Liquid gold

Whisky’s China boom

Liquid gold

Thanks to China, getting yet rarer

The number ‘4’ is thought to be unlucky by many Chinese, as it sounds similar to the word for ‘death’. Doubling it up is even more unfortunate – you’ll rarely find a 44th floor in a Chinese high-rise.

China’s whisky lovers may be prepared to overlook such superstitions where Gold Bowmore is concerned. The 44 year-old whisky (the oldest bottle the distiller has ever released) is now on sale in very limited quantities. Only 700 bottles are available, priced at close to $4,900 apiece.

There is a definite China angle to the sale of the Gold Bowmore by the Islay-based distiller. Alongside the earlier releases of the 42 year-old Black Bowmore and the 43 year-old White, this trilogy of very rare and heavily-aged whiskies is Bowmore’s effort to position its single malt as Scotland’s most exclusive. For China’s label conscious elite, Macallan has long enjoyed the status as the premier Speyside whisky. Bowmore would like to be thought of not just as the top Islay brand, but potentially the most prestigious Scotch of all.

Speyside and Islay are basically to Scotland as Bordeaux and Burgundy are to France. But whereas a good vintage Petrus will develop and age in the bottle, a whisky will not. So while a renowned first growth chateau will often sell a relatively young product and leave it to the buyer to age it for a decade or more, all of a whisky’s ageing occurs in the barrel. So it’s the distillery that has to absorb the upfront cost of bringing its barley-based liquor to maturity.

That isn’t cheap. A good single malt will spend 6,574 days in the distillery’s vaults. A great single malt will spend considerably longer: Gold Bowmore spent 16,071 quiet days waiting to be bottled. Those days slowly combined the salty air of the Atlantic Ocean with the flavours and colours of Oloroso and bourbon casks. The result is a whisky that marries an explosion of rich exotic fruit with vanilla. Expect a luxuriant, smoky aftertaste on the palate for a few minutes later, too.

It is unlikely that a meaningful quantity of whisky will ever be aged for so long again. And once again, China is a factor. That’s because the whisky industry did not anticipate that demand from China (and other emerging markets) would grow so fast. This is having predictable results: experts say that stocks of older whisky are being run down fast. Nor can they be replenished quickly: historically single malts were only sold once they had spent 10 years or more in a barrel.

One pragmatic response: some distillers have begun selling younger bottlings. Ardbeg – also from Islay – is a good example. It markets what it terms a ‘Very Young’ whisky, which is only 6 years-old. These younger bottlings can obviously be brought to market quicker (and soak up growing demand). That is especially helpful in sales to newer groups of drinkers, like the Chinese, who may know of a famed distillery’s brand but are less sensitive to the age of the bottle in front of them.

But selling ever-younger whiskies is not without risk, as it undermines much of the brand equity that the industry has built up around single malts: their age.

So whisky makers are responding with a longer term solution: adding the first new distillery capacity in decades. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, the eventual market is China’s “huge new middle class”.

“The Chinese have bought into Scotch whisky,” the body’s CEO, Gavin Hewitt told Bloomberg recently. Forecasts of Chinese demand have seen about $800 million spent on increasing capacity in the past two years, the Association notes.

For example, Glen Morangie is boosting volumes at its plant in Tain by half and Diageo is building a new distillery for its top-selling Talisker single malt. Meanwhile, entrepreneur David Thomson has spent $8 million to reopen the Annandale distillery – which had been shuttered by Johnny Walker in 1921.

“It’s about growth over the next two or three decades,” commented Diageo’s Ken Robertson. “You have to lay products down well in advance.”

But with supply currently struggling to keep up with demand it looks unlikely that other firms will be able to match Bowmore’s patience (and market a 44 year-old whisky) any time soon.

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