THE SUCCESS of the inaugural staging of Whisky Live Manila last year confirmed the existence of a growing number of Filipinos fascinated with whisky, in particular single malt whiskies. Whisky Live – already a huge annual event in over 20 countries and 28 cities – is under the events management and ownership of Paragraph Publishing Ltd., based in Norfolk, UK. Grand Cru Wine & Spirits, Inc. is the local import company that brought this highly anticipated whisky show to the Philippines. The main proponent of this venture is none other than Johnssen Li, one of the top honchos of Grand Cru Wine & Spirits, and Johnssen is also one of the country’s few genuine whisky experts.
I had a chance to interview Johnssen one-on-one to get a better preview of the upcoming Whisky Live 2017.
Q: When did you realize it was time the Philippines get into the Whisky Live phenomenon? And what were the signs you felt were foretelling that made you jump in?
A: Signs were already here. [The] Philippines is normally always behind when it comes to a lot of thing like fashion, lifestyle, manufacturing, technology and even liquors. Whisky has been big already in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan 15 years ago, and I saw that the market started to shift from blends to 100% malt whisky around eight years ago. This was also about the time I first visited Whisky Live Taipei. I see some parallel between the Philippines and the Taiwan of the past decade on whisky. When I observed the people in Taiwan behind the movement to make single malts spread to a wider audience, I noted that all of them at the beginning of their whisky endeavor were not doing this out of financial rewards, but more purely [out of] passion. Then it just grew organically.
I can tell you one good example. I met Steve Lin, owner of L’arriere-cour Bar in Taipei. He is an architect by profession and had a university degree from the US. He traveled to Scotland, and then discovered single malts. He fell so in love with single malts, [he] decided to open a bar and never practiced architecture again. Steve Lin has a rockstar-like stature in Taiwan and already authored two books about whisky and whisky pairing with food.
Perhaps it is also because the Philippines is enjoying economic boom recently, that artisanal products were able to prosper, and single malt whisky is one of them.
Q: What were the numbers from last year’s Whisky Live in terms of visitors, exhibitors, liquor brands, products being tasted, etc.? And what are the expected numbers from this year?
A: Our target for last year was 2,000 visitors for two days. We fell slightly short, but achieved 95% of that target. This year our target is 4,000 for two days. To-date we are already in the 3,000 range based on advance ticket sales, but we are still working hard these days leading to the event to reach our 4,000 visitors target. Total number of exhibiting liquor companies last year was 16 representing 23 whisky brands and five non-whisky brands. In terms of exact number of products offered for tasting, I really don’t know, but it seemed to easily be over 110 different alcoholic beverages. This year, other than two previous exhibitors not participating, we have added nine more liquor exhibitors led by Jim Beam. Unfortunately one of the two exhibitors that pulled out from this year is Macallan, as they have no more whisky stocks to sell. But Macallan will still conduct a master class as part of Whisky Live 2017. This year’s Whisky Live will definitely be bigger in all the numbers categories compared to last year.
Q: Other than the numbers, what are the other changes expected in Whisky Live 2017 as compared to last year?
A: More or less, the concept and setup will be the same. But I am focusing more on the activities during the event itself. Three main differences would be: 1). We got bigger space from the Shangri-La Fort to accommodate more brands. 2). Last year we had junior bartenders from different bars compete in a cocktail contest. This year we are using professional bartenders mentoring students to create unique whisky-based cocktail drinks and inter-school competition. In fact, this year we have conducted a mentorship program with five schools leading up to Whisky Live, catering to their HRM and Culinary courses, and these schools are Lyceum, UST, College of Saint Benilde, Enderun, and Center for Culinary Arts. 3). We want to maximize activities and visual impact in the booth spaces, so we are encouraging brands to create presentation of their brands in their respective booths on selected time slots. And we hope to show this on the big screen.
Q: Last year at Whisky Live, I met the most renowned whisky guru Jim Murray and the editor of Great Britain’s biggest whisky magazine Whiskeria, Dominic Roskrow, as they led an ensemble cast of speakers – a really hard list to match. So for this year, who are the guest VIP dignitaries to come?
A: No big names for this year, but if you ask me our list of speakers this year for our master classes is even better. I have convinced some of the participating brands to use the guys from Taiwan that are known experts including Alex Whang from Diageo and Murphy Chang from Ardbeg. We also have distiller Mark Desimone of Koval. He was instrumental in setting up more than 50 other micro-distillers in the US. Then there is Yvonne Chou, from the distillers-blenders team of Kavalan. And the owner himself of Duncan Taylor, Gordon Shand.
Q: I noticed that Whisky Live this year is very active on social media. How important is social media in your promotion?
A: Social media is very important as it is really targeted and more cost effective. We have used social media to lead us in pre-selling our tickets.
Q: What is your most ambitious goal for Whisky Live going forward? As I know there will be a next year.
A: I can dream super big. But I want to focus on the target I am aiming for now. Let us see how this year’s Whisky Live goes first.
Speaking like a true professional. Amen to that Johnssen Li.
Whisky Live 2017 will be held on Oct. 20 and 21 at the Shangri-La The Fort, from 7 p.m. till midnight. Tickets can be bought at the venue during event nights, or online via www.whiskylive.ph. Also check out their newly created e-commerce site, www.singlemalt.ph. Tickets cost P3,000 per day. I will therefore be exchanging my wine glass for a tumbler this weekend – see you all at Whisky Live Manila!
The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.