An Interview with Mr. Li Chunfeng – Founder of TDM
WhiskyGeeks readers know who Mr Li Chunfeng is – because we have introduced him in our previous articles. He is the owner of The Drunken Master Whisky Bar (TDM), chairman of the Formosa Whisky Society and an avid, passionate whisky lover. His journey in whisky started as a young man in his university days, but his success today is all due to his hard work and belief in his love for whisky. We sat down with him during our visit to Kaohsiung in early December and understood his passion behind TDM.
Early days in Chunfeng’s whisky journey
Chunfeng had his first brush with whisky in his university days, where he drank a glass of Glenfiddich. In those early days, he did not know whisky and found the drink to be horrible. He confessed that he drank that glass of whisky by mixing soft drinks to it! After a few years, he began working in his father’s company as an advertisement space salesperson, and he had to go out with his clients to drink and entertain. During one of such occasions, his client gave him a glass of Glendronach single cask. He sipped it, and then took a bigger mouthful – wow! What a different whisky! He fell in love with it, and from that day onwards, Chunfeng has never looked back.
Research into the whisky world shown him that whisky is an exciting drink. With so many different varieties, brands and ways of maturation and bottling, Chunfeng soon started collecting whiskies. That was the beginning of the road of no return.
The birth of The Drunken Master
TDM started as a brand of an independent bottler. Chunfeng’s love for whisky turned his hobby into a business when he decided to share his passion with the people around him. His exposure to the world of independent bottlers made him want to do the same for others. Besides, as the chairman of Formosa Whisky Society, he wanted to have a branding for the whiskies that they bottled for the society. One thing leads to another, and soon, TDM was born as a brand in 2014. The whole process took him three years, but it was a good three years for him.
TDM Whisky Bar was born much later, in October 2016. It has just passed its one year anniversary and is well on its way to fame!
Buying of the Whisky Casks for TDM
Some of us know that buying whisky casks from the distilleries are not easy. The buyer has to head to Scotland and visit the distilleries one by one, sampling the casks before choosing to buy a particular one. More often than not, the distilleries have preset a certain number of casks for the buyer to choose from. In the case of TDM, Chunfeng works with The Whisky Agency (TWA) instead. TWA is a cask reseller – they are the middlemen in which they buy casks from the distilleries and then resell them to buyers. As the middlemen, they helped the buyers to choose the casks in advance.
Chunfeng gets samples from TWA together with the price of the cask. If he likes what he tasted, he will buy the cask from TWA. This method of purchasing cask helps enormously as he does not need to travel to Scotland regularly for cask samples. Instead, he can sample them easily in the comfort of his bar.
The making of TDM Whisky Labels
If you read the WhiskyFair TAKAO post, you would know that TDM has amazingly beautiful labels. Chunfeng makes all the labels himself by purchasing artwork online or spectacular photos from his photographer friends. He creates the labels using Photoshop and adds his ideas to every label. Therefore, each label is unique and artfully crafted.
TWA does not demand a lot from Chunfeng to add their name to his labels either. The only restriction they requested is a legal one – Chunfeng has to put TWA’s website – www.thewhiskyagency.com on the labels – because it is part of the regulation from the Scotch Whisky Association in Scotland. By adding the site to the labels, it formalised the whiskies as Scotch.
Chunfeng’s opinion of the whisky industry in Taiwan
We were curious about the whisky industry in Taiwan, as it appears to be vastly different from Singapore. We were surprised to know that it is not too different. They are just faster, perhaps? Chunfeng shared that Taiwanese whisky drinkers are made up of two extreme groups. One group goes for the cheap whiskies while the other group goes for only the expensive ones. Taiwan is a big market, so whisky prices range from 200-300NTD all the way to 3000-5000NTD for the mid-tier whiskies. The high-end whiskies are always above the 10,000NTD mark. He also shared that most Taiwanese prefer to buy a bottle and share it with their friends in the comfort of their home. Unlike the whisky drinkers in Hong Kong and Japan, the Taiwanese are less likely to spend their time in a whisky bar, drinking different whiskies.
Chunfeng hopes that the whisky scene will move towards the style of Japan and Hong Kong as the whisky industry matures in Taiwan. The whole idea of drinking whisky is to taste all the different kind of whiskies, not spending money on bottles and bottles of whiskies to put at home.
The rising prices of whisky
We spoke about the increasing costs of whisky and how everything seems to be getting more expensive (except our salaries)! Chunfeng said that it is evident to him that whisky prices are rising a little too fast for comfort. He shared that a bottle of whisky which he had bought three years ago for 3000NTD has become almost 10,000NTD! The rising price of whisky makes it less appealing to new whisky drinkers as they may not be willing to pay a higher price for a dram of mid-tier whisky if they have no idea how to appreciate it. It is a concern for the whisky industry as the market will one day come to a standstill if the number of new whisky drinkers reduces overtime.
Chunfeng’s opinion of flippers in the market
Our chat brought us to a somewhat sensitive topic about the apparent flipping of bottles in the market. Similar to most countries, Taiwan has a culture of flipping bottles for profit. Some buyers are not whisky drinkers – they are whisky businessmen. They buy bottles for the sole purpose of reselling them at a higher price. We asked Chunfeng if he thinks this is a bad move for the industry.
Chunfeng has a neutral view towards this practice. He said that it is not surprising as whisky is valuable. Each expression and even each bottle (for those with limited quantity) is precious to someone. As long as the buyer is willing to pay for the bottle at the higher price, there is no reason for him to stop the buyer from buying the bottle from an astute reseller. He said that auctions are done in the same way – if the buyer is willing to pay for the bottle, who is he to stop the auction from functioning?
At the end of the day, he feels that it is still a willing buyer, willing seller situation.
Chunfeng’s favourite whisky distillery
WhiskyGeeks is always curious about our guests’ favourite whisky distillery. Chunfeng is perhaps, one of the very few, who pinpoints his favourite very quickly. His favourite distillery is the Littlemill. It is a Lowland distillery which was dismantled in 1997 and unfortunately, burned down in 2004. A residential development now stands on the original site.
While there is no favourite expression or bottle that Chunfeng likes from the Littlemill distillery, he said that he dislikes the pot pipes and those distilled with worm tubs (which makes the whisky sulphuric). His love for Littlemill stems from the consistent flavours that he gets from most bottles – rock melon and sweet, white flowers notes.
Chunfeng’s changing journey with whisky
Chunfeng laughingly shared his dislike for peat while we were on the topic of his favourite whisky. He had tried an Ardbeg 10 and did not like the nose or the palate. As he explores more whiskies, he begins to realise that peated whiskies from Islay are just as complex as a Speyside or a Highland whisky! The journey he took is apparent – from a complete ex-sherry cask fan to a hogshead cask fan, Chunfeng is an excellent example of how one’s opinion changes with time. Hogsheads present a certain surprise element as it can be ex-bourbon or ex-sherry. A buyer of a hogshead cask can never be sure if he does not know the history of the cask. The surprising element is the beauty of a hogshead cask.
Advise for a new whisky drinker
As a bar owner, Chunfeng comes across many new whisky drinkers. We asked him what he usually advises his customers. It turns out that he does not recommend or suggest any whisky straightforwardly, but instead, let his customer choose their preferences with his guidance. In TDM whisky bar, there are a group of bottles that are primarily for new beginners. They are younger in age and mellower in taste. What Chunfeng did was to let the new drinker nose the bottles. He would start with extremes – like an Islay and a Speyside. If the customer thinks that the Islay bottle is “smelly”, he will change it to a Highland and the nosing continues until the customer decides on a bottle that he or she likes best.
He is also a considerate mentor. Chunfeng will ask his customer for his or her budget, and if his customer ends up with a bottle that is over the budget, he will inform them and let them change a bottle if they wish to do so.
His final advice for new beginners is simple, “Try as many whiskies as you like – it is for enjoyment.”