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Mr Whisky

Since making the switch from UK politics to Chinese whisky, Stephen Notman, Show Director of Whisky Live China, has established himself as the leading independent voice in the luxury beverage market in the Middle Kingdom. He speaks with TALK in the run up to the country’s largest whisky celebration, returning for its third year on 2 and 3 September.

How did you first become interested in whisky?

My father then and to this day works in the drinks industry. It wasn’t uncommon to see bottles of Famous Grouse, Grants, Bowmore and Glenmorangie in the drinks cabinet. My first experience however came from my mother’s selection of which whiskies should and should not be used to make Irish coffee! Unfortunately my mother’s selection was predominantly based on how eye-catching the bottles were.

How do you go from working for the Shadow Secretary of Defence to the whisky industry in China?

I majored in Politics and International Relations at Hull University in the UK. Keen to get the most out of my degree, I worked for the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence – Winston Churchill’s grandson – but it soon became apparent that a researcher’s wages would hardly cover my lodging and travel. After a short stint in Birmingham working for a recruitment specialist, my next role took me to Shanghai doing new product development for a whisky packaging specialist. As project manager I developed secondary packaging for brands such as Johnnie Walker, Singleton, Highland Park and Bowmore.

Do you think buying the Whisky Live franchise for China was a big risk?

At the time, it didn’t seem like a huge risk. Despite the economic backdrop, sales of whisky were continuing to grow with many distillers looking to head east. The industry warranted a platform for the established market of Taiwan, now the largest consumer of single malts in Asia, as well as a development platform for brands looking to enter mainland China.

Setting up your first business alone is a daunting task, particularly doing it thousands of miles away from home. I would be lying to say a guaranteed monthly income associated with a corporate job wasn’t appealing especially after the occasional sleepless night. Despite this, last year we hosted the world’s largest whisky festival in Taipei attracting 12,500 people. Shanghai’s event, now in its third year and firmly established, also enjoys great support from the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond.

What is the main goal of Whisky Live?

We want to attract the widest possible variety of brands to the Chinese market. To do that we provide a business development platform for small distillers looking to enter the China market or for major brands to reinforce market presence and, most importantly, work to create a fun, festive and educational experience for both consumers and members of the trade.

What is the most difficult aspect of this mission?

The sheer size, the lack of a foreign drinks culture and the habit of cutting whisky with green tea. Counterfeit goods are also a serious cause of concern. You consume whisky, not wear it like a Prada bag. Fortunately the Chinese are on to this, and in 2010 both the British and Chinese governments passed legislation to crack down on fakes.

What is the next 5 to 10 years going to look like for the whisky industry here in China?

That is the million dollar question distillers are always asking. Even after 10 years, the industry is still finding its feet and working to come up with winning formulas to assist growth. Bars and KTVs will continue to be dominated by Johnnie Walker and Chivas as they continue to invest large amounts for their brands to be behind the bar. Whilst this will deter smaller brands being able to enter, more and more boutique bars and lounges are emerging that specialise in single malts, small batch bourbons and other ultra premium deluxe spirits.

Is there a chance that the Chinese market will change the whisky industry more than the industry will change China?

Foreign spirits account for less than three per cent sales of spirits in China. I certainly believe that this will continue to grow, but it will never surpass baijiu. China, as part of a group of emerging markets, has already had a major impact on the industry. Legislation in Scotland now stresses that as part of the overall definition of a Single Malt, the whisky must be bottled in Scotland. Investment has been made to make sure demand does not outstrip supply, specifically from India and China. With more casks being filled and matured, Scotland is preparing itself for a wave of new Scotch drinkers.

What can we look forward to for Whisky Live 2011?

Attendees will get the chance to taste several brands that are being premiered in China, and of course they can all enjoy many of the old favourites. People who are new to whisky should spare a few moments to visit the Education Zone. They’ll find out what whisky actually is and how to nose and taste it. Some might like to try their hand at the art of blending whisky and make their own deluxe blended whisky with expert guidance in the Blending Zone. For those who wish to begin an expedition into the single malt regions, we have a Whisky Live Passport in the Show Guide to assist them on their journey. The festival promises to be a great day out!

Whisky Live China. 2 – 3 September. Tickets: RMB 150 – 850. InterContinental Puxi, 500 Hengfeng Lu. Web:

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