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Greek Whisky

0 Comments 🕔30.Oct 2013
Greek Whisky Review

According to the World Health Organization’s (2011) Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, the region with the greatest per capita consumption of alcohol is Europe, including the former Soviet states. In 2005, Europeans aged 15 and older drank more than 12 liters of pure alcohol per year, distributed in diverse kinds of proofs and flavors. If asked to map the quintessential drinking patterns that define the various corners of Europe, what would you draw? Your sketch of alcohol consumption would probably highlight spirits in Northern and Eastern Europe, beer in Central Europe, and wine in Southern Europe. Perhaps you would then superimpose circles representing regional specialty drinks, such as Southern Italian limoncello, Czech absinthe, or Basque patxaran. In any given country, the mix of beverage types will fluctuate due to taxation, import limits, and overall availability, in addition to advertising blitzes and media exposure. Reflecting these factors, the contours of your alcohol map will become increasingly messy, yet more intriguing, with each overlay. In Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity, Tryfon Bampilis has crafted a nuanced explication of the thorough yet variegated incorporation of a Scottish distilled beverage into the drinking map of modern Greece.

Leveraging ethnographic research conducted at the conclusion of Greece’s latest seemingly robust economic boom, this book explores conspicuous consumption at the confluence of two theoretical frameworks: the perspective of commoditization and commodity fetishism established by Marx and later social scientists who elaborated this line of argument, and the creation of relationships through exchanges and gifts (outlined by Mauss and refined by many others). Greek Whisky may be seen as one of the latest in the series of books focused on individual commodities such as sugar (e.g., Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power), and how they are embedded in larger systems of production and exchange. Bampilis further locates his study with the writings of Appadurai, Kopytoff, and Weiner on the socially embedded transit of material things. The recent social history of Greek whisky resides comfortably within this resulting theoretical scaffolding. Ironically, Bampilis frequently uses the word ‘flow’ to describe how this one particular liquid stylishly makes its way to modern(izing) Greek social gatherings.


Next, the author recounts the political economy of market penetration by UK whisky producers as one of the latest cultural invasions of alcohol into the Greek drinking regimen (such as the Bavarian beer accompanying the importation of modern Greece’s first monarch, Othon). Greece’s dramatically expanding post-World War II and post-Civil War economy served as an appealing target for distilleries eager to distribute their products in emerging markets, even if they were as relatively small as its own. The book portrays this transnational process as a succinct illustration of globalization, through the replacement of local production by the muscular takeover of multinational corporations into commodity distribution. An insight offered via interviews with Greek alcohol industry executives is that the consolidation of 80 percent of Greece’s alcohol distribution in the hands of just three multinationals in recent years is not merely an intrusive process by foreign firms; Greek companies, anticipating these developments, often took an active role in mergers and acquisitions in order to join (Bampilis uses the term ‘marry’) larger multinationals with extensive brand portfolios.

The book then turns to a content analysis of one of the key vectors transmitting the way to incorporate the use of whisky into shorthand statements about one’s own status and relationships in a rapidly changing society: Greek cinema of the latter half of the past century, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. A cascade of entertaining summaries of popular Greek films highlights the way in which whisky plays a key role in signaling modernity (and corruption) in repetitious plots featuring stars playing essentially the same roles. Either as an extravagant beverage marking upward social mobility or as a devious offering to spoil rural innocents, cinematic whisky served as a convenient mechanism to illustrate tensions between tradition and modernization. Now that paid product placement is such a pervasive feature of Hollywood films in the twenty-first century, is there any evidence that some sort of payola from scotch distributors took place in the Greek film industry in its golden age as well? Even though Bampilis did not find such a smoking gun, he notes that the assembly-line studio writers leaned heavily on conventions such as the romantic gestures of men lighting cigarettes for women, and for whisky (vs. wine) consumption, as a clear sign of breaking with traditional Greek culture.

With the advent of Greece’s repressive military dictatorship in 1967 – which effectively demolished the nation’s cinematic studio system – Bampilis argues that polished marketing and pervasive advertising took over as the leading mediascape venues to promote whisky to Greeks. Playfully drawing on locally resonant tropes (e.g., shepherds and soccer fanatics) to incorporate global whisky brands, as well as pointing to the drink’s prestige, such advertisements helped to provide the rationale for individuals to invest often scarce household funds in these bottled status symbols.

The heart of the book offers a uniquely timed analysis of ethnographic data collected between 2004 and 2007, just prior to Greece’s most recent recession/depression/economic implosion, informed by the sad hindsight of the collapse of infrastructure that permitted the widespread extravagant use of whisky. Accordingly, the author writes in the ethnographic present selectively when immersed in fieldwork accounts from urban Athens and rural Skyros – two settings where he can claim insider or local status through both kinship and residence. In other more global or historical passages, the past tense predominates.

Through the consumption of whisky, drinkers can send the message that they embrace modernity and are feeling decidedly anti-domestic. The advertising and media encouragement of marking celebratory and significant moments with close friends away from the traditional hearth has become unconsciously embodied in modern Greek drinking practice. Additionally, Bampilis documents how context matters: Urban Athenian nightclubs and rural Skyrian coffeehouses or bars display distinctly differing rules involving how the drinks are ordered, shared, and consumed. Although there are some quotes from both field settings, the detailed recounting of what those rules are for drinking occasions by people from different occupational, class, and gender roles are rendered from an analytical distance. Perhaps as frequent as his own interview material is a corpus of careful and extensive reference to extant works on the performance of social relations, especially through drinking rituals, by such scholars of Greece as Herzfeld, Papataxiarchis, Cowan, and Stewart.

This wide-ranging book features the insights of a local who has the experience of educational training elsewhere in Europe. Echoing C. Wright Mills’ term, the ‘sociological imagination’, Greek Whisky displays an anthropological imagination as it handily changes scale from multinational product flows to intimate exchanges of drinks, and emotion, in big-city nightclubs and island village bars. Bampilis aptly demonstrates that these tiny fleeting details and grand political-economic trends are thoroughly interdependent.

Reviewed by Roland Moore of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation

Greek Whisky: The Localization of a Global Commodity
By Tryfon Bampilis
Berghahn Books
Hardcover / 268 pages / April 2013
ISBN:  978-0-85745-877-3

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