How to make the Lebanese fall in love with single malt whisky

BEIRUT: Whisky drinkers in Lebanon looking for something different may find themselves well-served by a visit to Beirut’s Phoenicia Hotel. Under the influence of its founder’s grandson, Makram Salha, the luxury hotel is seeking to cultivate single malt connoisseurs in a country more accustomed to Johnnie Walker. 

Its restaurant Eau de Vie currently offers around 350 whiskies from 150 distilleries, with a heavy focus on Scottish single malts. A floor-to-ceiling glass cabinet adjacent to the entrance showcases a dense selection of serious-looking bottles – what Salha calls a “sweet shop for adults.”

Eight years ago, “we were no different from anyone else ... we were serving plenty of blends, but very few single malts,” Salha said. At the end of 2006, he left his banking career in London, returning to Beirut with his passion for single malts and other premium spirits. “There was a massive culture of single malts back there and I had been collecting since the late ’90s.”

While regulations vary across countries, in Scotland – the world’s leading producer – single malts must be produced using malted barley as the only grain and at one distillery. They are also required to be distilled in copper pot stills and aged for at least three years in oak barrels. In general, single malts offer more complex, distinctive flavors than blends.

“All five-star hotels are the same, pretty much. What distinguishes one from another is what you offer.” For the Phoenicia, Salha believed single malt whisky was the way to stand out.

When he launched his project at the beginning of 2007, it “received a lot of resistance because [Lebanon] was very much a blended whisky market. A lot of people said you’re crazy ... nobody understands single malts. They’re more expensive than blends; will people actually spend the money?”

Single malts also taste very different from popular, accessible blends like Johnnie Walker Black Label, Dewar’s and Chivas, he noted.

Starting with an initial collection of 150 bottles, the venture took a year to gain steam. “We really had to work hard on our customers,” he recalled, citing education as the most crucial factor in creating the market.

While a few major distilleries, such as Macallan and Glenfiddich, now have dedicated brand ambassadors who regularly visit Lebanon to conduct industry and VIP consumer trainings, Salha initially trained his own staff.

“If they want something that encompasses the whole of Scotland in one bottle, then recommend [one from] Highland Park. If they like a smoky flavor, recommend something from Islay. It was hard work on the staff’s bit.”

“Once the hard work is done, then it’s all word of mouth.”

He says demand at the restaurant has been growing since 2008, and over the past few years, he has noticed a “huge demand” for single malts in Lebanon. Shops exclusively selling single malts have cropped up and consumers regularly buy bottles to stock their bars at home.

“The problem here is they purchase on someone else’s taste,” he said, pointing to the recent craze for the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 after British critic Jim Murray ranked it last year as the world’s best whisky. “Japanese whisky has been around for a while and suddenly they’re all talking about it.”

“In general, Lebanese drinkers, bar a few connoisseurs you can count on one or two hands are ... absolutely label drinkers. They don’t have palates,” he said, also extending his criticism to wine drinkers.

“They want to open a wine if it has the right label. It’s all about showing off. ... He’ll [order] a Lafite and he’ll want the bottle on the table because he wants everybody to see, even though they’ve put [the wine] in a decanter already.”

While other luxury hotels have caught on to single malts, Salha does not see them as competition. “We are not insecure about our position,” he said, noting that Eau de Vie’s collection remains by far the most extensive.

“Competition means education, and the more people who go and try single malts, whether it’s here or at another hotel or bar, it just creates an up-and-up.”

While he has managed to carve out a niche market for single malts, the country’s unstable security situation has scared off a core part of Eau de Vie’s customer base.

“The Gulf Arabs don’t come very much anymore. The ones that do come have either business or families here. ... They’re waiting until things actually calm down once and for all. They’ve given [Lebanon] a chance one too many times.

“Syria has to be resolved. I also believe an agreement of some sort between Iran and Saudi Arabia has to be made. Until then, we’re in a lull.”

Salha believes any solutions in the near future won’t last, because “the fundamental issues would not have been resolved... Unfortunately our fate lies in the hand of other countries."

"I heard from many people that they couldn’t sleep at night without drinking a bottle of whisky [during the Civil War],” he noted, but it’s “not single malt if it has to do with war.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 30, 2015, on page 2.




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