Shirleen Muita

Shirleen Muita, Macallan Single Malt Scottish Whisky Brand Ambassador.

| Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Ambassadors and influencers who want you to have a drink

What you need to know:

  • In Kenya’s urban centres, tastings and pairings of dinner and wine or whiskey are all the rage.
  • Beverage makers, local and international, are now hiring influential personalities to drive their products’ presence in Kenya.

They drink, have a good time and pocket their cheque. Such is the life of alcohol ambassadors and influencers.

As consumer behaviour shifts globally, so have marketing strategies. In the alcohol landscape, beverage makers, local and international, are now hiring influential personalities to drive their products’ presence in Kenya. 

It’s just after sunset and guests are settling down at an exclusive restaurant in Nairobi’s Westlands.
For two hours, celebrity wine consultant Victoria Munywoki will teach the 30 or so guests how to pair different premium wine brands from Africa with a four course dinner, featuring sous vide prawns, pan-seared sole fillet, twice-cooked beef fillet and cheesecake and cranberry compote for dessert.

Across the street at another restaurant, Antoine Chidi is meeting an exclusive group of city whiskey enthusiasts for a “masters of smoke tasting experience” over dinner. This Ugandan national is the face of two Scotch whiskies.

In Kenya’s urban centres, tastings and pairings of dinner and wine or whiskey are all the rage, in keeping with the growing sophistication of Kenyan palates. From aged scotch whiskeys to vintage wine and gin varieties, Kenyans with disposable income are always down to spending a pretty penny on alcohol.

Subsequently, distilleries and wineries in the world have in Kenya a reliable and vibrant market. These have set up base in the country, which is also considered a strategic base for entry into the regional alcohol market – to capitalise on the growing number of big spenders and adventure seekers. 

To do this, brand ambassadors, influencers and consultants are a critical cog. Victoria, Shirleen Muita, Williams Magunga and Antoine are some of the personalities who live off the glass, literally.

But what specifically do these professionals do? How are they spotted by alcohol manufacturers? What are some of the perks that come with this type of job?

Shirleen’s career started seven years ago in Italy, working with liqueur brand Campari. Later, she worked with Moet & Hennessy and Diageo. Currently she’s the regional ambassador for whiskey brand Macallan. With her calendar booked out for the rest of the year, getting Shirleen to sit down for an interview is no mean feat.

If she isn’t training mixologists in Nairobi, Shirleen is either meeting influencers or out of the country to court potential clients in East and Central Africa. 

Interactive wine experiences

“I educate the market on the Macallan range through pairing and tasting events, usually by targeting high net-worth individuals and other influential people in the society,” she says.

On her recruitment, she says: “I’ve been in the alcohol industry for nearly 10 years now. When the job came up, I felt the role fit naturally. So, I applied for it.”

Working with global luxury brands, she says, has shaped her career, with each engagement anchoring her on her subsequent assignment.

The first time Williams ever attended a tasting event, he couldn’t make head or tail of notes of smoke, wood or apples. He sat out the proceedings before heading home more confused.

"I couldn’t discern the flavours the other attendees were talking about," the content creator says. "I had to attend several events to understand how to drink gin and to detect its essence."

These days Williams curates experiences for Scottish gin Hendricks and shares it on social media, travels and attends cocktail parties for a living.

Among wine experts in Kenya, few, if any, would hold a candle to Victoria, a wine consultant and founder of Cellar254, a wine store. Victoria’s job is threefold.

“I do wine advocacy, wine appreciation – including wine tastings, pairings and wine training – and cellar management for hotels and private clients (families).”

“I curate immersive and interactive wine experiences for discerning wine lovers with the aim of deepening their sensory experiences,” she says.

Drawing from her global experience on wine education and extensive knowledge of the local wine landscape, Victoria considers herself ‘‘a catalyst’’ for advancing wine appreciation and culture in Kenya.

She says: ‘‘It’s a joyous job that entails simplifying the complex subject that’s wine.”

Victoria Munywoki

Victoria Munywoki, a wine consultant and founder of Cellar254.

Photo credit: Pool

For someone who has lived and worked in Europe, Asia and Africa, a grasp of all the players in the wine chain, including producers and importers, is critical in her line of work.

“Most importantly, you must understand the product, the end user and their culture,” she says. ‘‘I also advise importers on market penetration.’’

In her client portfolio are top accounting firms and banks that have started wine clubs for their staff.

“There are also top executives in the country who like to network in a fun environment of enjoying wine,” she says.

With this kind of clientele, professionalism is key. Victoria holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Strathmore University.

“My desire isn’t just about making people love wine but to make them understand what it is they like about every glass they have.”

For Shirleen, the secret is to have passion for the brand. “You must also be a lover of life and be joyful.’’

‘‘To teach people about gin, you must have all elements about it in your fingertips, from its history, how to drink it and what to blend it with.’’

Unlike Williams and Shirleen who work with specific brands, Victoria partners with companies that “feature local messaging” in their wine production. At the moment, she’s working with six wine brands simultaneously.

The trio, however, concur that the local and regional alcohol landscape has grown dramatically in the past decade, fuelled by the growing number of people with a disposable income, entry of premium drinks into the market and, obviously, alcohol education.

Consumers’ curiosity

On wine, Victoria says Kenya is a country to watch, adding, “There’s no better time to be a wine consultant.”

Kenyans are knowledgeable about wine now more than ever before. Incidentally, Kenya imports more wine varieties than wine producing countries on the continent such as South Africa.

“We’ve moved from the stage of discovery to discernment. There’s a lot of curiosity among consumers who now understand their wine better,” Victoria says.

She adds: “From the number of wine brands currently in the country and the diverse offerings in restaurants, you can tell the Kenyan public has embraced wine.” 

Today, it’s become acceptable to down a glass of wine during brunch and lunch, she notes. Formal events too, whether virtual or in-person, are centred around wine.

“Wine snobbery has gone down significantly. We’ve different age groups enjoying wine. This drink is also no longer for deep-pocketed individuals,” she says.

The popularity of alcohol, like music, falls as fast as it rises. What the majority of drinkers are drinking at any given point is driven by the prevailing wave. There are seasons for whiskey, rum, gin and liqueur, each lasting between a few months and several years. While some drinks make a comeback, others simply crash out of memory.

About 15 years ago, vodka was the in-thing among Kenya drinkers. So popular was it that it was even packaged in sachets before laws were introduced to ban the sale of such small quantities. Then came the whiskey craze. A few years ago, the popularity of gin started growing, again. 

“Gin has been the indisputable drink of the pandemic,” says Williams.

But whether people will drink gin in the current volumes post-pandemic is a question that lingers.

Are drinkers drinking gin now because they love it or just to keep up with the trend?’’

Williams notes that while trends change, personal taste and preferences stick.

Williams Magunga

Williams Magunga is a traveller, content creator and influencer for Hendricks gin.

Photo credit: Pool

Already, whiskey has started to regain popularity beyond its core client base, a development that’s music to Shirleen’s ears.

She says: “The whiskey category is growing [after a lull]. Drinkers here are going back to the classic whiskey on the rocks.”

So, just how much liquid do these professionals consume? What are their drinking habits?

“I don’t drink much,” Shirleen says, and adds, “It’s easy to be lost in this industry. You must drink in moderation.”

Her favourite time to drink is at home after a long day at work. "If not, I go to a nice quiet restaurant where I can enjoy my whiskey while reading a book.”

Hers is a tough palate.

“I like my whiskey neat. Mixing it with other elements spoils the essence for me,” she says, adding that people have different preferences.

Wherever he goes, Williams carries gin with him, except he doesn’t drink as often.

‘‘Self-control is encouraged when working with alcohol brands. Whenever I attend brand events, I let other people have fun. I drink only two glasses.’’

He, like Shirleen, prefers to drink indoors, either with his girlfriend or by hosting his friends for cocktail parties.

Victoria is a social drinker. “I like to drink a glass or two in good company. The wine could be from anywhere in the world. Every bottle tells a story. If it’s well produced and it’s within my radar, I will go for it. If I had to choose a bottle, it would be a Provençal Rosé or a red wine.”

She adds: “When I am tasting and evaluating wines for work, I can go through several samples in which case I spit as professional etiquette demands.”

Then there are the intrigues of being on such a job as a woman. Initially, women drew blank looks whenever they rose to talk about alcohol.

“From drinkers to experts, whiskey in Kenya has been a male dominated industry,” Shirleen says, adding that this coldness has thawed as the market embraces women’s expertise.

“I really enjoy doing this. The job is eye-opening, and there’s still a lot to learn from this market.”

Perks and financial benefits

Marketing through brand ambassadors and influencers, though, is a quicksand. Williams, for instance, admits that online audiences are an impatient lot with aversion for paid partnership content.

‘‘You must be authentic and be invested in your content. Make your stories real,’’ he says, and adds, ‘‘When you’re handling brands that aren’t local, you must make them relatable through the stories you tell.’’

Shirleen agrees, noting that patience is key. Gaining a foothold in the market is a journey that’s fraught with uncertainties, one that could take long depending on the brand’s reception.

On her interaction with other single malt brands, Shirleen says she maintains "a healthy relationship" with competition. “The market is diverse and every brand has done well to create its niche.”

Have Kenyans been receptive to alcohol trainings? Victoria says wine training is “infinite” as demand grows by the day.

“It’s going to get busier this festive season. I’m on a caravan that’s visiting 15 counties until January next year,” she says, noting that trainings now go beyond sommeliers, cellar keepers, waiters and other professionals in the hospitality industry to include families and individuals.

Her propulsion? Lending wine an African voice. She goes on: “Wine training isn’t just about the liquid in your glass. Wine transports you to different places in the world. No two vintages have a similar story.”

Kenyans, she says, have accepted the stories behind wine and started to create “own stories through their wine experiences.”

Does the job pay well? What are some of the perks that come with the job?

Victoria quickly says it’s a “passion job” for her, driven by “the desire to educate the public.”

“I’ve done this for 10 years,” she adds.

Williams says without going to details that ‘‘there are obviously financial benefits that come with the job’’.

He also gets bottles of gin for content creation every month and for personal consumption.