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China’s soaking up whiskey market

Marketplace Staff May 8, 2009

China’s soaking up whiskey market

Marketplace Staff May 8, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: There may well be the temptation to drown your sorrows as the recession drags on. But fewer of us are actually doing so. Diageo, the world’s biggest producer and distributor of alcoholic beverages said this week sales are down 7 percent.

In the long run, though, the whiskey business, at least is looking pretty good, because of soaring sales in emerging markets. So when a whiskey industry road show rolled into Shanghai today, Marketplace’s Scott Tong was there.

Scott Tong: Their show is called Whiskey Live. Which seems fitting, because an industry that was shrinking back in the ’90s has roared back to life thanks to new markets like China. Sales here rose almost 500 percent in five years. So whiskey-makers come here to keep evangelizing, explaining the basics of whiskey. Andrew Shand is with Spayside Distilleries.

Andrew Shand: The first thing would be the huge varieties in whiskey.

And there are a lot. Fellow Scotsman Euen Shand is pouring and explaining two booths down. At Duncan Taylor Distilleries.

Euen Shand: There’s a little bit of lemon. There’s a little bit of smokiness, peatiness. If you go to a lowland whiskey, it’s very floral.

Scotland is a long way from China. But consumption in Asia has triggered a global whiskey shortage. Here, the centuries-old British spirit isn’t considered frumpy or out of date. In fact, it’s a mark of success. Listen to 20-something Reign Lin.

Reign Lin: If you look at the whiskey labels, you know it has tradition and history. You drink it, and you feel like a gentleman.

OK, so here’s the catch: Lots of Chinese drinkers mix their whiskey with sweetened green tea. Shanghai native Neil Lee explains why.

Neil Lee: If we drink straight alcohol, we won’t last very long. But if we mix something in, we can go longer. And we’re happier.

Sometimes he mixes in Coke, or OJ, or Gatorade. Naturally, not everyone’s a fan. Distiller Euen Shand doesn’t like it. But if a billion Chinese do, then this green tea concoction is their gateway drug — their whiskey training wheels.

Shand: Whiskey is like learning to ride a bike. Start off with green tea. Dilute. Then move into malts. Until you’re practically drinking them straight.

In fact, Shand’s about to introduce in China a pre-bottled mixture of tea plus whiskey. Holding his nose with one hand, counting his cash with the other.

In Shanghai, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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