By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Mark Tomaras
I realize that giving my article an intriguing name in order to attract readers is a trick unworthy of my age and professional reputation, but in this case it represents nothing but the unvarnished truth: China’s sophisticated ancient civilization influenced the position of whisky as one of the most iconic liquors of Scotland, the West, and the entire world. Seeking to confirm this, a group of Latin American journalists walked single file, traversing the orderly terraces of the tea bushes (Camellia sinensis) that march down the mountain slopes near Hangzhou, capital of the province of Zhejiang.
After a short 45-minute trip on a bullet train from Shanghai, we arrived in Hangzhou, the city Marco Polo considered the most opulent and elegant in the world in the 13th century. The beginning of our visit to China’s largest port, and the dizzying trip that had us zipping along the ground at more than 185 miles an hour, put us in touch with the reality of a revitalized power ready to reclaim its place in the world. We were stunned as we faced the undeniable fact that the West’s fifteen minutes (three hundred years, to be more precise) of fame had ended, and that the Middle Kingdom ruled once again, as it always had.
Futurist theories enlivened our conversation as we gathered in a clearing in the plantation to listen to Jonathan Driver, one of our hosts and a Johnnie Walker ambassador, who had invited us on the tour. “Many people do not know that John Walker had to learn to blend tea before blending whisky,” he explained. The history that links him and many producers of Scotch whisky with the cultivation of tea comes to us across oceans and centuries. European powers began to remove gold and silver from the Americas beginning in the 16th century, following a route similar to the one we took to arrive here, only much longer and by sea. The metals were traded for consumer goods from the Far East, in a cycle described by some modern historians as the first example of globalization.
The Dutch and Portuguese opened the ocean routes of this trade to the East, buying brocades, silks, and spices. Tradition holds that tea has been drunk in China since 3000 B.C., when legendary emperor Shen Nong discovered its medicinal properties; tea was included in the European imports at the beginning of the 17th century. Even in England, where it was consumed for medicinal reasons, it only became popular as a luxury product among the nobility starting in 1662, when Catalina de Braganza, Princess of Portugal and a tea lover, brought a box of tea as part of her dowry when she came to the country to marry King Charles II. As a wedding gift to her new homeland, the princess also brought the colonial port of Bombay (Mumbai), which allowed Great Britain to compete as a commercial power in Asia and achieve its undisputed hegemony toward the end of the following century.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the internal markets of Great Britain were flooded with more sophisticated merchandise from the remotest locales, and the country became the world’s first great trade emporium, exporting and importing goods to and from the four corners of the globe. In 1820, John Walker, a young farmer from Kilmarnock (Scotland), convinced his mother to sell her late husband’s farm and open a grocery store. “Imagine that! A store in a town in the middle of nowhere that, along with local malt whisky, brandy, beer, and barley sugar, also offered pepper from Jamaica, rum from the Caribbean, dried fruit from Spain, species from the Middle East, and interestingly, tea from China,” noted Driver, as a pair of local ladies showed us how the tea leaves are harvested.
Although a wild tea bush can become a medium-sized tree nearly sixty-six feet tall, tea planters use only the youngest and most tender leaves, which are picked by smaller, female hands. Cultivated plants are frequently pruned to keep them at a height of about three feet and force them to replace cut branches with desirable new and young shoots; they are allowed to mature only after thirty years or so, when the bushes reach the end of their useful lives.
We returned to the visitor center, which looks like the house of a prosperous rural Chinese merchant. Just as vineyards and coffee and sugar plantations around the world have turned to tourism as an additional source of income, the famous plantation known as Long Jing (Dragon Well) offers a tour to introduce people to the cultivation and processing of this age-old plant. A man was waiting for us in front of what appeared to be a curious trio of steel drums, but was in fact a tea roaster. Women are in charge of the painstaking task of harvesting, while the men do the exhausting work of roasting the leaves, continuously stirring them with their hands to keep the leaves from burning. This is the first stage of a process that yields various types of tea after several fermentations.
There are more than 3,000 varieties of tea; the climate and altitude of the plantation and the method of processing the leaves determine the variety, but tea can be categorized in four general types: white, green, oolong (blue), and black (known as red to the Chinese). It is said that tea merchants in Great Britain started making tea blends when customers complained that the previous week’s tea had a nice color but tasted weak, while the reverse had occurred the month before. The merchants analyzed their records, noting that the quality of the leaves depended on their origin and processing and they experimented with different proportions in search of the perfect blend.
When competition kicked into high gear, every commercial firm, including Walker’s, began to offer its own blends. “In 1850, when we started blending whisky, we employed the skills we had developed blending tea and we drew inspiration from tea’s wondrous spectrum of aromas and flavors,” continued Driver, as we sat down around an immense table for a tea tasting. John Walker was not the only one to take this initiative: several commercial firms entered the business euphoria, but only the name remains of many, such as Thorne, Thomson, Hall, and Brown. Buchanan’s is one of the survivors.
The same ladies who showed us how to harvest tea leaves passed out cups of the brew. “One of the medicinal properties of green tea,” translated Jim, our Chinese guide, “is that it lowers cholesterol levels.” He demonstrated this by adding fat to a glass of water and then mixing in tea, causing the fat to separate and leaving the water clear. This act of liquid magic did not stop us from enjoying the tea, which had the smoky, slightly spicy flavor characteristic of green tea, which is less fermented and more herbal.
A Chinese host’s highest gesture of hospitality is a banquet. We headed for the Four Seasons Hangzhou at West Lake, where we lunched in a cool garden reserved for us. As an aperitif, we were treated to a tasting of Black Label, the company’s classic whisky. Guided by our hosts, we gradually discovered that the liquor featured the same smoky, herbal notes as the tea we had recently tasted. “Our company’s success comes from the fact that we learned to blend whiskies to people’s tastes, in other words, we designed them. But we learned how thanks to Camellia sinensis and the poetry of its flavors and the variety of its tastes. Whisky may have first been made in Scotland, but the skill came from China,” concluded Driver.