Taiwan's accidental whisky evangelist spreads the word in Hong Kong
Eric Huang has spent more than a decade promoting appreciation of Scotch malt whisky on the island; he's continuing that education drive now in Hong Kong
Taiwan is a unique market for Scotch whisky in general, and for single malts in particular. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, in 2014 it was the world's fourth biggest market by value, and the world leader in terms of the average price paid per bottle. It is the only market in the world in which malts outsell blends.
This can be credited in part to Eric Huang Pei-chun. One of the prime movers in the development of whisky connoisseurship in Taiwan, he is now a regular visitor to Hong Kong.
Ten years ago Huang established the Taiwan chapter of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and went on to organise the immensely popular Whisky Live Taipei and subsequent Whisky Luxe Taipei industry shows, as well as editing Whisky Magazine Taiwan.
Earlier this year Huang took on the additional role of whisky consultant to Safe Bubbles & Malt, at 255 Queen's Road Central, and was responsible for creating its spectacular list of more than 1,000 malt whiskies, many of them rare and expensive, and mostly from Scotland and Japan.
Huang's love affair with whisky began while he was studying international trade law at Aberdeen University.
"It was quite boring, so every weekend I went visiting distilleries," he recalls.
He joined the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 2003 in order to buy unusual bottles available only to members, before moving to London for further studies. Then he was approached by the chairman who asked if he could help establish a chapter in Taiwan.
"He told me he had checked the membership information and could only find three Taiwanese, and the other two were over 60 years old, so I was his only opportunity," he says. "I thought about it and decided, 'Why not?'"
So Huang finished his studies and got into the whisky business after returning to Taiwan.
As well as representing the society, managing two bars (both since closed) and running the shows and the magazine, Huang began importing whisky.
The bars were intended principally to introduce the society, and he hopes that Safe will accomplish the same objective in Hong Kong. He is helping to organise tasting events focused on the society's exclusive independent bottlings which, along with other whiskies, can be bought at the bar.
"The society doesn't have too much in the way of a marketing budget, so opening a bar is a good way to reach people who love whisky," he says.
The partners behind Safe also intend to set up a whisky shop in Harbour City. Huang thinks it will be ready to open in November, and will probably be called Liquid Gold. Again he is acting as a consultant, and hopes to use the shop to promote the society.
Huang is a collector of whiskies on his own behalf as well as for sale, and estimates that he owns about 10,000 bottles, which he has been accumulating since his student days. He has a particular interest in older bottles and single cask spirits, which he says were his focus in developing the Safe list. By law any Scotch whisky that carries an age statement can quote only the age of the youngest whisky "married" with others to make the malt or blend.
"Now there is a shortage of aged whisky. Before a 12-year-old might have contained whiskies up to 30 years old. But now I think 99 per cent of the whisky in most 12-year-olds will be only 12 years old," he says.
"People can come to enjoy whisky, but also to learn. Maybe you like a particular whisky but you haven't tried it from the '60s, or '70s or even earlier."
Some of the whiskies at Safe are also from distilleries which no longer exist, such as Rosebank in Scotland's Lowlands region.
Prices per glass range from around HK$100 for 10- or 12-year-old malts readily available elsewhere to HK$2,000 for some of the rarities.
Part of Safe's whisky education programme is a series of guided tastings or "workshops" designed by Huang. Among those are this evening's Hidden Gems of Islay 25 +, priced at HK$1,400 per head for a tasting that includes rare whiskies more than a quarter of a century old from Port Ellen, Bowmore and Laphroaig; Beautiful '80s on September 4, which will present rare Scotch single malts from the 1980s and also at HK$1,400; and Memories of Karuizawa on September 11 at HK$2,980 per person, featuring whiskies from the revered defunct distillery.
Each session is limited to 30 people and reservations can be made by calling Safe at 2505 9988, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on this story, visit scmp.com/whisky