Old wine in new forms: China’s baijiu brands look to chocolates, coffee and NFTs to attract the young

BEIJING – First, it was baijiu-flavoured ice cream. Then, a liquor latte that sold more than five million cups on its first day.

Last weekend, in a collaboration with chocolate brand Dove, China’s top baijiu brand Kweichou Moutai launched alcohol-infused chocolate truffles that were snapped up online within seconds.

More commonly associated with state banquets and business meals, Kweichou Moutai – China’s second-most valuable company by market valuation – is on a quest to make itself more accessible to a younger crowd. Likewise, other makers of baijiu, China’s national liquor, are also toasting fun ways to cultivate new customers.

A fiery grain liquor that is 53 per cent alcohol, Moutai was known to be the favourite drink of Chairman Mao Zedong, who famously used it to welcome then United States President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in 1972. 

Current Chinese President Xi Jinping also used it to toast his American counterpart Barack Obama in 2013. 

Largely associated with male and older drinkers, the brand – renowned for its “sauce” fragrance – found it hard to attract younger consumers, but this changed with the launch of its baijiu ice cream in 2022. 

Now, consumers can readily buy a cup of baijiu, plum liquor or boozy vanilla ice cream for 59 yuan (S$11), a far cry from the 2,500 yuan for a bottle of Flying Fairy, Moutai’s signature line.

Like wine and Scotch, aged bottles of Moutai can cost up to 300,000 yuan. 

“I bought the original baijiu-flavoured ice cream out of curiosity because everyone was talking about it and it looks quite cute in a retro way,” said designer Sonya Fu, 28.

Other than regular cups with the Moutai branding, the ice cream is also available in a cup shaped like a tiny baijiu bottle, or as a popsicle. 

Curiosity also led her to splurge on a bottle of Moutai to share with her friends, whose interest in the typical old man’s drink was similarly piqued after first trying the ice cream. 

Now, she and her friends are eager to try Moutai coffee and chocolates as well.

“I suppose since it’s a local brand that’s trying to innovate, why not support it?” she told The Straits Times. 

Kweichow Moutai, which originated in the town of Maotai in south-western Guizhou province, had taken a hit in 2013 when Mr Xi launched an anti-corruption drive. Under the campaign, any sign of excesses among officials, including expensive liquor at state banquets, had to be stamped out.

The campaign led to “unprecedented pressure” on the alcohol industry, Moutai noted in an earnings report that year. Its sales grew by only around 17 per cent, a steep drop from 44 per cent the previous year. By 2014, this plunged to about 2 per cent.

Moutai has since bounced back due to a combination of the brand’s enduring appeal and efforts to market directly to the consumer, and now has a market value of US$315 billion (S$430 billion), just behind Internet behemoth Tencent. In 2022, it reported business revenue of 124 billion yuan, a nearly 17 per cent increase from the previous year.

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