Porcelain, the essence of China in a Shanghai Dry Gin

18 aprile 2024

Porcelain General Manager Pierrick Fayoux takes us on a journey through the world of authentic Shanghai Dry Gin - from fine botanicals and a meticulous production process to a still called Mulan and beautiful bottles reminiscent of Ming ceramics, everything is a tribute to the truest Chinese tradition.

China contains endless worlds, with a multitude of different traditions and unparalleled biodiversity. This is where Porcelain Gin was created and took its first steps with a clear goal: to promote the uniqueness of Chinese botanicals and the ancient traditions of this land around the world.

"Porcelain gin was founded by Lu Sun, Hubert Tse and Shakib Pasha," says the brand's General Manager Pierrick Fayoux, "who combined their skills to get their project off the ground with the ambition to create a spirit that can not only compete on the world stage, but also deeply embody the essence of China."

In the gin world there are many different types of alcohol, from liqueurs to infusions and other spirits that are similar to aquavit or jenever. The most uncompromising process, as Fayoux explains, is the London Dry style which requires:

  • the spirit to be infused with juniper and optionally other ingredients; 
  • all the flavors to be imparted through the distillation process;
  • all aromas to come from natural ingredients;
  • no sugar or coloring to be added;
  • residual sugar and methanol to be kept at a minimum; 
  • it cannot be bottled below 37.5% Alc./vol.

"We call our gin Shanghai dry gin, meaning we follow the same process as a London Dry gin, but with the extra condition that it is made in China, using local ingredients, to emphasize the gin’s specific terroir."

The first steps to bring this ambitious project to fruition were inspired from very clear ideas, as well as from a story that seemed to naturally lead that way.

"The distillery was opened in 2019 with the idea of producing China's first premium craft gin," continues Pierrick Fayoux. “At the time, craft spirits were booming, and you could find local distilleries producing gin all over the world, with the glaring exception of China.

This was particularly puzzling as China is located at one end of the Silk Road, where most of the spices used for gin production come from.

The country also has a long tradition of infusing botanicals into beverages. Some cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai even boast a centuries-old history of bar culture and love for fine spirits, but there was no locally produced craft gin to be found. Our mission was to bring the colors of China to the top of the gin market, and to produce spirits that local bartenders could be proud of."

The distillery was also started with the help and advice of a Master Distiller from Germany who, continues Fayoux, "spent a few months in our village to supervise the installation of the still, helping us turn our ideas about aromas into amazing spirits and training the production team to the most advanced quality standards in distillation.

Our approach to sourcing local ingredients faced one issue: juniper berries are not commonly farmed in China.

Thanks to our family networks however, we were able to find foraged berries picked from wild juniper trees in Inner Mongolia, making the story of our gin even more closely connected to the land.

We also had to adapt our gin recipes to comply with the Chinese regulations on botanical beverages. Chinese traditional medicine uses a lot of potions and many ingredients typically used in making gins overseas are considered medicine under Chinese food and drug administration laws.

The first batch of bottles was released and launched in Hong Kong at the end of 2019 with great success. Then, with the COVID 19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020, the border with mainland China closed for three and a half years.

This slowed the launch of Porcelain in mainland China and overseas a little bit and it was only in the second half of 2022 that we were able to officially launch our gin worldwide. After 18 months of international development Porcelain Gin is already represented in 17 countries and states and we keep growing our list of partners. We hope to become the first global craft spirit brand from China."

The birth of Porcelain owes much to a family that has been active in the trade of spices and botanicals for three generations, giving them in-depth knowledge of how ingredients can be combined and of the properties that each spice, flower, fruit or herb can bring to a mixture. Pierrick lists the different reasons that informed their choice of specific botanicals:

- create delicious spirits;

- make them balanced and elegant;

- make the gins very distinctive and aromatic;

- express flavors that are representative of China, with locally sourced ingredients;

- comply with the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration.

"Botanical products come from local growers as well as gatherers," continues Pierrick. “China has a long tradition of using wild herbs, roots, mushrooms and flowers for medicinal infusions. Not all of them can be farmed, and wild ingredients are commonly found in street markets or large herbalists and pharmacies supplying traditional doctors. Some ingredients are also prepared at the distillery. That's the case with the mandarins we use.

Our team prepares the peel with hand peelers as a bartender would do, to avoid the white part of the peel which is very bitter. The fruit slices are then brushed and steam-infused in the still. All of this work needs to be done manually to achieve the highest quality standards, and China is probably one of the few countries in the world where you can find skilled labor to do these tasks as they should be done.”

Porcelain currently produces two different types of gin:

The first is Shanghai Dry Gin: “We like to describe it as the Silk Road gin. It contains spices like cardamom, coriander seeds, ginger, lemongrass and Sichuan pepper. It also has the sweetness of Goji berries, which give it its texture, and other base notes such as cinnamon, lemon and grapefruit.

The 18 ingredients that go into our gin are infused in rye alcohol and then distilled in our column still. Some ingredients have a very strong flavor and must be added with caution, like Sichuan pepper. We want the balance and persistence of our gin to reveal its complexity in a sequence of flavors.”

Then there is Porcelain Mandarin Gin: "The star of our Mandarin Edition is the mandarin orange, which is not just a delicious fruit but also has a special symbolic value in China as it's the fruit of the New Year. It's not uncommon to hear stories about older generations celebrating Christmas in Europe by offering oranges to their loved ones. The same tradition is still repeated in China today for the Lunar New Year. During the week-long celebrations, families gather and eat mandarins. To honor this fruit we wanted to move away from the sweet mandarin aromas sometimes found in bad quality candies and liqueurs and focus on what makes its flavor so fresh and juicy.

To reveal the full flavor spectrum of the fruits, we need to get the essential oils from the rind and the fruity aromas from the juice and flesh. However, the bitter white part of the rind should be avoided. The rinds are macerated and boiled in the still tank, while the slices are steam-infused in small nets hanging from the column. This protects the freshness of the delicate fruit aromas which would otherwise vanish if exposed to high heat, and allows us to obtain a spirit with a fruit juice-like aftertaste. The gin is also flavored with all of the other botanicals involved in strengthening and balancing its fragrance.

Both our gins obviously use juniper berries, but perhaps they're a lighter presence than usually found in other gins. We believe this also gives us a distinctive style.”

The distillery is located in the Liaoning region in northeastern China. Locals call this area DongBei (literally North East), but in Europe it's also known by the Japanese name of Manchuria.

The people of Dong Bei have a great culture of food (the local version of sauerkraut, Pierrick tells us, is not much different from Trieste's Jota) and drink. 

The region boasts the presence of many distilleries producing the local Baijiu (the country's best-selling spirit made from sorghum, wheat, rice, millet and rye). Over 60 Baijiu distilleries as well as the world's largest brewery, Snow Beer, can be found within a three-hour drive. The area's reputation for alcohol production is the result of the quality of the water from the rivers originating in the Mongolian prairies.

The climate is very varied, with extremely cold winters when the temperature can drop below -30º C and hot summers with temperatures above 35º C.

“Our distillery is located in a small village outside the city of Tieling, and is snowbound for almost 5 months a year.

The hilly, swampy landscape and harsh climate have kept large factories away, and the surrounding nature is rich in biodiversity.

The village itself is built around an old brick factory that was abandoned in the 70s and is slowly being reclaimed by nature. Our distillery is located right next to a pond where you can see lotus flowers and all sorts of beautiful flowers in the summer. We have a 500-liter copper column pot still made specifically for gin production, which we named Mulan."

In the production of Porcelain nothing is left to chance and everything has a meaning, and packaging is no exception. "Our goal is to pay homage to Chinese tradition and craftsmanship," says Pierrick, "and for this reason we wanted our packaging to also reflect a local specialty, the production of ceramic bottles.

For our bottles and gift boxes we hired Lala Curio, the famous Hong Kong interior designer specializing in Chinoiserie.

Our bottles are handmade. The original shape was molded on a lathe and then put into production with ceramic-injection molds. The production process involves different stages including steeping, drying and polishing, as well as high-temperature baking. Copper floral patterns are applied during the process, giving our bottles their distinctive look.

Porcelain bottles resemble the traditional ceramic bottles used for the best Baijiu in China. This ceramic design and style is called Chinoiserie - the French term for the fine ceramics imported from China for wealthy eighteenth-century collectors. The Ming style makes it very decorative, and we hope our customers will give our bottles a second life once empty. They make gorgeous flower vases or containers for home fragrance diffusers."

Over the last two years Porcelain has worked hard to promote its gin and today partners with some of the world's top alcohol distributors, as well as with the best-known luxury hospitality brands (Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, W hotels, Edition, Raffles, Fairmont, Sofitel, Niccolo, MGM, Bellagio, M Social, Tivoli, Kimpton, Conrad, Mandarin Oriental, Shangri La, Rosewood, Waldorf Astoria, BVLGARI, Langham, etc.) and with many of the best bars in Asia and on the World's 50 Best bar list.

However, apparently this is just the beginning: 

"There is still a lot of work to do to present our products to the rest of the world and give everyone the chance to learn about Chinese craft spirits. We have more new products in the pipeline, including ready-to-drink tea cocktails and other gins that we may launch later in the year, as soon as they are ready.  

China has an endless variety of aromas that we can use to produce gin and bring never-before-seen flavors to bars around the world."