The Whisky That Captivated Colombia

How Grand Old Parr, a little-known Speyside Scotch, became a South American obsession.

Every spring, in the north Colombian countryside, the city of Valledupar holds its annual Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata, a four-day celebration of the region’s music, known as vallenata. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the local stadium and surrounding town plazas where cowboy trios belt out the indigenous, accordion-heavy music, while locals sip a blended Scotch that has become something of a national obsession.

“Love love love love love of my soul,” sings Silvestre Dangond in “10,000 Litros de Old Parr” his 2009 paean to Grand Old Parr, the whisky that has become Colombia’s preferred spirit.

Launched in 1909, the Speyside Scotch takes its name from an Englishman who allegedly lived to the age of 152. It’s meant to denote the seniority of the spirit itself, which has an age statement of 12 years in its youngest and most common expression, and retails for around 100,000 pesos, or $30 U.S. Owned by Diageo since 1997, the precise makeup of the whisky is unclear (Old Parr doesn’t even have a website), but Cragganmore, another Speyside whisky, is thought to be a major component of the blend. Packaged in unusual, brown “turtle shell” bottles, Old Parr is technically sold in North America, though I’ve never come across it, nor has it been reviewed by Whisky Advocate, which currently touts over 4,000 reviews in its comprehensive database.

Yet somehow this virtually unknown whisky moves 2.5 million bottles per year in Colombia, where it also commands 52 percent of the country’s whisky market. (For context, all of AB InBev’s products combined make up 41 percent of the U.S. beer market.)

“It’s ubiquitous. If you go to Colombia the first thing you notice is it is the whisky in every single restaurant,” says Mark Byrne, a spirits writer and liquor consultant who started visiting the country regularly in 2015.

The traditional liquor of Colombia is their version of aguardiente (sugarcane-based and anise-flavored) while, on the Caribbean coast, rum is popular as well. Byrne suspects that some of Old Parr’s renown owes to the fact that its explicitly not Colombian, lending a particular status. “It’s an import, a Scotch import, and in a lot of places that aren’t America, drinking imports is a flex,” says Byrne. “It’s strange because Colombia doesn’t have a historical connection to the whisky. It’s, of course, not produced there, it uses no ingredients from there, it could have just as easily been Johnnie Walker Red that took off.”

The closest cultural connection the country can claim would be the city of Valledupar, which, due to its coincidental name, has adopted the moniker “Valle de Cacique Old Parr” (Valley of Grand Old Parr). The moniker becomes less coincidental, however, when you take into account Valledupar’s proximity to the Venezuelan border. It was Venezuela that first received Old Parr in the 1950s (Colombia was, at that time, still in the midst of La Violencia, a countrywide civil war). By the 1960s, as guerilla conflicts were heating up, it began illegally crossing the border into Colombia through Maicao, a well-known contraband port where electronics, oil and cigarettes were already entering the country.

“As with many things that happen in Colombia, Old Parr [beginning] as a contraband product is one of those ‘everybody knows that’s how it is’ facts,” says Colombian-born writer Efraín Villanueva, who grew up hearing such tales from his older relatives. Only in 1971 did Old Parr begin being distributed legally in the country. (Given the disparity between the cheaper prices at corner stores and the inflated prices of big chain stores, Villanueva believes a good portion of the whisky still comes into Colombia as contraband.)

Whatever the case, Old Parr’s popularity only continues to grow. According to market researcher Hitesh Bhasin of Marketing91, Old Parr is one of the 20 best-selling Scotches in the entire world, mainly thanks to Colombia’s thirst for it. Diageo has leaned into its unexpected market: Old Parr’s official Instagram and Facebook pages are presented entirely in Spanish, populated with images from Medellín and Bogota. In 2014, Diageo even opened a standalone duty-free store in Bogota Airport. That same year, a special Old Parr Tribute—a blend of bourbon- and sherry-cask Scotch, presented in a brown decanter—was released exclusively for the Colombian market. “We wanted to thank the Colombians in some way for being the biggest consumers of this whisky, for their love of the brand,” explained Juan Sergio Valcárcel, then-director of marketing and innovation at Diageo Colombia.

As for the Old Parr-crooning Silvestre Dangond, in 2012 he partnered with the brand on a special signature bottle, which sold out quickly. This year, he’s slated to perform on the main stage at Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata, his fame in the vallenata community still stemming from that 2009 song. While most of the 40,000 concert attendees will be swigging Old Parr, Dangond will not. His international concert travel has led to him discovering a new obsession, “a French drink that is very traditional in the weekend breakfasts of the Americans“: the Mimosa.

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