Whiskey going out of style

By Korea Herald

Bacardi Korea aims for leadership in white spirits market

  • Published : Oct 14, 2013 - 19:25
  • Updated : Oct 14, 2013 - 19:25
Brian Lee, general manager of Bacardi Korea. 
(Lee sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Brian Lee, general manager of Bacardi Korea, admits he is not a heavy drinker. But he enjoys cocktails while dining out or during a party with friends. Among other things, he has a taste for quality alcohol beverages.

The young, ambitious businessman in his 30s is one of the very target consumers who Bacardi, the world’s third largest spirits company, hopes to lure.

Korea is still one of the largest whiskey consuming countries. But more recently a growing number of people, especially the younger generations, are turning away from “brown spirits” to white, such as vodka, rum and tequila.

Last year when alcohol beverage imports increased 4 percent in Korea, those for whiskey fell 14 percent. In the first half of this year, whiskey sales also decreased 13.5 percent from a year ago.

“I wouldn’t say whiskey consumers are replaced with those enjoying white spirits, considering their price differences. I think a new breed of drinking culture is emerging here,” the Bacardi Korea chief told The Korea Herald in a recent interview.

“Younger generations no longer accept the old business practice of entertaining important clients with expensive whiskey. Instead they enjoy less expensive cocktails, which are more stylish and cool as well.”

Bacardi, the Hamilton, Bermuda-based company, entered the Korean market in 2007 when its global rivals such as Pernod Ricard and Diageo were garnering huge profits from whiskey sales.

In a market where local soju and beer are widely consumed while the premium market was dominated by whiskey, Bacardi, which is more specialized in rum and other white spirits, maintained a low profile for years.

In 2009, after the financial crisis hit the world and people’s consumption overall, the headquarters appointed Lee, then marketing manager, as the first full-time country chief to more promptly respond to local demands.

“It took only two hours for me to accept the offer,” he said. “Bacardi was already an established global brand but still a small player in Korea, which meant full growth potential.”

Last year, Bacardi posted a stunning 60 percent growth in sales here. Except for vodka, where Pernod Ricard’s Absolut Vodka is the best-selling product, Bacardi is topping all other white-spirit categories.

“It is difficult to change the old drinking habits of middle aged consumers. But younger generations are more open to new culture. Even when they get older and are equipped with more financial capabilities, it is unlikely for them to seek whiskey,” he said.

“We are not here for short-term profits. We are trying to penetrate a new kind of drinking ritual.”

With an aim to capitalize on the new drinking trend, Pernod Ricard and Diageo are also bringing more white spirit products into Korea recently. But Lee showed confidence in competing with them.

“Even though we are the late-comer, people have yet to have preference for a specific brand now. More importantly, more players will expand the market overall, changing attitude of consumers and retailers as well,” he said.

Lee predicted another 30 percent growth in sales this year, saying: “This year or next year will be a tipping point for our next big leap.”

“We have yet to introduce our ready-to-drink and whiskey products ― two strong weapons that are already successful in overseas markets. When our presence grows high enough, we would step up offensive in the market.”

By Lee Ji-yoon (