Fiery Maotai plans heavy duty global push

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2011, 12:00am


China's national liquor, Maotai, is seeking to conquer the world.

The maker of the fiery drink, which has been served at national banquets to toast foreign leaders including Richard Nixon and Kim Il-sung, plans to improve its international exposure through sales at duty-free airport shops in London, Rome, Moscow and other key cities.

'We will increase sales in foreign markets, getting more people to know the quality and culture of Maotai,' said Ji Keliang, chairman of the Kweichow Moutai Distillery.

The company will work with its overseas distributor, French family-controlled Camus Cognac, whose sales network covers duty-free shops in more than 140 countries and the flights of 50-plus international airlines.

'I am confident that Maotai will break into the top 50 best [alcoholic] brands in duty-free shops globally this year,' said Cyril Camus, president and general manager of Camus Cognac.

Since starting co-operation with Maotai in 2004, the distributor has placed the Chinese spirit in airports in Paris, New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Vancouver and almost all major Asian cities.

'Visibility is very important,' Camus said. 'It's the first step to getting people know the brand. Sales will follow the recognition.'

The liquor, which has a standard alcohol content of 53 per cent by volume, is commonly presented as a gift on formal and personal occasions. It is so highly sought after in the local market that consumers often complain of short supply.

About 25,000 tonnes of Maotai is produced every year, with 95 per cent sold on the mainland.

The liquor, which is distilled from fermented sorghum, is produced by a single factory in a remote town in Guizhou province . It is believed that the unique climate and vegetation of the area contribute to the rich taste of the spirit.

Each bottle of Maotai takes at least five years - from brewing, blending and stocking - before it reaches the shelves. The company hopes to increase the capacity to 40,000 tonnes in five years.

The limited supply has led to relatively high retail prices and widespread fake Maotai liquor in the local market.

Earlier this year, Kweichow Moutai announced it would raise prices 20 per cent to cover the surging cost in labour, transport and raw materials. The mainland retail price of a bottle of Maotai is now 1,300 to 1,500 yuan.

The price increase sparked complaints among Maotai lovers but Ji defended it, saying it was reasonable compared with the sky-high prices of some top wine brands.

'We never intended to make Maotai a luxury drink and we actually set the price at a level that an ordinary family could afford to celebrate big moments during the year,' Ji said.

In recent years, shopping-savvy drinkers have chosen to buy genuine Maotai in foreign markets where it is cheaper.

The average retail price in duty-free shops is US$98, or 640 yuan - half the price of the mainland.

Cyril Camus said Chinese travellers were the largest group of buyers in duty-free shops, followed by South Koreans and Russians.

He said most people were in for a shock when they first tasted Maotai yet many came back for more because they appreciated the quality of the liquor.

'There's nothing equivalent to the romantic and fragrant taste of Maotai,' Camus said. 'It's not a matter of whether it will succeed internationally. It's just a matter of when.'