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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Cocktail: No Regrets

no_regretsWhenever I talk about baijiu, people always want to know what it’s going to take for baijiu to cross over into foreign markets. The answer is far from certain, but a lot of people, myself included, think that baijiu’s future will be strained through a cocktail shaker, and with good reason. Like the Moscow mule, the margarita and, more recently, the pisco sour, tasty cocktails have long played an indispensable role in introducing unfamiliar spirits to foreign audiences. I don’t know which cocktail will become the emblematic baijiu cocktail, but I have enjoyed trying the early efforts of various trailblazing bartenders.

I was lucky enough to have one such bartender, Badr Benjelloun, mix baijiu cocktails at one of my recent talks in Beijing. Badr runs Cu Ju, a bar specializing in rum, which is more appropriate to baijiu experimentation than one might realize. As he explained to the audience, bartenders are just starting to wrap their heads around baijiu and how it works in cocktails, but they have figured out a couple of key things. First, don’t try to hide the baijiu; the flavor is too strong. Second, citrus is the perfect complement to baijiu. Chinese spirits are sweet and fiery, so they tend to mix in a similar manner to rum. Most of the best cocktails I have had thus far, for example, contain some rum or are modified versions of classic rum cocktails. Badr is just the kind of bartender you want making your baijiu cocktails.

The night of the event, Badr mixed two cocktails, the Yellow Emperor (which I have already written about at length) and his own creation, the aptly named “no regrets.” No regrets was marvelous. Minty, fruity and refreshing, it was something akin to a grapefruit baijiu mojito. Badr was kind enough to share his tremendous recipe with me, which I am now passing on to you. Although the original recipe is made with lao bai gan-style baijiu, any mild light-aroma of similar strength (like erguotou) should do in a pinch. If you give this one a shot, you’re going to like it.

No Regrets

Ingredients

45ml Henghsui Lao Bai Gan 54% 衡水老白干54%

45ml Pink Grapefruit juice

10ml Orgeat syrup

Mint and goji berries

Squeeze of lime

Muddle the mint and goji berries in a shaker alongside the orgeat syrup and the baijiu. Add grapefruit juice and ice. Shake for approximately 15 to 20 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass and garnish with mint, goji and a squeezed lime.

 

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“Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits” Out Now

Slipping out of focus while serving the thirsty masses in Beijing

Lots of exciting things are afoot in the world of baijiu connoisseurship. Last week saw the official release of my new book Baijiu: The Official Guide to Chinese Spirits. This book, as discussed earlier, culminates several years of well-lubricated research, much of it mentioned on this blog, but there is plenty new to sink your teeth into. The book should now be available at bookstores throughout the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, and is downloadable as an ebook in two versions: Kindle and epub.

Several advance copies of the book found their way to readers last month, when I traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing for a series of baijiu-related talks. Thank you to everyone who attended, asked questions and shared a ganbei or several with me. The events were a blast and some readers have already started putting the book to good use.

While touring around China I happened across a number of interesting drinks and drinkers, about which there will be several more posts in the weeks to follow. But for now, here is a brief run-down of the trip’s highlights:

Audience favorite baijius: Guilin Sanhua’s Lao Guilin (rice aroma); Shui Jing Fang Wellbay (strong aroma)

Best baijiu cocktails: Dark and Smoggy (Vance Yeang, Yuan, Shanghai); No Regrets (Badr Benjelloun, Cu Ju, Beijing)

Best moderators: Andrew Galbraith (huangjiu taster extraordinaire); Jim Boyce (prolific China wine and nightlife writer, whose tasting notes also grace my guide).

Best publisher: Penguin China, of course

Best assist: Shui Jing Fang, who generously supplied a boatload of their exquisite super-premium baijiu. More about the distillery in my next post.

In case you missed my talks, do not despair. You have options. I would like to direct your attention to this amusing interview I did with Debra Bruno for the Wall Street Journal Scene Asia blog prior to the trip and corresponding video interview. Or you might like to check out last week’s interviews with CNN and China Daily. And for good measure another link to last month’s Sinica podcast.

Happy reading.

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