“[Asia is] all about status, differentiation, about ‘face,’” according to Gilbert Ghostine, head of the Asia Pacific region for Diageo, a global alcoholic beverage company.
Ghostine believes that China is looking for a brand with history—and Diageo has the spirit to fit the bill. That spirit is whisky.
According to International Wine and Spirits Research, Scotch whisky sales have increased by a factor of twelve over the last ten years. In 2000, Chinese bought 142,000 9-litre cases of whisky. In 2009, they purchased 1.6 million of those units. And although 2010 figures are not available, the Scotch Whisky Association reported an increase of 24 percent in their exports to China.
In light of the rising demand for whisky—last Chinese New Year, $3000-bottles of exclusive The Johnnie Walker whisky had to be flown to China to meet demand—Diageo has decided to take advantage of the Chinese taste for sophistication.
“[China’s tastes] have gone way beyond ‘bling,’” says James Thompson, Diageo’s chief of marketing in the Asia Pacific office. “People want to show off their knowledge… it’s a more discerning kind of status they are after now.”
To that end, later this month Diageo will open a new Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai. This establishment, described as part-shop, part-museum, is part of a five-year plan to make China the largest global market for Johnnie Walker. The Johnnie Walker House features oak cask flooring, peat and barley walls, and—perhaps most importantly—exclusive, limited-edition 1910 Johnnie Walker whisky available to the public. This exclusive brand celebrates the century-long relationship between Johnnie Walker and the Chinese market, but it also capitalizes on the Chinese proclivity for exclusivity—a preference that has meant success for many luxury brands in China.
But the Johnnie Walker House is more than centennial limited-editions. The upper floors of the establishment, accessible by invitation only, offer a chance for China’s elite to learn about the process of Scotch whisky making. Eventually, and for the right price, customers will have the opportunity to create their own custom blend.
“We will start to create a culture where whisky is part of a sophisticated lifestyle,” said Thompson.