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Rare case of China’s ‘firewater’ liquor sells for nearly $2 million

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Sotheby’s announced on Friday that it had sold a crate of the beloved spirit, Kweichow Moutai, for an eye-popping £1 million (almost $1.8 million) in London.

That’s the highest price ever paid at an auction for a single lot of Moutai outside China, according to the auction house.

An especially rare case of China's favourite liquor.
An especially rare case of China’s favourite liquor. (Sotheby’s International Realty)

It said the winning bid had come from an Asian collector, thought it did not disclose the buyer’s identity.

The lot included 24 bottles of 1974 Moutai sold under the “Sun Flower” brand — which had temporarily replaced the company’s flagship “Flying Fairy” logo for export sales during China’s cultural revolution — according to Sotheby’s.

It said that the line had first been introduced in 1969, with relatively limited production for the year of 1974, making it “highly sought after.”

However, the red-hot response has caught even experts by surprise.

According to Sotheby’s, 14 bidders drove up the sales price to £1 million ($1.8 million), up from pre-sale estimates that had ranged from £200,000 to £450,000 ($370,000 to $830,000).

Bottles of Kweichow Moutai liquor are for sale at a store in Anyang city, central China’s Henan province, 29 October 2018. (Chang zhongzheng – Imaginechina)

It added that the record-breaking sale was just its first lot of Moutai to be presented for auction by Sotheby’s in the United Kingdom.

“We have seen some spectacular results for Moutai sold in Hong Kong, but this momentous price takes the baijiu spirit’s standing amongst collectors to new heights,” Paul Wong, Sotheby’s Moutai specialist, said in a statement.

“Whilst current travel restrictions may prevent our clients from moving around, this has proved no impediment to the growing momentum of Moutai’s popularity outside Asia.”

Kweichow Moutai, which is part state-owned and part publicly-traded, is China’s most valuable firm outside of technology — worth more than the country’s four biggest banks.

A customer shops for China’s leading liquor maker Kweichow Moutai at a supermarket in Nantong city, east China’s Jiangsu province, 25 December 2018. (Xu congjun – Imaginechina)

Even amid a global pandemic, the company had a banner year: its stock surged around 70 percent on the Shanghai Stock Exchange in 2020. It is up about four percent so far this year.

Moutai baijiu — the type of liquor the company makes — is a clear, potent spirit that’s been dubbed “firewater,” thanks to the fact that it’s 53 percent alcohol. The red-and-white bottles of its flagship product, “Feitian,” or “Flying Fairy,” are a staple at Chinese state banquets and business events.

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President Richard Nixon (L) toasting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at banquet in 1972. (The LIFE Picture Collection via)
Known as the favourite tipple of Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China, and as the “drink of diplomacy,” it was famously used to welcome former US President Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in 1972, and again in 2013 when Chinese President Xi Jinping met with his US counterpart, Barack Obama, in California.
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