Whiskey Makes its Mark in China

Churchill Bar Ritz Carlton Beijing

The world's largest luxury Scotch whisky embassy opened at the end of 2012. Over four floors, the Johnnie Walker House contains a distillery bar with the most extensive whiskey cocktail list in the country, whiskey education and retail space, members-only whiskey vaults, personalized blends and food pairings prepared by an in-house chef.

But the Johnnie Walker House is not in Scotland. It's in Beijing. And it comes on the heels of Johnnie Walker opening a similar spot in Shanghai the previous year.

Newly affluent Chinese are developing a taste for whiskey -- and distillers are striving to ensure it's for their brand. While this globalization issue isn't likely to end up in one of Thomas Friedman's columns for the New York Times, premium whiskey purveyors are learning that cracking the exploding Chinese luxury market requires a different approach than selling to American and European consumers.

"Do you like Scotch?" the bartender at the Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou's clubby Churchill Bar asked me as I bellied up during a visit a few years ago. "Yes," I answered without hesitation. While I sipped a Rosebank 1991 Lowland single malt, he related the story of a rare, premium Scotch the Ritz-Carlton had imported: it shipped in 18 bottles of the whisky, the only ones in the country, turning over nine of them to Chinese officials for mandatory "testing."

The bar's customers had proven less enthusiastic about this Scotch than their government. The emerging, image-conscious Chinese luxury market was focused on something else: the iconic, very American label of Jack Daniel's. So to introduce drinkers in his city of 8.9 million people to higher quality options, the bartender at the Ritz said he led Scotch tastings.

Three years later, those sessions have made an impact: "I think guests here prefer to drink an exclusive single-malt whisky over more cheaper, popular brands like JD [Jack Daniel's]," said Anuj Sharma, the hotel's assistant director of food and beverage. "The buying behavior of guests in the Churchill Bar for single-malt whiskys is more like an investment, as they buy the bottle and keep it with us and come back to consume later."

"For the Chinese people to start to appreciate bourbon, it's going to take an introduction by people like the mixologists, creating these cocktails, creating unique experiences for the Chinese palates," said Wes Henderson, the chief operating officer and master ambassador for Angel's Envy, who visited Shanghai last November to promote his super-premium bourbon.

So don't be surprised if you're in Shanghai and, in addition to the standard whiskey cocktails, you discover new ones geared around traditional Chinese ingredients-like whiskey and green tea, a concoction that landed a Hong Kong mixologist a spot in the 2012 Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year global finals. Lounges like the Tang Bar, The Alchemist and Malt Fun in Shanghai and Apothecary, Atmosphere Bar and Capital M in Beijing all cater to Chinese whiskey drinkers.

Rather than relying on intermediaries, Johnnie Walker has taken its own initiative to educate the Chinese directly about its blended Scotches. "It has been our most successful experiment in marketing and commercial innovation in Asia to date, giving us a unique competitive advantage in China," Lisa Crane, head of corporate public relations for Diageo, Johnnie Walker's parent company, said of the Shanghai house.

Look iconic, American or pretty

As the Ritz bartender remarked, labels do matter for many Chinese. Henderson said the two factors driving retail sales of Angel's Envy were its American look and gift packaging.

"Obviously we don't have the name recognition that Jack Daniel's has. But it's the idea of taking a luxury package and working on gift boxing to make it attractive to the Chinese; right now, that's what's going to make your product successful in China," he said.

Trey Zoeller, the founder and master blender of Jefferson's Bourbon, agreed on the importance of the Chinese gift-buying market. Although his bourbons are only available at RT-Mart, a Chinese retail store, they don't come with gift boxes. "We have a beautiful package and a gorgeous-looking whiskey, and we want to show that off," he said.

Zoeller also said his bourbons' American image attracts Chinese customers. "They like the tie-in to Thomas Jefferson, although I don't know how educated they are on American history."

One premium whiskey not looking to make inroads in China is Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, the highest rated whiskey on the market in the U.S. "We have a whole lot of untapped potential in the U.S. before we even think of moving into China," said Preston Van Winkle, marketing manager for Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. He said his family's distillery gets two or three inquiries a year from Chinese importers but doesn't give them much thought.

Johnnie Walker House, Beijing, China
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Whiskey Makes its Mark in China

Beijing's Johnnie Walker House contains a distillery bar with the most extensive whiskey cocktail list in China.

Membership at the Johnnie Walker House comes with privileges. There's a concierge service that will arrange golf-and-whisky laden trips to Scotland.

Patrons of the Johnnie Walker House can work with the Johnnie Walker Master Blender to create a personalized blend.

Members of the Johnnie Walker House also have access to whiskey education and retail space, members-only whiskey vaults, personalized blends and food pairings prepared by an in-house chef.

The Distillery Bar is open to the public. It features almost 10,000 copper pipes, which simulate a working distillery.


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