Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Whisky: Chinese edition

At Glen Bar in Beijing
I'm writing this from a hotel room on the Kowloon Peninsula in Hong Kong. Eileen and I just arrived from Beijing, where we did our best to find some good whisky bars and try some not-available-in-the-U.S. whiskies. The good part is that we did find one bar, Glen, in Beijing that had a great selection of whiskies. The bad part is that I was sick with a cold when we went, so I won't even bother reviewing any of the whiskies I tried (which included a number of Japanese whiskies, such as the Karuizawa 12 Pure Malt and the Hakushu 18).

The first thing to keep in mind if you try to look for whisky in China is that you should not get a cold when you go to a whisky bar. The second thing to keep in mind is that folks here are still generally only familiar with a few types of alcohol - primarily beer, wine, and bai jiu (rice wine). And, from what I can tell, bai jiu is good for removing paint and memories, but little else. If they're familiar with whisky, it's most likely blended whisky...like back in the old days (~1970s) when scotch was 99% blends.

Glen, the whisky bar we visited in Beijing, was not an easy find. Eileen had gotten the address from Google and we eventually located the building that bore the address number. When we asked the guard at the building's entrance gate about the bar, he said he had never heard of it. Luckily, we spotted one tiny sign above some dark stairs that had the name, so we went up. We wound through some halls and finally found the entrance; we pushed open the door to find a bar replete with many great whiskies and a very nice, mellow ambiance...but little else.

There was one bartender who knew what she was doing; the other three looked to be about 15 years old and had moppy hair and no brains when it came to bartending. (Ever seen three people try to simultaneously make one drink and still screw it up?) In addition to the four bartenders, a hostess, and us, there were a whopping two other patrons - not surprising, since even the building's guard didn't know the place existed. The bartender said the bar got its customers through referrals, and that it was somewhat exclusive. Yeah, exclusive of pretty much everyone, I'd say.

But at least they had a great selection of whiskies. Some of them, like the Balvenie Rose, especially got my interest. The Rose, as I found out on our trip to Speyside three months ago, is only available at the Balvenie distillery. (It retails there for 100 pounds and recently sold at auction for 250 pounds.) The bartender said the owner brings bottles back in his suitcase when he travels overseas; I think that, at the rate they seem to be doing business, he shouldn't need a very big suitcase to adequately serve his clientele.

All in all, a very nice bar with a good selection, but I would like to see it be better-advertised and create a little more buzz about whisky in Beijing. After all, it would be good for the bar's business, and it would be good for us consumers to see more interest among this booming country's population. A rising tide lifts all ships, and once China gets on board, this boat will pull up its anchors.

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