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Maker of iconic Chinese product in high spirits for global expansion

Author:gzstcj  From:CHINA DAILY Time:2018-07-04 Browse:  Size: Big Middle Small

At Combat, an underground speak-easy in the Paris district of Belleville, three French femi¬nists spend their nights using a fiery Chinese spirit called Moutai to whip up cocktails for hipsters seeking something edgy and fresh.

"It's still quite an unknown spirit," says co-owner Elena Schmitt, whose bar is nestled beside a Chinese wholesale shop. "But with the cocktail scene growing quickly in France, customers are eager to discover new tastes.

"When they try it, they find it strong and quite weird. But once mixed in a cocktail, they love it. Like with all new spirits, it's always fun to discover fla¬vours you're not used to."

While China is tipped to overtake the United King¬dom as the world's second-biggest wine consumer by 2021, France is heading in the opposite direction, warming to liquors such as Moutai, the de facto Champagne of Chi¬nese baijiu brands.

Kweichow Moutai derives its name from its home in South¬west China's Guizhou province where it is distilled nine times and aged for five years in clay pots, in what experts say are the world's best climatic con¬ditions.

It is considered the most prestigious, and among the most expensive, varieties of baijiu, a clear liquor made from sorghum, wheat, barley or rice that can range from 40-70 percent alcohol by volume. In the Middle Kingdom, where baijiu is flavoured with anything from pork fat to flow¬ers, Chinese guzzle an estimat¬ed 10 billion litres of it a year.

However, State-owned Kweichow Moutai already ranks as one of the world's most valuable liquor makers and now looks unstoppable as it aims to make its signature spirit an international pow-erhouse.

Proponents say it has already hit the ground running in France, Germany, the UK, Asia and trendsetting US cities like New York and Los Angeles.

"France is an interesting market because French people are very open-minded, inter¬ested in history, and they know how to recognise fancy spirits," says Moutai importer Francois Sardou.

Despite critics who argue that Moutai's branding and consumption is still "a bit too Chinese" — in China it is typi¬cally slammed in shot form at room temperature with dinner — the pungent spirit is finding an adoptive home at luxury bars in the capital of chic.

It can now be sipped — or drank as a shot — at landmark Paris hotels including the Shangri-La, InterContinental Le Grande and The Peninsula.

Moreover, the Guizhou-based distillery recently launched its iconic brand in Hamburg, Germany, after set¬ting up official distribution outlets in New York and Syd¬ney following a big rollout in Asia. And the gambit seems to be working. Moutai leapfrogged London-based Diageo to become the world top liquor brand last April, and in Janu¬ary, its market value exceeded 1 trillion yuan (£159 billion).

Now it plans to have interna¬tional sales make up 10 percent of its total output by 2020.

"Moutai is making a big push for its products as a mix¬ology ingredient in Asia, just as it's been popular in New York for a few years now," says Ben Li, owner of Bitters and Sweets near the Lan Kwai Fong night¬life quarterin Hong Kong.

"As a spirit it definitely has legs. As an ingredient in cock¬tail making it's a bit tricky to incorporate it without over¬shadowing its underlying com¬plexities. Just as you wouldn't use a 1982 Lafite to make a Sangria."

A short flight away in Bang¬kok, US mixologist Joseph Borowski is making cock¬tails on demand at his bar on Sukhumvit's Thong Lor Road. He is a model case for how Moutai is taking flight organi-cally.

"I often bring bottles back to the bar from the places I travel to," he says.

"With frequent trips to Chi¬na in the early days, I had sev¬eral bottles of Moutai to make cocktails with," he adds.

"I used to make a pisco sour mixing it with herbal ingredi¬ents and botanicals like kaffir lime, sage and lavender that was very popular."

Back in France, however, it's still a case of baby steps.

Official Moutai sales are growing but currently stand at 5,000 boxes a year, or 60,000 bottles, says Sardou.

Meanwhile, Moutai is con¬tinuing to gain traction in New York where trendy nightspot Lumos plans to reopen its "iconic baijiu bar" soon on a grander scale, according to its website.

"Seriously, people, why isn't baijiu better known in this country?" asks New Jersey native Jeff Cioletti, editor-at-large of Beverage World.

"I've detected notes of every¬thing from pineapple to rice vinegar among the baijiu expressions I've experienced," he writes in a blog post for The Drinkable Globe.

"I tend to preface spirit recommendations with, ‘It's not for everyone'," he adds. "I won't, however, say that about baijiu."

Back in Hong Kong, Shi Wah Lee, an award-winning cocktail maker who works at Wahtiki Island Lounge in Lan Kwai Fong, says a good baijiu like Moutai is as revered in China as a fine cognac is in France.

"As part of a renaissance of Chinese identity, young afflu¬ent Chinese in the Chinese Mainland and Hong Kong are increasingly drinking this iconic national spirit in casual settings."

On one Beijing back street, expat-owned Capital Spir¬its gets newcomers into the groove with Moutai flights and shots of snake-infused baijiu from southern Guangdong province.

The two Germans and two US citizens who launched this drinking den in 2014 believe the time is now ripe to find franchise partners overseas.

"Many people walk into the bar swearing they'll never drink baijiu due to past bad experiences but after a few flights or cocktails, we get a very high conversion rate of over 90 percent," says co-founder Simon Dang.

In England, Moutai can be found at Liverpool's FU bar, the first dedicated bai¬jiu bar in Europe; ordered at Demon, Wise & Partners near Bank in the City of London; bought online at Selfridges; and "flight-tested" at over 22 global cities on World Baijiu Day every Aug 9.

But if you can't find it at your local just yet, don't panic — Kweichow Moutai says it expects online sales to account for 60 percent of revenue soon.

Cioletti has a final word for cynics put off by the spirit's strong smell when consumed neat as shots.

"Give it a go," he says. "A mil¬lennium's worth of Chinese tradition can't be wrong."

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