China’s cultural connection to spirits goes back thousands of years. Every major social event involves the opening of a special bottle. Though the traditional local spirit baijiu is still the most popular alcoholic beverage, younger generations are looking into new and exciting options, such as gin.
This spirit is relatively new in China, but its characteristics are quickly turning it into a favorite among younger drinkers. Gin distinguishes itself from other beverages because it is not too sweet, not too strong and can be blended to have floral, fruity, woody and even musky notes.
Although gin has been available in the country for more than two decades, many consumers still have difficulty differentiating the liquor from other white spirits like baijiu.
Importers and distillers are confident of gin’s future in the Chinese spirits’ market. Consumers are becoming more adventurous, opening themselves to liquors other than the usual whiskey or brandy, which is why gin’s versatility fits well with the growing desire for lighter, fresher drinks.
To suit the preference of their target consumers, successful gin brands in China, like Hendrick’s and Monkey 47, have learned to adapt their offerings and strategies. For Hendrick’s Gin, the unusual infusion of cucumber and rose resonates well with the Chinese. Its Midsummer Solstice has sweet and fruity flavor are popular, especially among female drinkers.
However, the biggest fans of gin are the expat’s community living in China. They are the ones opening gin bars in major cities and setting up brand associations. At the moment, local Chinese drinkers are still split between loving the spirit and never having tried it before.
International gin labels with unique branding and a strong online presence may want to take advantage of this market opportunity, especially since the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and bars and restaurants in China are seeing a significant upturn in sales.
The alcohol culture in China is also changing, particularly amongst millennials and Gen Z. In the past, the consumption of alcohol was mainly related to official events and businesses, the drinks of choice always being baijiu (a grain-based clear liquor), and later, whiskey.
The rapid growth of urban areas and a more westernized culture among younger consumers has directly affected the local drinking culture. Young Chinese people have moved away from the traditional “sipping culture” of whiskey and baijiu to creative cocktails and casual social drinking.
Mixology experts love to use gin in their drinks because it can taste sweet or dark, and it can smell floral or peppery depending on the blend. It also mixes well with other beverages and never overpowers the taste of the drink.
However, it has been a challenge for gin brands to carve a space in the Chinese market, due to the difficulties posed by getting alcohol licenses in order, finding local investors, and building up the brand. Gin is a niche that’s still developing, but in big cosmopolitan cities, such as Shanghai, gin-focused bars are building brands that are young, urban, and relaxed.
Monkey 47 is one of the most expensive brands on the Chinese market. It is also the first of its category to be stocked at premium supermarkets. To better reach the consumers, it conducts master classes for bartenders, while its packaging and design also send a strong message with regards to shape and color.
Other brands like G’Vine and Four Pillars have their ways of appealing to the Chinese palate. The French gin offers modern and innovative blends like the unique infusion of Ugni Blanc grape. It is also perfect for cocktails. Meanwhile, Four Pillars, an Australian small-batch brand, hosts frequent tastings.
Some gin importers have adapted their products to the Chinese market by tweaking their ingredients. Traditional dry gins, those with juniper as the predominant flavor for example, can be too foreign to a Chinese consumer with no experience with the spirit. Those with more modern, softer flavor profiles have better chances of doing well in the market.
The London Distillery offers fully organic products like Dodd’s Gin and Kew Organic Gin, which are well-received by younger Chinese drinkers. The company joined forces with Gotham East, a Chinese company, to create a custom gin that features China’s flavors, ingredients, and aromatics.
Meanwhile, Peddlers Gin, one of the first international spirits distilled in China, has its products’ bottle, typography and overall image inspired by 1930s Shanghai. Among the botanicals, the brand uses Sichuan pepper and Buddha’s hand citrus peel. The Sichuan pepper adds a peppery taste without the spicy-numbing flavor to its gin.
Local gin brands have found success through outreach and event creation. Brands like Julu and Peddlers regularly participate in hospitality events and bar pop ups where they can feature their brand alongside local bartenders who craft cocktails especially for the events. The combination of entertainment and education is important in a market that is not necessarily familiar with the product.
Manufacturing in local distilleries allows companies to maintain quality control, ship products quickly around China and create cocktails that suit local palates by working with local bartenders.
Being able to directly trace where spices and ingredients come from is a big plus in China’s new drinking culture. In recent years, there has been a push for more transparency from food and packaging companies in China, something that affects both local and international brands.
In many big cities, drinking has become a social and cultural event that consumers buy into not just for the drinks themselves but for the experience. Bars that craft their own spirits and reinvent standard cocktails are popular among millennials, looking for a unique experience when they go out.
This has motivated local craft gin makers to promote their products in more creative ways. For example, for 2021, Peddlers Gin collaborated with London design studio OMSE to create packaging fashioned after a mahjong table set with a secret compartment containing their signature gin in a new bottle.
Another effective way to enter the market is to work directly with bartenders and hospitality brands to introduce the product to the public. Bartenders are taste makers for local drinkers, introducing new brands and new cocktails as well as developing menus and events around the brand.
According to sommeliers and influencers, gin brands should consider threes aspects before entering the China market. The most important one is finding a local supplier, seriously interested in the brand. Second, it is crucial to have a unique identity, with a creative twist, such as a new ingredient, an exciting flavor, or a good story behind it.
Last, developing a strong online presence, supported by collaborative connections with bartenders, hotels and local designers who can introduce the brand to the local community in personal ways is another key piece in the puzzle.
Gin is a more complicated sell in China since it is not widely recognized. As more Chinese look for premium, hand-crafted tastes in their alcohols, opportunities are opening for many distillers. Gin is an exciting category that has been gaining China’s attention in the past decade and based on the rising imports and sales, it will not be long until it becomes mainstream.
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