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Cheers to drinks with a difference!

Craft rum. Vodquila. Non-alcoholic drink options. There’s a reason they’re popular and Mbali Zondo can tell us just why.

Want to know if you’ll still be using your gin infusion kit next summer, or which red blend will make your guests swoon? Mbali Zondo, group marketing manager at Norman Goodfellows, is the person to ask.

With a background in PR and event organising, Mbali’s career has always had a strong social element – and, of course, where there are people, there’s food and drink. In fact, socialising is one of her great loves, along with feeding people (although she confesses she’s a baker rather than a cook), so her position at one of South Africa’s well-known liquor chains suits her perfectly. ‘I love being exposed to new brands and different types of drinks,’ she enthuses – which is why every Friday afternoon finds her browsing the aisles of her store, trying a new brand or figuring out what’s driving sales of another.

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Yes, she confirms – that’s just as much fun as it sounds, but it’s useful, too. ‘From a professional perspective, you can’t build a brand if you’ve only experienced it on paper. I also like the fact that I’m able to give my friends personal recommendations.’ And what, exactly, would those recommendations be? ‘If we’re talking winter drinks, you can’t go wrong with a red wine or red blend. But I also recently tasted a whisky espresso cocktail that’s perfect for chilly nights.’

If she’s choosing her own drinks, Mbali opts for bubbles or gin. Valdo Floral Prosecco gets her thumbs-up, especially because she can never resist a beautiful bottle. As she says, ‘A drink must look as good as it tastes!’. That’s also why she favours Catherine Marshall’s reds and Chenin Blanc – although, great art direction on the wine labels aside, she’s an enthusiastic supporter of women in the drinks industry. It’s not surprising then, that she also lists Ntsiki Biyela’s Aslina wines among her favourites – after all, Biyela was one of the first black women winemakers in South Africa and Mbali is especially passionate about the advancement of women. When it comes to gin, The Botanist is her pick, garnished with blueberries, grapefruit and cucumber to get the perfect balance of floral and citrus notes.

About that gin … Mbali predicts that the craft bottles on our shelves may still have a place for some time, but it won’t be long before they’re joined by rum. This is one of the most exciting spaces in the drinks industry, she reports … a trend that’s pushed by the proliferation of pop-up rum restaurants, giving us a chance to experience the spirit as never before. Experimentation is all part of the fun, but for those who wish to stay away from the strong stuff, there’s also a significant turn to low- or non-alcoholic beers … a great choice for those who want to be able to enjoy a good party and still get up early for a cycle the next day.

Mbali notes that the interest in alcohol-free beverages may also be attributed to the growing concern about ethical eating. ‘There’s an increased demand for natural, organic ingredients – and drinks trends always follow food,’ she observes. This also explains why we’re seeing more food and wine pairings – and for those who are still daunted by the notion of finding the perfect Merlot to match their meat, there’s usually a new food festival or rooftop market where someone in the know can share their expertise.

Also, there’s the Instagram explosion of people hoarding ice buckets of pricey bubbles at these events – a phenomenon which may baffle the average South African, but which Mbali explains is all down to the need for social acceptance. ‘South Africans love to splash and splurge on expensive brands to show they can,’ she says. This is one of the peculiarities of our market, which is amplified by our diversity. On the plus side, that diversity means there are literally thousands of palates distillers and winemakers can appeal to, and some are doing so with surprising results. Enter the vodquila (a mix of vodka and tequila), along with flavoured beers and gin cocktails.

Of course, says Mbali, for every person who wants to play with flavours, there’s a loyalist who wouldn’t dream of ordering a different brand of cognac. And while that’s understandable, she wishes more people would try South African brands which, she believes, ‘don’t get the shine they deserve’. It helps to have more celebrities releasing their own beverages: Think I Am Khanyi – Khanyi Mbau’s gin or Bonang Mathebe’s House of BNG MCC Brut Rosé, because these brands have undeniable sparkle, encouraging more people to sample them. What’s interesting though, is that these famous folk have actually had a hand in the creation of their drinks, rather than simply endorsing them, which makes the celebrity tipple space a particularly interesting one to watch, according to Mbali.

It’s all a sign that the industry is changing, she continues – and it’s something she’s proud of. With brands like whisky label Glen Scotia undertaking initiatives to boost ethical consumption (it’s adopted 100 000 bees to preserve the species and improve sustainability), there’s a new standard in ‘drinks that make a difference’. Mbali would like this attitude extended to other areas of the industry. Her personal bugbear is the perception of people who work in the industry as lushes who do nothing but swill drinks all day. It’s an image she hopes will change as consumers are educated about the good the alcohol industry can achieve. And on the subject of things that need to change, she’d like to see greater participation by young black women, along with clear-cut career paths for them to follow.

We’ll drink to that! Details: @mbals on Instagram; @Mbals24 on Twitter

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