While baijiu and whiskey are still the most widely popular spirits in China, gin is slowly becoming the spirit of choice among young Chinese drinkers. Coquina Restrepo finds out more about China’s growing gin market
Gin is a relatively new spirit on the shelves of Chinese bars, but it has distinguished itself as the chameleon of drinks. It’s not too sweet, not too strong and can be blended to have floral, fruity, woody and even musky notes.
Yet gin is mostly preferred by the expat community in China, the same community that is setting up brand associations and gin bars in major cities. But local Chinese drinkers are still split between loving the spirit and never having tried it before.
“I think gin, as a spirit of choice and exploration, is fairly new,” says Michael Epelboim, a Shanghai-based gin enthusiast and “gin-fluencer” who has run a series of tasting events. “The simple gin and tonic has always been there… [but] people don’t usually order it unless they want a cheap drink. Gin is not perceived as a luxury drink and even the most famous brands were considered to be mid to low-end products.”
However, with the end of Covid restrictions in late 2022 and bars and restaurants in China seeing a sharp upturn in sales, there is a strong market opportunity for brands with unique branding and a strong online presence.
Who’s drinking and who’s pouring?
Alcohol culture is changing in China, 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 strong, grain-based clear liquor), and later, whiskey. As urban areas in China began to rapidly develop, drinking culture also began to change. Young Chinese people have moved away from the traditional “sipping culture” of whiskey and baijiu to cocktails and casual social drinking.
“The vibe of gin is very different from other spirits. You can drink it during the day, during brunch and at night for all occasions,” says Eric Almazov Laroslav, the owner of a Shanghai gin bar called Botanical Basket. “Gin can smell and taste light depending on the brand, unlike Whiskey, which always smells and tastes like whisky. There are more opportunities with gin and gin tasting since it can taste sweet or dark, and it can smell floral or peppery depending on the blend.”
Where you drink is where you learn
Creating a space to explore gin has been a challenge for gin brands and enthusiasts for years, due to the difficulties posed by getting alcohol licenses in order, finding a local investor to vouch for you and then building up your brand. Gin is a niche that’s still developing itself, but in Shanghai at least, gin-focused bars are building brands that are young, urban and relaxed.
“[To open our first gin bar], we pulled together multiple designers to create both a lifestyle brand and a franchise,” says Thomas Lynch, co-owner of the Gin & Juice brand in Shanghai. “The casual drinking community is large and growing with many different marketing channels [e.g., WeChat and word of mouth].”
Lynch has been in Shanghai since 2018 and founded the expat connect group FoS, which promotes, on average, between 200-300 events and gatherings a year. Community events are some of the few times brands can introduce themselves to people who might be interested in trying something new. Lynch was able to quickly market Gin & Juice by tapping into the community social marketing platforms and offering unique experiences offline. This type of direct marketing draws in people of all ages and creates a much more relaxed social environment because everyone is interested in the same topic: discovering gin.
Local gin brands, in particular, 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 your product.
Local gin brands have also found popularity by adapting their flavours to local and traditional tastes. Brands like Julu Jin, Porcelain Gin and Peddlers Gin have developed their own signature flavours using primarily Chinese botanicals and manufacturing in local distilleries. As a result, they are also able to maintain quality control, ship products quickly around China and create cocktails that suit local palates by working with local bartenders.
“Chinese botanicals are a very big part of [what we do]”, explains Hubert Tse, founder of Porcelain Gin. The brand has experimented with using Sichuan peppercorns to create a “spicy” gin profile or Buddha’s Hand oranges for a more citrusy blend. “We truly want to make a gin that represents China — so all of our botanicals are sourced locally […] from family friends and also the spice markets in Liaoning.”
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.
Branding is everything
In cities like Shanghai, 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 who are looking for a unique experience when they go out drinking. This has motivated local craft gin makers to promote their products in novel 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.
Beyond eye-catching branding, one of the best ways to enter the market is to work directly with bartenders and hospitality brands to introduce your brand 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.
“Brands need a good bartender, as people here rely on bartenders to give them an introduction and rely on their tastes and expertise,” Almazov Laroslav told us. Many casual drinkers are curious and interested in trying new spirits and drinks but are unsure where to start. “Anyone can order off a menu. But people here want that personal connection, they want a conversation! That’s what gets them interested in trying something new.”
Currently, bartenders are seeing a draw towards sweeter flavours and even an interest in the new “pink gin” craze that creates more aesthetically pleasing drinks.
How can British brands enter the market?
After speaking to bar owners, sommeliers and influencers, three basic ideas emerged for gin brands looking to enter the China market:
1. Find a local supplier who is keen to bring in brands.
2. Develop a unique character to your brand (Is it historic in some way? Are the ingredients special? Is the flavour ideal for mixing?)
3. Make connections with bartenders, hotels and local designers who can introduce your brand to the local community in novel and personal ways.
Lynch is clear on the importance of a good brand strategy for entering the Chinese market. How you enter the market, who you’re connected to and what platforms you’re working on will determine whether you’re making the connections you need or not.
“You need a combination of a strong sales outlet, someone who knows F&B and the local crowd, and mass market appeal,” Lynch explains. “It all comes down to your brand entry strategy: Have the drink on the shelf, work with sales and suppliers, and create the opportunity for people to try this drink. You can do this through specialist events, tasting events, bartender events. Just make sure you’re the brand on offer!”