db interview: Nawaf Salameh

db’s Lucy Shaw meets Syrian entrepreneur Nawaf Salameh, who has bold ambitions to put both Romanian single malt whisky and Romanian fine wine on the map.

Nawaf Salameh has bold ambitions for Romanian single malt whisky

Nawaf Salameh never intended to work in the drinks industry. Born in Syria in 1965 to a Christian pharmacist father, perhaps out of a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, he studied for a degree in medicine. “I wanted to leave Syria as soon as I could and was thinking about either going to America or Italy but my mother persuaded me to go to Romania, as she was sure I’d eventually come home if I went there,” Salameh begins.

Somewhat reluctantly, he began an eight-year medicine degree in Romania, and while he doesn’t practice as a doctor today, he feels the training has given him a vital advantage in business in terms of understanding people. “My medicine degree has helped me a lot in the business world as I see things differently to other entrepreneurs. I look further ahead than most.

People talk about five-year plans but I’ve always got a 30-year plan.” He also believes people trust him more in the drinks trade as he’s a doctor and that the qualification has given him more credibility in the business. “I’d never use chemicals in the production of my drinks – that would be a crazy thing for a doctor to do,” he says.

Having graduated, in 1991 Salameh moved to Greece with dreams of becoming a plastic surgeon. After a brief stint working as a doctor he was lured into the food industry by a friend who asked him to go into business with him transporting trucks full of chocolate from Greece into Bulgaria.

Having got a whiff of the sweet smell of success with his chocolate enterprise, his ambition grew and he negotiated with a local bank for them to write him a cheque for $1 million to become a real life Willie Wonka.

“I opened an office and became famous in Greece for selling chocolate,” he reminisces. By the millennium he had grown his export business to include other foods, like spaghetti, and at the same time made his move into drinks.

Moving back to Romania in the year 2000, he bought a vodka company and built a capacious distillery close to Bucharest where he started producing vodkas, brandies and liqueurs. Over the last 17 years he has ambitiously grown his Alexandrion Grup into one of the largest spirits producers in Romania, distributing more than 200 brands, including brandy, whisky, vokda, gin, and vermouth, in 30 countries.

His big ambition in the spirits world is to put Romanian single malt whisky on the map. His whiskies are made in the Scottish method and aged in American oak for up to four years with a second maturation taking place in Romanian oak. He also plans to release different cask finishes, from Sherry casks to Coganc casks, an aim that will be helped by his distribution deal with Camus – Salameh is the sole distributor of Camus Cognac in Romania, so he is hoping for a ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ scenario with his whiskies.

Salameh aims to make fine wine in Romania

As for the names of the brands he creates, he wants his fellow Romanians to come up with them. “We’re making history here but it’s our history, not mine. I want the Romanian people to name my brands,” he says.

Many of the whiskies he makes will be heavily peated to cater to Romanian palates. “Our cuisine is very meat heavy so Romanian people tend to like heavily peated whiskies that stand up to the food,” he says. Like everything he puts his hand to, Salameh is going large on his whisky project, and already has 1,000 casks full of Romanian single malt resting in his cellars.

As far as he knows, he’s the only commercial Romanian whisky producer aside from people making it on a small scale at home – domestic wine and spirits production is huge in Romania, and a nice money-spinner for locals.

Another huge project is his US$100 million investment into building a distillery in New York State in order to make it big in America – a plan five years in the making. Salameh will employ 400 people to work on the project. Construction will begin early next year and production next summer.

“The US market isn’t easy to penetrate. To be present there you must also produce there,” says Salameh, adding, “US production will fully cover the demand for that market, and the rest will be exported. It is a strategical, not a commercial move. We will produce everything that can be distilled and all the brands will be ours.” Salameh plans to make American spirits like Bourbon and rye to cater to the US market, and is also keen to make American gin as the spirit is riding high around the world at the moment. He is also planning on making single malt whisky there.

Salameh will soon be making Bourbon and rye in the US

As for the names and the labelling, he is keen to market American brands to American consumers. “I’m working with an R&D team on brand names and designs at the moment. I want to make pure American brands,” he says, adding, “each brand will be different ­– it’s a mistake to use the same name on lots of different products.”

His facility in the US has the capacity to produce 10 million litres of pure alcohol a year and he intends to export around half of what is made there. In addition to the likes of Bourbon and Rye, Salameh wants to be part of the Tequila party, as the Mexican spirit is enjoying a surge in popularity at the moment, buoyed by Diageo’s $1 billion acquisition of George Clooney’s Casamigos brand.

“I want to make our own Tequila as we need it in our portfolio. I might buy a small distillery in Mexico in order to do so,” he says. He is also eyeing up the Indian market given their passion for single malt.

Alexandrion currently has two manufacturing facilities in Romania, one in Radauti, in Suceava county, and one in Ploiesti in Prahova county. The company recorded a turnover of €33.3 million in 2016, while its net profit stood at €4.2 million. It currently exports around 20% of its production, but is hoping to grow its presence in export markets next year.

For his next trick he’ll be heading to Brazil to make rum, which, he believes, has thus far been something of a missed opportunity. The big dream is to by a distillery in Scotland one day. “Either that or I’ll build one – but I have to wait for the outcome of Brexit first,” he jokes. Salameh has struck up savvy distribution deals with big spirits players – his company distributes William Grant’s spirits in Romania to slate locals’ thirst for single malt.

“Romanians drink more single malt than Russians,” he says. A keen trend spotter, he recently struck up a distribution deal with Bottega to distribute its gold-bottled Proseccos in Romania, while Marie Brizard distributes his spirits in the Baltic countries. “We help each other out – it’s a healthy way of doing business,” he says.

Salameh’s ambitions stretch beyond spirits. He is keen to add a winery to his portfolio and plant vines on the 3,000 hectares he owns in Romania. The aim is to focus on Pinot Noir and Bordeaux blends. “I’d like to make a fine red wine here as we have the terroir and the potential to do it.”

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