Scotch whisky as symbol of Greek identity

If asked what is typical of Greek national culture, whisky would probably not be the first thing to spring to mind. Nonetheless, the Scottish variant of this beverage is an integral part of the Greek national identity. How come? Anthropologist Tryfon Bampilis, himself Greek and a whisky-lover, decided to base his PhD research on this phenomenon.

Made in England

‘It's an incredible cultural phenomenon,’ Bampilis enthuses. In 1969, hardly anyone in the Greek archipelago drank whisky. In the eighties, Greece suddenly became one of the five countries in the world where whisky consumption was the highest per head of the population. And this increase has continued ever since. 'Now you can find whisky in every bar or nightclub,' he says. 'Bottles of whisky can be bought on more or less every street corner. What is it that happened in this period? It has to do with the role played by Great Britain in the development of Greek awareness, and the role played by England in Greece's independence. There is a Greek expression for products known for their high quality: made in England! A further factor is the long-time ban on another important beverage, vodka, that has strong associations with communism.'  

Not exotic

Bampilis found it remarkable that most studies into alcohol in Greece focused on ouzo or raki; imported products were ignored. This didn't reflect what he saw around him, namely the high consumption of whisky and its presence in marketing and advertising. 'Anthropological studies are often carried out by people from outside the country and they look for more exotic subjects,' is how he explains this lack of acadamic interest. 'But as an insider, you look at things differently.' To chart the social aspects of whisky he pursued a number of different routes, including film, advertising and consumers. He focused attention particularly on Greek popular films from the sixties. Although at that time very little whisky was consumed, the drink was positioned as a symbol of modern times and high status. Whisky was being commercialised.' 

Tryfon Bampilis: ‘Now you can find whisky in every bar or nightclub.'

Pop music and poker

But he also looked at how consumers themselves used whisky to cultivate a particular lifestyle. For his research he localised the drink in an urban context, the nightlife of Athens, and in a more agrarian setting, on the less well-known island of Skyros. Bampilis: ‘I come from Athens, myself. In particular clubs and cafés where there is live music, eighty per cent of the visitors drink Scotch; women as well as men. Whisky is associated with pop music, entertainment and youth culture. But the Greek whisky culture is far from homogeneous. On Skyros, whisky is a drink for relatively high-earning workers. Whisky is a feature of how workers distinguish themselves from the farm labourers and herdsmen who live on the island. Whisky is also popular in places where poker is played. All in all, the drink is associated with a non-conformist lifestyle, with rowdiness and manliness.'  

National identity

Both in Athens and on Skyros, whisky consumption at times runs counter to the image of the drink created by advertisers. 'Of all the alcoholic beverages drunk in Greece, whisky has the biggest advetising budget,' according to Bampilis. 'It is striking that in adverts whisky is portrayed as a national product. National symbols such as the Olympic stadium are coupled with Scottish grouse. What's strange is that whisky is becoming steadily more 'Greek', while ouzo has become a drink almost exclusively for tourists. On the other hand, advertising also positions whisky in the market as a drink for well-off business people; for men in suits who can afford that glass of whisky.'

Creative process

These different aspects of the whisky culture have left Bampilis with an optimistic feeling about his research. He can use it to show that globalisation is not always negative. 'Globalisation doesn't just lead to homogenisation and westernisation,' he says. 'I regard consumption as a creative process, in which all the payers, businesses, expressions of popular culture and consumers all give meaning to a product. It is a misconception that major capitalist businesses impose a product on powerless citizens. There is a permanent interchange. Consumers incorporate into their daily life products that are sold worldwide. There is no one-on-one relation between advertising, film or street images. Everyone uses the product for his own purposes. That, too, is globalisation.'  

PhD defence Wednesday 10 February
Tryfon Bampilis
“Greek whisky”, The localization of a global commodity
Faculty: Social and Behavioural Sciences
Supervisor: Prof. P.J. Pels

Research profile area

Global interactions of people, cultures and power through the ages

(9 February 2010)

Last Modified: 11-02-2010