Ming River Inc.’s chief marketing officer, Simon Dang, and educational director, Derek Sandhaus, sat down with Chilled for a Q&A about baijiu.
Baijiu is a very popular spirit globally, but may be misunderstood here in the states. What do bartenders need to know about baijiu?
Baijiu (pronounced “bye-j’yo”) means “white spirits” in Mandarin. It’s a diverse drinks category that includes all traditional Chinese grain spirits. The techniques deployed in baijiu production vary greatly by region and style, and different styles of baijiu can be as distinct as whiskey is to tequila. Most baijiu is distilled from sorghum, but it can also be made from other crops. The secret ingredient in baijiu is qu (pronounced “chew”), a naturally harvested culture of airborne yeasts and other microorganisms. It makes the taste and scent of every baijiu highly specific to the place it was created. Qu also allows Chinese distillers to ferment and distill grains in a solid state, which creates incredible complexity of flavor.
Baijiu is commonly misunderstood as “firewater” or as a “fiery” spirit and it is a common mistake that all baijiu is high in alcohol. It’s important to note that baijiu as a category has a wide range of styles and traditional ABV strengths. On average baijiu can range in ABV from 33% – 66%. As a comparison, whisky averages 40- 68% ABV. Ming River is 45% alcohol by volume while Maker’s Mark is 45% alcohol by volume, and Knob Creek is 50% alcohol by volume.
As a clear but decidedly non-neutral spirit, in mixed drinks, Ming River’s bold aroma and flavor can be called upon to perform like a rhum agricole, Jamaican pot still rum, or a Batavia arrack, effortlessly finding a home in tiki drinks while also opening a new world for sours and aperitifs. Additionally, many classic recipes can be enhanced by incorporating Ming River baijiu in a split base or even just as a rinse.
Talk to us about DrinkBaijiu.com.
Derek: DrinkBaijiu.com is an interactive online platform dedicated to the study of Chinese spirits, or what we’re calling “bai-ology.” Really, it’s just an extension of the writing and research I’ve been conducting of Chinese spirits for the past seven years.
I got into baijiu when I was living in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, from 2011 to 2013. Sichuan province is famous for its cuisine, and soon after I moved there, I learned that its spirits were equally famous. I’d been writing and editing books about Chinese history and culture for a few years at that point, and when I started looking into baijiu, I realized it was one of the great untold stories in global spirits (at least in the West).
I traveled round the country visiting distilleries and blogging my findings in real time, and eventually published the first English-language guide to baijiu, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. My next book is called Drunk in China, and it will deal more with the sociohistorical aspects of Chinese drinking culture and my own experiences of falling in love with Chinese spirits.
With DrinkBaijiu.com, we’re hoping to create a public forum where anyone with any level of knowledge can start their own baijiu journey. We provide all the tools a reader might need: histories, production guides, cocktail recipes, even where to find baijiu in the wild. We also publish original writings about baijiu and profiles of bartenders and venues working with baijiu in innovative ways. And if you don’t find what you need there, you can ask the “bai-ologist” (me) any question you like. We think it’s turned out really well, and in addition to written baijiu knowledge, it features the work of some truly exceptional artists that help bring the topic to light.
Drink Baijiu is also an offline program. As part of our work, we travel to each market, working with Ming River, and host free master classes on the baijiu category to help better educate bartenders, media, and consumers. We try not to promote our own baijiu on the expense of others, because we believe that one can’t appreciate a specific baijiu without understanding the context into which it fits.
What are some of the best ways to enjoy baijiu?
In China, they drink baijiu neat and at room temperature. It is always served with food, and usually consumed in a series of shots.
Baijiu is considered part of the Chinese culinary cannon, so as a rule, it’s paired with the style of food popular in its region of origin. In the case of light-aroma baijiu, this means hearty, salty foods. Strong aroma pairs well with spice. Rice aroma goes well with seafood and more delicate flavors, and sauce aroma works well with spicy-sour flavors.
We’ve also found that the Chinese approach to blending flavors works exceptionally well with cocktails.
What are your hopes for the category here in the United States?
We want Chinese spirits to find a place among the family of global spirits. By introducing this category to new audiences, we believe that we can open bartenders up to a world of flavors and aromas that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, and create exciting new drinks as a result.
It’s important for us to eliminate misconceptions about baijiu and present a fairer and more informed picture of Chinese spirits than has been done in the past. We want people to know and appreciate baijiu as we do, and to change the common understanding of what a grain spirit can and could be. Baijiu is a catch-all term for a family of about a dozen traditional Chinese spirits, and individual styles can be as different as a vodka to a rum or a mezcal. So, to the uninitiated baijiu drinker who happens to try only one style that wasn’t to his or her liking may mistakenly write off the entire spectrum of baijiu styles. Education of baijiu as a whole is key for the success of the category of the spirit.
Lastly, we also want people to know about the deep cultural connection between alcohol and Chinese food, which spans thousands of years.
Talk to us about the Ming River Baijiu launch.
We’re very excited to be launching a new baijiu brand. Ming River is the first brand formed in partnership with a major Chinese distillery that specifically targets both mainstream U.S. and European markets.
In the past, baijius that have attempted to target mainstream markets in the United States and Europe sourced their spirits from undisclosed distilleries and filtered or watered down the baijiu before selling it to consumers. Although some of these baijius taste great, we’re proud that Ming River is a totally authentic baijiu produced and bottled by one of China’s oldest continuously operating distilleries, Luzhou Laojiao.
Ming River only arrived in the United States less than three months ago, and we are currently available through Park Street in California and New York and through Mystic Vine in Louisiana.
Tell us about the Ming River distillery.
Ming River is distilled at the Luzhou Laojiao distillery, one of China’s oldest continuously operating distilleries, dating back to 1573. It uses the same traditional baijiu techniques that have passed from master to apprentice for over 20 generations. It’s located in Luzhou in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, a city with a winemaking tradition that spans nearly 2,000 years. Our distillery is credited with creating the “Sichuan” strong-aroma baijiu style, the most popular spirit style in China.
Each batch starts with locally sourced red sorghum grain and waters from protected wells. It’s fermented in earthen pits with naturally harvested cultures of airborne yeast and microorganisms native to Luzhou. These cultures impart the complex aromatic compounds that form the distinctive terroir of Sichuan style baijiu. After two to three months, the fermented mash is unearthed and distilled in small batches using a traditional Chinese pot still. The spirits age for up to two years for a clean finish before the master blender balances them into Ming River’s distinctive flavor.
Baijiu connoisseurs say that the longer a fermentation pit is used, the greater the complexity of the resulting spirit. Luzhou’s fermentation pits are considered mature after being in continuous use for at least 30 years. Luzhou Laojiao currently operates 1,600 old pits, more than 1,000 of which are at least a century old.