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 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.
But 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.