Dill King has been in China’s whisky / booze scene for over a dozen years and is now focused on RTDs—ready-to-drink cocktails—with BuF2. In this Q&8, I ask the co-founder and CWO (chief whisky officer) of BuF2 about local whisky, the secret of good RTDs, his Zoolander-esque office, social media, New Year resolutions for the trade and more. (See more Q&8s here.)
1 There is lots of buzz about Chinese whisky but the results are mamahuhu so far. What’s holding the industry back?
It’s frustrating. I’m going back to Europe in the summer and want to have some Chinese whisky to give to people who diss Chinese booze as a ‘drink this then say that again’ but so far this juice hasn’t materialized. But we’re close!
It’s a brand new market and a lot of the players are just looking to make a quick buck — they’ll go bust or be forced to improve within two years.
2 I think a lot of people look at RTDs [ready-to-drink cocktails] and think it must be easy. Add booze, flavor, sparkling water, then sell it. What’s the reality behind getting a product to market?
Making a shitty RTD is easy: just buy a recipe from one of the big three flavour companies and add low grade industrial ethanol which in most countries is safe for human consumption but tastes pretty rough.
Developing an RTD from scratch using NFC [not from concentrate] fruit juice, with no flavourings or additives, is a major ball-ache. Our highball took 450-plus variations until we cracked it. The average development time is five months.
All I would say to an aspiring RTD brand creator is that consumers in China aren’t dumb. If something tastes like ass or gives them a filthy hangover, they will vote with their feet. Our 10+% repurchase rate versus sub-1% retention rate for competitors online speaks for itself. Sorry for being smug there, I couldn’t help it.
3 It seems like a lot of RTDs use a white spirit base, usually vodka. What challenges does working with whisky present? Who are your ideal drinkers out there?
Vodka or neutral grain spirit is cheap but quality is essential. The best domestic neutral grain spirit is produced by the big baijiu players and used in their own cheaper products—shout out to 牛栏山—but the open market stuff you have to smother with sugar or ‘fake sugar’ and flavourings to cover its printer toner taste.
We use whisky because if you start with a quality base everything you build on it will benefit. We only add a small amount of sugar to offset the natural sourness of the fruit juices.
Weirdly, one thing I discovered when making BuF2 was that amazing whisky at 40% to 60% alcohol often elongates into a wet dog / gym bag / soggy newspaper at 4% to 5% so actually sourcing whisky as the base was a real pain. But we found it!
4 Your office looks like Zoolander met mid-century modern furniture design met an episode of Hoarders: Arcane Spirits. What’s the story behind it?
That is about the highest compliment our office has received. I look forward to hosting a booze-fueled walk off here in the future.
The space was furbished by a modeling agency for not a small amount of cash but the owner got divorced and buggered off to Shanghai! We took over the lease and gradually every shelf and floor surface became covered in bottles ranging from niche baijiu for my douyin to cask samples from all over the world.
5 You are a regular on our annual Maovember Dog Pub Crawl. What are your three favorite pooch-friendly bars and restaurants in Beijing?
The dog pub crawl was awesome this year, wasn’t it!? It was great seeing so many non-owners turning up to share the love, too. Massive respect for all your Maovember efforts! [Thanks!]
The top pup-friendly venue has to be CHEERS InStreet—[my dog] Rufus loves the CHEERS sessions. Arrow Factory has to be a close second. And El Nido, where their cat just watches as Rufus eats its cat food.
[Note. BuF2 also sponsored a Bufpong tournament / fundraiser at Great Leap Brewing—see pics above—that raised over rmb15,000 for Maovember. Check out all the details here.]
6 You created a whisky sampler pack for the China market. What’s the idea behind that project?
There’s an ever growing number of whisky drinkers in China but most of them don’t have a friend who can explain the essentials of what they are drinking—and many don’t trust their local whisky bar bartender to educate them.
We made the Choice Box so anyone can have a whisky tasting delivered to their door, try a full spectrum of Scotch and find out their personal flavour preference through our mini-app. That empowers everyone to get out and make their own choices.
7 You’ve also created a large online social media following with your videos about the booze scene, including on beers, budget spirits and more. What’s your favorite episode so far and why?
It’s been crazy how that escalated from a whiskied up chat with my office neighbour to having half a million fans. My favourite episode would be either the one where I tried a bamboo-aged baijiu, literally in a segment of bamboo and vacuum packed, that tasted like chocolate Nesquik, or when we added milk to energy Buf and discovered it tastes like McDonald’s strawberry milkshake.
8 What would be three good resolutions for China’s booze industry in 2022?
Drop taxes on premium spirits!
Bottle some legitimate domestic whisky–samplers are fine.
Load all the fake booze producing / selling bottom-feeding shit-birds into a pod and drop them down the deepest mine shaft we can find.
* * *Get regular Beijing updates via my Instagram and Twitter feeds. Also see my sibling sites Grape Wall of China, World Baijiu Day and World Marselan Day. Help cover the hosting and other costs of these sites with a WeChat, AliPay or PayPal donation.
* * *