ON THE ROAD WITH OLAF
Our man in China
Olaf Meier has been a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society since 1992, an ambassador and Tasting Panel participant for 20 years and chairperson for 12 of those – but he’d never presented a whisky tasting in China. That all changed in August when he travelled to represent the Society at WhiskyL, the country’s largest whisky festival, as well as a series of tastings and masterclasses in Shanghai and beyond. Unfiltered asked Olaf to tell members about his experience
I was working at the Islay festival in May when the call came for me to travel to Shanghai to represent the Society at WhiskyL, a four-day whisky extravaganza in Shanghai in August. That would be followed by tastings elsewhere in China and ending up with a visit to Hong Kong – all completely new whisky and travel experiences for me.
I’ve never been to Asia, never mind China, but with my visa secured and plans in place I was soon on my way to Shanghai – with a population of 26.3 million people, only the second largest city in China!
ABOVE: Olaf in full swing
You could say I hit the ground running – on the first day I went to the SMWS office and filmed several videos for members in China. That afternoon I had a Tasting Panel experience event – and having hosted thousands of tastings over the last 20 years I can safely say this was like no other.
The enthusiasm and knowledge about whisky were second to none. And thanks to the SMWS team in Shanghai, a great bunch of people under the leadership of Christina Leung, most issues were not ‘lost in translation’.
I have also been to many festivals in my life, but nothing could prepare me for WhiskyL. Most exhibitors were major single malt brands with huge stands, almost no blended whisky brands and practically no independent bottlers. China now ranks number six in the top export markets provided by the Scotch Whisky Association in terms of value.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society opened our branch in China in 2017, and since then Christina and her team have worked tirelessly to introduce the Society and our approach to unique, single cask whisky in the country. We certainly had plenty of attention during the four days of WhiskyL, with a constant buzz around our stand. Every day I hosted three tastings for members at the stand which attracted interest not only from the participants but from the many bystanders.
Again, I was impressed by the knowledge and passion of the participants, who represented a younger crowd that I’m used to seeing at festivals in the UK and Europe, and with many more women joining our tastings.
ABOVE: Olaf raises a glass with members of the SMWS China team
On our last day, I hosted three member tastings and one sold-out masterclass, where again the questions from the participants were fascinating. To finish off we had an SMWS gathering that night with 120 members celebrating Scotland, whisky and the Society. Wow, what a party! It was an evening I will never forget for many reasons, not only because I had to sign so many bottles, as I had to do throughout the trip – we estimated a total of 200 bottles in total!
After a couple of days to enjoy some sightseeing, I had the honour and pleasure to meet a member in his private flat and was mesmerised by his collection of SMWS bottles. You guessed it, by now I had to sign quite a few before we had dinner together.
From Shanghai, I travelled south to Shenzhen in Guangdong province, just across from Hong Kong. We hosted a dinner for 30 members on the 77th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, accompanied by four Vaults Collection drams – all the tasting notes written by me and one with an especially apt name: Cask No. 53.431: “The stuff that dreams are made of”.
My last engagement in China was a visit to a potential new partner bar in Shenzhen before hosting a tasting and dinner for 25 participants, including 18 women.
The next day I crossed the border to Hong Kong, the third busiest in the world with around 81 million people using it every year! I met Kelvin Tam, the wonderful SMWS brand ambassador, and his wife Mable, who runs the Hong Kong branch. In the afternoon we had a members’ meeting in the longest-established partner bar, Bar Buonasera, with dinner afterwards with four members.
My trip concluded with Kelvin and Mable taking me for a tour of Hong Kong, including a trip up to the famous Peak on Hong Kong Island to enjoy a meal in the place where the two of them dated 40 years ago – when the Society was just starting out in Leith.
The trip was immensely rewarding, meeting so many whisky enthusiasts in general and SMWS enthusiasts in particular, sharing drams and discussing the history as well as the future of the Society – with 40 years to celebrate, and raising our glasses to the next 40 years.