“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.”