I was shocked to learn earlier this month that Christie’s will have its first Moutai auction “Treasures of Chishui Rriver - Kweichou Moutai” — perhaps one of the first from an international auction house of its stature. I can recall the days when moutai (茅台) first began to be a collector’s item due to their leap in value. Many would call in at the auction house I was working for, asking if we would accept consignments of maotai or if we would ever auction moutai. However it was always met with a resounding No.
Almost all auction houses auction wines made from grapes only, with the occasional whisky sale, which is growing in number. However there has long been a firm stance that other wine and liquors are not suitable for the auction market, even though there is clear demand and a growing secondary market for it. Perhaps it’s a kind of old standing snobbery, that wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne shall always be consider the ne plus ultra of wines and something as provincial as Chinese baijiu shall not be on equal footing.
What is moutai exactly though and why is there such demand for it? Moutai is a brand of baijiu (白酒) or grain alchohol in Chinese, made from red sorghum. To be called Moutai, the spirit must be made from the town of Maotai in Gweizhou (貴州) at the distillery, Kweichou Moutai Co. Ltd. Any other made elsewhere is simply called baijiu. It is a historical beverage dating back to Ming dynasty or the Qing dynasty, depending on your sources. It is most frequently used for state dinners and banquets but of course for business dinners and entertainments. Anybody with a slight inkling of Chinese business practices will know their propensity to ganbei (乾杯), which is downing the whole shot in one go. As Chinese economy develops and the country’s middle and upper class gets richer, so does their appetite demand for this de rigueur social lubricant. Now Kweichou Moutai Co. Ltd (worth $71.5bn) has grown bigger than British conglomerate Diageo plc ($71.1bn), to be the world’s biggest distillery.
With the advent of this new auction of Chinese baijiu is a clear turning that Chinese demand and preferences can no longer be ignored on an international scale. It has become too valuable to continue to do so. This is of course not news NEWS for many sectors such as art but the secondary market has long always been dominated by the French with a few slots of Italian/Spanish wines, Californian cult labels and of course, Australia’s Penfolds. However to move out the traditional wine products to incorporate red sorghum liquor is a momentous step that should not be overlooked. This is a stark recognition that Chinese baijiu now belong on the secondary market and has a clear place alongside some of the world’s top chateaux and domaines. Some of the top lots in this sale are valued at a high estimate of $81,035USD. This is still quite aways off from Jayer or DRC but it is a great and promising start. Arguably, this is an isolated sale that is held within Shanghai of solely moutai lots but it shouldn’t be too far long that we will see more regular moutai lots within bigger fine and rare wine auctions in their regional headquarters of New York, London and Hong Kong. Other auction houses will be poised to follow suit.
Treasures of the Chishui River - Kweichou Moutai to be auctioned in Shanghai by Christie’s on 21 September 2018. To see their whole catalogue, click here. This is not a sponsored post by Christie’s.