Bootleggers Trading, an alcohol consultancy and distribution company, wants their city’s cocktail scene to get creative. Cheers to that!
Craft beer sales may have peaked in recent years, but with innovation in the liquor industry increasing, it seems likely the next market surge will be in the spirit direction. Spotting this trend, in 2014, Minway Chi took a break from his 13-year stint running his family’s jewellery business to dive into Bangkok’s cocktail scene, launching Bootleggers Trading, an importer and distributor of craft spirits. Once a side project and now a major concern, he tells us how he convinced his customers to switch their Chang for a cocktail.
Minway Chi was literally born into his family’s jewellery business, one that grew to become one of the top five jewellery exporters in Thailand. One of his earliest memories is of counting rubies and sapphires at his father’s workshop when he was just four years old. Growing up in New York, however, Minway discovered the nightlife scene as a DJ, lighting designer and bartender, inspiring him to take a different path.
His career shift occurred four years ago when Minway found himself back in Thailand. In 2014, cocktail culture in Bangkok seemed nothing more than bars selling colourful and expensive drinks. Inspired by the growth of the craft beer market, he became convinced that the time was ripe for a new wave in liquor companies. So he started from scratch, developing Bootleggers Trading to bring in new, esoteric ingredients for cocktails and introduce bartenders to another world of ideas and flavours. As his head of sales Thanakom Muandej puts it, “cocktails do not have to be that expensive, but it’s really all about educating people. Minway saw the gap in the market for cocktail-ready spirits.”
Four years on, and Bootlegger’s mission has expanded. Not only do they hope to inspire a new cocktail culture in Bangkok, “there is so much creativity and art that goes into making a cocktail and we aim to open people’s eyes to the world of artisanal spirits” explains Thanakom, they have also branched out into all elements of bar culture. Now, with clients such as The Park Hyatt and the Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental under their belt, they also design bars and cocktail menus in a very hands-on approach that is all about inspiring the customer, with services ranging from cocktail consultancy to mixology courses, bartender training to events. “We are constantly coming up with new ways to educate the public and get them to come to these venues that are willing to pour their hearts and souls out into a glass. When you order a drink you should get a story with it. The better you do as a bar, the better we do as a distributor and supplier” explains Thanakom. And around them, they see traction. “Three years ago, it was all just cocktail bars. Now, you see speakeasies and different bar concepts opening up. The styles of cocktails are definitely changing.”
It’s a journey that has not been without its speed bumps. Dealing with Thai liquor laws can be a nightmare. “In a sense, it is a risky business because all these laws can prevent entrepreneurs from creating and giving more,” says Thanakom. “We deal with restrictions every day. We can’t even bring in a gin that is stronger than 45%. Plus, rums cannot be called rums, they have to be called White Spirits.” Then, they had the challenge of convincing a new market that they should spend 200 THB – 300 THB for a well-crafted cocktail instead of the 50-100 THB they were used to for a Singha, Chang or Heineken. “Changing people’s mindsets and the market altogether requires bartenders to be passionate, knowledgeable and engage in conversations with customers. It also takes more people having the willingness to see a bottle at the back of the bar and ask, ‘what’s that?’” says Minway.
As a key player in this industry, Bootleggers Trading has high hopes. In December 2017, along with New Yorker and bartender Eric Stephenson, they opened their own bar 88 in Surawong, bringing the tradition of the great American cocktail bar to the neighbourhood. In a space that looks like the kind of joint you’d discover on the corner of a Brooklyn street, they’re serving up classic cocktails in a relaxed atmosphere to a fun crowd. It’s the embodiment of the culture and spirit Bootlegger Trading has always been about, and we’ll certainly drink to that!
Feature image by James Hart