Spirits more prominent at trade fair
Spirits have been part of the product mix at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair from its start in 2008, but this year was the first year they were prominent.
The show, which took place over three liver-punishing days, was certainly well attended. Two days were for trade visitors, both of which I attended, and one was for the public.
According to the organiser, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, the fair attracted 20,000 trade buyers from 76 countries and regions this year to meet the more than 1,000 exhibitors from 38 countries and regions. "On the public day", the event attracted more than 30,000 wine lovers, 30 per cent more than last year. I'm so sorry I missed that.
Every time Vinexpo rolls into town and confirms that it will run a trade show but no public days, there is a certain amount of grumbling.
There is some justification for this, because if you are a private individual with the right connections and money to spend, Vinexpo is certainly prepared to regard you as an honorary member of the trade.
But given the gloom with which some of the exhibitors I talked to were anticipating a Saturday of mostly pointless face-to-face encounters with a thirsty Joe Public, it's hard to blame Vinexpo for looking after their exhibiting customers' interests.
Even on the trade days, it certainly felt crowded enough.
It was, of course, a wine event first, but the spirits segment came close to stealing the show.
That wasn't because the big brands were out in force. Far from it. With the exception of Beam Suntory, few were to be seen.
It was the smaller operators that had decided to show up in person, and a lot of the buzz was around craft distillers and independent spirit bottlers.
"We're the sole exhibitors from New Zealand," Lloyd Brown of Waiwera Spirits told me with something between embarrassment and pride.
The rest of the Kiwi wine and spirits industry had apparently decided to give Hong Kong a pass this year, and headed straight to Shanghai for the mid-November Wine & Spirits China.
Waiwera were rewarded with three silver medals in the competition for their Spiced Gold Rum, Mahurangi Gin and Waiwera Spiritual Vodka. I tasted all three and found them pretty good.
Other craft distillers whose stands I checked out included British Columbia's Urban Distilleries, which also makes gin, rum and vodka, but less predictably, offers a single malt whisky that is not matured in a cask, but is sold instead with a chunk of a cask in the bottle.
Distiller Randy Urban's explanation for this is that he reckons his whisky is of "sipping grade" straight from the still, and he just wants to add some wood flavour.
Technically he justifies this by saying that "the surface area of the wood that the alcohol sees inside the bottle is far greater than it is in a cask, and the flavour transfer is a lot quicker than it normally would be".
The transfer of the whisky from warehouse to retailer is obviously also several years quicker, and I imagine that may have had something to do with a small distiller's thinking, but it does mean that unlike other whiskies, which are not supposed to evolve in the bottle unless you decide to decant it, this one will go on acquiring wood character after you've bought it right up until the moment you pour it into a glass. I had only a small sip from a tiny plastic cup, which is not the ideal tasting process, but I didn't think it was bad at all.
Wine was still the dominant theme of the show, of course, but when you run into leading local wine expert Lau Chi-sun, happily sipping single malt scotch from a wine glass - as I did - you know where the action is.