Earlier this fall I left China after seven years. The first five years were spent in Shanghai, and I count them among the most memorable of my life. The past two were spent Chengdu, in China’s Wild West, where I began my descent into the dark world of traditional Chinese spirits, and this blog that chronicles the journey. And now I’m finally back home, even if it doesn’t always feel like home yet.
This is not another one of the dreaded “why I’m leaving China” posts. I promise. My reason for leaving is not particularly compelling or worthy of an expansive harangue. In fact, the reason can be summarized neatly in three words: My wife’s job. She is a diplomat, which means a lot of bouncing around the globe. But it also means the occasional “home leave,” essentially an extended repatriation vacation intended to impress upon us the greatness of the Fatherland.
For this, our first home leave, we decided to take advantage of America’s exceptional national parks. The goal was to head northwest from Kansas City in early October to reach the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore and Yellowstone before the first snows hit. As luck would have it, not only did our historically shitty Congress shut down the government the very day our trip started (and the parks with it), but we also got blasted by a blizzard within an hour of crossing into Wyoming. Such is life.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t see anything interesting. In Mitchell, South Dakota, we saw the world famous Corn Palace. The first Palais de Maïs was opened in 1892, outfitted with elaborate murals constructed solely of local produce. In the time since, the townspeople of Mitchell have remained at the cutting edge of granular artistry, releasing a new corn mural each year to reflect the most pressing issues of our times (this year it’s “Remember When” and features images that appear to be pulled from Print Shop circa 1992). They have even taken to growing custom corn strains to get a rich tapestry of greens, blues and reds to complement the more common yellow ears.
The dark crimson accents I noticed on this year’s mural looked too loosely clumped to be standard American corn. I asked the woman working the entrance, who was incidentally just as quaint and almost as old the palace itself, what it was. “Milo,” came the response. Subsequent internet investigation revealed what I already knew to be true in my heart: It was sorghum. That beautiful blossom that gave birth to baijiu, right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Later that day fields the color of dried blood appeared on both sides of the road, spanning as far as the eye could see. Though I never saw sorghum growing in China, I recognized it from the pictures. I would see it again several weeks later when returning home through western Kansas.
Surprising though it may be for the average American, who has never heard of sorghum, the United States is a major producer of the magical protein-rich grain. In fact, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, it is the leading producer of the plant, responsible for almost three times as much as China. It serves a number of purposes, primarily animal feed and the industrial production of ethanol. Other domestic uses include turning it into sweet syrup and gluten-free foodstuffs. Much of it is also exported for commercial use and food aid overseas.
Yet so far as I know it has not yet been used to produce spirits in North America. Gluten-free beer, yes, but no baijiu. So you’ve got an abundance of the primary ingredient for the world’s most popular spirit and a country where nobody is using it for that purpose. The field is wide open for the Western hemisphere’s first homegrown Chinese-style sorghum spirit.
Your play, American distillers. Your play.