Will Whisky Be “The New Wine” In China?

Scotch Producers From Around The World Renew Efforts At Building Brand Loyalty In Growing Mainland Market

Representatives of whisky distilleries in Scotland and Japan gather for a photo session during the 9th Whisky Magazine Live! event in Tokyo. Photo courtesy Bloomberg News

Representatives of whisky distilleries in Scotland and Japan gather for a photo session during the 9th Whisky Magazine Live! event in Tokyo. Photo courtesy Bloomberg News

We’ve written recently about the marketing strategies employed by the world’s major scotch producers to break into the Chinese market — as well as the mixed results most of these companies have seen. Though China is still a comparatively young market for whisky of all stripes, from the rare single-malts sought after by big-city aficionados to the more popular blended varieties that are ubiquitous on bar tables from Shanghai to Kunming it is clear that the market has developed rapidly and is still growing. Noting that the China market presents huge capacity for sustained growth, whisky producers have put their China initiatives on the front burner as demand in Europe has remained flat and whisky consumption in North America has suffered from the exploding popularity of white spirits like vodka and rum in recent decades.

Although whisky consumption in China remains minuscule per capita, and still lags far behind that of baijiu, the traditional white spirit of China, whisky producers have seen demand for their products grow in particular by the country’s growing middle class and younger drinkers. However, this younger generation is seen by some of the largest whisky producers as a “bread and butter market,” because they tend to consume blended whisky in package deals at bars rather than spending the time and effort to educate themselves about whisky. Unlike the higher-end  connoisseurs who niche whisky distillers see as prime targets, younger Chinese drinkers generally see a bottle of whisky as an indulgence to be shared among friends at nightclubs and bars — with the expense shared as well — and as such are a stable (because of population size) but irregular market.

In very general terms, whisky has benefited from the growing overall popularity of other western drinks like wine — which has become exponentially more popular in the Mainland, particularly as a gift or (for the wealthiest percentile) an investment. Though whisky does not receive the same auction treatment as fine wine in Asia (aside from a few rare occasions such as the recent Bonham’s auction of part of the Willard Folsom collection in Hong Kong), more sophisticated, typically older drinkers in metropolitan areas like Beijing — where neither luxury products nor western alcohols are by any means new — give whisky the same reverence it receives in more developed markets like Japan. Writing on the steadily growing popularity of whisky in the Asia market, a Reuters article noted that the world’s top whisky producers see Asia as “the future” of whisky:

Despite the hype, overall Asian whisky demand hasn’t yet skyrocketed like wine and remains a much smaller market. Exports to Asia only grew from 524 million pounds in 1997 to 598 million pounds in 2008, according to The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

“Premium blended whisky brands like Chivas Regal & Johnnie Walker are doing very well (in Asia),” said Sukhinder Singh, director of the London-based Whisky Exchange.

“The malt whisky market will take time, but the people with disposable income are starting to try malts, and we as a business have some good private customers,” Singh added.

While demand in more mature markets like South Korea has been steady, in China – where single malt whiskies are often mixed with green tea and are popular prestige orders in karaoke lounges and clubs – the market has raced ahead.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association, 80 million pounds of Scotch were exported to China last year, an 80-fold increase from 2000, though the actual amount could be far higher with much also distributed via Singapore.

“Scotch in China is still largely consumed in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai,” said David Williamson, a spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association.

“But with a whole range of metropolitan areas with populations larger than Scotland, whisky is set to grow in popularity so there are undoubtedly opportunities there.”

Despite their hesitations, producers still warily eying the China market for growth, particularly those in niche categories who can’t — or don’t want to — take a mass market approach should take heart about the maturing luxury consumer in that country, however. According to a luxury survey released by 21st Century Business Herald last week, Chinese luxury consumers respect — and are drawn to — heritage in the luxury brands they choose. With whisky’s more than 500 years of history, high-end producers can play on the pedigree of their brand or long-standing whisky-making traditions of their region of origin, appealing to high-end buyers’ preference for not only everything expensive, but everything rare and exclusive.


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Food, Wine, & Spirits