Hunting for Whisky in China
"A month in China's a long time", I was told on countless occasions. "It's not like travelling in other countries" they said, and to a certain extent they were right. The language (and alphabet) barrier can be tricky, the food can be bizarre, and the toilets... well the less said about that the better. Nevertheless I powered on, one month, 7 cities and an incredible life experience. The hardest part, though, can be where to find your whisky.
China is whisky's fastest growing marketplace, with major whisky companies aiming to solidify themselves as the country's biggest name. This can be seen not only from the major portfolios with the benefits of mass production and big marketing budgets, but also from smaller producers such as Kilchoman who have released bottlings exclusive to China. Charles Maclean told me that whisky is now so popular there that when the Classic Malts from Diageo were first introduced, the initial orders exceeded the production potential of the distilleries.
On the surface, however, this doesn't seem so apparent, and this may be because it is easy to underestimate how vast the country really is. The food and beverage culture in China is very different from somewhere like the UK, with bright, noisy restaurants being the most common dining experience, especially in the more rural areas. The alcohol stock seems largely to include very light local beer, and very alcoholic local rice wine, with little in between. You can find yourself, for example, in a "remote" city such as Zhangye on the border of the deserts of Inner Mongolia. Here the likelihood of coming across a bottle of whisky is so slight that even the sight of a bottle of Johnnie Walker would seem like a mirage, and yet the population is double the size of Glasgow.
China rates its cities into tiers from 1 to 4, and this is a good marker of what the city has to offer, as well as what the selling potential of, for instance, whisky will be. Chengdu, for instance, often referred to as the "foodie hub" of China, has just received an upgrade to a "new first tier city". It is here that the whisky bars begin to appear. Chengdu boasts a relatively vibrant ex-pat community, and along with this comes the demand for some cosmopolitan comforts. Here I enjoyed some good locally roasted coffee (another rarity in China), some excellent Middle Eastern cuisine, and found a genuinely good whisky bar.
The bizarrely named Still Fun sits inside the second ring of South Chengdu, with its Edison bulbs visible through the glass fronting. The interior is well lit, with a large wooden bar and leather sofas and chairs. Some Jazz is piped through the surprisingly large speakers in the corners of the bar, albeit a little too loudly, but this is something you will get used to in China. The most important thing is the back bar, which proudly presents an impressive lineup of whiskies, the majority of which are from Scotland, but also a number from Ireland, America, Taiwan, and of course Japan. Between us we ordered two cocktails, a whisky sour, which was thick, smooth and not too sweet, and a sherry based cocktail that comes garnished with a large cloud of candy floss (another common sight in China). As I browsed through the whisky menu I noticed the aforementioned Kilchoman China Exclusive (5 YO Sherry matured), and thought I would be a fool to pass it up. The whisky arrived presented in a stemmed glass, and I began to nose. Sweet sherry, marmalade and signature Kilchoman smoke filled my nostrils, and the warming smoke became even more prominent on the palate. With that we ventured out into the rain to find some food.
Rewind to Beijing. This was the second city I visited on the mainland, and with mixed expectations having heard it frequently described as "raw China". I was staying in the Hutongs of Dongcheng, which are small weaving alleys lined with low-cost grey brick housing that you would struggle to fit a car down. I was amazed to find that while these lanes were originally built to house the poorest in Beijing, they were now occupied by a mixture of residents and boutique bars and cafes. I had one of the best coffees I found in China in Voyage Coffee, and enjoyed some excellent cocktails in Mai's.
Beijing underwent a massive regeneration program prior to the Olympics in 2008, which saw new roads built, underground lines installed, and even factories shut down and moved outside the city to help with pollution. Along with these developments came a culture shift, with the emergence of new bars, cafes and art spaces. "1949", for instance, in the East of Central Beijing is a complex of contemporary restaurants surrounding a modern gallery. It is near here that Beijing's only dedicated whisky bar (as far as i can tell) can be found, and they don't make it easy. Glen's is tucked away within what is essentially a brutalist office block, fronted at the bottom with a rather garish-looking bar conspicuously labelled Beermania. A set of metal stairs on the right hand side of the building will lead you up to a web of interior corridors, which, when correctly navigated, will lead you to a large door with a sign that simply says "whisky".
Once inside, Glen's doesn't seem to fit in this odd 70s structure, it's mellow lighting and chesterfields (and it's hard to find location) being more reminiscent of a 20s speakeasy. The whisky menu isn't the most extensive, but the staff are knowledgable and very helpful. I enjoyed a Lagavulin Distillers Edition '95 whilst watching the barman skilfully carve an ice block for an Old Fashioned, and for a moment I was completely transported from the business of China's capital. When I had finished I stepped back through the door into the neon lighting of the office building corridor and back to reality to head home to the Hutongs.
Whisky isn't always so hard to find in China, however. If you include the Sovereign territories of Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan then Whisky bars can be found in abundance (and even one of the world's best distilleries in the form of Kavalan), but on the mainland it is Shanghai which offers the most vibrant scene. Craft beer is something that has gone from strength to strength in China recently. It is hard to move in the major cities without seeing a bottle of the Belgian beer Vedett, a step beyond the insipid local lagers of the rural areas, but what is very striking is that Goose Island have set up a bar and microbrewery in Jing'An, and I even spotted a Goose Island tap in a 7Eleven! Ben Joseph, director of Craft Republic, spotted this growing market, and was waxing lyrical about its potential. Having imported budding new bourbon brands such as the increasingly ubiquitous "Few", his beer portfolio is also going from strength to strength, and has even struck deals with producers such as Moody Tongue to release their new Pilsner in China on the same day as its release in Chicago.
On Ben's recommendation I came across some great spots in Shanghai, a standout being the unassuming "Logan's Punch", in which I tasted an amazing "Monkey Sour" - a whisky sour made with banana-infused Jameson and Chocolate Bitters. Having done some googling about the local whisky bars, I ended up in Lab. What was most striking about Lab in comparison to the other whisky bars I visited in China was not the selection, but the fact that it was busy. And I mean very busy. It seemed clear from just walking through the door into this bar that Shanghai's whisky scene was not just emerging, but it had arrived.