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Scotland is renowned across the globe for its rich culture and heritage, and its contribution to the world past and present. From its thriving contemporary arts and music scene to its achievements in industry, medicine, science, law and literature, Scotland's story is one of immense achievement
For all the whisky in China
Both beverages enjoy a special place in the folklore of their homelands and both have achieved widespread and lasting popularity across the wider world. As any true Scot knows, the word “whisky” comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life”. From its birth, whisky, like tea, has been famed and mythologised for its reported medicinal and restorative properties. The origin of the fiery spirit that has become so central to Scotland’s national heritage, remains shrouded in mystery. The earliest written record of malt distillation in Scotland dates from 1494, but the practice is believed to predate even this venerable pedigree. Tea also has mythical origins. According to Chinese legend, it was accidentally discovered when leaves from the burning twig of a tea bush were blown into Emperor Shennong’s boiling water.
In at least one respect, whisky and tea share a common origin. Safe sources of drinking water were hard to come by in the ancient world and two ways of making water safe to drink are to boil it or to brew it into spirit or beer. Deep in the mists of prehistory, people in Asia took up boiling their drinking water while European tribes fermented grains and fruits in search of a refreshing draught. This cultural bifurcation has left its mark even on our genes. Europeans produce markedly higher levels of alcohol-digesting enzymes than Asians.
Scotland and China
Now, in the twenty-first-century world of global commerce, refreshment is big business. Having given tea to Scotland, China is now clamouring for our whisky. Since 2004, China has been one of the top twenty international markets for Scotch whisky. Whisky, often mixed with green tea, has become a popular and fashionable drink among China’s emerging middle class. In the trendy, upmarket bars of China’s expanding cities, freshly energised by the spirit of free commerce, a new generation of aspiring, upwardly-mobile young Chinese are eager for a taste of the exotic. Whisky is top of the menu with exports to China increasing by 84 per cent in 2005. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show that the equivalent of 20 million bottles were shipped there, valued at £46 million – compared with £25 million in 2004 – making China the industry's 15th largest market by value. Exports had already risen by a staggering 137% during 2004.
This represents just one part of the budding international relationship between Scotland and China. Edinburgh is twinned to Xian and Glasgow with Dalian and easing of travel restrictions now allows Chinese tourists to visit Scotland. Cultural cross-fertilisation is also being promoted in Scotland and China. Chinese New Year celebrations have become popular right across Scotland and Burns Night is celebrated in Beijing. This cross fertilisation of the cultures is happening not only in Scotland and China. In Vancouver, Canada, probably near to being half way between the two countries and well known for both its Scottish and Chinese influences, a unique fusion has taken place. It all started when Todd Wong was a student at Simon Fraser University, one of the world’s most famous piping institutions. “I was asked to participate in the Robert Burns Day celebration and realised this is a multicultural statement. You’ve got a fifth-generation Chinese-Canadian wearing a kilt. It really put a flip on the stereotypes.” That was in 1993. Over the next decade a series of small dinners with friends based around the Chinese-cum-Scottish theme eventually ballooned into what is now a 600-person banquet featuring a twelve-course dinner, big-name guests and prominent performers which is shown on CBC TV. Traditional Chinese New Year dishes are served for dinner but the real star is the haggis which finds itself transformed into wontons, lettuce wraps and spring rolls. The cross-cultural culinary experience is upstaged only by the list of entertainers who are equally cross cultural.
But back to China. In science, the arts and financial services, which are some of Scotland’s largest money earners, co-operation between Scotland and China is flourishing. Edinburgh’s Napier University was the first in the UK to open an office in Beijing and many other Scottish Higher institutions, including Glasgow School of Art, are developing links with China. And in a curious development to the relationship, a Scottish company is now exporting tea to China! Edinburgh firm Alba Exports Ltd are hoping to capitalise on China’s appetite for the new, by marketing fruit and herbal teas to the wealthy citizens of booming Chinese towns like Shanghai.
Scotland and tea
Tea has been finding its way to Britain since the 17th century when it was introduced, originally by Dutch merchants, as an exotic luxury item and a health tonic. Its sales rapidly overtook coffee, in spite of a punitive tax imposed on tea imports specifically intended to protect the coffee trade. Tea went on to become the quintessential symbol of the British way of life. Mary of Modena, then Duchess of York, is credited with introducing tea drinking to Scotland in 1680 when visiting with her husband, later King James VII of Scotland (the king after whom New York is named). Those same British took their tea habit to their North American colonies, resulting, eventually, in the Boston Tea Party and the birth of the United States. And all from a health tonic!
In the early years of British tea consumption, the product was an expensive indulgence. Its only source was China and at that time the British authorities placed heavy restrictions on foreign trade. Supplies were increased and prices cut dramatically, however, when Scottish merchant Charles Bruce opened the first commercial tea plantations in India, after his brother Robert discovered tea being grown in Assam, India went on to become and still remains, the world’s largest producer of tea. The tea flowing from India symbolised the acuity of Scots trading instincts.
Scots continued to play a crucial role in the development of the tea trade around the world. In 1876, Thomas J. Lipton opened his first grocer’s shop in his native Glasgow. This was the beginning of what would become one of the largest private fortunes ever built on tea. Buying directly from producers and eventually buying tea plantations himself, Lipton was able to sell tea to the public at reduced prices. He was one of the first merchants to blend tea with the goal of producing a recognisable and consistent “brand” that would be the same in every one of his shops. In 1890, Lipton expanded his tea empire across the Atlantic to New York, where he had spent much of his teens. Eventually, the Scot would go on to control a tenth of the world’s traffic in tea and Liptons remains a name recognised across the States and much of the rest of the world. At the time that tea blending was increasing its popularity, whisky blending was also producing the same increase in sales for the same reasons – a brand that was consistent and recognisable. This was the period when “Scotch” became the world’s preferred spirit. These earlier Scottish merchants were quick to recognise the universal market value of a good brand.
The Present day
Scotland remains one of the world’s leading consumers of tea. The ritual and mystery of tea has lost none of its appeal over the years and the benefits are not purely aesthetic. Tea having been famed in China for its health-giving properties, modern science now is catching up with ancient wisdom. Researchers believe that tea, especially green tea, may provide protection against afflictions such as tooth decay by merit of its fluoride content and even cancer, with its antioxidant properties. The other good news is that moderate consumption of alcohol is also known to be conducive to good health. Suddenly, whisky and green tea doesn’t seem such a strange idea.