IN FOCUS Excellence Awards Interview

Just Drinks Excellence Awards 2023: Laizhou Distillery

Laizhou Distillery - To Create the Infinite Possibilities of Whisky

Just Drinks: What is your name, and which company are you representing? Tell us about your company.

Anqi Shen: I am Anqi Shen, Associate Director of Marketing at Laizhou Distillery. The creation and development of Laizhou Distillery took five years and was finally completed and put into production in 2021. At the very beginning of the journey, our spirits team travelled across three continents and visited dozens of distilleries around the world to learn about various whisky production processes, brewing concepts, and advanced green construction systems; at the same time, the team also travelled all over the country to study the geographical location, water source, and local spirits culture and finally decided to build the distillery in Qionglai, where has been a prime distillation area since ancient times due to its hydrology and water quality, and microbial profile bless it with all the advantages of making high-quality whisky.

Just Drinks: What makes your company stand out from others?

Anqi Shen: Our customized equipment, innovative techniques, and an enormous number of various casks made us unique. For example, we are one of the few distilleries in the world with column and pot stills; only two other distilleries have both. The 7-column stills can continuously distill more than 334 times. As for the four pairs of pot stills, two pairs are equipped with dual condensing equipment for flexibly switching between conventional copper and stainless steel condensing reflux units, which enables the extraction of pure and complex whisky notes and tastes. Moreover, the external heating, dual condensation structure, negative pressure distillation, other customized equipment, and having about 300,000 casks from all over the world allow us to maximize the versatility and potential for flavour exploration.

Laizhou Pot Still.

Just Drinks: Can you briefly introduce Laizhou’s talent team?

Anqi Shen: Of course, our talent team condenses the wisdom from the world. Regarding our R&D team, most of them graduated from the Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom with a master's degree in Brewing and Distilling; as for our branding team and operation team, most members also have a background in the global spirits industry. Working on our various projects with this group of professional and passionate spirit lovers is always very exciting. Our fantastic team with international vision and Chinese market knowledge will achieve our vision to create more possibilities for whisky.

Just Drinks: Can you briefly describe your reaction when you heard the news?

Anqi Shen: We were appreciative when we heard the news. We would love to express our thankfulness to everyone. First, thanks to the Just Drinks Excellence Awards Committee for the invitation. We are grateful for all the support during the application process and the high endorsement of our projects. This recognition means a lot to our team; it will motivate us to achieve even more in the upcoming year. We also would love to thank everyone in Laizhou and Laizhou's incredible partners who put so much effort into the achievements. It is lovely to strive for the highest goals and excellence with people sharing the same passion. We also need to thank everyone who has ever supported Laizhou in any way. Thanks very much for your love and advice. We will continuously provide high-quality products and services and create more possibilities for whisky.

Just Drinks: As a winner of Flavours Category with the innovative Huangjiu Cask, please tell us more about Huangjiu Cask. What inspired you to develop this unusual cask type?

Anqi Shen: Our respect for and curiosity about traditional Chinese liquor and Sherry wines and our pursuit of diverse flavours inspire us. As we all know, one of the most significant charms of whisky is the multi-layered and exciting flavour that different cask types give to the liquor. The taste of whisky is deeply influenced by local traditional culture, which includes local traditional alcohol culture, so we were thinking, "Can we use Chinese Huangjiu to season the cask so that the Huangjiu element becomes one of the characteristics of Chinese whisky and create China's iconic flavour?" With this in mind, we have been developing Huangjiu cask since 2019.

Just Drinks: Can you share more interesting findings about Huangjiu Cask?

Anqi Shen: Of course. Huangjiu is also called Chinese Yellow Rice Wine. It is one of the oldest grain wines in China, and Sherry is also an ancient Spanish wine. Both carry the long cultures of the two countries, and they also have many commonalities in taste. First, both wines are divided into different sub-categories based on the different sweetness levels. Since Shaoxing City is one of China's most famous Huangjiu-producing areas, let's take Shaoxing Huangjiu as an example — usually, Shaoxing Huangjiu is subdivided by sweetness and craftsmanship. Depending on the sweetness, the four sub-categories of Huangjiu are called Yuanhong ("元红", dry Huangjiu), Jiafan ("加饭", semi-dry Huangjiu), Shanniang ("善酿", semi-sweet Huangjiu) and Xiangxue ("香雪", sweet Huangjiu). 

Similarly, Spanish Sherry is also split into many types based on different dimensions of sweetness and the maturation process. Besides, Huangjiu and Sherry have nutty and spice flavours during oxidation. In addition, Huangjiu is rich in amino acids, which taste salty and fresh, like protein organisms. For the fortified Sherry made in Spain, under remarkable maturation, the dry, biotype-aged Fino and Manzanilla also taste mineral saltiness and umami saltiness.

Laizhou Huangjiu Cask.

Just Drinks: Could you walk us through the project or achievement that led to your nomination and eventual win? What were the key challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them? 

Anqi Shen: Of course. Let's take Huangjiu Cask as an example. Its R&D process is very challenging and time-consuming:

  1. Our R&D team must select the most appropriate type of Huangjiu among various Huangjiu in the market. 
  2. They need to conduct plenty of research and experiments to find the correlation between the development of oak barrel type and rearing time. 
  3. When the process moved to the pilot-scale experiment, they put selected Huangjiu in oak barrels to let the barrels absorb Huangjiu's flavour; after a few months, they took out Huangjiu liquid and put newmake into the barrels so that the newmake spirit would absorb the flavour of both barrels and Huangjiu.

Through immeasurable repeated flavour evaluation, our R&D experts may determine and evaluate the variation and the status of flavour changes in Huangjiu casks.

Finally, after three years, we verified that the fusion of Chinese Huangjiu and whisky is feasible, and at the Inaugural Casks of Laizhou filling ceremony on October 19, 2021, the world's first batch of Huangjiu cask whisky was filled. Since then, "Laizhou Huangjiu Cask" has also become one of the most frequently asked and popular inquiries in whisky exhibitions, tastings, and other industry events we attended. Our Inaugural Huangjiu casks have been aged for two years already. In April and August 2023, Laizhou sweet Huangjiu cask-aged spirits and semi-dry Huangjiu cask-aged spirits completed their debuts at the offline Spirits exhibitions. We honorly impressed many whisky lovers with Huangjiu's unique rice koji fragrance. In terms of taste, at this stage, the sweet Huangjiu cask-aged spirits show the sweet aroma of raisins, apricots, cream and coffee, while the semi-dry Huangjiu cask-aged spirits have a full taste of toffee, smoke, and fat. As I just mentioned, the current ageing time of the Laizhou Huangjiu cask is only two years, and we believe that it will bring us more surprising and rich tastes in the future over time.

Just Drinks: In your opinion, what key factors contributed to your success? Was it a  result of innovation, collaboration, dedication, or something else?

Anqi Shen: Yes, and besides these, it is also a result of our pursuit to create more possibilities for whisky so that our expert teams never stop exploring new techniques, various kinds of casks, and exciting ideas to make the opportunities happen. Moreover, it is also because of our awareness of sustainability. We are very environmentally conscious, and therefore, we put significant investment into building a Green Distillery to implement the NET ZERO emissions green philosophy; namely, that is also why we use discarded whisky barrel pieces to construct Laizhou Bars, as well as cooperate with Beijing Forestry University to launch the Mongolian Oak Breeding Program. Also, we put much effort into looking for more exciting combinations of whisky and other elements and discovering how to attract more people's curiosity about whisky while giving surprises to professional connoisseurs at the same time.

Just Drinks: How did your team or organization contribute to your award-winning achievement? Were there any specific strategies or approaches that you  implemented to foster a culture of excellence?

Anqi Shen: We would only make the achievements with the guidance of our corporation's mission and values. Our mission is to "let people have a relaxing drinking experience", and our corporation values tell us to be open to the unknown, broaden the boundaries of knowledge, be brave to try new things, be open-minded to diverse cultures, and be respectful to nature. These profound concepts influence our thinking and drive us to work hard on meaningful projects.

Just Drinks: Each whisky region and distillery has its own style. What is Laizhou’s Style?

Anqi Shen: As a local Chinese distillery, we aim to show the characteristics of Chinese terroir flavour when striving for the same quality as the world's high-quality whisky. As for the overall distillery style, considering most Chinese are still relatively new to whisky, the strong and rigid style is not friendly for beginners, so to make it easier to get started and to attract more new entries to fall in love with whisky, we made our main characteristics to be elegant and clean. However, our distillery is always committed to diversifying the styles, so we keep adjusting and looking for new possibilities in our mashing, fermentation, distillation equipment, and casks, enabling us to produce various flavours flexibly.

Just Drinks: The competition is getting stronger in both China’s whisky market and worldwide whisky market. How will Laizhou’s style stand out among the strong competition in the industry?

Anqi Shen: We believe that "whisky-producing area" does not simply mean "where it is produced" - it contains a deeper meaning, which is the unique characteristics of the producing area, such as local geographical environment, history, and culture. These comprehensive elements described above shape the taste of whisky. Therefore, we strive to make a whisky that can thrive as a representative product of the "Chinese whisky-producing region" — it comes from China. It contains Chinese elements, and consumers and industries worldwide recognize the quality and taste. We are passionate about bringing more fascinating products to the Chinese market. We also hope to attract more Chinese consumers to feel the charm of whisky. As for the international whisky market, it is competitive but quite open. We believe that whisky players and industry professionals worldwide will have many expectations for local Chinese whisky distilleries to create more and more amazing Chinese whisky.

Just Drinks: Have you had any exciting updates since the Just Drinks Excellence Awards endorsed your brilliant work?

Anqi Shen: Yes. We did make several new achievements during these months. In early July 2023, we proudly launched our vodka and gin products, Ling-Lie ("岭洌", meaning "mountain range and crystal-clear" in Chinese) and Jiao-Yu ("椒语", meaning "the language of peppercorns" in Chinese). Both of these products have robust regional features. For example, Ling-Lie is inspired by Xiling Snow Mountain, a stunning and clean national key scenic spot that can be seen clearly in our distillery. As for Jiao-Yu, among all the ingredients, red Sichuan pepper, Qingjian orange and Eureka lemon are three local Sichuan botanical ingredients which allow people to experience authentic Sichuan taste. It is our honour to involve METABEV as our exclusive agency. We have been working on many exciting campaigns around these products. We are also inviting more world-class bartenders to offer exciting guest shifts and unique cocktails made with Ling-Lie and Jiao-Yu.

Ling-Lie Vodka & Jiao-Yu Dry Gin.

Besides that, we also made some achievements in exploring the "dining philosophy" of Chinese whisky and Chinese cuisine -- we launched the "From Barrel to Banquet·A Journey to Culinary Feast" project at the end of September. So far, we have been cooperating with more than 50 fine dining restaurants and bars in 14 cities in China, and guests may make reservations through our "宴享崃州 (the Feast of Laizhou)" WeChat Mini Program to take an incredible journey of Laizhou cask-aged malt spirits and Chinese cuisine.

Project "From Barrel to Banquet·A Journey to Culinary Feast".

Just Drinks: Finally, receiving an industry award is a significant accomplishment. Are there any upcoming projects or goals that you are excited about pursuing?

Anqi Shen: Yes. First, I'd love to share some news about our Laizhou Bar -- the upgrading of Laizhou Bar Shanghai was completed and reopened on December the 2nd 2023, while Laizhou Bar Guangzhou also grandly opened on December the 28th 2023.

Laizhou Bar Guangzhou.

Then I'd also love to share one of our most exciting upcoming projects — Laizhou Spirits Cultural Experience Centre, which will be 150,000 ㎡ large and located right next to our distillery in Qionglai, Sichuan. It contains six main sections:

  • Whisky life 
  • Spirits and cuisine 
  • The production process 
  • Popular science education 
  • Whisky natural ecology 
  • Community activities

We aim to provide high-quality whisky samplings, share spirits knowledge, and offer our guests a tasting experience and relaxing environment.

Laizhou always adheres to a green philosophy of "born from nature, walking in harmony with nature." Since the project also involves protecting the surrounding natural environment for constructing a natural and sustainable experience centre, we have invested much time and resources. The development will be completed in 2025. We look forward to its opening and to providing our guests with a "whisky paradise" where they may enjoy the charm of whisky.

Laizhou Spirits Cultural Experience Centre.