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Young Chinese women have thirst for bottled cocktails

BEIJING -- People are downing bottled cocktails in China like never before, as trend-conscious young women see the drinks as fashionable.

     Rio is the most popular brand. Six varieties, including blue rose, grape brandy and orange vodka, grab the attention of drinkers with their vivid colors. The products, including the 275-milliliter bottle, are designed to evoke the tropical feel of Brazil's Rio de Janeiro.

Rio's bottled cocktails are a hit with young Chinese women.

     Priced from 13 yuan to 15 yuan ($2.10-$2.40), Rio costs more than three times as much as a typical 330ml can of beer. But this does not seem to have hurt its popularity. Most bottled cocktails in China have a relatively low alcohol content of less than 4%. Sold at convenience stores, they are easy to pick up on the way home.

     "I like to drink them at home with my roommate while watching a movie," a woman in her 20s said at a 7-Eleven in central Beijing. "They are colorful and stylish. I enjoy them especially on weekends."

Raising a glass

Women are a key market for bottled cocktails in China, as they are for the low-alcohol chuhai drinks popular in Japan. Shanghai Bairun Flavour & Fragrance, the maker of Rio cocktails, studied chuhai cocktails in Japan before launching their product in 2003. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, however, Shanghai Bairun opted not to sell the drinks in aluminum cans. Cans are widely used in Japan because their lighter weight translates to lower distribution costs and a smaller environmental impact. 

     Although China lacks the technology to make the high-quality cans available in Japan, Shanghai Bairun chose bottles for a different reason. It believes its cocktails are better received by consumers when sold in glass bottles.  "It looks tastier and more fashionable in a glass bottle," a company official said.

     Shanghai Bairun's prediction has proved accurate so far. The colorful bottles are a hit with women, especially younger ones in their 20s and 30s. To keep up with demand, the company has expanded its Shanghai plant and is planning to build new ones in Tianjin and Chengdu, Sichuan Province. "We have been experiencing supply shortages of between 700,000 and 1 million cases every month," a company official said.

     Rio's success helped lift cocktail consumption in China to 10 million cases in 2013, a tenfold increase from seven years earlier. This extraordinary growth is expected to continue. The China Alcoholic Drinks Association forecasts annual cocktail consumption will reach 150 million cases by 2020.

     Perhaps not surprising for a country that churns out endless arrays of knockoffs, Rio's success has spawned around 270 copycat products, according to Shanghai Bairun. Imbibers might want to think again before downing an imitation: Some have banned aromatic ingredients, or ingredients that differ from those on the label. There is growing concern in the industry that a poisoning could wreck the fledgling cocktail market.

     China is now the world's largest market for alcoholic drinks, but beer consumption declined last year for the first time since records began in 1998. The slowing economy and President Xi Jinping's crackdown on conspicuous consumption may have depressed sales, but declining alcohol consumption among young people is also a factor. Bottled cocktails are a bright spot in the industry. Makers of alcoholic drinks will be toasting to the future of bottled cocktails among younger consumers.

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