Whiskey Trickles Into Russia’s Drinking Culture

Russia has a long and proud drinking culture; according to the chronicle of its founding, the main reason it chose Christianity over Islam was the latter’s prohibition of booze. Vodka has been distilled there since at least the 12th century. As of the time of writing, it is the world’s largest spirits market by volume – 2.4 billion liters in 2009, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), of which more than 80% accrues to domestic vodka brands. Whiskey’s share is only 0.5%; but it is growing at explosive rates, and whiskey now account for two thirds of all spirits imports. Indigenous distilleries are sprouting up and conditions appear favorable for this growth to continue.

In the Soviet period, the only spirits available to most citizens were vodka and cognac from the Caucasus – a point illustrated by Erkin Tuzmukhamedov, one of Russia’s leading sommeliers and author of whiskey books, who got his first taste of Scotch by taking sips on the sly from the bottles his diplomat father brought home from abroad. This changed with the opening up of markets in the early 1990’s. Whiskey consumption has seen tremendous growth; the SWA says exports to Russia have risen from £5m to £31m in the past decade.

Though starting from a low base in comparison with the biggest Scotch markets, such as the US’ £499m, growth is expected to remain double-digit well into the future for three main reasons. First, rising incomes means Russians can afford to develop more refined tastes. Second, the growing segment of female drinkers favors spirits that can be sipped. Third,  the government plans to quadruple the currently low excise duties on spirits by 2014, thus narrowing the cost differential between vodkas and whiskeys. All this implies growth for blends, which dominate the Russian whiskey market – for a time, Tuzmukhamedov was Dewar’s chief promoter in Russia – and very strong growth for single malts.

Reactions to inquiries about indigenous Russian producers was dismissive, their current presence being described as “fairly negligible.” There are some distilleries that have laid down their own malts, but are currently maturing and won’t be ready for years. One example is Viski Kizlyarskoe, a Daghestan-based brand that in 2008 laid down test run trials of all major types of whiskey – malt, grain, and blended – and is building a $7m distillery.

Praskoveysky distillery

Praskoveysky distillery

Another is the Praskoveysky distillery based in Stavropol, which has been producing wine and cognac since 1898. In 2008, it expanded into whiskey, starting up production in oak barrels on Irish technology. The factory manager, Boris Pakhunov, claims that it has a better nose than the Jameson that inspired his brand, and the honey tones are sharper.

The first samples from both are coming to market just now, and once in mass production prices are expected to range 300 to 400 rubles ($11-15) – an economy class alternative to vodka and the most popular imported brands in this category, such as White Horse or Famous Grouse.

Later, in May 2010, the Urzhum spirits distillery announced the launch of its own line, headed by “Officer’s Club.” Another increasingly popular approach is to just import whiskeys from abroad and bottle one’s own blends, as done by the Kaliningrad-based distiller Alliance 1892 in February of this year. It’s product, “Seven Yards”, went on sale this May, costing $18 per bottle.

So it’s a beginning of sorts, if not an overly impressive one thus far. Nonetheless, as whiskey’s following grows, this could change. According to Tuzmukhamedov, there are whiskey appreciation societies in the biggest cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg: “I’ve met ordinary guys who save their money to go on holiday to Islay – that’s not affectation, that’s appreciation of the drink.” He should know, as he runs Dewar’s new whiskey academy in Moscow, whose one month courses have become very popular with restaurateurs.

Whither now? Tuzmukhamedov is very skeptical that whiskey will ever displace vodka as Russia’s national drink, because vodka has the weight of tradition behind it and goes much better with the staples of the Russian diet. Though there is a lot of room for growth remaining, he expects it to eventually level off. Russian whiskeys are likely to become more prevalent on the Russian market, and some may even be exported. There is an antecedent for this in Baltika beer, which began brewing in 1990 on foreign techniques and can now be found in Western supermarkets.

That said, there is still a long way to go. According to Tamerlan Paragulgov, the director of an alcohol standards agency, many of the fledgling Russian whiskey makers still have fairly obsolete marketing standards; case in point, the Praskoveysky winery and cognac distillery is still run in a leisurely and paternalistic fashion as a Soviet-style enterprise. Another problem, according to Tuzmukhamedov, is that it is very hard for a small producer like Praskoveysky to establish itself in competition against the big names.

The experiments of today’s Russian whiskey producers may garner interest among whiskey circles in Russia, but they will have to get more serious about marketing and raising capital if their products are to break out into the wider market.

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