Hong Kong has developed a taste for whisky - and its growing thirst is matched only by the volume of new brands and expressions that are arriving on our shores. “There have been some amazing bottlings lately,” says John Drummond, resident manager of the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui East.
The hotel hosts the Hong Kong Whisky Festival every April, and this year’s edition featured several new arrivals. Some are from familiar names, including Highland Park’s The Light - “fresh and zesty” with “pear, vanilla and soft spice” from refilled American oak casks - and The Dark, which is matured in first-fill bourbon casks, “something you rarely see in official releases”, Drummond says.
Glenmorangie’s Spios - Scots Gaelic for “spice” - is matured in casks that once held American rye whiskey, which has a distinctly spicy character. It is the ninth limited edition bottling from the distillery’s Private Edition series, “and the first single malt to have ever been entirely matured in American rye whiskey casks”, Drummond notes.
Beyond the big names, the Grand Stanford’s bar, Tiffany’s New York Bar, features some new independent bottlings from Samaroli, Adelphi and A.D. Rattery, which source single malt from distilleries in Scotland and then blend and bottle it themselves. “I love to compare the distillery bottles with independent bottlers and try their expressions,” Drummond says. “I am always looking for that ‘wow’ moment and there are many of them in both distillery releases and independent bottlers.”
There are other bottlings fresh off the boat that are giving Hong Kong’s whisky enthusiasts that “wow” moment. “My main objective [is] to offer bottles that were never opened in Hong Kong before, at least not publicly and offered by the glass,” says Aaron Chan, owner of Club Qing, a Scotch and Japanese whisky specialist. One of them is a 43-year-old 1973 Speyside that was bottled exclusively for Club Qing and the Tokyo liquor store Shinanoya. Chan describes it as sweet on the nose, with notes of “ripe apple, apricot, menthol, old cognac and pear”, with a taste of grapefruit, mild peat, honey, syrup herbs, and a “quite long” finish.
Other recent arrivals include a 14-year-old single-cask Lagavulin bottled in 1992, a 20-year-old Bowmore bottled in 1985 and a 15-year-old Aberlour-Glenlivet bottled in 1978 - old whiskies all, but new to the market here. Tasting such vintage bottlings is a trip back in time, as production and blending techniques have changed over the years.
Down the road at Angel’s Share, no age statement (NAS) whiskies have been growing in popularity, especially since Japanese distiller Suntory announced they would be discontinuing age-statement bottles. Angel’s Share offers a number of whisky flights and manager Judith Ki says the “Age is But a Number” flight, focusing on NAS whiskies, is a customer favourite. It features Auchentoshan Three Wood (syrupy and intense), Jura Superstition (like “black forest honey with hot buttered toast”, says Ki), Macallan Edition No 2 - “cracked black pepper, spice, cloves, nutty chocolate, oak, brown sugar, licorice and brandy snaps” - and Laphroaig Lore - “rich and peaty, with a spicy chilli kick”.
Over at Alvy’s, a bar known for beer, pizza and American whiskey, manager Patrick Gatherer has been enjoying a bourbon that was recently released in Hong Kong: the Breckenridge port-cask finished bourbon. “I currently have bottles from batch eight,” he says. “It’s only made when the guys at Breckenridge have access to full barrels of tawny port. They’ll take their high-rye bourbon and fill the port barrels as soon as they’re emptied so the wood is still saturated with wine. They age for four to six months so the spice from the rye is beautifully rounded by lots of raisin, wood and dark fruit.”
John Drummond says Hong Kong drinkers are often on the hunt for anything new and interesting. “[They] are really curious and sponge up the knowledge in regards to all whiskies, as much as they can get,” he says. “I can see over the past few years that the consumer is really well educated and always on the lookout for new bottles coming into the market.” That is true for anything from Japan, given Suntory’s announcement that it will dedicate itself exclusively to NAS whiskies. “Prices have gone crazy,” he says. With that in mind, many consumers are seeing what’s new from independent bottlers and smaller distilleries that are expanding their production.
There’s more to come. Tiffany’s New York Bar is planning to sell whisky mooncakes for this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, as well as a whisky advent calendar for Christmas. It will soon be receiving bottles of a single-cask, cask-strength 15-year-old Bowmore that was bottled exclusively for Hong Kong whisky bars, including Tiffany’s, Butler, Club Qing, Ginger and Nocturne. “Interesting times,” Drummond says.