China's Next Big Thing: Whiskey

The liquor is wooing young Chinese away from 'baijiu' as top distillers target a growing market
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 26, 2023 10:40 AM CST
China's Next Big Thing: Whiskey
A view of the distilling facilities at the Chuan Malt Distillery in Emeishan in China's Sichuan province on Dec. 13, 2023. The $100 million distillery based at the UNESCO World Heritage site Mount Emei, launched a pure-malt whisky, the Chuan, to tap a growing taste among young Chinese for whisky.   (AP Photo/Caroline Chen)

A distillery in southwestern China is aiming to tap a growing taste among young Chinese for whiskey in place of the traditional "baijiu" liquor used to toast festive occasions. The $100 million-plus distillery owned by Pernod Ricard at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mount Emei launched a pure-malt whiskey, the Chuan, earlier this month. The French wine and spirits group says it's produced using traditional whiskey-making techniques combined with Chinese characteristics, including locally grown barley and barrels made with oak from the Changbai mountain range in northeastern China, reports the AP. "Chinese terroir means an exceptional and unique environment for aging, including the water source here—top-notch mineral water. The source of water at Mount Emei is very famous," says Yang Tao, master distiller at the distillery.

A centuries-old drink, whiskey is relatively new to China, but there are already more than 30 whiskey distilleries on the mainland, according to the whiskey website Billion Bottle. Whiskey consumption in China, as measured by volume, rose at a 10% compound annual growth rate from 2017 to 2022, according to IWSR, a beverage market analysis firm. Sales volume is forecast to continue to grow at double-digit rates through 2028, according to Harry Han, an analyst with market research provider Euromonitor International. "We see huge potential for whiskey here in China. It is a product [that] is developing very nicely, very strongly," says Alexandre Ricard, chairman and CEO of Pernod Ricard. "We do believe that the Chinese have developed a real taste, particularly for malt whiskey."

Raymond Lee, founder of the Single Malt Club China, a whiskey trading and distribution company in Beijing, says whiskey has become more popular as the economy has grown. "As the economy develops and personal income increases, many people are pursuing individuality," he notes. "In the past we all lived the same lives. When your economic conditions reach a certain level, you will start to seek your own individuality. Whiskey caters just to the consumption mindset of these people. And its quality is very different from that of other alcoholic drinks." On a recent Friday night at a bar in Beijing, 28-year-old Sylvia Sun, who works in the music industry, was enjoying a whiskey on the rocks. "The taste of it lingers in your mouth for a very long time. If I drink it, I will keep thinking about it the rest of tonight," she said.

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Lee, who has been in the industry for more than 35 years, said the whiskey boom is largely driven by younger Chinese who are more open to Western cultures and lifestyles than their parents' generation was. More than half of China's whiskey consumers are between 18 and 29 years old, according to an analysis based on data from the e-commerce channel of Billion Bottle, which has more than 2 million registered users. "Now the country is more and more open, and there are increasing opportunities to go abroad, and they have absorbed different kinds of cultures," Lee says. "They also have the courage to try new things. When they try something new—for example, whiskey—they realize that it's very different from China's baijiu. Whiskey may be easier for them to accept."

(More China stories.)

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