Baijiu in the Bayou

Derek and Yuan, getting creepy with baijiu in New Orleans.

Baijiu requires an open mind and patience to develop an appreciation for its more unique flavors. For those of us not raised in China, it is usually an acquired taste. Whether it takes three shots or three hundred, I cannot say, but I have long suspected that a sharper palate would be quicker to detect that which so long eluded my dull instrument.

If you could just get some good baijiu in the same room as some experienced tasters—bartenders, distillers, alcoholics and so forth—it might be love at first sip. The problem is that for some reason alcohol experts are rarely present at the kind of sweaty hot-pot joint where I conduct most of my baijiu trials. So the theory has remained untested … until now.

Every year the fine city of New Orleans hosts an event called Tales of the Cocktail. It is basically a week of nonstop eating and drinking dressed up as an alcohol educational event, but it’s also is a great opportunity for likeminded drinkers to connect. This year I was lucky enough receive an invitation to speak at a sold-out seminar entitled “Baijiu Demystified” alongside cocktail luminary David Wondrich and Yuan Liu of CNS Imports, America’s largest baijiu importer. I also participated in a number of public and private baijiu tastings throughout the week. We were only sampling two of the big four categories, strong and sauce aromas, but had some of the best China has to offer: Kweichow Moutai, Luzhou Laojiao, Jiannanchun and Shui Jing Fang.

But let’s cut to the chase: What was the response? It was epic. The Tales tasters reacted with such overwhelming enthusiasm* that even I was taken aback.

When I asked my first guinea pig for his thoughts on baijiu, he responded, “Totally positive.” He said that he had been a longtime Tales veteran and wanted to experience something new this year. “It was a great taste.”

“Extremely unique,” said a New Orleanean at a public tasting a couple of days later. “It has a flavor profile I’ve never tasted before.” He went on to say that he plans to start prowling the Asian supermarkets around town for his next bottle.

“It was delicious. Very complex. I liked the citrusy tropical fruit tastes in it and the peppery-ness as well,” said another woman, also from New Orleans, of a Luzhou Laojiao. She noted that Kweichow Moutai, however, was her favorite.

At a private tasting, a bartender from Tennessee said that the baijiu packed a lot of heat, but was perfectly balanced. “I want to make so many different things with this and experiment so many different ways on the cocktail side, because there are so many new unique flavors for the American palate,” he told me. “I could make so many amazing, beautiful, complex things, but then you could just do the simplest thing and it would bring it to a next level.” His sentiments were echoed by other bartenders throughout the week.

But it wasn’t just the bartenders who were excited. Several liquor distributors said that they couldn’t wait to bring baijiu into their markets. One American craft distiller even approached me after the seminar and told me he was ready to try his hand at making baijiu.

The general consensus was that baijiu may not be for everyone, yet it still has tremendous potential in America. It could be used to create an endless variety of new cocktails, or as a twist on established classics. Baijiu flights (like those now offered by Capital Spirits in Beijing) would be a great way to introduce baijiu to new audiences, as would creative baijiu food pairings. In fact, people seemed almost as excited about introducing Americans to baijiu as the drinks themselves.

This bodes very well indeed for baijiu’s future overseas. Baijiu ran the gauntlet of discerning palates in New Orleans, and emerged stronger than ever. Keep your eyes peeled, it may be coming sooner than you think.

 

*This is not to suggest that baijiu was entirely without detractors at Tales. I saw one girl in at the seminar who puckered her face up after each shot and looked around nervously with that “Are you tasting this!?!?” look on her face. Another reporter wrote a most uncharitable account of a baijiu dinner. That said, the unimpressed were clearly in the minority.

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A Journey to Moutai with Punch

Moutai Distllery Exterior

In the early days of my baijiu research, I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to visit the Kweichow Moutai distillery in the remote hinterlands of western Guizhou. It was an incredible experience—crazy, drunken and unforgettable—but what really stuck with me was how inextricably tied their baijiu is to the unique terrain of the region. Thus, I am happy to share with my readers a piece I wrote for the excellent online drinks magazine, Punch, on the importance of terroir in baijiu production. Excerpt below.

The liquor that made the Maotai township famous is produced in long, squat buildings near the banks of the Chishui River. Inside, they feel like something more akin to a coalmine than a distillery—a dark flurry of steam and earth, heat and frenetic energy. Teams of barefoot men rush about with wheelbarrows full of sorghum, others stand ready with rakes and shovels. A thick haze of vapor rises from the stills and piles of fermenting sorghum, clouding the room. Elsewhere steel cranes drop the grains into deep, stone-lined pits.

It is a labor-intensive process that involves multiple fermentation-distillation cycles over the course of a year. Fermentation pits require constant tending, and more than a hundred aged spirits go into the finished baijiu. A whiskey distillery can comfortably operate with a handful of employees, but baijiu requires an army.

Click here to read the full story on Punch.

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Debating baijiu

cup of jiu

I met Isaac Stone Fish several years ago at a bookshop in Beijing. We had a brief but friendly conversation and I have since followed his journalistic career with enthusiasm. When he reached out to me a couple months ago, upon the publication of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, I was delighted to accept his invitation to discuss Chinese liquor.

We met at a microbrewery in Washington, DC. He ordered a wine. I tried not to read anything into that at the time. We met again in Chinatown a month later, this time with a baijiu importer, where we tried a handful of uninspired baijiu cocktails at an even sadder restaurant called Wok and Roll. We discussed baijiu a bit, but mostly we shared old war stories about the Middle Kingdom, as veteran expats inevitably end up doing. The evening came to an abrupt but poetic end when I accidentally shattered a full bottle of baijiu and the smell left us no choice but to evacuate the building. In the cab ride afterward, I told Fish that if he really wanted to gain an appreciation for baijiu, we should meet again to sample a few of my favorite bottles.

Life intervened, I moved to another country (again) and I forgot to give him that tasting. But all in all, I remember the meetings as cordial. It was thus with a tinge of disappointment that I read Fish’s article for Foreign Policy, “A Million Chinese Can Be Wrong: China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it.” And I would be remiss not to mention the URL, which ended “baijiu_america_china_vomit_alcohol.”

The knives were out. Foreign Policy stormed into the baijiu debate like the deranged lovechild of Carrie Nation and Lord Palmerston. And FP, good sports that they are, gave me the chance to pen a response. The results, I think were a back and forth that neatly sums up the pro- and anti-baijiu positions.

Considering the way this blog started, I can’t help but find some slight amusement that I now find myself one of baijiu’s most vocal defenders. But life’s funny like that.

Find the full exchange below. Read and enjoy:

A Million Chinese Can Be Wrong,” by Isaac Stone Fish

In Defense of Baijiu” by me

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Cocktail: Dark and Smoggy

Shanghai smog, image by BriYYZ

Shanghai smog, image by BriYYZ

I have devoted a number of posts to baijiu cocktails and the inherent challenges involved therein. Thus far all of my recipes have employed light-aroma baijiu as their bases for a straightforward reason: Light aroma is relatively mild and blends more easily with other flavors. Rice-aroma baijiu is similarly understated, and I can attest to its mixability. When visiting the tasting room of Vinn Distillery in Portland, I sampled a particularly outstanding rice-aroma Bloody Mary, and I don’t even really care for Bloody Marys (it tasted like Gates barbeque sauce, and there’s no faster way to a KC boy’s heart).

But what about southwestern pit baijius, like strong-aroma and sauce-aroma? Can it be done? Does the universe possess a countervailing force capable of offsetting the nostril-searing pungency?

As with most questions covered on this blog, I set about to find the answer in the form of a challenge. This time, I asked longtime-friend of my baijiu endeavors and Shanghai nightlife baijiu enabler Vance Yeang of Yuan Bar to have a crack at making some cocktails with strong-aroma Shui Jing Fang (who you will note is also the maker of last month’s featured baijiu). The results were surprising.

Vance came up with a range of cocktails to be served at my Shanghai book launch, but the one that most impressed me was a riff on the classic rum cocktail Dark and Stormy, appropriately rechristened Dark and Smoggy in its Chinese incarnation. Like all good baijiu cocktails, it tries not to mask the baijiu (not that anyone could) but accentuates and balances it with ginger. Vance was kind enough to share the recipe with 300 Shots readers. You will note that the rum-to-baijiu ratio is rather high, but believe me, a little strong-aroma baijiu goes a long way in the taste department. And what’s more, it’s a minor fire hazard.

So without further ado…

1Dark and Smoggy

Ingredients

-Ginger ale

-Strong-aroma baijiu 5ml

-Ginger syrup 20ml

-Bacardi Black 30ml

-Lime wedge

Fill two-thirds of a highball glass with ginger ale, set baijiu aflame and pour into glass. Shake the ginger syrup and rum, then add to glass. Add a squeeze of lime.

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Baijiu of the Month: Shui Jing Fang Forest Green

Whenever I introduce a new audience to baijius, I always try to present them with a range that reflects the category’s striking diversity, both in terms of taste and price point. It is important not only that drinkers understand that baijiu refers to a number of distinct spirits, but also that those spirits can be produced at exceedingly high quality. This is why I am pleased to bring one of China’s better-known brands into my best brands conversation: Sichuan’s very own Shui Jing Fang.

The distillery ruins on Shui Jing Street, alongside active fermentation pits

The distillery ruins on Shui Jing Street, alongside active fermentation pits

The original Shui Jing Fang distillery is in the heart of downtown Chengdu, along the Jin River, just a couple of blocks away from my old apartment. It sits off of Shui Jing Jie 水井街, or Water Well Street, once one of the city’s most vibrant ancient walkways, now the victim of too many municipal government bulldozer orgies. Its former glory has been sanitized beyond the point of recognition, a more or less perfect encapsulation of the story of the workshop, or fang 坊, on Shui Jing street.

In 1998 Quanxing Distillery was performing routine maintenance on their Shui Jing factory when workers unearthed the ruins of a much older distillery. Further investigation revealed fermentation pits and production equipment from the Ming and Qing dynasties, some of which was estimated to be around six hundred years old – the predecessor to the modern Quanxing Distiller. It was among the country’s most significant baijiu-related archeological finds. Seizing upon the marketing opportunity literally beneath their feet, the Quanxing distillers harvested bacteria from the defunct pits and used them as the basis for a new premium baijiu brand, Shui Jing Fang, launched in 2000.

The story gets even more interesting in 2006, when Quanxing entered into an arrangement with the world’s leading spirits company, Diageo, to establish Shui Jing Fang as an independent, multi-national brand. It was the first major baijiu acquisition of its kind, and within a short time Shui Jing Fang became a baijiu ubiquitous throughout China and South Korea. More recently, it has started popping up in Europe and the US.

Jing CuiBut enough preamble and onto the baijiu at hand. Shui Jing Fang, like most of its Sichuanese brethren, is a strong-aroma baijiu. It is distilled from a five-grain blend – sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn – which gives it a highly complex flavor. For me, the defining feature of Shui Jing Fang’s baijius are a spicy but syrupy sweetness, reminiscent of apricots or prunes. Their flagship baijiu, Well Bay (Jing Tai 井台), has a powerful front-end with a smooth but lingering finish. A lot of tasters, particularly those in Beijing for reasons I can’t fathom, have told me that they are quite taken with its spiciness. While I do enjoy Well Bay, I prefer Shui Jing Fang’s slightly more upscale Forest Green (Jing Cui 菁翠), May’s baijiu of the month.

What sets Forest Green apart from other strong-aroma baijius is that Shui Jing Fang uses charcoal and bamboo filtering to reduce pungency and enhance smoothness. This technique, hitherto untested in the Chinese baijiu market, mutes the aggressiveness of a typical strong aroma, and gives it a crisp, grassy finish. This, to my mind and palate, elevates Forest Green from a good baijiu to a great one. The price tag, starting at around US$200 for a half-liter bottle, is enough to give anyone pause, but if you have the opportunity to try it, I recommend that you do so.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should add here that Shui Jing Fang donated several bottles of Wellbay and Forest Green to my recent China tastings, providing countless attendees with their first taste of top-shelf baijiu. This generosity, and the distillery’s kind support throughout my research, makes me feel compelled to draw your attention to its excellent baijius. But please note that I said feel compelled, not that I was compelled. Their staff did not force me, or even ask me, to write a word about their brand. And besides, they make terrific baijiu, so stop kvetching.

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