ASK ANYONE who travels in emerging markets or developing economies, and chances are they've been offered Johnnie Walker. These are just some of the places I've seen it poured: at a Beijing gathering of techies, a four-day wedding in Jaipur, countless bars in Dubai, a Nile cruise in Egypt, the home of an Arab diplomat in Bangkok, private homes in Tehran, a middle-class Istanbul house, and diplomatic parties in Riyadh.
Journalists who spent time in Baghdad during the Iraq war marveled at the easy availability of Johnnie Walker Black Label, even when food staples were scarce. The late writer Christopher Hitchens -- who fondly referred to the drink as "Mr. Walker's amber restorative" -- accurately noted that Black Label was "the favorite drink of the Iraqi Baath Party." In Saddam Hussein's era, a smuggler could make a good living taking crates across the border for thirsty Iranians. On a trip from Tehran to Iran's Kurdish regions on the Iran-Iraq border in the late 1990s, I stopped at the small city of Mahabad. A local smuggler peered into the car window, saw a group of city slickers from the capital, and asked simply in his Persian accent: "Johnnie Valker?" He, of course, offered us "very good price, my friend."
It's uncanny, the ubiquity of the striding Scot and his blended whisky (no "e" for the Scottish kind). It's everywhere, particularly among the upper end of the middle classes that the world's corporations are chasing. In Thailand, businessmen place a bottle of Black Label on the table before a closing negotiation. In Japan, bottles have become an essential part of the ritualized gift-giving culture. In India, one of Bollywood's most famous comedians even took the name Johnny Walker. It's such a status symbol in Asia that Johnnie Walker knockoffs aren't hard to find. You probably wouldn't want to serve guests the counterfeit liquor, but the bottle looks good on the mantle.
And in Africa, the newest gold mine of emerging markets, Diageo is cultivating a fresh generation of whisky drinkers. In downtown Nairobi, a 20-story billboard of the Striding Man towers alongside a skyscraper. African musicians and athletes have been named "brand ambassadors," and premium magazines are running a series of print ads that say simply: "Step Up." As in, step up to a better life, step up to the middle class, step up from that stale beer to a higher state of being: Become a whisky drinker. The print advertisement hawks Red Label, the brand's cheapest distillation (a favorite of Winston Churchill, with soda) and the presumptive first step in Johnnie Walker's color-coded upward journey through Black, Green, and Gold labels toward that nirvana of prestige: Blue Label.
The campaign seems to be working. Johnnie Walker sales are up 38 percent in East Africa and 33 percent in South Africa, and Diageo is doubling down, investing $368 million to expand operations in Nigeria, Africa's biggest market.
It's a classic strategy: reach the growing middle classes by selling them not just a product, but a lifestyle, an aspiration. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz often talks about selling an experience; coffee is an afterthought. The message from Diageo is similar: Keep Walking, you emerging middle classes; keep rising, and oh, by the way, treat yourself to a little Johnnie Walker while you're at it.
SO HOW did a little whisky company from a little country become the global brand of upward mobility? Or, to repurpose a question once posed by Scottish judge Lord Cockburn, no fan of his countrymen's favored drink: "Whisky no doubt is a devil; but why has this devil so many worshippers?"
In 1819, a young John Walker, the son of a local farmer, opened a small general store on King Street in Kilmarnock, a town in Ayrshire, Scotland. A general grocer, Walker also sold wines and spirits, including his own blended whiskies. The author Robert Bruce Lockhart noted that Walker's "capital was tiny and his business small and purely local," but he "had his full share of Ayrshire grit and thrift." For the first 30 years, his business was steady but unremarkable and "gave no indication of the fortune that was to come," Lockhart wrote in his 1951 book Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story. In 1852, a devastating flood nearly ruined Walker. He lost everything and had no insurance.