By Scott Murphy

In his pristine clear glass and white tasting room, Hong Kong based Dragon 8 Auction Founder Gil Lempert-Schwarz is surveying a collection of whisky that spans time, geography and quite possibly, the record books. Before him stand bottles by rare defunct Scottish distilleries like Rosebank and Port Ellen. There’s also the increasingly sought after Japanese brand Ichiro’s Malt, featuring their highly collectible “Card Series”. And looming amidst the bottles stands a complete set of 18-year-old Macallans spanning the years 1954-1985. “What you’re looking at here is one of the finest collections of whisky ever assembled,” says Lempert-Schwarz, proudly. “A Hong Kong or Mainland whisky lover is going to go absolutely nuts for this.”

This weekend, as Lempert-Schwarz stands behind the podium at the Grand Hyatt calling out bids as a principal auctioneer, he’ll find out whether this latest collection of over 150 top whisky lots is one for the record books. But all around Hong Kong this month there’s evidence that the city has finally caught on to what the rest of the world already knew via TV shows like “Mad Men”, increasingly high profile mixologists and trendy “speakeasies”: Whisky is the new wine.

One quick walk around through the city’s first ever “Hong Kong Whisky Festival” at the Hong Kong Intercontinental Grand Stanford last weekend showed ample evidence of this. More than 600 guests – nearly split between both men and women – gawked, queried and greedily sipped samples at the more than 30 whisky distributor stands that were set up in the hotel’s ballroom. “It’s a natural progression for wine,” says Festival co-organizer John Rhodes. Rhodes and fellow Co-Founder John Drummond, a Resident Manager at the Grand Stanford, created the Festival out of their intense mutual passion for the spirit. Their concept quickly grew once more and more distributors realized that they finally had a public platform. Weeks before the event, tickets were sold out. “Let’s just say that there will be a part two,” says Rhodes. “The reaction has been fantastic.”

Amongst whisky aficionados, there has been some speculation that the Festival may have stolen the thunder away from this weekend’s third annual Malt Masters Festival, which will be held at the Conrad Hotel on both Saturday and Sunday. Having sold hundreds of tickets and generated considerable press already, Founder Ian McKerrow doesn’t seem to worried. “It’s a bit more international this year,” he says by way of explanation. “The whiskies are from Scotland, Sweden, America, India, Japan…and we’re also flying over a guy from Scotland who will pair food with whisky. That’s a big theme.” There will also be over 10 Masterclasses throughout the day, as well as some cigar and food pairing sessions.

Both McKerrow, whose family has been involved with whisky in his native Scotland since the 1800s, and Brand Ambassador Joshua Tate, a Brit who formerly worked at Chivas in India, envision holding the Festival more than once a year due to the proliferation of new bars and changing trends they are seeing in the city. “Whisky is an aspirational drink and it’s increasingly seen as a luxury product,” says McKerrow.

“And there seems to be a big interest among women,” adds Tate. “They like the powerful whiskies.”

Howard Palmes is noticing this trend too. The long term Hong Kong resident and General Manager of wine merchant Fine Vintage Ltd has been observing that the city’s whisky drinkers are generally younger than 40, up to 50 percent women and are thirsty to learn more. “Whisky is very easy to share with people,” says Palmes by way of explanation. “You can bring one bottle and 20 of you can share it. There’s a little bit more social sharing going on.”

But unlike others who see it as a “new” trend, he claims that Asian have always gravitated towards the spirit and can readily rattle off several countries where whisky drinking is the norm, rather than the exception. “Indians are massive consumers of whisky in particular,” Palmes says, warming to the theme. “Soju is still the top selling spirit in the world, mainly in South Korea, of course. And if you look at the spirits of China – Maotai, Baijiu – these are historic spirits that go back many, many centuries. The drinking of strong spirits in Asia is quite normal if you look at it in that context.”

Whether it’s a trend, or the new normal, more than a half dozen whisky bars have opened up across the city over the past few years. They have names like Angel’s Share and Qing Bar in Central, can sport sophisticated retro interiors like Stockton and 001 and cater to a variety of tastes, like Tsim Sha Tsui’s Japanese styled venue Butler Bar. What they all have in common is a wide international selection of whisky and the ability to cater to an increasingly sophisticated and demanding drinker. “We’re getting a lot of visitors from around the world,” says Qing Bar owner Aaron Chan. “It’s quite exciting as our customers are interested in exploring more whiskies like international bottlers and single casks.”

What the venues also have in common is the ability to cater to a city crowd that is becoming more sophisticated by the day. Today, it may be excitement over a particular single malt. Tomorrow it could be the chance to receive a special degree in education. As he prepares for this weekend’s heavily anticipated auction, Lempert-Schwarz is already envisioning the whisky lover and collector of tomorrow. For on offer this weekend will be four complete whisky casks, capable of bottling a couple hundred bottles of incredibly rare, vintage whisky. “Wine will always be around in this city, let’s face it,” says Lempert-Schwarz. “But this,” he says while eyeing a 25-year-old Macallan cask, “is a taste of the past, the future, can be an incredible investment AND you can drink it. You can’t beat that.”

Malt Masters 2016 will be held at the Conrad Hotel on February 27th and 28th from 10am-5pm. Tickets (can be purchased at www.gormei.com) are $800 and include unlimited whisky tastings, 1 dream dram token, 1 Glencairn glass and canapes.

Dragon 8 Auctions will hold its Fine & Rare Whisky Auction on February 27th at The Pool House on the 11th Floor of the Grand Hyatt beginning at 12pm. To register, visit www.dragon-8.com

Self disclosure: Scott Murphy is the Creative Director of Dragon 8 Auctions. He still drinks Jack Daniels…