A visit to Yanghe

The problem with talking about baijiu is that every time someone asks you to define it, you invariably end up having to get more detailed than you would like. This is as true when speaking to casual drinkers as it is to bartenders and whiskey distillers. Too many times to count, I have watched as my unwitting enabler’s eyes glaze over at descriptions of yeast cultures and solid-state fermentation. Baijiu is just too different: There are almost no readily available points of reference. Everything about the production process remains oddly abstract and conceptual.

To bring the conversation back down to earth visual aids are useful (I always bring a slideshow when I speak to an audience about baijiu). Visiting a distillery to see how baijiu is made firsthand is even better, but for most people that’s not a realistic option. So rejoice, baijiu enthusiasts, one of your fellow readers, Ms. Amy Coghlan of China International Duty Free, has taken it upon herself to take you on a guided tour through one of China’s premier distilleries: Yanghe 洋河 in Suqian, Jiangsu Province. (She was kind enough to upload this video production video to YouTube just for 300 Shots readers, so be sure to thank her in the comments below!)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the cliche goes, then a Youtube video is worth 24 thousand low-resolution words per second. Enjoy.

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Cocktail: Ming the Merciless

MingThis is a recipe I have been meaning to share for a while, and the Chinese New Year seems a good a reason as any to share it.

I first had this tasty cocktail down at the Root Squared Bar in New Orleans last summer at an event organized by the fine folks of Baijiu America. There are a couple of things that I love about this one. First it uses strong-aroma baijiu as its base,* and I’m always impressed when a bartender can pull that off, but what really sets this aside is the innovative use of Sichuan peppercorns in the Demerara syrup.

Like many great wines, baijiu is intended to be compliment food and, more specifically, the cuisine of the region that distilled. So to drink a Sichuanese baijiu (strong aromas generally hail from the province) in a cocktail made with the most distinctive ingredient in Sichuanese cooking is at once obvious and ingenious.

Happy Goat Year, xin nian kuai le and the rest of it.

 

Ming the Merciless

Created by Max Messier at Root Squared, New Orleans

-1½ oz. Strong-aroma baijiu (Max used Mianzhu Daqu by Jiannanchun)

-½ oz. Sichuan Peppercorn Demerara syrup (see recipe below)

-¾ oz. lime juice

-Soda water

-Fresh lime slices

Pour all liquid ingredients into an iced cocktail shaker. Shake well and top with soda water in a Collins glass. Add fresh lime slices for garnish.

 

Sichuan Peppercorn Demerara

-1 cup water

-2 cups Demerara (raw) sugar

-¼ cup of Sichuan Peppercorns, smoked in a pan for 2-3 min. on high heat

Add sugar and water to pot. Bring to boil and add Sichuan peppercorns. Return to boil and turn off heat. Cover and steep for 30 mins. Strain, bottle and refrigerate for 4 weeks.

 

 

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Third Year’s a Charm

image via Chinasmack

image via Chinasmack

What a year. For me, for baijiu, for the world.

In 2014 I hit the ground running with my new book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. Some people thought was a great holiday gift in 2014, but it should read just as well in 2015. The paperback version of the book should be available in the US—fingers crossed—sometime soon (it’s already available in mainland China and Hong Kong). If you want to be among the first to snag a copy, please send me note and I’ll keep you posted.

Last year you could hear me on a Sinica podcast, see me on WSJ and read my writing in Foreign Policy and Punch. I was spreading the Gospel of Jiu across the world, from China to New Orleans, and to my new home in Buenos Aires. More thrilling still, I got shout outs in Playboy and Vice, and was named Time Out Beijing’s Mr. April. Things were heating up on the blog, too, where I wrote about black-market “cooking wine,” drinking swine and baijiu cocktails galore.

In the US, my friends at CNS Imports were bringing China’s best baijiu to Americans one shot at a time. Then there are all those newfangled American baijiu companies making waves, most conspicuously Byejoe. If Americans starts slugging back the Guizhou Grappa, there might just be peace in our times.

Meanwhile in the Middle Kingdom, President Xi’s campaign to stomp all the joy out of the PRC marches ever forward. A Moutai boss got stung (but really, who isn’t getting stung these days) and baijiu sales dipped as the government continues to experiment without alcohol.

Yet not all was so gloomy under the perma-smog. Jack Daniels has gotten in bed with Wuliangye, which should result either in exciting developments on the international liquor market or the end of all life as we know it (possibly both). Beijing got its very first, totally awesome baijiu bar. And Chinese social media is abuzz with a new competitive baijiu binge-drinking game. Anybody want to bet me a bottle of Moutai that this will end with a fatality and/or a government crackdown (possibly both)? Anybody?

Thanks to all of you for making last year the site’s busiest in terms of readership and traffic. I remain ever grateful for your support and hope that we’ll be seeing more of each other in 2015.

Happy New Year!

Posts of Greatness 2014

Fan Favorites

  1. Announcing: Baijiu the Book 
  2. Baijiu of the Month: Shui Jing Fang Forest Green 
  3. “Baijiu the Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits” Out Now

Derek Recommends

  1. The Panamanian Connection Pt. 3: Judgment of Paris
  2. Sinica: We Will Make You Learn to Love Baijiu 
  3. Cooking Wine
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Cocktail: Baijiu Sour

baijiu sour

Simon Dang of Capital Spirits 

As we ease into the holiday season, I wanted to share a cocktail recipe from the good people at Beijing’s Capital Spirits. This recipe is credited to owner Bill Isler and inspired by Fubar and 300 Shots friend Jim Boyce. It is a nice rice-baijiu concoction that should keep you warm this winter. Enjoy. 

Sour 2Ingredients

3 ounces Guilin Sanhua baijiu

1 ounce Cointreau

1 teaspoon Sunquick (concentrated sweet lemon juice)

Juice of 1 small kaffir lime

2 dashes orange bitters

Directions

Shake with ice and pour into a lowball glass with lime halves. 

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The Panamanian Connection Pt 3: Judgment of Paris

Palais du Trocadero

Those of you who have followed this blog since its inception are familiar with my particular interest (read: borderline neurotic fixation) in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which took place in San Francisco in 1915. According to Chinese distillers, it was a moment that catapulted baijiu to international stardom and shook the very foundations of Western civilization. According to everyone else, “Huh?”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with my extensive writing on the subject, you can read the original piece here, and an amusing follow-up concerning Luzhou Laojiao and some dubious packaging here. Go ahead, read them. I can wait.

Finished? Good, now on to the matter at hand.

In the two years or so since I first wrote about the dubious myth of baijiu’s 1915 North American triumph, I have come across very little evidence that either corroborates or refutes the claims made by Chinese distillers. I have encountered dozens of additional distilleries that claim to have also won medals, and even seen a few of the supposed medals (real or fake, I’m not certain) firsthand.

And then I came across something wholly unexpected: An account of baijiu at an earlier world’s fair.

So to better get an understanding of what actually might have happened in San Francisco in 1915, when American palates were first confronted with the mysteries of eastern spirits, we must look back even further to Paris in 1878. This was the scene of the Exposition Universelle, Paris’ third world’s fair.

It was at the Exposition Universelle that the Statue of Liberty’s head was first unveiled. It was at this event that Victor Hugo spoke out on the need of creating an international copyright law to protect writers, and the Braille system was universally adopted to include the blind among the world’s readers. It was also the event in which the world was introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone as well as to the megaphone, phonograph and the arc lamp – precursor to the modern light bulb. Not all proceedings were as enlightened. The Exposition contained a human zoo, a “negro village” with four hundred inhabitants. This same colonial-era condescension colored the judging panel’s attitude toward the Chinese and their baijiu.

George Augustus Sala, whose irreverent style made him one of the Victorian Era’s most popular British writers, relates the scene, saying, “the flavour of the Celestial ‘schnick’ was found by the experts to be so atrocious that, after making various wry faces and undergoing fearful qualms, they were about to pass Chinese spirits by altogether.” At this point someone was struck by a “happy thought,” that if their tastes were not attuned to baijiu, they could find someone more receptive and judge the drinks’ merits by proxy. What they needed was a Chinese person, and in this instance it appears that any Chinese would do: They settled upon someone with whom they could only communicate via “pantomimic gestures” and set about awarding medals as follows:

[W]hen a sample of spirits was submitted to a Celestial, and he made, while imbibing it, a hideous grimace, the sample was classed as ‘zero.’ If, on the other hand, the Chinaman’s countenance assumed a dubious expression, the spirit was allowed the benefit of the doubt, and was voted worthy of ‘Honourable Mention,’ which, I may parenthetically remark, a disappointed French exhibitor lately defined to me as a distinction just a little worse than having your ears boxed, and just a little better than being kicked downstairs. When, however, the eyes of the heathen Chinee [sic] glistened, and he licked his lips, the samshu was at once set down for a Bronze Medal; and finally, if he broke out in exclamations of delight, and passed his hand approvingly over the region of the stomach, a Silver Medal was accorded to the fortunate liqueur.

A gold medal, it seems, was not a possibility within this rubric.

It would be nice to think that the Panama-Pacific Exposition was less dismissive of China, but remember that it was held in a country where the prevailing law of the land had for many years forcibly prohibited Chinese immigration. We can conclude little more than that the fair took place and some Chinese presenters returned home with medals awarded by people who had little or no understanding of Asian spirits.

Until evidence appears to the contrary, it would seem that the story of Chinese alcohol’s international conquest in 1915 is still, to borrow an expression from the era, a bunch of hooey.

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