Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Grain Spirit

Wednesday 13th June - only 2 days to go to get hot water!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find that in spite of the longer hours, I am so far enjoying working at a vodka factory. I've had a tour of the plant, of course, and for my second day I was required to pose for news cameras drinking our premium product at an expo in the city. I also felt duty-bound to test our competitors' products at the same time, to confirm that we really do make the best.

Of course the regular workplace is an excessively sober environment, in spite of the presence of dozens of bottles of product in every office. My teaching schedule is pretty full - teaching two departments each day and then holding a conversation class each evening. In-between I have to prepare hand-outs etc, which is at least forty times easier than at school as here I'm supplied with both a computer and a printer that actually work, which I find makes a considerable difference towards getting things done.

It's an interesting time in the vodka trade in Mongolia, as the big companies are all on the point of breaking into the international market. I think that the potential for export sales to exceed the considerable domestic sales is certainly there, there surely being a certain cachet to Mongolian vodka. My own company, and a number of the competitors, are producing some real high-end stuff: to my surprise all made with 100% Mongolian organic wheat grain - I wasn't aware that wheat was grown on such a scale in this country, but it's one of the proud boasts of the industry.

One of the biggest problems for companies here is simply getting the product out of the country, as the only route is the not-always-reliable Trans-Mongolian railway - particularly complications arising over the degree of cooperation between the Chinese, Mongolian and Russian monopolies operating each section of the route. There's been considerable wrangling reported in the press this past six months between Russia and Mongolia over responsibility for a series of derailings near the border. As Mongolia's leading businesses start to get involved in a larger volume of international trade, these problems are likely to become acute, without considerable investment in the infrastructure of the only one viable route for freight to get in and out of the country.

Of course, the size of the vodka industry in Mongolia can certainly be seen from the negative side and the extent of alcoholism in the country. I'm told that the trend in the nation is slowly away from vodka drinking towards beer, which is maybe one incentive for companies to look abroad for sales. I'm also told that after copper mining, tax on the spirit industry represents the largest contribution to the state coppers - so for all the damage done by alcoholism in the country, I'm assuming that the new road that's been laid over the dirt track behind my apartment and the promised pay rise for teachers would not have happened without it.

My employers are very keen in sponsoring a number of worthy social initiatives in the country to promote a better image of what they do, and can at least justify themselves against the cheapest spirits on the market - those naturally favoured by the more committed drunks - in that they are producing a clean, quality product. Of course, once they get a good foothold selling as a luxury item abroad, then the significance of the domestic market to their profits will diminish: so you can do your bit towards securing the future of this great nation by rushing out and buying a bottle of Mongolian fire-water today. I would try and discreetly point you in the direction of the vodka made by my employers, by recommending that you buy the bottle with a picture of Genghis on the label, but unfortunately that distinction applies to every one of our competitors brands too.