Soweto Whisky Live Festival. Low numbers in 2013, high hopes for 2014.

25 years ago a couple of pale males driving round Soweto would’ve been rare, unless the males were armed and in military uniform. Thankfully 1994 happened and the miracle that is South Africa has become a pretty great place to live – and enjoy whisky.

My whisky colleague Chris and I arrived from Cape Town, picked up a car at the airport and headed into Soweto for the first FNB Whisky Live SA festival.  Training out the way (more about that in tomorrow’s post) we headed to the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus. I’m not too keen on mixing academic pursuits with whisky and thankfully the sterile examination hall was transformed into a warm, welcoming whisky wonderland. The beautiful bottles of golden liquid displayed on stands that are marvels of creative design, with wonderful words from the copywriters enticing whisky lovers to enjoy the spirits – responsibly, of course.

But it was a case of all dressed up with nowhere to go as the attendance was disappointing.  The whisky festival coincided with a couple of other major events, a beer festival, a soccer derby, a wine festival, all conspiring to keep away the crowds that we expected. The numbers weren’t there and I don’t think the show was a commercial success.

I know that the whisky industry now has specialist marketing teams measuring everything: all the numbers; market share; sales; ROI and a variety of other acronyms that can show the accountants whether or not the money they spend is well spent.  I understand all that and the need for instant feedback. I get that companies need detailed information for decisions on strategy and budgets and boards of directors.

Perhaps the liquor companies are going to turn round and say “We don’t want to go back to Soweto, the numbers don’t work for us”.  On the strength of this year’s numbers alone, I would agree with them.

But we’re talking whisky. Whisky needs time. I don’t think we can look at numbers from the first year and say “No, it doesn’t work”. Perhaps an analogy would be to compare the festival into Soweto to whisky maturing in the barrel. New make spirit comes off the still and is not ready to drink. After some time in the barrel it matures, each year more complex, until it is bottled. The Master Distiller chooses when the content of the cask is ready to bottle. Whisky reaches perfection over time, sometimes after 3 years, sometimes after 33, sometimes longer.

I’m not suggesting that the people who decide these things give the Soweto whisky festival another three years to prove itself.  I understand it’s an expensive undertaking and liquor companies demand proper returns on marketing spend. But imagine what would have happened if the liquor companies in decades gone by bottled all their spirits three years and a day into maturation. Imagine if distilleries sold their casks as soon as they could, to turn whisky into cash. Imagine if accountants, not Master Distillers dictated when to sell casks. Would we ever see a 40-year-old expression of anything?

I don’t work for a liquor company and don’t profess to have any inside knowledge of how the numbers work, how marketing is planned or what next year’s budgets will say.  But I’ve interacted with consumers for many years. What I ask is that before any of the powers that be make a decision about 2014, they spend a bit of time thinking about the heritage of whisky, the passion that goes into producing superb malts, the potential that is Soweto, perhaps then the call to continue will be an easy one to make.

Bring on FNB Whiskly Live Festival 2014 – in Soweto!

 

 

Bernard Gutman

29 October 2013

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3 Comments

  1. Many thanks Bernard. It is indeed a very different world for all

    From: Waterfront Whisky Reply-To: Waterfront Whisky Date: Tuesday 29 October 2013 1:45 PM To: Karen Chaloner Subject: [New post] Soweto Whisky Live Festival. Low numbers in 2013, high hopes for 2014.

    WordPress.com bernardgutman posted: “25 years ago a couple of pale males driving round Soweto wouldve been rare, unless the males were armed and in military uniform. Thankfully 1994 happened and the miracle that is South Africa has become a pretty great place to live and enjoy whisky. “

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