It’s a big world out there.
This is true generally, as well as specifically in terms of whisky. What you see here on MALT is a small fraction of a small fraction of what actually gets consumed across the globe.
For instance, if I asked you to guess the three fastest growing whisky brands (by absolute volume), how many of you would have guessed “Imperial Blue,” “Royal Stag,” or “McDowell’s?” And yet, per London’s IWSR research group, these relative unknowns led the world. You’d have to go to #24 on the list to find Jim Beam, the first name that might ring a bell for most of us.
Whisky and whiskey account for 13% of global spirits by volume and 20% by revenue, equating to $63 bn of sales. Emerging markets are a major growth driver, with countries like Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the notorious “BRICs”) expected to drive nearly 6% annual consumption growth over the next five years. Yet, as noted above, much of this will be in forms that those of us in the developed world have never heard of or experienced.
A recent trip to Peru produced some interesting insights about the local whisky scene. I returned home with three bottles that provided snapshots of the past, present, and future of whisky in the country. I intend to review all three; this is the first in the series.
In terms of foreign brands, Diageo seems to dominate the market with its Johnnie Walker range. Bottles of the Red and Black labels were ubiquitous behind bars and on retail shelves, but the premium Gold and Blue labels also seemed in good supply. Pernod-Ricard’s Chivas Regal made appearances as well, but it’s clear that King Johnnie rules the realm of whisky in Peru.
However, the relatively high prices of those expressions (consistent with what we’d pay on store shelves in the U.S. or U.K.) mean that the majority of Peru’s 32 million people would be hard-pressed to afford them, given the per capital gross national income of $13,000, adjusted for purchasing power.
When I inquired about Peruvian whisky, a bodega owner informed me “Es solo ‘Old Times.’” This is the national whisky brand of the Cartavio Rum Company, located in the city of Cartavio on Peru’s northern coast. Started in 1929, it was nationalized in 1938 and underwent a series of mergers and reorganizations before being rechristened in 2013. In addition to the namesake rum, the company produces vodka, gin and whisky, and also serves as the importer for brands such as Jose Cuervo and Rémy Martin.
The company’s timeline highlights the acquisition of the “chemical and liquor plants” of a competitor in 1994, which gives you an idea about the philosophical orientation towards spirits production. The current kit includes a 4,000 liter still, as well as a continuous distillation column for the production of neutral grain spirits.
Old Times is the bottom shelf whisky option across Peru. Full-sized bottles of the Red label are priced around S/ 20 (US$7), with the black label closer to S/ 30 (US$10). Bottled at 40%, the ingredients (per the bottle) include malt whisky, “extraneutral ethyl alcohol,” purified water, and caramel color. I was able to acquire a 200 ml, which I will now proceed to review:
Old Times Blended Rare Selection Red – Review
Color: Pale gold with peach glints
On the nose: Fruity, with a sickly-sweet aroma of overripe pineapple. Green grass, blonde wood, a faintly nutty note of cashews. Some apple juice and bell pepper scents as well. Lots of sweet, almost chemical notes of grain alcohol. Breathe too deeply, and this starts to induce the gag reflex. Forgive me, but there’s actually the ineffable pungent gastric juiciness and plastic aromas of vomit in a hot taxicab with pleather seats.
In the mouth: Despite my misgivings about the nose, I’m taking a sip of this. Ah, that’s not so bad. Starts with a warmly woody flavor and the syrupy nuance of boiled fruit. The midpalate is innocuous, with a featureless texture that might charitably be described as “smooth.” On the finish, there’s another lingering scent of vanilla; not the type imparted by oak, but rather an extracted, synthetic version concocted in a laboratory and executed in a factory at economic scale.
I thought I might have had a candidate for a 1/10, based on the foulness of the nose. The palate saves this by way of not being disgusting, though it’s clear that the industrial approach to distillation has resulted in a blend that emphasizes the chemical aspects of the output, particularly the grain component.
There’s not many blends for which Johnnie Walker Red would be an upgrade, but that seems to be the case here. If this is what passes for whisky in Peru, then they’re right to embrace the Scottish colonialization of the market. However, I’ve got a bottle of artisanal Peruvian whisky which will hopefully produce more promising results. Watch this space.