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Whisky lovers unite: Whisky Live Manila returns this November

By Mike Diez Published Oct 18, 2022 10:35 am

As organizers of Whisky Live Manila, it’s easy to see Johnssen Li and Kris Ong as mere peddlers of alcohol.

But after some time conversing with them, one can’t help but feel as if they are talking to Trekkies (Star Trek fans), dissecting intensely the shows Deep Space 9, Enterprise, Picard, et al. You know, geeky. To say these guys love whisky is an understatement. 

“Whisky fascinates me,” Li tells PhilSTAR Life at the media launch for Whisky Live Manila 2022. “It’s just totally different from the rest of the spirits category.”  

“Through Johnssen, I started really learning more about what makes a single malt a single malt, and why something that only has three ingredients—barley, yeast and water—has such a wide range of flavors,” Ong expounds.   

Photo from a previous run of Whisky Live Manila.

Whisky Live Manila has been steadily gaining momentum since its first event in the Philippines in 2016. As with everything else, COVID put a wrench on Li and Ong’s plans to help gain a wider audience with Whisky Live. Now that they’re back, both gentlemen promise that there will be something for everybody on November 4 and 5, the dates when Whisky Live Manila 2022 will be held at the Shangri-La The Fort.   

For the love of malted grains  

Whisky Live is actually a global franchise owned by United Kingdom-based publishing company, Paragraph. It publishes a quarterly magazine called Whisky Magazine. Johnssen Li first came across a Whisky Live event in Taiwan in 2015. Li is the CEO of Grand Cru Wines and Spirits, one of the country’s respected distributors of liquors. He thought it would make sense to indulge himself and his love of whisky while furthering local businesses such as his by bringing the event to Manila. 

According to Li, whisky is generally more affordable than other spirits, but the quality of liquor can be very sophisticated.  He adds that while the big traders will naturally have their share of the market, he would love to have small, independently run traders get a boost in their profile by marketing whisky.   

“If I’m representing family-owned distilleries (as most Scottish whisky are), for me to have this niche and make it sustainable, I have to make the pie bigger,” Li explains further. Hence, Whiskey Live Manila was born.   

Kris Ong, for his part, started out as a patron of the 2016 and 2017 Whisky Live Manila events. He eventually struck a friendship with Li and became one of the organizers in 2018.   

“I started working for Johnssen as representative of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS),” Ong says. “SMWS is an independent butler that Johnssen brings in to the country, and he wanted someone to help promote it.”  

Ong has since built himself a reputation as the ‘limited-edition-bottle-guy’. He says that while he was casually drinking whisky since college, it wasn’t until he met Li that he started learning more about the spirit and fell in love with it.  

“I love cooking. So, me tasting whisky—honing my taste buds, getting my tongue to be able to detect certain flavors better—makes my cooking much better,” Ong claims.  

“That’s how I’m able to justify to my wife why I drink,” he then says with a laugh.  

A ticket to Whisky Live Manila gets you unlimited tastings of different types of liquor, including rum and brandy. We say ’unlimited’, but as a precautionary measure, you will only be given a certain amount of tokens that you will use as you taste various spirits from almost 200 brands around the world. Once you’ve run out of tokens, you will be visually tested if you are still able to consume more alcohol. If the organizers deem that you are already above the alcohol limit for driving, you must rest for a while before you are issued more tokens.  

Visual testing for alcohol is one of the concessions Li and Ong have made this year just to pull off the event. In previous years, they would have an actual breathalyzer. Due to stricter health and hygiene measures needed to curb COVID-19, they decided that a visual test would suffice.  

“We do have medical teams on standby, just in case,” Li assures. “But so far for the past four years, we’ve only had minimal incidents where people get really drunk.”  

Both Li and Ong believe that the pandemic has actually made Filipinos consume more alcohol. Li says that to this day there is a shortage of tequila in the market, and this is due to large orders during the lockdowns and the ensuing troubles in the supply chain. Both gentlemen hope to bridge the gap through Whisky Live Manila, and that more brands would be given proper exposure to the market via the event.   

“Normally, we get around 2,000 to 3,000 people,” Ong says. “We’re hoping that because of the two years off, this year’s going to be like ‘oh man, everybody wants to go’. And the last time that I looked at the tickets, I think that we’re pretty high up there.” 

“But obviously we want to stay safe,” Ong adds. “So, there’s only a limited amount of tickets that will be released.”  

You can get tickets to Whisky Live Manila 2022 via ,or you may call the Grand Cru office at 5180131 or 09175333373 for more information.