Chinese whiskey: The next big thing?

A bottle of whisky
Goalong Single Malt Chinese Whisky

China isn’t the first place that springs to mind when talking about whisky. It’s not even the second, third or 33rd. But big changes are happening in China’s whiskey scene that could see it – one day – join the ranks of New World whiskey regions such as Taiwan, India and Japan.

Has it got what it takes? Two of the world’s biggest drinks producers think so. Diageo and Pernod Ricard – the makers of Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal respectively – have spent millions building distilleries in China. Diageo’s Eryuan distillery, in Yunnan, is currently under construction. While Pernod released its first single malt, The Chuan, from its Sichuan distillery, in November 2023 (currently only available in China).

Whisky distillery

Pernod Ricard’s The Chuan Distillery in Sichaun

In the same month, Camus Holdings, French owners of Camus Cognac, also began construction of its Guqi Distillery. The new US$30m facility in Bozhou, Anhui province, will produce single malts. It’s clear that producers see an opportunity in China…

Why bother with Chinese whiskey? Yes, it’s novel, but confidence is growing, both inside and outside of China. In 2023, The Whisky Exchange became the first UK retailer to stock Chinese whiskey, with a trio of malts from the Goalong Distillery in Hunan.

‘I don’t want to follow trends, I want to lead them,’ says Dawn Davies MW, spirits buyer at The Whisky Exchange. ‘Getting on board with China was a logical step – to be the first to bring those in. The [Goalong] liquid was a soft, easy drink, and that’s what I liked – its simplicity and approachability.’

Where does China make whiskey?

China is vast, but key regions include: Fujian in the southeast; south-central provinces such as Hunan; Shandong and Liaoning in the northeast; as well as Sichuan and Yunnan in the southwest. There are around 30 whiskey distilleries across China, many under construction.

‘Fifteen years ago when I arrived here, options were few and far between with local palates more inclined to local spirits and brandy,’ says Lucas Driggers, who runs whisky networking events in Wuhan. ‘Chinese whiskey was pretty much nonexistent. There have been some large volume local whiskeys over the last 10 years, but it’s been “knock off” brands.’

Over the course of a decade, the landscape has transformed, with many new distilleries springing up. ‘The younger generation is more inclined to try new things,’ adds Driggers. ‘Older generations are firmly married to baijiu, but there’s a strong cultural shift taking place, with whiskey gaining ground.’

Which distilleries are the ones to watch?

If you need reassurance that China is capable of turning its hand to a non-traditional beverage and competing with the world’s best, you need only look to Grace Vineyard in Ningxia, which has blazed a trail for Chinese fine wine since its founding in 1997. Now, its president Judy Chan is turning her attention to whiskey, having bought the Dexi Distillery in Fujian in 2019. She plans to produce one million bottles of single malt a year, with the team’s first liquid barrelled in March 2023.

Whisky stills in a distillery

Dexi Distillery in Fujian has two pot stills imported from Scotland

‘The rise of Japanese whiskey and also Kavalan [in Taiwan] makes people feel like Asian whiskey has a market,’ says Chan. ‘If there is a market for Japanese and Taiwanese whisky, why not for China?’

Kavalan is known for its  faster maturation period in a tropical climate. What might take 12 years in Scotland, could take just three in Taiwan, and, perhaps, in Fujian province. ‘Our location is very similar to Taiwan, and Kavalan usually ages for around three years, so we suspect a similar timeframe,’ explains Chan. ‘I’m sure with micro-climates and barrels there will be some differences, but I think that will give people an anchor point. We are excitedly waiting to see what the result is too.’

But the biggest operation will be Nine…

Source : https://www.decanter.com/spirits/chinese-whiskey-the-next-big-thing-521559/