Mosaic of China Season 03 Episode 03 — The Gin Peddler (Fergus WOODWARD, Peddlers Gin)
We hear the story of Fergus Woodward, who helped to create China's first and leading craft gin brand made out of traditional Chinese ingredients.
OF: What the hell is that?
FW: Man, they’re a crazy fruit.
OF: Oh it’s a fruit.
FW: It’s a fruit.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
So in the first episode of Season 03 we had the interview with the technologist Eric LIU, which was recorded in the JustPod studio. Then last week was the comic book store owner Ashley HUANG, which was recorded on the road, in a hotel room in 成都 [Chéngdū]. And for contrast, today’s episode was recorded in my apartment in Shanghai, which usually happens when we can’t align the schedule of the guest with the availability of the studio. What also usually happens in these circumstances is that we have some fun background noise issues thanks to the general goings-on in the lane where I live. So today’s symphonic accompaniment is a circular saw concerto in the key of [闭嘴 [bìzuǐ]!
Luckily, these background noises didn’t faze my guest Fergus Woodward, one of the founders of Peddlers Gin, who you’ll find has a super low-key conversation style. Fergus is also a Kiwi, and I don’t really notice his accent, but I spent a loooong time fixing the transcript for today’s episode, which was initially generated by an AI programme that has no concept of the New Zealand accent. So this experience alone reminds me to point non-native speakers to the Mosaic of China website to follow the transcript, in case you’re confused about pen versus pin, set versus sit, and Jen versus gin. I’m very sorry to that poor girl Jen, I needed to totally eradicate her from the transcript of today’s episode.
Just to balance things out, a quick word for non-Chinese speakers. At one point in today’s interview we talk about developing 关系 [guānxì]. That’s the process of building relationships, particularly when it comes to business connections. And we also mention 白酒 [báijiǔ], which is the classic ‘white liquor’ spirit that is drunk in China.
Alright we’ve downed the apéritif, let’s get on with today’s show.
OF: Hello Fergus.
FW: Hey, Oscar.
OF: Good to have you here. I'm already tuning into your energy, which is very chill, which I appreciate. Before we start, tell me briefly, what do you do in China?
FW: So I started a company called Peddlers Gin. And now I sell gin around China, and also around Asia Pacific.
OF: OK. And before we go into that story, what is the object that you've brought that in some way typifies your life in China?
FW: So, a little pin from the drinks awards.
OF: Oh, I see.
FW: So this is the annual drink awards for the F&B community. Usually it's Asia, but over the last two years, it's been China. Organised by DRiNK Magazine, and Thirsty Work Productions, which is headed up by a lovely chap called Theo. It's an annual celebration of all things F&B in China. And F&B has been such a really big part of my life here in China. Obviously with my company, and then you know the community is great. And we've been lucky enough to win a few things at that, which is great. Most of the awards are for bars, so sort of like ‘Best Bar’, ‘Best Bartender’. I think it's a really nice way of celebrating the community. Whether or not you agree with where the awards go is always a different discussion. But I think just having an event is really important. So I think that they do a really good job.
OF: And the pin itself, is that a stylised bunch of grapes? Is that what they’re going for?
FW: It's a stylised cocktail shaker.
OF: Oh, no, I see it now.
FW: Yeah, yeah. It’s a badge that you wear on, for example, your apron.
OF: I see.
FW: For example, like if you went to a bar, often a bar will have pins. And they'll give them to guest bartenders who come. And it's just a way of reflecting your involvement.
OF: OK. Is this actually a thing, then? Should I now start to keep my eyes open and looking out for people wearing pins in bars?
FW: Well, I think if you look at the bartender, there's a high chance that there'll be wearing a pin of some sort.
OF: Is that right?
OF: OK. And this is a China thing, or this is an international thing.
FW: I'm not actually sure. It's certainly something in China. And the China and Asia bartending community is really tight, which I really admire. It is a community. A lot of people know each other. There's a lot of travel in between cities. Overseas, it's probably to a lesser extent.
OF: Right. I'm quite glad you answered in that way, where you said “I'm not quite sure what happens outside of this region”. Because what you're saying to me is that basically, this is a Chinese brand.
OF: Well why don't we start just with the basics about how you started the company in Shanghai. What was that story?
FW: I've been in China for about seven years. And the first part of that was at Fudan University. And I was doing a master's degree in business management. I really enjoy trying new things, and to me, Shanghai was sort of part of that.
OF: When I think about Kiwis, they're always bungee jumping, or mountain biking or…
FW: Heaps of bungee jumping, Oscar. We just bungee jump any chance we get.
OF: In fact your hair is tussled, I'm sure you just came from a bungee right now.
FW: Yeah, there's a lot of bungee jumping(!). Er, there is quite a lot of outdoor activities in New Zealand. So there's a lot of hunting, surfing, snowboarding, skiing, there is a lot of that. I think it gets amplified because that's also our tourism industry.
FW: So when people are telling stories overseas about what New Zealand is, it's very meshed in with our tourism pitch.
OF: So I've just bought into the PR.
FW: Yeah, that’s alright though. It's better than Lord of the Rings.
OF: Well, let's not even dwell on that one second longer. Let's move on. So you were here, you were studying, you were checking out the F&B scene…
FW: Yeah. And there were amazing craft beers being made in China, and in Shanghai. Also, at the same time, there's amazing ingredients and cuisine from all around China.
OF: When it comes to craft beer, that's the connection between the person who referred you to the podcast from last season.
FW: Oh yeah, Sean.
OF: Sean Harmon. So why don't I play to you what Sean said about you.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Sean HARMON: I think a really cool story is the story of Peddlers Gin Company. A friend of mine is a Co-Founder there, Fergus. They're creating something I think is really impressive, it’s a great quality product. It'd be a cool story, I think, for everyone to learn.
[End of Audio Clip]
FW: I think I met Sean, through a mutual friend on the rooftop of Mexican bar.
OF: You suddenly went very hazy.
FW: Yeah, it was a balcony somewhere in 静安 [Jìng'ān] I'm pretty sure, drinking margaritas.
OF: So you were saying craft beers, was that the main out-of-the-box drink option in China at that point?
FW: Yeah it was. Which was actually really interesting, because there was no craft premium Chinese-made spirit. And to me, it sort of felt natural that there should be. And gin was really cool because as a spirit, it gives you an opportunity to use a lot of different ingredients. Juniper is your main ingredient for gin, but you can also include any number of other ingredients. So as a medium for reflecting your origin story, it meant we could use 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper, it meant we could use Buddha's hand, and lotus, and things like that.
OF: OK. Well, why don't we, in that case, talk about how you make gin.
FW: Yeah sure.
OF: Because I understand that with gin, you use a still. It’s a distilling process rather than a brewing process.
OF: I know that these are words, but I don't quite know what they mean. Like, what is the process of making gin?
FW: The place where gin would start would be - sort of like a beer, basically - you find something and you ferment it. So it'd be like corn, or barley or wheat.
OF: Oh actually you can have different bases for gin, can you?
FW: Yeah, you can have a different base spirit.
OF: Oh right.
FW: And so you would ferment that with sugar and yeast, and that picks up an alcohol content level. And then you take all of that, and then you put it into a column still, and you distil that many many times. You just heat it up, and the alcohol boils before the water. You keep it in a tank, you discard the water, and then you put that alcohol back into the still, and you would re-distil it.
OF: I see.
FW: And in that way, you increase the alcohol content to ideally 90-95% pure alcohol.
FW: You need to do that a number of times. And it also strips the undesirable elements of alcohol, including the real bad stuff like methanol, which is an alcoholic compound that forms at the same time when you ferment something. But that's the one that makes you go blind.
OF: Oh. Not ideal.
FW: No, no. So if you read about people doing moonshine, or something like that…
FW: …Then that's what it is. It means that they have fermented something, and they haven't done it in a way where they've taken the methanol off.
OF: Right. This is now making me a bit scared when you're starting up your own brand, right? I'm just imagining you in a shed doing it, and like, “Has it got methanol? Let me just taste it. Yeah, a bit too much methanol in that one.”
FW: No, there are ways that you can make it very safe.
OF: Presumably you can measure it. Like, there are gauges, or..?
FW: Yeah, as long as you understand what you're doing, there's no problem getting rid of it.
FW: So now we've just got pure ethanol. At that point, you select your ingredients. You would put them all together into a tank - including juniper and the earthier ingredients like liquorice, angelica, cinnamon - and then you would distil it again. And then that comes out basically tasting of gin. The second time around, we vapour infuse. Which means that we've got what's called a gin basket.
OF: I've seen them, yeah. It's like a tea bag in a tea pot.
FW: Yeah, but it's not in the liquid, it’s above it.
OF: Oh, I see.
FW: So it sort of catches all the steam that comes off. And into that we put Buddha's hand, East Asian mint, and 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper is definitely like a ‘hero ingredient’. The reason for that - this took so much trial and error to figure this out - is that those ingredients are a little bit lighter. And so if you put them into the pot, then they degrade really rapidly. And the end-lifecycle of a mint after it's been boiled in alcohol for eight hours… You know, it's not tasting any good at the end of that.
FW: So that process picks up some slightly more delicate flavours. And then you would cut that with water - because it's come out at a very high percentage ABV - to anywhere between 38-50%, wherever you want it. And that's gin. Yeah.
OF: You mentioned the phrase ‘hero ingredient’ - that was in the context of 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper - what do you mean by ‘hero ingredient’?
FW: We sort of mean ingredients that we really like the taste profile of, we think they have a super cool story, and we wanted to include in the gin. Because being able to reflect some of the flavours and botanicals of China was one of the reasons why we started the company. And so 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper was one of those. And the other one I mentioned was Buddha’s hand, which is…
OF: What the hell is that?
FW: Man, they’re a crazy fruit.
OF: Oh it’s a fruit.
FW: It’s a fruit, yeah.
FW: It's a citrus fruit we sourced from 云南 [Yúnnán]. And it is super ugly. And the reason it's called a Buddha's hand is because it kind of looks like somebody's fingers all pressed together.
OF: What's the Chinese word for it, do you know?
FW: 佛手 [Fóshǒu].
OF: 佛手 [Fóshǒu]. Oh so it’s literally a translation of the Chinese.
OF: Is this well known? I lived in China now for eight years, I don't think I've heard of it before.
FW: It's not, no. It’s a really uncommon fruit. And that's because it's gott no pulp. It's all rind.
OF: Oh, god.
FW: Yeah, which is super weird. And so generally, you would have zero use for it.
OF: In China, is it used for anything?
FW: It's used for teas.
FW: And like, TCM.
OF: ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’.
FW: Yeah. But it's, really really aromatic. So it smells amazing. It smells like a cross between sort of like a lime and a rose. It’s beautiful
OF: Is it all over 云南 [Yúnnán], or is it in a certain part?
FW: It's pretty widespread, yeah. But it's not very common at all overseas.
FW: It hadn’t been exported from China until the early 2000s.
OF: Isn't it funny. It reminds me of the craze for goji berries at one point.
FW: Yeah, yeah.
OF: Right? And suddenly everyone knows about goji berries. Whereas before it was really just in this one small part of China that they knew about it. I wonder if Buddha's hand is going to have a similar kind of discovery and Renaissance?
FW: Yeah, finding ways to use it is more complicated than with like a typical citrus fruit.
FW: But it's actually perfect for gin because the peel is the most useful part for distilling. Because it holds its texture better when it's exposed to high heat and alcohol. So it gives off flavour for longer, and doesn't really turn to a mush as quickly.
FW: So it's perfect for gin.
OF: How did you even find out about this as a flavour, as a fruit? When you were thinking about what ingredients, where did this come from?
FW: The inspiration for that… I mean, we spent a really long time on recipe development. And there was a lot of travel around China to find them.
OF: I'm going to interrupt you there. Because all the while you've been saying “We.” So who is ‘we’?
FW: Yeah, so when we first kicked off it was sort of me and a couple of friends.
OF: All Kiwis?
FW: At the start Kiwis, but we very quickly expanded to include local Chinese.
OF: And your role in that group was what exactly?
FW: Well at the start there was not really a whole lot of differentiation.
FW: Because everybody did everything.
FW: Now I'm more on the operational side.
OF: Oh, I see. OK. Well back then, then. When you were working out the flavours…
FW: Yeah, we spent a lot of time travelling on long-distance trains.
OF: I'm assuming not business class.
FW: No, no, I was so poor. It was the cheapest slow trains that we could find.
OF: Oh. But at this point, you weren't sourcing, you were just experimenting with flavours. You would just go to a farm and say “Can I taste something?” Or what?
FW: Yeah, and you would taste something and then you'd potentially think that it was a nice ingredient. But the supplier that you got it from, the level of quality wasn't good enough.
OF: Oh, so you were going to individual suppliers themselves. It wasn't just going to local markets, and seeing what flavours you could find.
FW: There was a bit of both.
OF: Oh, OK.
OF: Well give me an example then. So how would you find a supplier for, let's say, 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper.
FW: So 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper was a really fun one actually, we've got a really good relationship with several farms in 四川 [Sìchuān] in a place called 汉源 [Hànyuán] county. There are a lot of pepper farms around there, and they're beautiful. And harvest is around August. Historically, it has been very famous for producing very high quality 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper. A really nice 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper is pretty light, citrusy. And that's not the case with all 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper.
FW: So we got pretty dialled in on 四川 [Sìchuān] peppers. I’ve spent a lot of time in random warehouses in the middle of nowhere with a numb tongue. Just the persistence in really getting to that final farm was really just following up leads that you thought would be totally useless, or randomly talking with somebody at a bar…
OF: Yeah, I mean, that actually makes sense. Because you go out, you talk to somebody in a bar, they recommend someone, they know someone.
OF: That’s the way you develop 关系 [guānxì], after all, not by cold calling and sending messages. I mean, that's how I imagined it would have had to have worked.
FW: Yeah, there's a lot of that, meeting people and asking who they knew. And someone has a cousin who knows someone in that area. And they ignore you, but maybe somebody else doesn't.
OF: Right. I'm assuming that they wouldn't really have a clue what gin was, at that point.
FW: No. No, not at all.
OF: And even now, maybe some don’t.
FW: With our 四川 [Sìchuān] pepper farmer, he has tried the product. But he still has no idea what gin is.
OF: Well what is the market for gin in China? We heard, last season, Sean Harmon’s story. Like, there is an understanding about what beer is. And then from his side, he needs to educate the market about what a craft beer is, and why that's a premium product versus what they can get in a ‘Snow’ brand beer. When it comes to gin, what is the process of education in the market?
FW: Gin, it's similar to beer, but it started from a much smaller base. In Tier One cities, for a long time. gin has been around. But it’s a very small part of what a Chinese consumer would be drinking on a weekly basis. It's like very very small. 98% of all spirits sold in China is 白酒 [báijiǔ].
OF: Right, 98.
FW: Yeah, so that is sort of a reflection of where gin would sit.
OF: Yeah, so you have to share the remaining 2% with everything else.
FW: Yeah, whisky and cognac are both really big categories. Vodka would probably be next. And then possibly gin.
FW: Yeah, we might have made it onto that. I think the trend in China has been that people are drinking 白酒 [báijiǔ] less. It's not a drink which is like as appealing to younger consumers.
OF: I see.
FW: All of the other spirits have been growing. And a lot of that has been - and this is what has been interesting over, say, the last five years - is the growth of cocktail culture in China. And I think that's awesome, because there are some amazing bars in Shanghai, and in the rest of China. People doing some really interesting things. And on a super premium level.
OF: I guess because cocktails themselves are becoming more popular, then that’s just a wave in which gin is included.
FW: There is an education component with gin. That's a really big job.
OF: Why gin, then? Why not a vodka? Why not diversify and do both? Like, what was your thinking at that point?
FW: With vodka, you're basically restricted to whatever your base spirit is. But you can't really include other ingredients in it. Whereas gin, you can. I mean, I love it. I love being able to go around to these different places and have connections with pepper farmers in 四川 [Sìchuān], and these citrus farmers 云南 [Yúnnán], and, you know, play around with some pineapples every now and then.
OF: I just like the way you said that. Basically what you're saying is, you love gin. It's as simple as that, isn't it? Take me through how you go from nothing to becoming a small-scale distiller?
FW: Yeah, well it's a real story of persistence.
OF: Is this good or stupid persistence?
FW: Yeah, I mean, depending on the results, that's when you look back on it and you just make that call.
FW: I mean, really it just started with a garage in 浦东 [Pǔdōng] that we could go and try out some recipes in.
OF: Oh, classic. A garage.
FW: A garage.
OF: It sounds like Hewlett-Packard already.
FW: Yeah. And we did that for ages. I would go out there, experiment with recipes with the ingredients that we'd sourced. You know, get up at 6:30 in the morning, get out there, and come back at nighttime. And eventually we found a recipe that we liked, and started going around to different bartenders in Shanghai, and sort of forcing them to taste the product.
OF: Oh my word.
FW: And bless them, it's an amazing community. So thank you for everybody who did that. And so we spent a lot of time getting feedback from all of the bartenders. But it was pretty organic, the evolution of Peddlers, in terms of like going from recipe development, hustling around bars, getting product feedback. And then when we were finally in a position to sell product, it felt like an environment where you could get out and do that. And it would be something which people were quite excited about. For a long time, we would be hand-delivering all of the gin. So it would be a matter of loading up the scooter with as many boxes of gin as you could get. My record was nine boxes of gin on a scooter. So I was just thinking about it before, it was like three in the footwell, and then another three on top of those. And then you would stack - in a row going forward - another three.
OF: This is Boxes.
FW: Boxes, yeah.
OF: Which means how many bottles?
FW: Six per box, so…
OF: OK. Funny, because until now we haven't talked about the name of your gin. But this makes me think about the name Peddlers. Going from bar to bar, selling gin.
OF: It’s not just by chance that you've called it Peddlers. This must be part of your thinking behind the brand.
FW: Yeah, absolutely. Because I mean, we’re literally just peddling gin around Shanghai. There's obviously like a lot of hustle in the name there. But I also feel like it's really true for Shanghai in general. It's always been a very commercial city, a trading hub. That to us really captured the idea of the hustle and the bustle, and people selling things from all over the world in Shanghai. And certainly driving around motorbikes overloaded with gin also felt like it was part of that.
OF: Oh, absolutely. I always like the start-up stories. But let's fast forward to today, then. So what is the process now? I'm guessing you're still not going bar to bar? Or is that still part of the way that you sell your gin?
FW: I think that's always going to be part of the alcohol industry.
FW: So we’ve been really fortunate to get a really great team. So we have more people who can help out, including people who would be visiting bars quite a lot. Shanghai was where we started. But since then we've grown throughout China. So we've got staff in Beijing and in 深圳 [Shēnzhèn]. Distributors, in general, throughout China have been fundamental in scaling.
OF: What is it now that takes up most of your brain space?
FW: Right now? So over the past 18 months, we have expanded a lot throughout China. And we've also scaled overseas. When we first applied for our export licence, they didn't have a category for gin export. So we had to sort of create one.
OF: Nice! Well, thank you so much Fergus. I mean, what you do is under the radar for someone who is a consumer like me. So you've been very patient, as I've asked you very basic questions about how you distil gin. But the story is a great one. You know, we've been in Shanghai for a similar length of time, and I've seen your product grow. And I've always enjoyed it. And so I'm looking forward now to somebody telling me one day “Oh, I just had this gin. I heard it’s from China.” And I’ll be like “Yes, I know the guy. I've been drinking that gin for eight years already”.
FW: That'd be awesome. I'd love that, Oscar.
FW: Thank you so much for having me.
OF: My pleasure. Well, let's go on to Part 2.
OF: I wonder if I had actually brought some gin to this recording, whether it would have been a different level of conversation or not.
FW: I don't think alcohol is necessarily a great input into an interview that's being recorded.
OF: All right, let's jump into the 10 questions. These are the same 10 questions that I ask everyone who is on the podcast. And I will start with Question 1, which is from Shanghai Daily: What is your favourite China-related fact?
FW: So, I was fascinated when I learned that there are over a million people in China who live in caves.
OF: What, no.
OF: No, today?
FW: Yeah, heaps of people live in caves.
OF: Really. I think I heard about people living in caves. And then the city grew and developed, and then they rehoused them into apartment blocks in the city. But even now, there are still people?
OF: I mean, OK, I'm gonna have to do more research, for both of us. Because I do want to know the story now. I mean, I guess it's possible.
OF: Next question, which comes from Rosetta Stone: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
FW: I would have to go with one of the first phrases that I learnt in Chinese which was ‘忙好，太忙不好 [máng hǎo, tàimáng bùhǎo]’.
OF: 忙好，太忙不好 [Máng hǎo, tàimáng bùhǎo].
FW: Yeah. Which means ‘being busy is good, but being too busy is not good’. The longer I've spent in China, the more that applies to life in China.
OF: What was the context in which you learnt that? Is that actually a phrase that people say?
FW: Well, I certainly say it. So I guess if that includes me, then yes.
OF: I mean, I hear it in the context of ‘太忙了 [Tàimángle]’ or 忙死了 [Mángsǐle], like people complaining that they're too busy. But I haven't heard it in that context.
FW: Yeah well when I was taught it, I was definitely taught it as if it was like a phrase.
FW: So when we first learnt it, like the teachers were like “Yeah, people say this all the time.” Just this assumption that your resting status should be ‘busy’.
OF: Oh I see. That's the default position.
FW: Your default position is busy.
OF: Yeah. Where are you now on that scale? Like, presumably, there are still moments where you are ‘太忙了 [tàimángle]’.
FW: To be honest, the hustle is…
FW: Daily, yeah. But I really enjoy choosing my own work hours, and deciding where I want to focus.
OF: Well that's actually quite mature. Because usually when it’s your own business, there is no off and on. Like, you’re full-on the whole time. Because of the way you work with bars, do you tend to work late evenings? Or do you tend to have regular working hours during the day?
FW: It probably skews late. But it still starts pretty early. I mean, it's not just going to bars.
FW: But I mean, I go.. I go to quite a lot of bars.
OF: I've seen you in a few of them, too.
FW: Next question, which comes from naked Retreats: What's your favourite destination within China?
FW: I really enjoy 成都 [Chéngdū]. I've had some really great trips there. And the F&B industry there is awesome. They've got these amazing underground nightclubs, which are just in random apartment buildings.
OF: Part of that makes me feel “OK, it’s in a developing stage, which Shanghai may have been like a few years ago”. But the other part is 成都 [Chéngdū] innately has this kind of offbeat coolness which I think Shanghai never would have had. Right, do you agree with that?
FW: There's something about 成都 [Chéngdū], yeah. They're sort of coming at life from a slightly different direction.
OF: Right. Yeah, I'm wasting my time in Shanghai. If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
FW: I think I would miss ‘China speed’. I really enjoy it. That feeling of progress is really tangible.
OF: And then what would you miss the least?
FW: The attitude to queuing when people get off aeroplanes here?
OF: Oh right.
FW: And it's just stressful, The flight’s already been stressful, and as soon as it lands… that rush to the front.
OF: There’s a funny connection I'm making with somebody else in the podcast, it was Abe Deyo from Season 01, he actually was a tour manager for indie groups. He would miss the way that people disembark off planes the most.
OF: He’s an American, but he said he really appreciates the efficiency of everyone going to every single last gap. So that when the doors do open, everyone is out.
FW: I’d be curious to know the time saved by doing that.
OF: But it's the same as you. Like, you're saying that you like the fast pace. This is ‘China speed’. But then in this particular situation, ‘China speed’ works against you.
FW: Yeah, I find that there's something about that which gets me.
OF: I don't know where I actually land on this, because I think I've got used to it. Maybe I'm also… Like, I'm not pushing, but when it's my turn, zip I'm out.
OF: Is there anything that's still surprises you about life in China?
FW: Yes, the variety of dried meat snacks.
FW: Like, I was travelling last week. And there was a dried meat snack which was a deboned duck foot, shrink-wrapped in plastic.
FW: I was like “I have not seen that before.”
OF: You never know, maybe it's got a very very nice texture. I agree, I can picture what you mean now. Because they're shrink-wrapped, and you can make out exactly what the thing is.
OF: Like, in the West in general, we sanitise our meat. It's just slabs of meat, and you can't tell where it came from.
FW: Yeah it’s true.
OF: You can’t even tell what animal, right? Here, you know exactly what part. You can see it blinking at you.
OF: Yes. Apart from the duck feet, what other ones do you remember?
FW: The duck heads. And they've always been cut in half.
OF: Oh, no.
FW: Have you not seen them?
OF: I don't think I have.
FW: Yeah, they usually at the back.
OF: This is possibly because you go to 成都 [Chéngdū] a lot. A lot of these snack are very 四川 [Sìchuān], aren't they?
FW: I'm not sure. But usually I'll spot them in a train station somewhere. And all you want is a sandwich or something familiar, but instead… two entire rows of meat snacks.
OF: Yeah. Next time buy one, try it, take a photo, and send it to me. If you’re trying to persuade us to drink your gin, with all your fancy-pants ingredients and your Buddha’s hand or whatnot…
FW: If you make a dried meat snack company Oscar, then I'll eat the duck.
OF: Next question, which comes from SmartShanghai: Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat, to drink, or to hang out?
FW: So there are an amazing selection of places in Shanghai to go. And I was looking through what people have said previously. And so as to not repeat previous answers, I would say
Union Trading Company.
OF: Oh, that's a great choice. Tell me about that place.
FW: So that was started by a guy named 遥 [Yáo] a while ago now, probably like seven years ago. So it's been around for a long time, in Shanghai years. And it very much feels like a neighbourhood cosy bar. It's got like a long wooden top.
FW: They serve great drinks.
OF: Yes, it looks local, but the drinks that they serve are elevated.
FW: Yeah, they recently got voted maybe the 49th best bar in the world.
FW: I mean, that's a really big deal.
OF: It's unbelievable really, because it's a very unassuming place.
FW: Yeah. I think the judges, whoever they are, must take those sort of things into account. You know, it's the drinks, it's the service, it’s the ambience of the place. And those guys deserve it, it’s a great spot.
OF: Where in your story do they fit in? Like, when you were pounding the streets of Shanghai, were they early in your story?
FW: They definitely were.
OF: Oh really?
FW: Yeah 遥 [Yáo] was a big supporter of what we were doing. And he helped us with a bunch of events in there. And those guys are all friends.
OF: Oh, nice. It's a hard question for you. Because even as you say that, you're ostracising the other 99 bars that you've also got a good relationship with.
FW: Yeah, there's a long list of shout-outs there.
OF: Yeah. What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
FW: The worst purchase was a sleeping bag.
FW: And I was buying it for some sort of like trip into 四川 [Sìchuān]. And last-minute packing, I got something from the fake markets, a sleeping bag. And I pulled it out on the first night and it was cold, and we're staying at various hostels. And after about half an hour of lying on it, it got quite scratchy. And like totally disappeared into nothing. So it was a little bit bulky, and then it sort of just flattened.
OF: So you’re lying on just one layer of fibre, basically.
FW: Well, I was curious as to actually what I was lying on, because it was so scratchy. And so I cut open a segment of it, and it was just floor sweepings.
OF: Oh my god. Oh wow.
FW: It was like dust, hair and toenails in there.
OF: See, if you go to the fake markets, you're gonna get some fake ****, Fergus.
FW: Exactly. It was definitely not an expensive sleeping bag.
OF: Eurgh, you had to say toenails, why did you say toenails? Gross. Alright, the next question, what is your favourite WeChat sticker?
FW: I think my favourite WeChat sticker is the tumbleweed.
OF: Oh yes.
FW: So the scene is just an American prairie or something. And then slowly a tumbleweed goes from right to left across the picture. I think it's a good one for when people just ignore you.
FW: Or someone puts out a comment into a WeChat group and no-one says anything. It's just like, yeah, tumbleweeds.
OF: Yes. Usually, it's taking the piss out of someone who hasn't got a reply, right?
OF: Or you can use it passively aggressively. If somebody hasn't replied to you, you can just send that.
FW: Well, I mean, I would probably not send that in, like…
OF: To a client?
FW: To a client, no. I’m not trying to be aggressive with it
OF: Yeah, it's a good one, this one. I have it, but I tell you what, I am too scared to use it. Because it feels like I'm trying to really guilt you into replying.
FW: I'm not trying to throw down too much guilt with that. It's more just like a reminder that I'm sitting here.
OF: Alright, good. Next question, what is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
FW: That would be ‘Stan’ by Eminem.
OF: Right, OK. Why, what’s the story?
FW: I don't know, I just know that song quite well. It's not like I'm a really big Eminem fan either, but…
OF: That’s not the one with Dido, is it?
FW: It is the one with Dido.
OF: It’s that one.
FW: Yeah, so it works quite well as a duet.
OF: OK. Do you sing the girl’s part too?
FW: No, usually I'll recruit someone to sing the girl’s part, and then just crush the rap.
FW: I mean, that's the whole point of KTV, right? It’s like a bit of a performance.
OF: Yes. All right. And finally - and this comes from JustPod, which is the company that provides the studio, which we're not in today, as anyone listening can probably guess - what or who is your biggest source of inspiration in China?
FW: You know, I gotta say that it is the entrepreneur community in Shanghai, and across China. I think that that was a really important part of allowing us as a company to go from zero to wherever we are now. And just the amount of support that was just out there and goodwill, just people buying into what you're doing, and being excited and happy and not dismissive of what you're trying to do. And when what you're doing is like hand-carrying gin around different bars, you can feel as if you're just “What am I doing?”
OF: “What the hell?”
FW: Yeah. I think that probably comes up a lot with entrepreneurs. And Shanghai was a really positive place to be for it.
OF: Yeah. And these are people who you can get advice from, just by giving them a bit of gin now and again.
FW: Yeah, just take them for like three or four martinis, and…
OF: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for that Fergus. It's good to have your story. It's good to have you as a Kiwi, but someone who is passionate about building a Chinese brand. And now not just a Chinese brand in China, but one that you're starting to sell overseas. I hope you continue to experiment with these different flavours, and I look forward to tasting the next iteration of Peddlers.
FW: Well thank you very much, Oscar. I appreciate that goodwill. And I hope so too.
OF: Before you go let me ask you one final thing, which is: out of everyone you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?
FW: So there's a guy I'm friends with called Graeme Kennedy. He's a photographer, he takes amazing photographs and videos from all over China. He used to be a war journalist.
FW: So he's got a really interesting story. And he does some of the coolest trips in China. They make me so jealous, he goes to some amazing places. So I think he'd have a really interesting perspective on his time here.
OF: Oh, very cool. Has he accompanied you to some of your trips when you're visiting your suppliers in rural 四川 [Sìchuān]?
FW: He has, yes. Yeah, he's been along for the ride.
OF: Oh nice. I look forward to having that chat with Graeme. If there was one question that you would ask Graeme on the podcast, what question would you ask him?
FW: It would probably be "What was his most uncomfortable photoshoot?”
OF: Oh, that's a great one. Hopefully it wasn't on your trip, was it?
FW: I don't think so.
OF: Thank you so much again, Fergus.
FW: You're welcome Oscar. Thank you for having me.
OF: First things first, I tried to research the exact number of people in China who still live in caves. Actually some websites were saying that over 30 million people live in caves! But then I noticed that the articles were written over ten years ago, so who knows what has changed since then. If anyone out there has any up-to-date information, then please get in touch, I want to know for sure.
Yes, I just said 佛手 [Fóshǒu], which is the Chinese name for the crazy fruit Buddha’s hand. To see photos of that, as well as Fergus’ object, his favourite WeChat sticker, and loads more goodies, as always please find me on Instagram at @oscology and everywhere else by searching for mosaicofchina. If you’re in one of the WeChat listeners groups, there’s a bonus image for you, which is a QR code that you can use to get 20% off your next order of Peddlers Gin, courtesy of Fergus.
I’m excited to talk about the connections to previous episodes. Yes, all this talk of 四川 [Sìchuān] peppers links us back to the favourite China fact of the street food expert Jamie BARYS from Season 02 Episode 02, so please go back there to listen out for that. Yes, there’s a connection with sleeping bags back to the clean energy entrepreneur Alex SHOER from Season 02 Episode 11. But the most fun connection concerns the part of today’s episode when Fergus was speculating about the judges who named Union Trading Company one of the world’s 50 top bars. Well we had the judge on the podcast last season. So go back to the episode with Crystyl MO from Season 02 Episode 26, Crystyl is the China Academy Chair at ‘The World’s 50 Best’.
Before we come to the catch-up interview, as always there is of course an extra 10-15 minutes from my conversation with Fergus in the PREMIUM version of the show. Head to the Mosaic of China website to follow the instructions on how to subscribe. Here are a few clips...
OF: After a few gins you're a bit louder, are you?
FW: Er, it depends who you ask.
FW: What sort of yeast you're using makes quite a big difference to what the final taste is.
FW: It was so stressful, I think I lost several years of my life at the airport.
OF: Well, which grains did you use? Is that a trade secret?
FW: No, that's OK. Yeah, we use **** as a base spirit.
FW: One particular salty old Frenchman finished it with “Your business is going to fail, because nobody will ever buy Chinese alcohol”.
FW: Even what time of year you source the ingredients, it makes a really really big difference to the flavour.
OF: It’s not a cool word.
FW: It’s definitely not cool. But you'd be happily uncool.
OF: Believe me, I appreciate the uncoolness.
[End of Audio Clips]
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. You heard his voice earlier on in today’s episode: Sean Harmon is coming up for a quick catch-up chat, since he was the one who nominated Fergus from last Season. And I'll see you again next time.
OF: There he is! Hello Sean.
SH: Hey, Oscar.
OF: Great to see you.
SH: Likewise. How have you been? It's been a long time.
OF: It has been a long time. And we are talking remotely, which is one of the biggest updates since we last talked - on mic at least - 18 months ago. So where are you right now?
SH: I am in Hong Kong. Quite a life change. I was nine and a half years based in Shanghai. It was a great run, I loved Shanghai. I mean, I was supposed to be going back and forth - Hong Kong to Shanghai - you know, every other week, sort of thing. But obviously COVID kind of got in the way of that. So my wife relocated first, she moved in January of last year. And then last year, I was kind of living between two cities. I did five weeks of quarantine in total last year, going back and forth. But since then in January, we actually had a baby. So I haven't been up to the mainland since the baby was born, we've obviously had our hands full. And plus, as you know, Shanghai has been going through a bit of a rough time lately as well.
OF: Well, I should preface this by saying exactly what you do, for those people who didn't hear our original episode. You're the General Manager for Greater China of Duvel Moortgat, the beer brand from Belgium. And I think Vedett is the brand most of us would know, in Shanghai at least. I tell you what I do still have - and it's right in front of me now - it is your object that you brought, which was the bottle of Vedett with my face on it.
SH: Fun! But that’s actually not a great thing. By now it should be an empty bottle. But, you know, I’ll give you a pass.
OF: Well, you gave me six bottles, and five are empty. So…
SH: OK, there we go.
OF: There you go. It feeds my ego. And what more do you need? Despite moving to Hong Kong, your role actually hasn't changed. So tell me about that.
SH: I mean, I think that not being able to just hop over when needed is a bit frustrating, to be honest with you. Because, you know, sometimes there's an event or there’s a client meeting, where you want to be able to hop on a plane and go. And right now, it’s what, seven plus three, so a 10-day time period. But for a long time, it was 14 or 21 days to enter. So that's been frustrating. But once the border is open, I believe from an efficiency perspective, it'll be easy. As long as the border is open.
OF: Yeah. “I’ll have a meeting with you. Could you do it 22 days from now, please?” Yeah.
SH: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
OF: Well, now that you are in Hong Kong, it makes me think about the question I asked you about life on mainland China, which was about what you would miss the most and miss the least if you left the Chinese mainland. So what you did say was that you would miss the energy. And what you said that you wouldn't miss was the pollution. So now that you've been out for over a year, what is it that you miss the most and miss the least?
SH: That's a good question. I mean, the energy… I think I still get it. I'm still talking to people in China every day. I'm still very much in a metropolis. It's still an Asian mega city. I think when I said pollution, it was also about noise pollution, if I remember?
OF: Correct, correct.
SH: I don't even think that's it any more. I would say the access to nature… I grew up near Miami, so Fort Lauderdale, you have a beach right there, you're living with a balance of outdoor life. And Hong Kong, you very much have this balance. Hiking or trail-running or beaches, you do have a better balance with nature. Where in Shanghai, it’s a little bit tough to get out of the city.
OF: Yes, absolutely. You had to go to the likes of 莫干山 [Mògànshān] to actually be in nature. It's like a two hour train ride.
OF: You’re absolutely right, that’s the one thing that was the biggest struggle when I left Hong Kong to come here. Well, thank you so much for this catch-up. And I look forward to hopefully seeing you in person either in Hong Kong or Shanghai or god knows where. See you, man.
SH: Fingers crossed. Take care.