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. Construction of Diageo’s Eryuan distillery, in Yunnan, commenced in November 2021 and is now in trial production. While Pernod released its first single malt, The Chuan, from its Sichuan distillery, in November 2023 (currently only available in China).
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.
‘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 Rivers, a single malt distillery in Fujian funded by 200 whisky-lovers from around the world. Its large team of founders includes Driggers. First casks are expected to be filled in March 2024, with plans to produce 7.5m litres a year – around 10m bottles. CEO Jay Robertson says it’s a large-scale operation but with ‘a small batch craft mentality’.
Plans include a private cooperage where the company will make its own barrels from virgin timber, toasted then charred. ‘From our point of view, the quality of the wood only shines through when the cask hasn’t been used before,’ says Robertson. He also wants to break the ‘psychological attachment’ that people have to age statements, envisioning a minimum three year ageing period for Nine Rivers whiskeys.
‘Everybody thinks if it doesn’t have a 12-year-old age statement then it’s rubbish. But those big players are reusing casks so many times, often to a fourth fill – the wood is grey, like a park bench. They need the age statement because it’s the only way to get anything out of the wood,’ argues Robertson.
What can you expect from a Chinese malt?
Right now, Chinese whiskeys are typically light, fruit-driven and approachable. Cask finishing could add a Chinese stamp, perhaps with the use of ex-Ningxia wine casks. But climate is what will set Chinese whiskey apart. Many regions are humid and warm so maturation is faster, impacting flavour.
‘Those distilleries making whisky in more tropical areas of China will go after bigger, richer, fruit styles and there will be some lighter, cooler climate examples as well,’ explains Davies. ‘China’s climate is so varied. There’s going to be a whole lot of very different products and styles, and that’s going to be very exciting.’
Could China be the next big whiskey-making region, set to follow in Japan or Taiwan’s footsteps? It’s possible. The spark of ambition among young distillers has been lit and big producers have already bet big. China has proven it can make world class wine. Now it’s coming for whisky.
Chinese whiskeys to try
Goalong Blended Chinese Whisky
A soft and creamy blended spirit with aromas of hazelnut, toffee apple and vanilla. Notes of apple, honey and some sweet spice on the palate. Simple, smooth, approachable. Alcohol 40%
Goalong 5 Year Old Bourbon Cask Single Malt Chinese Whisky
Matured for five years in ex-bourbon casks. Bold aromas of honey, hazelnut and vanilla. Flavours of toffee apple and vanilla, with a subtle spice backbone. A wisp of smoke on the finish. Alc 40%
Goalong 5 Year Old Bourbon & Brandy Cask Single Malt Chinese Whisky
Matured in ex-bourbon and ex-brandy casks with distinctive floral aromas of jasmine and vanilla. Fig and orange peel on the palate with some sweet malt notes, dried fruits, apple skin and butterscotch, plus warming spice on the finish. Alc 48%