industry succeeded in making Scotch a mass-market product while maintaining its priceless allure. Last year sales were worth just under £300 million.But more interesting than figures is how Scotch whisky is perceived in Spain; compared to its image in Scotland, it seems to be a totally different drink. In its homeland, it has shown signs of neglect with connotations of old age, melancholy and ‘keeping out the cold’. In many people’s eyes it is a contemplative drink for quiet reflection or for putting the world to rights – not a wild, crazy spirit to set the streets alight. But if you believe that, you’ve never spent a night in downtown Spain where an estimated two thirds of the country’s whisky consumption takes place between 11pm and 5am. Scotch belongs to the country’s youth – either that, or the Darby and Joan clubs of Madrid are not what they are over here. “Life begins at 11pm – we don’t wake up until then because we’re party animals,” declares Luiz Letelier-Lobos. The ex-pat Madrileño, who owns and runs the Tapas Tree restaurant in Edinburgh, explained: “The night’s for living not sleeping – you can sleep during the day.” Jonathan Stordy, Marketing Director for UDV Spain in Madrid, admits this nocturnal lifestyle may sound unusual to Anglo Saxon ears: “The culture is just so different – if you sit down to dinner at eleven your first after-dinner drink may well be at one in the morning.” UDV Spain’s main brand is J&B, or Jota Beh as they say in Spain, which sold around 21/2 million cases last year, making it the country’s best-selling Scotch and putting it neck-and-neck with Whisky DYK – a home-grown drink made from Spanish grain. Following on behind in hot pursuit are Ballantine’s, Dewar’s and Cutty Sark. The most popular of the single malts – a relatively recent phenomenon – is Cardhu.On his first trip to Spain as UDV’s Malt Controller, Jonathan Driver was struck by a huge contrast between Spain and Britain’s licensing laws: “Instead of a brown smear in a dusty glass, we drank Cardhu on ice in a giant Copa Balon, which is bigger than a brandy balloon, on a balmy night in Barcelona.” Most malts are drunk this way – neat or mixed with water, flat or fizzy. With blends, Coca-Cola is far and away the most popular mixer – which, when you think of Cutty Sark, has a certain sweet irony to it. Wasn’t it Francis Berry, one of the blend’s creators, who insisted in 1923 that no caramel be added to Cutty Sark, arguing that “if cognac drinkers can appreciate that good cognac is pale, then why on earth can’t whisky drinkers?” Today, in its biggest market, most of the Cutty Sark tipped down young Spanish throats is almost black in colour and positively buzzing with caramel – all thanks to Coke. An unconfirmed theory for whisky and Coke’s rise in popularity in Spain is the suggestion it has evolved from Cuba Libre, the slightly subversive, pro-Castro cocktail of Bacardi and Coke that was incredibly popular in the 60s. It certainly helps
cushion the impact of this fiery spirit giving first-time drinkers a gentle introduction to whisky. 18-year-old Spaniards can thus indulge a sweet tooth and the need for refreshment without enduring all-male rites of passage as traditionally favoured over here. This may explain why two thirds of Spanish whisky drinkers are under 35, compared to the same proportion being over 40 or 50 in the States. There may be room for a little wistful thinking among the whisky-making community, that all their efforts from
selecting malts to choosing casks is to little avail if the end result is drowned under something sweet and fizzy from the bar’s post mix like just another alcopop. After all, it takes a minimum of three years to make Scotch, unlike vodka which can be made in the morning and sold in the afternoon. But there is no room for such sentimentality in the marketing department, and Jonathan Stordy receives a steady stream of visitors from UDV’s other outposts keen to learn the secret of his success.“Trouble is, it is very difficult to compare. I’ve worked in Spain, the USA and the UK over the last 10 years and I’ve learned the hard way that trying to apply similar cultural conditions to different markets is more difficult than meets the eye. You soon come unstuck – it’s driven by the culture, by the motivation of barmen to sell spirits here, and by the glassware.” The last point is very important. Having drunk Coke, water and possibly lager during the day, the cry goes up “Vamos de copas!”, loosely translated as “let’s go for a pint.” Except a Spaniard would no more think of pouring beer into his tall, glass copa, than a Brit would consider filling his beer mug with Scotch. In other words, the decision of what to drink has already been made.Not being a beer culture, Spaniards need something long and cool to sip through the heat of the night – and, for the moment, a good, light blend with plenty of ice and Coke is considered the perfect combination. The climate plays a big part, because even without our history of Draconian licensing laws and puritanical taxes it’s not easy to capture the Latin spirit up here in the frozen north. In Spain, bars can stay open as long as they like and there has never been a problem with binge drinking like Australia’s notorious six o’clock swill. For the whisky drinkers of Spain there is no rush to get blitzed, which would be quite out of cultural character in any case. “We drink to enjoy it,” says Luiz Letelier-Lobos. “You won’t see a staggering Spaniard like you might see a staggering Scotsman. The thing is, our women won’t permit us to get into that state. They are very strong right now.” So what of the women themselves – do they like whisky or is it the mainly male preserve it is in other countries? “My God, they love it! You should see my staff at Christmas!” That Spain has the second-lowest tax on whisky within the entire European Union clearly helps, and being an exciting new spirit for many Spaniards plays more than a small part. While the youth of Manchester might worship ‘Stolly’ or Stolichnaya vodka and consider whisky a drink for wrinklies, in Madrid they reserve their scorn for Spanish brandy. To be cool you drink Cutty Sark or Jota Beh. Of course, fashion is fickle by definition and the day everyone in the industry dreads is the day whisky loses its intangible, indefinable sex appeal in Spain. But who knows? By then maybe even Glasgow will rediscover a new affection for the so-called ‘national spirit’, and that Black Bottle and Coke will become next season’s Smirnoff Ice. Stranger things have happened.