It was a very special event, and before entering you had to sign a very special legal disclaimer. Among other things you had to assure the organisers you would not drive afterwards or start brawls. Welcome to China’s first ever Whisky Live event.
Scotch whisky has been popular in Japan and Korea for decades, but in recent years its biggest growth market has been China. So last weekend, the organisers of Whisky Live decided to do their debut event in Shanghai. This followed a Whisky Live event in Taipei the previous weekend (on a per capita basis Taiwan is the single biggest market in the world for single malt whisky).
Both events were stellar successes. Around 30 Scottish – and some Japanese – distilleries showed up, and gave attendees a chance to taste their wares. The single malt whisky on offer ranged from the likes of Islay’s throat-burning Ardbeg to the gentle purr of the boutique whisky, Spey.
Enthusiasm for Scotland’s ‘water of life’ was in abundance. Around 8,500 bought tickets for the event in Shanghai. That compares favourably with the Whisky Live event in Tokyo (4,000 tickets) and London (2,000).
Global scotch whisky sales breached £3 billion last year, rising in spite of falling American sales. Campbell Evans from the Scotch Whisky Association singled out China as a country that saw sales growth in spite of the difficult economic environment. To put that growth in perspective: around 1.9 million cases of whisky were sold in China in 2008 compared to less than one million in 2003.
Whisky’s swift rise in China even saw its sales overtake cognac in 2005. And its growth rate continues apace, at about 30% per year.
Indeed, in what may appear one of the more bizarre paradoxes of history, while Scottish merchants helped foment the Opium Wars so as to get tea out of China, the Chinese are today so keen on getting whisky out of Scotland that it accounts for a full third of the wee nation’s exports to the world’s most populous country.
Like elsewhere, the biggest volumes of Scotch sales are in the less expensive blended whiskies, such as Johnny Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal. But sales of higher end single malts – typically aged 10 years or more – are growing fast too, with the market leaders being Macallan and Glenfiddich, followed by Glenlivet, Glenmorangie and Bowmore.
Macallan’s parent, the Eddington Group, moved its regional headquarters to Shanghai (from Hong Kong) in 2004 and sees China as its biggest growth market. Macallan is viewed as a prestigious drink in China. Last year a limited edition bottle of 1949 Macallan – which left the barrel the year Mao took power in Beijing – was bought at a charity auction for Rmb210,000 ($30,659).
Of course, popularity has its downsides too. Huangfu Jiang, the executive director in China for the International Federation of Spirits Producers, says he and the local police have tracked down over 500 dens producing counterfeit Scotch.
Huangfu’s own love affair with whisky began 14 years ago when he was a law student at Beijing University. He found that local white spirit gave him bad breath, and suspected beer would lead to a belly. “But when I tasted whisky I fell in love with it at once. It is a drink for gentlemen.” He has since become one of the 1,728 ‘Keepers of the Quaich’ – an honorific given for his role in opening up the market for Scotch in China – and is bullish on the drink’s future prospects. He says that foreign spirits only account for 1% of the Chinese liquor market, so “there is still much room for growth.”
Scotland’s distilleries will no doubt be kept busy as a result, although what the master blenders of Speyside would think of the new trend in Ningbo of mixing their product with Wanglaoji herbal tea can only be pondered.
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