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Race For China’s Premier Single Malt - Diageo Eryuan Malt Whisky Distillery

Distillery Spotlight: Diageo Eryuan Malt Whisky Distillery

REGION: Eryuan County, Yunnan, China

Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

 

 The new distillery will span 66,000 square meters, to be located in Southwestern China, in the Yunnan Province. (Image Source: Diageo)

For a region as large as China, you’d think the country would have its own whisky by now. Yet, for centuries, China has been more than contented with its own local spirits – Baijiu, which translates to “white liquor” or “clear liquor”. Not the most imaginative name, but it does the job. For what looks indistinguishable from water, this spirit is particularly potent. Weighing up to 60% ABV, Baijiu is made from fermented sorghum, a type of grain that is harvested across Asia, Africa and even parts of Australia.

Like many other Asian countries, Japan with its Shochu, Korea with its Soju, China had for long relied on Baijiu. But of course, as globalization would have it, the demand in Asia for whiskies has certainly made record highs year after year. My personal hunch is that whiskies, by definition, are barrel aged, contributing significantly to the flavor of the spirit and also helps mellow the alcohol down. A less “hot” alcohol would reasonably allow drinkers to savor its flavors instead of drinking alcohol for alcohol’s sake. 

 

Baijiu reigns as the predominant alcoholic spirit consumed in China, can the likes of Diageo change a centuries old tradition? (Image Source: Baijiu Review)

As such, whiskies make a great candidate for spirit of choice if one were in search of an alcoholic drink they could savor. And as demand rises, supply answers the call; and there we have it, Diageo investing $75 million into building its first whisky distillery in China – the Diageo Eryuan Malt Whisky Distillery.

 

 

 

"China is the world's largest beverage alcohol market[1] and the demand for whisky is growing rapidly among middle-class consumers who are keen to further discover and enjoy fine whiskies

Today we celebrate another significant step forward, and one which builds upon our local insights and combines those with Diageo's global whisky expertise in order to delight the next generation of Chinese whisky consumers." 

- Sam Fischer, President, Diageo Asia Pacific and Global Travel

 

The distillery's visitor center will feature a beacon tower skywell which will exhibit a collection of cask heads used by Diageo's distilleries from around the world. (Image Source: Diageo)

 

What Will Eryuan Distillery Be Like?

For starters, enthusiasm will have to be met with persistence – construction is due to start in 2022 and will only be targeted for completion in 2023. If Eryuan’s single malt is to be held to the gold standard, this would mean we’ll only see its whiskies coming to market in 2026/2027 at soonest.

The distillery will be located some 2,100 meters above sea level and span a massive 66,000 square meter, in southwestern China, in Eryuan County within the Yunnan Province. We also know that sustainability is at the top of Diageo’s (and the broader whisky industry) mind and hence the new  distillery will be carbon neutral. This matters as it’ll influence the ultimate design, development and operations of the distillery, which will certainly incorporate renewable and clean tech into its processes. It’ll even target to recycle all the water it uses and be zero-waste.

 

Rendering of the proposed visitor center. (Image Source: Diageo)

Of course such a grand (and expensive) structure will have to include a world class visitor center, something that has in recent times become a must-have for distilleries. 

Appearances aside, we’re also told that the temperature locally is temperate, with a rich natural biodiversity (which I take to mean clean air and hence water), and the distillery will source its water from the natural springs that supply the Erhai Lake, the second largest highland lake in Yunnan Province.

 

"The natural surroundings and the Eryuan landscape will allow us to craft a world-class, China-origin, single malt whisky that will capture the imagination of premium whisky lovers in China."

- Sam Fischer, President, Diageo Asia Pacific and Global Travel

 

Diageo also mentions that their goal is to make this whisky a gift of choice and to displace the ceremonious status of Baijiu as a seasonal gift.

 

Baijiu is the overwhelming gift of choice in China and is associated with festivities, career promotions, weddings, birthdays and all manner of celebrations. Can Eryuan's single malt nibble off some of that? (Image Source: China Daily)

 

Our Take

This will certainly be interesting to watch and revisit this post in 2023 for the grand opening and perhaps once more in 2026 for the release of their inaugural single malt.

From the sounds of it, the temperate climate, the spring water, the high altitude; my guess is that this whisky is gonna be pretty intense, spicy and clean as these conditions would likely make for an accelerated maturation. The high altitude also helps in terms of lowering the boiling point for distillation to occur, which helps remove congeners (the dirty by products from the fermentation process) by reducing the number of distillation cycles.

 

Climate will likely be the biggest determinant of the distillery's whisky's flavor profile. Being at a higher altitude should not only accelerate maturation but also reduce distillation cycles needed. This could produce an intense, spicy, clean tasting whisky with brighter fruity notes. (Image Source: Diageo)

If I were to push my predictive abilities even further, I’d say this might even come off sweeter and fruitier. That’s because distillation doesn’t just strip out the unwanted congeners, it unfortunately also strips out the phenyls and esters that give off more complex flavors. With likely fewer distillation cycles, Eryuan’s whisky can hang on to these phenyls and esters which would probably make it sweeter and fruitier.

My guess is Eryuan’s single malt will probably taste like flavored soju, plus woodiness, minus artificial flavorings. Don’t come at me! All bets are off the table till 2026. So hold off till then.

I have a hunch Eryuan's single malt will taste like flavored soju except without artificial flavorings and maybe a tad woodier? Stay tuned till 2026 to find out. (Image Source: Shopee)

 

In any case, this has been a long time coming and for a whisky market of supposedly $1.7 billion in an even larger alcohol market of $150 billion (most of which is Baijiu), it was a guessing game of who’s who who (I sound like an owl) would eventually break ground in China. For that matter, didn’t Pernod Ricard also announce that they were going to make a China-origin single malt whisky, which was to be located in Sichuan? Mala whisky anyone?

 

Mala (pronounced mah-lah) translates into "numbing and spicy", is a Sichuan local favorite seasoning that has spread to South East Asia. It is primarily made of Sichuan peppercorns and chilli peppers. Here is it cooked with grilled fish, perhaps Eryuan will bring us some mala-flavored whisky. (Image Source: Mothership)

 

Diageo had been toying with this for awhile now, having even collaborated with local Baijiu distillery Jiangsu Yanghe Brewery to produce a whisky for the local Chinese market. They’ve also done some things on the side like constructing a new logistics center in Shenzhen and an R&D center in Shanghai to help with the development, production and distribution of its products.

 

Zhong Shi Ji Whisky created in collaboration between Diageo and Chinese Baijiu maker Jiangsu Yanghe Brewery. (Image Source: Diageo)

Diageo has been busting its wallet lately, with an investment every 2 weeks, someone’s been going pretty hard on their credit card huh? It’ll be interesting to see which of these bets pay off. I’m sure if the new Eryuan Distillery ends up being the only one to lay the golden eggs, Diageo certainly won’t be complaining. Let’s see if we can spot some Eryuan single malt whisky during the Chinese New Year festival in a couple of years time.

 

Kanpai!

 

  

@111hotpot