Add Oil is a monthly series in which we digest trends and grill entrepreneurs from across the universe of Chinese food and drink. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion.
As a country, China consumes the most alcohol in the world. The country’s consumers and will likely drink about 290 billion USD’s worth of booze this year.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy market for alcohol brands to capture. When Chinese people decide to have a casual adult beverage it is most likely a low alcohol lager, and when they want to turn it up a notch, the overwhelming preference is baijiu. Near the bottom of China’s list of preferred spirits is gin, which accounts for slightly over 1% of the spirits market according to a March 2019 study conducted by Daxue Consulting on drinks sold through online platforms Taobao and Tmall.
Yet a small band of entrepreneurs are nevertheless hoping that the craft gin trend will take off in China — and have been diligently mixing their juniper berries with an assortment of local ingredients in the hope of appealing to Chinese drinkers.
Although globally-renowned gin brands such as Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray have been in China for decades, their sales have often been outpaced by darker-hued overseas spirits’ such as whisky and brandy. In fact, many Chinese, unfamiliar with gin, often confuse the clear and fragrant liquor with the reigning local champ baijiu.
But this hasn’t dissuaded small scale gin brands such as Balang in the southern Chinese province of Fujian from attempting to win over the country’s drinkers. “We [will] do it more like Mao, first the country and in the end, Beijing,” asserts David Krings, CEO of Balang Gin Distillery, who evokes guerrilla warfare when discussing his distribution strategy to put gin on the map. Kring is hoping his penchant for revolution and his distillery’s focus on sourcing local botanicals will prove an intoxicating mix for cocktail fans across the country.
Balang gin at home in Fujian (courtesy Balang)
Gin is a versatile spirit that allows distillers to infuse a variety of botanicals to create unique flavor profiles, something that we’ve seen play out en masse in international markets in recent years. While global gin heavyweight Hendrick’s has tried to appeal to Chinese drinkers with a cucumber and rose infusion, and found favor among female consumers with the sweeter, fruitier Midsummer Solstice variety, locally-based craft distillers have gone a step further and have sourced provincial botanicals that define their gins as uniquely Chinese.
Hubert Tse, founder of Porcelain Shanghai Dry Gin and whose family hails from a spice-making family in northeast China, proudly states that “Chinese botanicals are a very big part of Porcelain Gin. We truly want to make a gin that represents China — so all of our botanicals are sourced locally […] from family friends and also the spice markets in Liaoning.” Tse further elaborates that their brand stipulates that, “at least 90% of the botanicals used must be sourced from China” and points out that Porcelain also incorporates Mongolian juniper berries.
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Peddlers Gin, a Shanghai-founded company regarded as a pioneering force in the Chinese craft gin market, infuses Buddha’s hand citrus peel and Sichuan pepper into its award-winning gin. In the south central city of Changsha, Crimson Pangolin offers four varieties of gin, including one with Hunan spices and a purple-tinted edition that gets its dark coloration from black goji berries that are sourced from Qinghai, beside the Tibetan plateau.
Balang is another gin with a distinctly local flavor. “Today all our ingredients are sourced in China,” says Krings. “Furthermore, we found a farm in northern China that is planting wormwood exclusively for us. Our brewery and distillery is surrounded by yang mei [waxberry] orchards, so the yang mei always plays a big role, no matter whether it’s for our spirits or for our beers. We can literally pick the yang mei by hand and choose the best quality for our products.”
In a classic pincer move, craft gin distillers are hoping to pair their full frontal appeal to Chinese taste buds with a complementary show of force in their branding and distribution efforts.
Winning international acclaim on behalf of Chinese distilled gins, Porcelain brought home a silver medal at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition last year for its mandarin edition and a gold medal at the China Wine and Spirits Awards in 2018. The brand also artfully packages its gin in a chinoiserie-inspired, aptly porcelain bottle that resembles a Tang dynasty vase.
Last year, Peddlers Gin also showed off some photo-friendly packaging with a new custom-designed bottle smuggled inside a secret compartment within a mahjong box. Prior to releasing the boxes to over a hundred top bartenders in China, Peddlers sent each of them an antique key in a wax sealed envelope.
Peddlers Gin being peddled on the street via a special mahjong box (courtesy Peddlers)
“In what was a challenging 2020 for the bar industry in China, we wanted to launch [our] new bottle by doing something unexpected and uplifting for the community that helped them grow with the country’s first craft gin,” Joseph Judd, co-founder of Peddlers Gin, explains.
Balang’s David Krings says his brand has taken a relatively low-key approach to marketing, with a focus on China’s “lower-tier” cities. “Until now [we haven’t made] big efforts to place our products in Shanghai or Beijing. Especially Shanghai is seen as a key to build a brand in China, but I feel Shanghai is in a certain way conservative and very spoiled by big international brands. Things look very modern, flashy and urban, it is great for taking pictures and post them on Instagram. But the pattern is always the same. Cities like Shenzhen, Chengdu or Guangzhou are more interesting for us.”
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Regardless of which city or which part of China they’re focusing on, it’s clear that craft gin distilleries offer something a little different in what is a highly competitive, yet still niche segment of the market. It feels unlikely that any of these companies will be troubling Moutai as one of the world’s most valuable drinks brands any time soon — but that’s not really the point.
For now, a combination of creative marketing techniques and a focus on making the most of distinctly local ingredients makes for some interesting alternatives to baijiu in China’s spirits market. And that could be just the tonic for some of the country’s more adventurous drinkers.
Cover photo: A bottle of Porcelain Shanghai Dry Gin on display (courtesy Porcelain Gin)
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