I spent the past couple of weeks in the UK breathing in the fresh air, eating bland fried foods and drinking my weight in ale and whiskey. All thoughts of China were put to one side while traveling, but I did make a little time en route to check out baijiu’s standing in the international duty free markets.
Our first stop was an extended layover at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport – just rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it? – where baijiu can be found in great abundance. Though the smaller duty-free stores only had tiny aisle-end nub displays, the larger shops had baijiu literally front and center:
See what I mean?
That entire wall labeled “BaiJiu Fine Selection” is comprised of different varieties of Diageo’s Shuijingfang (mentioned here). The standard bottle of 61% alcohol by volume Shuijingfang ran 4,500 baht (US$144), while the new green label was 6,000 baht (US$192) and a liter bottle of something called the scholar’s edition was 8,300 baht ($265). Diageo’s relative strength in international markets is obvious: All of the other brands were squished together on the smaller display encircling the pillar – along with some Japanese whiskey and, of course, more Shuijingfang.
Also for sale were some special edition baijius. One bottle of Wuliangye retailed for a staggering 16,800 baht (US$538) and a Kweichow Moutai release called Shenzhou cost 6,820 baht (US$218). By far the best deal, if anything this expensive can be called a deal, was the Kweichow Moutai Small Batch, which won gold at this year’s World-Spirits Awards. Moutai’s duty free offerings have attracted criticism at home, because they are significantly cheaper than in the Chinese market. A bottle of Small Batch is in every way similar to the Flying Fairy label sold in China other than its size (375ml compared to the standard half liter bottle), but it sells in Bangkok for only 6,000 baht (US$192), by cost per volume, this is a savings of about US$45 per bottle.
When I visited the Moutai distillery last March, it was in the company of a couple of managers from King Power, the company in charge of duty free at Suvarnabhumi. One of them told me that the clients purchasing Moutai were almost exclusively Chinese and that they were having trouble keeping enough Moutai in stock to meet demand. And it’s really little wonder when you can get a cheaper product abroad without any concern of piracy. A no brainer for Moutai lovers.
One of the big surprises was seeing a prominent display of Wenjun baijiu at the front of the pillar. Wenjun is a baijiu brand whose majority owner is French luxury goods company Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. Compared to other international players, like Diageo and Pernod Ricard, LVMH’s efforts to turn Wenjun – formerly just a supplier for other baijiu brands – into a high-end baijiu have seemed clumsy to this observer. Witness the fact that Wenjun is produced just outside of Chengdu and I have yet to see it for sale anywhere in Sichuan. To be fair, I have heard that Wenjun’s annual output is much lower than its competitors, but their approach just seems off. An impression hardly helped by the bilingual advertisement that not only fails to mention the brand name in English, but employs the clunky, Chinglishy slogan “Only Make The Best.” Marketing fail. It sells in Bangkok for 3,220 baht (US$103), the cheapest of the bunch.
On the way back to China I flew out of London’s Heathrow Airport, terminal three to be specific. Scotch whisky dominates the extensive alcohol section in T3’s duty free, but there is also a smattering of international spirits. Yet for the life of me, I couldn’t find a single bottle of baijiu. And this is the terminal that serves Air China, no less. Cartons of Party favorite Chunghwa cigarettes, yes, but lo and behold not a drop of baijiu to be found.
Reports indicate that Shuijingfang entered the London market this summer, and a delegation of Sichuan baijiu manufacturers made an appearance at the London International Wine Fair last spring, but it seems like Chinese white lightening has yet to strike at Heathrow – at least not at T3.
It’s important to remember that duty free sales, particularly when it comes to Chinese products, do not necessarily reflect international demand, as most of the customers buying baijiu (and those Chunghwas) are savvy Chinese travelers looking for the genuine article at a discount price. Still, finding no bottles of baijiu at Heathrow is still a shock considering that the UK hosted over half a million Chinese tourists last year and that Heathrow is the third-busiest airport in the world. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi isn’t even one of the five busiest airports in Asia, though as a regional hub it does see significantly more Chinese travelers than many airports. In any event, it seems like there’s a lot of unrealized potential for duty free baijiu sales in the UK.
I’m interested to learn more about the reach of various baijiu brands abroad so that we can start fleshing out a global map of where baijiu can and cannot be purchased. Have you seen baijiu in international duty free? If so, tell us about it by posting your observations in the comment section.