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What is Baijiu?

Baijiu (pronounced “by-joo”) is a traditional Chinese spirit with deep cultural and historical significance in the sprawling nation of China. It is a colorless liquor, or “white spirit” in Mandarin, which has been produced in China for centuries and is considered by most to be the national drink. There are 12 officially recognized styles, distinguished by production processes, regions of origin, ingredients, and more.

The taste of the varieties can vary widely. For example, sauce aroma baijiu is defined by its intense savory and umami flavors, similar to soy sauce. On the other hand, strong aroma baijiu is characterized by the robust flavor of overripe tropical fruit- Ming River’s specialty.

Crafting Baijiu

Baijiu is made from grain, typically sorghum, and is distilled from a fermented solid or semisolid mash. The process is conducted with a fermentation agent unique to East Asia, qu (pronounced “chew”). Qu, also known in Japan as koji and used to make that nation’s famous sake, is produced from grain, usually wheat, mixed with water. The decomposition process begins in a controlled environment in which it absorbs airborne microorganisms that contain mold, yeast, and bacteria. The mix may sound unappealing, but it is key to the nuances of the final product. Truly time-tested, qu has been used in fermentation processes for alcohol production throughout East Asia for approximately 5,000 years.

Baijiu terra cotta aging pots in Chinese distillery.

The increased airflow within the terra cotta pots mellows out the baijiu and helps it develop complex aromatic compounds.

This fermentation method is a major reason that baijiu is hyper-localized. The particularities of each region’s air play what is perhaps the most primary role. So much so that even two distilleries located as close as a mile apart and following the exact same process produce two baijiu with their own highly individualized taste profiles.

Steam is used next to distill the solid-state fermented mash, a much different step from the production process for most other spirits, which are distilled from a liquid state. For baijiu, the mash is placed in a container with a slotted metal bottom. As steam rises it passes through the mix, carrying the ethanol upwards and condensing it into a liquid.

Aging methods vary, but the most common one uses terracotta pots. Unlike wooden casks that tightly seal the liquors contained within and influence their flavor, the clay pots have a different effect on baijiu’s taste because the terracotta allows oxygen to flow freely in and out.

As recently as 100 years ago, the production process would end there. However, baijiu today undergoes blending because of the many, many opportunities for natural variations to occur. So, producers now blend their products to achieve and maintain consistency in taste and alcohol levels amongst their batches.

Ming River Baijiu is produced at the Luzhou Laojiao distillery and is available for purchase at Mike's Wine and Spirits.Ming River Baijiu

Ming River Baijiu was launched in 2018 with the aim of bringing baijiu to an international market, specifically among bartenders interested in incorporating this treasured Chinese spirit into the constantly evolving and competitive craft cocktail scene.

The brand is a joint venture led by Bill Isler, Matthias Heger, and Derek Sandhaus. Sandhaus, author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture, met Isler and Heger in 2014 at a literary festival in Beijing. The two were in the process of opening Capital Spirits, a cocktail bar in Beijing, and after meeting Sandhaus, they decided to focus the bar’s concept on baijiu.

Capital Spirits’ patrons consisted mostly of tourists, but after a year or so, a noticeable shift occurred. Traditionally, most baijiu drinkers were older men, just as scotch was in the West, with both liquors associated with business drinking among older “high rollers.” Suddenly, the crowd became younger, and local. Youthful, hipper consumers rebranded traditional liquors simply by embracing them, more or less on their own.

As interest in bringing baijiu to larger markets grew, distilleries throughout China reached out to Isler, Heger, and Sandhaus for advice. The three began working with Luzhou Laojiao, a distillery located in the South Western Chinese province of Sichuan, the veritable home of baijiu.

Luzhou Laojiao is located in the southwestern province of Sichuan in China.

Sichuan, China

Around 70% of the baijiu available in the market today is produced in Sichuan. Sandhaus moved to the province’s capital, Chengdu, and spent two years immersed in everything baijiu, studying and absorbing all there is to know about the revered drink, and visited distilleries throughout China.

Luzhou Laojiao is more than 450 years old and is the oldest continually operating distillery in China. It uses a continuous fermentation method using mud pits to produce their baijiu. Mash is placed in the pits, which are up to 9 feet deep and can hold 30 tons of mash. The pits are sealed with clay for up to three months and, when opened, most of the fermented mash is removed and replaced with fresh sorghum, reintroducing starch, and more qu, then sealed again. This process allows the mash to essentially live forever, like sourdough starters, which builds a complex flavor profile. The pits themselves contribute to the mash’s flavor as ongoing fermentation cycles blacken the pits’ walls through their absorption of microorganisms, creating a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship with the mash.

More than 1600 mud pits, some of them in uninterrupted, ongoing operation since Luzhou Laojiao’s founding in 1573 at the height of the Ming Dynasty, contain mashes of varying ages, and they are still carefully and continuously tended by Luzhou Laojiao’s expert distillers and employees. The name Ming River was inspired by the distillery’s connection to Imperial China and its location between two major rivers.

Sandhaus, Isler, and Heger met on numerous occasions with Luzhou Laojiao’s master blender and conducted taste tests in various cities to identify the most desirable flavors for their baijiu. Their goal was to highlight the distinct essence of a strong aroma baijiu, considered the liquor’s “high-end” distillation, and promote its use in a wide variety of cocktails. Most baijiu is bottled at 38% or 52% ABV, but Ming River Baijiu nestles comfortably in the middle at 45% ABV, the perfect level for a cocktail that is strong but can still be enjoyed with a meal.

So, what cocktails can be enhanced by Ming River Baijiu as an ingredient? Luckily, Ming River’s perfect balance of flavors, intensity, and alcohol level makes it extraordinarily versatile and perfect for experimentation by innovative cocktail craftsmen. The brand’s three main flavor profiles include pineapple, licorice, and anise. The pineapple works well in tiki-style cocktails, such as daiquiris, Painkillers, and Jungle Birds while the licorice and anise find a welcoming spot in Negronis and Last Words since those flavors nicely complement those drinks’ bitter ingredients.

Baijiu is served in small glasses that hold about a 1/3 ounce.

Baijiu glasses hold about a 1/3 ounce.

Of course, Ming River Baijiu can be enjoyed in the most traditional and long-lived way – neat and at room temperature. In China, it is served with food in tiny shot-like glasses. During dinner guests would be expected to take tiny drinks throughout the meal. Changing tastes, habits, and customs allows Ming River Baijiu to showcase the distinct flavors for which strong aroma baijiu is known and provides expanding opportunities to introduce new customers to a centuries-old pleasure.

Ready for a bit of East-meets-West, yourself? Swing by Mike’s Wine and Spirits today and pick up a bottle of Ming River Baijiu.