Trends in the drinks industry are predicted all the time. Some with more accuracy than others. Now the powers that be (in drinks companies, governments, local GPs and the World Health Organisation) are trying to predict what will happen with coronavirus. Just how big will the impact be from both economic and health perspectives?
Baijiu, sorghum-based “firewater”, is the biggest selling spirit in the world. Baijiu hails from China, just like the coronavirus. A little while back, I was looking out for baijiu being the next big thing here in the UK. Kweichow Moutai Co., the maker of the most prestigious brand of baijiu, overtook Diageo Plc., Anheuser-Busch InBev SA and PepsiCo Inc. to become the world’s biggest distiller by market capitalisation. Articles in drinks publications were predicting how baijiu was going to go stratospheric in the UK in 2018/2019, and even more recently an Essex farmer, Pete Thompson launched the first British-made baijiu, made with home-grown sorghum to coincide with Chinese New Year in January 2020. Likewise, in 2019, Harrods’ spirits and wine buyer, Nick Fleming, noted that the Chinese spirit was getting more traction with local consumers, when traditionally it was popular with the international customers. At that time, Harrods stocked a 15-year-old vintage of Kweichow Moutai for £1200, so there seemed to be at least a small market developing.
However, fast-forward just a few months to March 2020. We only have to read the newspapers to hear horrific stories of Chinese students in London being attacked for supposedly being responsible for spreading the coronavirus, people moving away from Chinese nationals on public transport etc. for fear of catching the disease, and Chinese children being bullied in the playground for having “the bug”. People don’t seem to be able to separate being rational from media hype. People are racist.
So, if coronavirus is a ‘Chinese’ disease, how are consumers now going to view baijiu, the Chinese spirit? Can we guess that the initial predicted hype for the liquid here in the UK will be driven underground? I for one hope that the majority of bars and consumers will continue to grow in terms of their exploratory and experimental attitudes. We know that baijiu is considered a great cocktail spirit, as noted by Paul Mathew, owner of London bars The Hide, The Arbitrager, and Demon, Wise & Partners, who discovered the spirit whilst living and working in Beijing some years ago. As consumers increasingly look to bartenders for recommendations on what to drink and education on new products, we need these “super consumers” (bartenders) to lead the charge in keeping the baijiu spirit alive. Baijiu sales in China have undoubtedly been massively impacted, due to cities being on lockdown and consumers going out less. I do hope that markets (including the UK) to which China might hope to export baijiu, will not become less receptive due to consumer negativity around China and Chinese products, following the coronavirus crisis. In a world that is becoming increasingly divided it seems, we need to open our arms to China and #bekind. Let’s raise a (shot) glass (of baijiu) and toast to good health and prosperity, for all.
This article was written by Elty Dudley-Williams, Project Director