Sunday, February 04, 2007

Foreign Spirits

I'll start off by saying I hope I don't come off as some kind of alcoholic from this update. Fancy hard alcohols excite some kind of collecter impulse with me, I'm interested to compare and contrast the different styles, and learn how cocktails work, like I was a leading man from a 50's movie!

In Shanghai, by contrast, very few people I know care for alcohol, and nobody I know drinks cocktails - when I try to push a drink on Chinese people, it never gets more than a few polite sips. I'm not much of one to drink alone in my apartment, believe it or not, so the end result is my collection is growing to the point of being a little absurd.

Which isn't to say China is alcohol-free. Having a light beer or two with a meal is relatively common, and China has various native alcoholic drinks. Chinese hard alcohols more popular with the older generation and the poor, I think.

Western spirits are commonly found, though. Their main place is as an extremely expensive bottle that is given as a particularly elite gift, or perhaps to have around the house to show off that you can afford money on such things. It's much more common than in the US to run across bottles of Scotch or brandy in the $50+ range, any upper-end mall or shopping district will sell them one after the other . They often come in gift boxes, with a couple of tumblers, or perhaps an extra 200mL bottle on the side:

I hate to apply the term "good deal" for a $135 bottle of Scotch, but that's how much it costs for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, a bottle you see all over the place. In the US, the bottle would cost perhaps $170 or $180, after taxes. On the other hand, $135 is a lot more dear in Shanghai, where the average salaries and cost of living are both much lower than in the US.

These bottles are mostly to be seen in the more elite shopping centers. But even in the boonies of Shanghai, there's generally bottles of Johnnie Walker Black and Red behind the counter of every convenience store.

I have to guess not very many bottles actually get sold this way. I've never seen it, and I go to convenience stores every day of the week! Perhaps it's behind the counters as part of a promotion. Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal regularly sponsor events aimed at ex-pats, for example House music DJs visiting Shanghai, or the Black Eyes Peas a short while back. They also have large signs in front of a lot of bars - I think especially those aimed at HK & Taiwanese Chinese, although I'm hardly expert.

If you look at the above picture you can also see some Japanese sake and Korean shochu, which is popular with Japanese. The picture was taken at a Japanese-branded convenience store in a part of town with a relatively large number of Japanese people. I have to believe Chinese people would never purchase Japanese alcohol, and they're entirely intended for Japanese. So in most of Shanghai it's not so common, but in stores aimed at the Japanese, there's a wide selection:

Westerner-style alcohol selection is much wider, have a gander:

There's a European tilt to all of this, and not just because it's the chain of a French superstore. Scotch-style whiskey predominates, there's excellent but uncommon-in-American bottles such as Pernod and Pastis, etc. There's a little of everything, but some categories only have cheap knock off brands, or the famous brands that taste nasty. Some decent tequila is high on my wish list - 1800 Anejo Jose Cuervo is OK and the only real tequila in town, but not worth the $40 cost.

Personally I think vodkas are all the same, brand loyalty coming from which one has the best marketing. And vodka doesn't seem to be very popular in Shanghai, although you can get some of the major brands like Absolut or Stoli, substantially cheaper than in the US. Recently, a few vodka brands have launched big. They don't advertise as heavily as the whiskeys. With an immature market, and no real difference between the end product, these brands differentiate themselves by price. This bottle of Grey Goose goes for about $50, almost twice what it is in the US.

Oh, speaking of wish lists again, definitely #1 on my wish list is for Wild Turkey Rye - even though Scotch is common, other whiskeys are pretty rare. Probably the best local subsitute for Rye in a Manhattan is Canadian Club, which you can find at a few foreign grocery stores. And, my wish list for the US is Havana Club, the US has a political policy of not allowing US citizens to buy goods from Cuba.

This is different than Barardi's Havana Club knock-off they sell in Florida, which comes from the US refusing to recognize a Cuban trademark. The Havana Club 7 years is the most delicious rum I'm ever had. When you can find it at Carrefour it goes for $23. If it was in the US at that price, it would dominate the market! Well maybe not - it's a little hard to find in Shanghai, and most bars stock Bacardi, which is nasty and not much cheaper, but has the advertising and the familiar name. Oh, there's also a Havana Club 3 that is very light but good, and a Havana Club Reserva, I found it in a Thai airport, that is still good but perhaps too mild and smooth for me.

The US doesn't allow Absinthe, it is allowed in China. This brand tastes almost exactly like Listerine, and the whole absinthe mystique is BS, based on French prohibitionist hysteria from a century ago. It is an attractive bottle, though.

Another weird US policy is limits on the legitimate sizes of bottles - 700mL is not permitted. However, 700mL is the norm in France and in former French colonies, perhaps this encourages French companies to have vastly different pricing schemes for the US market. Cointreau, for example, is an absolutely necessary component of several common mixed drinks, like the Margarita. It costs $35 a bottle in the US, very steep, but goes for a comparatively cheap $15 in China.

For mixed drinks, the quality of the juice and other mixers are just as important as the quality of the alcohol. It pains me to hear Taiwanese people talking of mixing their expensive Scotch whiskeys with the sweetened iced tea you buy at convenience stores - a very popular mixed drink in Shanghai. It also pained me to use the limes that were available in Shanghai when I first arrived, I also use them a lot in the rare instances when I cook - they were fragrant, but too astringent and weird. In the last half year, it's become easy to find more familiar limes in the foreign grocery stories, but the prices are somewhat prohibitive - three normal-sized limes are here selling for $2.50.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Great blog! I was trying to sell liquor in Shanghai in 2005 and your photos may be responsible for me coming again! I'd like to sell some real absinthe in Shanghai (see my blog): is there potential?