Cover The Whisky Barrels Beacon Tower skywell featuring cask heads from Diageo distilleries all over the world (Photo: Diageo)

Diageo will craft its first China-origin single malt in a brand-new, state-of-the-art carbon-neutral distillery in Yunnan Province

“Yunnan—what a place!” exclaims Sam Fischer, the president of the English spirits maker Diageo’s Asia Pacific and global travel division, of the region where the group has chosen to build a distillery in which to craft its first China-origin single malt whisky.

“I can still remember the first time I saw Erhai Lake—I had never seen anything so beautiful,” Fischer says. “The water is absolutely crystal clear, and the lengths to which the government goes to preserve the quality of the water are extraordinary. [There are] snow-capped mountains, pristine water, a biodiversity focus, and the perfect environment for whisky making.”

In November, Diageo broke ground on a US$75 million distillery on a site located 2,100 metres above sea level in the rolling countryside of Eryuan County in Yunnan. The location boasts a temperate climate and access to pristine natural spring water, both of which are key to whisky-making.

Water in particular contributes to the weight, mouthfeel and flavour of a whisky, as it is a part of the malting and mashing processes and is used to bring down the proof after distillation. Water’s natural acidity, softness or hardness, salinity, mineral levels and, in the case of Scotch in particular, its peatiness, all affect the resulting whisky.

For Diageo in China, the same water that feeds the immaculate Erhai Lake will supply the Yunnan distillery and contribute to the flavours and aromas of the single malt. A dedicated pipeline will ensure the natural environment is not disturbed and, in addition, all water used by the distillery will be recycled so no wastewater enters the ecosystem.

There are plans for Diageo’s single malt to be distinctive through its maturation, too. Just as Japan’s acclaimed whiskies are aged in casks made from mizunara, an oak native to Japan that takes around 200 years to mature before it can be made into barrels, Diageo is exploring options for special maturation in China. The whisky will have “Chinese nuances, ingredients, and potentially some maturation that are distinctly Chinese,” says Fischer. “This is going to be extraordinary whisky.”

With the launch of its first China-origin single malt, Diageo is expanding its active participation of industry efforts to create a framework for whisky-making in China. “There’s a very live conversation about building a code of conduct or principles of whisky making in China,” says Fischer. “Many countries do this around the world, and we are building the same kind of code in China: maturation periods, minimum alcohol, what ingredients can be used to support the classification of Chinese single malt whisky. That’s not defined yet, but we are trying to bring in those parameters and that discipline to preserve the integrity of the whisky. It’s important that you preserve that, because ultimately that is what consumers trust.”

The Diageo single malt is a big commitment to Chinese consumers, but Fischer is confident of its success based on the high levels of interest. “Consumers are involved in the provenance of brands, the history of brands, the craftsmanship and materials and what those brands stand for.”

But will a brand-new label without that heritage and provenance have the same appeal?

“There will always be a real appreciation of centuries of history of distilleries and all of that expertise, so I don’t think this is a substitute. Anyone in China appreciates the environmental perspective that we are bringing to this production. Yunnan is synonymous with pristine environment and purity, so I think we get massive credibility when we start talking about bringing Scotland to the most pristine of places. Then that national pride starts to come into play and an ability [for Chinese consumers] to share their own whisky with guests, friends, acquaintances, business partners.”

In addition to the prime production location is Diageo’s expertise—the group has 30 whisky distilleries in Scotland alone and is the owner of Scotch whisky brands Johnnie Walker and Singleton—as well as the sustainability angle. The design of the new distillery will be shaped by Diageo’s Society 2030: Spirit of Progress, the group’s 10-year sustainability action plan, and will focus on renewable and clean technologies.

“We are sourcing all of our electricity from wind or environmentally friendly sources, where all the boilers are electric, not coal-fired for example, and we’ll be carbon neutral,” says Fischer, adding the importance, too, of understanding the impact of the raw materials involved, particularly related to farming, to ensure carbon neutrality.

None of this is new for Diageo, as the group has not only already built carbon-neutral distilleries, such as its Diageo Lebanon Distillery in Kentucky in the US, but has converted existing ones, including Brora on Islay and Royal Lochnagar, close to Balmoral, both in Scotland. The Yunnan distillery site will also be home to a visitor centre. The province is already a popular destination for domestic tourists, and the distillery offers a prime opportunity for Diageo to educate visitors on both whisky and sustainability. Such immersive experiences have already proved successful for the group elsewhere, including at Johnnie Walker Princes Street in Edinburgh, an eight-storey brand home, and at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, a seven-storey attraction that explores the story of Guinness.

It will be several years before the single malt whisky produced by Diageo’s Yunnan distillery hits the shelves—construction of the project begins apace in early 2022 and on production, the whisky will require maturation—but, as Fischer states, “all good things take time.”

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