An interview with John Rhodes, Co-Founder of The Hong Kong Whisky Festival and Hong Kong specialist retail, on the whisky investment industry, his forecasts for 2021 and why Asia has become such an important region for the sector
How did you get into the whisky industry?
I was always around whisky at home and when I was living in Scotland so I was always familiar with
it. The moment I decided to get into it professionally was about ten years ago during a home
visit to Edinburgh. My nephew took me to a local pub and lined me up with four whiskies, the last of
which was a single cask IB (independent bottling) and it lit up my palate as I didn't realise the stuff could
be so fantastic. Literally overnight, I decided to bring this high-quality whisky into Hong Kong and that was the
What was the first whisky you ever tried (that you can remember)?
• First whisky was as a baby: my dad dipped his finger into a mix of whisky and water to soothe me
as the first teeth started to come through.
• First whisky in waking memory: unknown blend as a teenager with predictable results.
• First single malt: shared by my dad, it was a highly peated Islay one and I hated it as I thought
"What's all the fuss about single malt if they taste like that!", I was 21. I avoided single malts for
a couple of years afterwards.
• After getting to Hong Kong I tried out various malts in the early 90s and discovered the
wonderful world of flavour profiles in whiskies that fit any palate. By the way, my favourite one
now is a highly peated single cask whisky with complexity.... the circle turns!
Can you tell us about The Hong Kong Whisky Festival? How have you had to restrategise and coordinate since the COVID-19 outbreak?
The HKWF is an independent one and is the best in town in terms of varieties of whiskies, brands,
masterclasses. It brings people together to enjoy it all under one roof. Covid-19 of course means that it
can't happen until the risk factors are reduced. Realistically the HKWF won't occur until somewhere in
Q3 2021 by which time the vaccines will have been available to most of the population to start making a
difference and let the government feel confident enough to allow these kinds of events to start up
Why is it worth investing in whisky?
Time. All good things take time, especially whisky. As a rough rule of thumb the longer in the
barrel, the better. The huge uptake meant that the available "standard" age whiskies got used up
without enough following behind in overall stock levels at various stages of maturation in the system to
be replenished, which is why a lot of brands had None Age Statements on their labels as they felt they
could not put single-digit ages there (although that has now changed). The much older aged whiskies, which I categorise as 40+ years old, are just not there in comparison to 10 years or so ago. It will not
easily be replaced which is why the Gordon & MacPhail 72yo is such a rarity. In truth, very few
companies that have whisky of such age together with the provenance and barrels so in terms of
investing that makes the ultra-aged ones unbeatable. These very old whiskies were laid down in the
older style transport casks of which the wooden staves are much thicker than used nowadays. This in
turn means less evaporation and hence more liquid left in the barrel. This Gordon & MacPhail Glen
Grant 72yo really is from a bygone era when all trains were steam and cars were a luxury and food rationing
What are your forecasts for the whisky industry in 2021?
The broader market is still growing and will continue, in particular after social distancing restrictions
around the world are lifted. Airports will start duty-free sales again. Business people will buy for gifting
purposes. But the whiskies will diversify in terms of products specifically aimed for long/mixed drinks.
Premium and Rare will definitely keep the upward trend... as mentioned previously the very old stuff
just cannot be replaced, and therefore the supply is fixed whilst the demand is strong, creating the
growth in pricing.
Why is Asia such an important region for this sector?
Asia has taken on whisky tremendously... and I think it is a generation thing. I have seen that ever since
the first HKWF and the people who attended it. We still see people new to whisky and wanting to get into
drinking and appreciating it at our retail outlets, even during Covid-19-affected times. In particular,
Hong Kong is a place of finance and investment, and whisky fits into that exceptionally well, which is
why the aged whiskies are doing so well and are attractive as a solid investment.
What is the main difference between Japanese whisky and Scottish whisky?
Lack of supply certainly drives the pricing of Japanese whiskies. I can't agree with there being a huge
difference between the two countries' output. Some can be rough and some are sublime... applicable to
both countries. Scotch is often more robust, whilst Japanese whiskies are stereotyped to be lighter and
more subtle. However, there is so much variation out there. A blind tasting I did was to specifically see
whether people could tell the difference between the two and interestingly no one could point out which one was which. The easiest point to highlight in that respect though is that Japan doesn't have the peated
whiskies in their repertoire nearly as much as Scotland has, and there is definitely a move towards that
style of flavour. I think Scotland has stronger, more outgoing flavours that fit the character of the
nation... plus Japan is really the child of Scotland when it comes to whisky.
What are your top recommendations for a beginner drinking whisky?
Do not go straight into peated whisky. It will put you off. Go for something more aimed at the mass
market....learn the different category styles of whiskies: aged matured single grain whiskies, blends and blended malts, bourbon cask, sherry cask, and of course peated—that would be the order I'd suggest, and they can be experienced in a single tasting. Find which one of those you like the most and start exploring more of your favoured variety and experience the differences of flavour profiles out there. Whisky is a social beast which means peer pressure can also be something to deal with, so don't be put off by other people's opinions, after all, it is your palate that counts.
Where are your favourite whisky bars in Hong Kong?
They are all closed at the time of day when I want them (except one)! I enjoy small quiet places, so one
of the cosiest is The Bar in the Peninsula hotel, but it is temporarily closed until social distancing
restrictions pass. The other one sits in my friend Jack's living room. Maybe not a fair mention here as it
is not a commercial bar and more of a connoisseur's corner, but it feels like a proper one... he's
practicing for the future and definitely has a focused and quality range which can rival a lot of the
mainstream local ones.