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A Chinese new year tradition: Tennessee whiskey, U.S. toffee

Producers of American food and drink have discovered an antidote for post-holiday sales blues in the United States: China's huge, gift-laden celebration of its new year.
A box of chocolate candy from Almond Roca is displayed at a supermarket in Beijing.Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Producers of American food and drink have discovered an antidote for post-holiday sales blues in the United States: China's huge, gift-laden celebration of its new year.

The 15-day celebration — known as Chun Jie, or Spring Festival — is China's biggest holiday and a time to gather with relatives, feast and give gifts. Food, clothing and money are traditional presents, but a growing number of Chinese — especially the booming middle class with more money to spare — are choosing gifts from overseas. And what better present to give in China than a tin of American toffee, a Washington apple or a bottle of Tennessee whiskey?

The new year "is a big thing for everybody here in China," said Beijing shopper Wu Shitao, 30, as he debated buying a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey. "You can say it's the ultimate holiday of the year. If you don't buy presents for your family and friends now, when else do you do that?"

Since November, U.S. companies have been loading millions of pounds of goods into containers to arrive in time for the winter shopping season and the Feb. 3 advent of the Year of the Rabbit. Nearly all is food or drink marketed by importers and retailers as premium products, often with an air of glamour.

"China is a remarkable market for us," says Pierson Claire, the president and CEO of Brown & Haley candy makers, who shipped some 2 million pounds of Almond Roca chocolate toffee buttercrunch candy — about 16 percent of the privately held company's total output — to China and Hong Kong, and 57 percent of that specifically for the new year. "We've been exporting for, well, 60-plus years," he adds.

Through an odd bit of serendipity, the toffee has become a Chinese tradition, with shipments growing 20 percent a year, he said.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire did her part during a trade mission last fall by handing out samples of Almond Roca in a Shanghai supermarket.

The ancient festival, of course, is celebrated wherever Chinese live. But the scale is entirely different in China with its 1.3 billion people.

Spring Festival triggers the world's largest annual migration of people as they head home to be with family. More shoppers than usual have been crowding Beijing stores, where walls and shelves have been bedecked with "Spring Festival Promotion" banners.

Wang Zishan, 31, pushing a cart full of groceries in a Beijing market, planned to buy more expensive presents this season.

"I got a pay raise this year. So I would like to let my family feel the difference that my pay raise makes," he said.

Especially in bigger cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, such extra money has been good for Western products. Apple Corp. stores are jammed, with reservations needed to buy iPhones. Imported food often is seen as safer than China's, where there are problems in the food chain.

Premium wines, especially French, and some high-end California vintages are given by those who can afford it, but wine drinking hasn't caught on yet with most Chinese, says Linsey Gallagher, director of international marketing at the Wine Institute. The California trade group is trying to change that through trade missions, tastings and other promotions that ramp up for the holidays.

Marketing "is designed to make the connection with the California lifestyle and wine," she said.

Though U.S. liquor exports to China are tiny compared to the rest of Asia, growth has been huge, says Paula Erickson, spokeswoman for Jim Beam. "One of our biggest categories that do well is cognac," such as Courvoisier, owned by Beam parent Fortune Brands Inc.

Washington apples have long been sold in Hong Kong and were allowed access directly into China in the mid-1990s. Starting in December, the highest-quality Red Delicious apples are packaged in individual wrappers or in red, nine-piece gift boxes with special labeling, says Rebecca Baerveldt Lyons, marketing manager for the Washington Apple Commission.

"We're really fortunate because that is the peak time of our season," she said.

Last year, Washington sent 54 million pounds of apples to Hong Kong and nearly 9 million pounds to the mainland.

Almond Roca candy has had the good fortune to be associated with good fortune in China. World War II sailors and soldiers from the Puget Sound area first took it to Asia where it quickly caught on. Claire said its pink tins — made a little redder for China sales — and the gold foil used on the candy pieces are symbols of luck and wealth. And the word "roca" translates to "making home full of joy."

"China is without a doubt our favorite country to export to," he said. "These are just lovely people who have a rich heritage and a rich respect for the brand."