“When someone shares something of value with you and you benefit from it, you have a moral obligation to share it with others“ – Chinese Proverb
Go East Young Man…. well that is exactly what Rosemary & myself did in early April. For me it was my second time to China, but it might as well have been my first as I was going to “real China” as opposed to modern Shanghai on my previous visit. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Shanghai, it is so futuristic as a city with its levitating trains and so on, but I suppose I wanted to see more of the old China.
The trip was part of a summit titled Sharing Knowledge to Shape the Future, which was organised by Illva (Disaronno) our Italian partners. Also on the trip were Illva’s partners from the US, India and of course China.
First to Paris and from there we had an 11 hour flight to Shanghai. Once there we quickly made our transfer from Eastern China Airlines to China Southern Airlines for a further few hours of flight to the ‘small’ city of Xi’an, China’s 20th largest city with a mere 4.5 million people in a province (Shaanxi) of 37 million!
We gathered at the Peoples’ Grand Hotel, an old imposing communist building built on the site of the previous Emperor’s palace. A beautiful hotel nonetheless and the staff were so friendly…well you could have been in Ireland! There were plenty of Bill Murray moments (“Lost in Translation”) where ‘Yes’ cannot be mistaken for “Yes, I understand your request”. One guest who asked for a light (meaning a cigarette light) received a torch! I know…it could happen in Ireland as well!
Xi’an (pronounced she ann) is a bustling, quite modern, city with new apartment blocks going up all around town. Traffic seemed to move quite freely with little motor cycles weaving in and out. These were no ordinary cycles or mopeds with many carrying their work or family…and sometimes both! On one we saw a mother, father and two children, one fast asleep in front and the other clinging to a crate of veg at the back!
Here, in 1974, while digging a water well, a farmer uncovered a single life-sized terracotta soldier. Two years later the Chinese authorities had mapped out the full site which ultimately revealed no less than 8,000 terracotta soldiers buried since 210BC. It really is amazing that such a treasure lay hidden for so long. Each life-sized soldier has its own unique facial expression.
Located at the east side of the burial tomb for the Qin Emperor (who started the Qin dynasty), the terracotta army was to protect the Emperor in the afterlife. However our learned friends from India pointed out to us that, in the view of many, it is what you do in this life that will determine your next life. Essentially, the Indians (who were Hindus) in our group believed that how you treat people is what really matters.
I think the Hindus have a great outlook on life. One I can learn from. At our distillery at Royal Oak, I would like everyone who crosses our gate from the time they arrive to the time they depart, to be treated like they are one of our own. Also at Royal Oak, we need to be fully aware of our responsibility to the environment around us. From the barley crops we grow or purchase, or the bi-products we produce, to the care of the 200-year-old specimen trees on the estate – sustainability in a meaningful way and not just to get the green flag sort-of-way!
That said there are limits to this new-found eastern influence, the cows on our estate will never be sacred… they will just be well cared for!
However, the main reason for us visiting Xi’an was to bring all of us with an association to Illva together to share insights as we plan for greater collaboration across global markets. As an Irish whiskey producer, it was spine-tingling to be in the company of a small group of partners and potential customers from China, India and the United States. These are the world’s largest countries by population with 3 billion people between them, accounting for 42% of the world’s GDP.
My modest contribution was to outline Walsh Whiskey Distillery’s place in, and the long-tailed nature of, the Irish whiskey renaissance. A revival rooted in the re-emergence of a superior spirit with a great taste profile, loved by both men and women, and backed by major capital investment, that has continents and decades to go before it reaches its true potential. Backed by our distillery at Royal Oak and with Illva’s global reach, The Irishman and Writers’ Tears are perfectly positioned to play their part.
The location for the visit was a great castle built under the direction of Illva’s Mr Reina as part of their own winery and vineyards in Xi’an. Built in a Tuscan style, this Italian castle situated in a far away land was an extraordinary and wonderful sight. Everything about it was pristine, the vines in neat rows like the terracotta army we had visited and all the employees being highly attentive at all times. This achievement is testimony to Mr Reina’s drive and vision for global expansion.
From Xi’an we flew three hours to the city of Yantai, again another ‘small’ city of just 7 million people in a province of 100 million people! Yantai is a coastal city on the China Sea. Between the airport and our hotel we passed what appeared to be whole towns of newly built vacant apartment blocks, new motorways and endless lines of cranes on the skyline. Why were these built and who will live there? More of that anon.
That night we dined in Chateau Changyu as guests of the Changyu company, the largest wine company in China. It was originally 100% owned by the Chinese government but, all of 12 years ago, Illva invested in a 33% stake. The company has 20,000 hectares of vineyards – that’s equivalent to 58 Central Park’s in New York or 28 Phoenix Parks in Dublin, Ireland! Most impressively they have just built China’s (and possibly the world’s) largest winery. We also visited this most impressive building.
For starters, its design shows western architects what can be imagined when designing industrial buildings. It has an annual production capacity of 52 million cases (624 million bottles) of wine. To put this in context, today the Irish whiskey industry bottles 8 million cases of Irish whiskey every year, so this one winery produces almost 7 times what the entire Irish whiskey sector produces. That said, how many of us have actually drunk a Chinese wine? Be prepared to be amazed.
What was also striking was the absence of employees in this vast building and highly populated country. Everywhere we go in China we saw lots of employees. On the new motorways being built, there was not a lot of machinery but an army of men laying the roads… real ones this time! Here at the winery the future had arrived in the form of robotics and automation.
Overall, it was somewhat confusing in the context of the vast population of China to see a lot of unpopulated new facilities. Where are all the people who will live in these ghost cities, travel on these empty new motorways and consume all this wine? The answer is the growing Chinese middle-class.
Illva have acted on something most western companies have been slow to fully embrace, namely, the explosion in the numbers of the Chinese middle-class who are powering the Chinese economy towards becoming the largest in the world. By 2022 it is expected that almost half the population, 550 million people, will be considered middle-class along with all the disposable income that goes with it. In 2000 just 4% of urban dwellers were considered middle-class, by 2022 it will be 76%!
The Chinese are preparing for this demographic shift by building the roads, houses and infrastructure that this new urban middle-class will embrace. At the same time Illva are preparing the wineries! By investing in China 12 years ago they acted on their convictions.
The final leg of our tour took us on to the wonderful city of Beijing, with its 25 million people (hopefully 76% or 19 million will be middle class Irish whiskey drinkers by 2022!). It is the heart of the political administration and also has iconic cultural gems such as the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City. If truth be told, this is a city I would like to spend a lot more time in. We dined like Emperor’s ourselves in Beijing that night in the Aman Hotel situated at the foot of the Summer Palace. What a way to finish before being whisked away in the early hours of the morning to make our return flights home.
With new experiences, insights and, critically, new business contacts from China, India and The United States, I am even more excited about the future for Walsh Whiskey Distillery. The Irishman and Writers’ Tears being distilled today in Royal Oak will be poured in the Summer Palace in Beijing before too long.
Fate brings people together no matter how far apart they may be – Chinese Proverb.
Sláinte- 干杯 – Cheers!