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October 9, 2011

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Modern spirit for ancient distillery

A 400-year-old family brand of millet liquor is getting a big modern distillery, and old folks are extolling it through song and dance in front of a landmark tavern in Pingyao, Shanxi Province. Zhang Chunxiao, Liu Xiangxiao toast the business.

Retiring at the age of 82 last year, Guo Huairen handed over the family distillery to his 24-year-old grandson Guo Jingjin without anticipating any significant changes to the 400-year-old family business.

Spanning the last years of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the entire Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Republic of China period (1911-1949) and going into the era of the People's Republic of China, the millet liquor, or Chang Sheng Yuan, is a time-honored brand in the ancient walled city of Pingyao in north Shanxi Province.

A 500-milliliter bottle of newly made liquor, brownish in color and sweet-flavored, costs 25 yuan (US$3.90), and a 10-year-old bottle, the oldest in the distillery, is priced at 150 yuan, according to Guo Jingjin, the eighth-generation owner.

The distillery, originally called Ju Sheng Yuan, changed its name to the current one in 1900 after Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) drank some of its liquor and replaced ju with the character chang that means "long-lived."

In ancient China, imperial families could change the name of any store and, if they did, the store owner would consider it a great honor to his family.

The distillery's weathered accounting books, passed on from generation to generation and recorded by brush and ink, date back to 1904.

Like many old-school businesses in China, Chang Sheng Yuan had been small scale and managed in a simple way - a distillery of 300-plus square meters in the backyard and a tavern of some 50 square meters in the front.

But since young Guo Jingjin took over, a new distillery has been under construction far away from the family's old shop. It's expected to be completed and operational next year.

"The idea of building a new distillery occurred to me because of the growing demand for our spirits in recent years," says Guo, a college graduate.

The walled city of Pingyao, first built in 1370, was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1997 for being "an outstanding example of a Han Chinese city of the Ming and Qing Dynasties."

Since then, the ancient city has attracted a huge number of tourists and many have become fond of Guo's spirits.

Last year, Pingyao registered 1.15 million tourists, generating 1.15 billion yuan (US$180 million) in revenue, according to the Pingyao government.

"As our brand becomes increasingly well known among tourists, the current daily output is a far cry from meeting the surging demand," Guo says.

So last year, Guo persuaded his family to spend around million yuan to lease land north of the walled city and build a new distillery.

With the new factory, the daily output is estimated to increase to around 500 liters from the current 100, according to Guo.

He also applied for a quality safety (QS) certificate from the provincial government so customers can know his spirits are up to standard.

"My grandfather and father agreed with the expansion plan, but they specifically asked me to preserve the traditional distilling technique," he says. "So in the new factory, we will continue to make our spirits by hand."

Guo has been receiving an increasing number of shipping orders from around the country. Now he is thinking of supplying supermarkets and opening an online store, as well as exporting to countries such as Japan and South Korea. He has found Asian tourists more interested in his liquor than those from the United States and Europe.

"I want people across the world to have easy access to our spirits," he says.

But Guo's plan to increase the advertising budget caused heated family discussion. He hired elderly unemployed neighbors to perform songs and dances in front of his tavern during holidays to attract tourists.

One song goes like this: "The liquor of Chang Sheng Yuan enjoys a great reputation worldwide; Chinese and foreign journalists have tasted it; high-ranking officials from the United Nations know it; it's rich in nutrition and good for your health, so hurry to buy it."

Guo says his grandfather initially considered it a waste of money, saying reputation should be built on customers' recommendations.

But the dancing seniors have been a success, both for his business and his neighbors who now have work.

Guo majored in design in college and plans to redesign the plain labels and packaging. He is considering making gift cases of lacquer ware, a well-known traditional handicraft in Pingyao.


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