We’re sitting around a large table in central Chengdu, the fog-drenched capital of China‘s Sichuan province. Between bites of diced rabbit buried in a mountain of red chilies, guests empty thimble-sized glasses of a sweet clear liquid called baijiu with shouts of “Ganbei!” This is a traditional celebratory feast: each individual at the table will methodically, one by one, toast to everybody else and then accept their salute in return when the cycle comes back around. The first perfumed notes of the baijiu counterpoint the spicy punch of the dishes—from a single giant beef rib to simmering frog soup and congealed duck blood in a hot pot. It is at this moment, baijiu truly makes sense. It’s one of the most inchoate spirits we’ve had the pleasure of discovering. And Ming River Baijiu balances out the oils, chilies and lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Before the meal, baijiu’s appeal was esoteric, but now its allure is obvious and undeniable.
It’s not every day you are tasked with learning an entirely new spirit category. When it comes to alcohol we share a vernacular—the same terms to understand what we’re discussing. We know what a whisky should taste like, and instantly identify the difference between rum and vodka. We can drill down with casual enthusiasts who are able to discern a rye whiskey from a peated scotch, or a blanco tequila from an añejo.
But what do you do when there is no common tongue? How does one describe something to a consumer that he/she has never experienced? This is the monumental challenge facing the team behind Ming River. Newcomers to the game, the four men that founded the brand are not only introducing their nascent product to America, but they are also introducing the country—individuals of Chinese ancestry aside—to the world of baijiu.
“When we walk into a bar and try to sell our product most times the bartender has no idea about baijiu, so we kind of have to start from ground zero,” explains Simon Dang, Ming River’s Global Marketing Director. “That’s our challenge. It’s not like a new gin or a new whiskey where we can just walk in and say, ‘Hey, try this whiskey. It’s made this way.’”
“The problem we faced primarily is one of scope,” adds co-founder Derek Sandhaus, Ming River’s Educational Director. “It’s not that we’re just trying to sell a brand, but we’re trying to sell an entire category of spirits—and it’s a very diverse category of spirits. It happens to be the biggest category of spirits in the world.” This means they have a battle on multiple fronts: they have to get their product in people’s glasses, illuminate why their product, in particular, is great, and perhaps most importantly, in order to highlight why Ming River is quality baijiu, they have to clear the hurdle of explaining what makes a good baijiu in the first place.
“If Ming River is the only baijiu you’ve ever tried you might like it, but you won’t have any point of reference. You won’t know whether it’s good or bad, or whether you might like our style of baijiu more or less,” continues Sandhaus. “So we really have devoted a lot of resources to not only promoting our product but to promoting baijiu in general, and to clear up a lot of the myths that exist out there in the market.”
Part of that was setting up the DrinkBaijiu website, where they explain the long history and many intricacies of the ancient spirit. The site is Sandhaus’ purview, as he literally wrote the book on baijiu: the English-language Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits.
An estimated four billion gallons of baijiu are produced annually (about twice that of its nearest competitor, vodka). That popularity is almost entirely dependent on its Chinese origins and that nation’s gargantuan population, as 99% of baijiu today is consumed within China’s borders. And it is a very loose categorization—baijiu literally translates to white alcohol—much more general than say whisky or tequila.
There are a dozen different pillars, or aromas, of recognized baijiu, but the big four—strong and light-aroma, sauce- and rice-aroma—make up more than 95% sold by volume. It can be made by a wide variety of starches, the most common being sorghum—a millet-like grain. One of the more common misperceptions is that most baijiu is made from rice, but the truth is rice (or sticky rice) is the source for only a minority of baijiu. Wheat, corn, grain husks and even yam and barley can be used to convert into alcohol. For instance, Ming River, a proudly Sichuan style strong-aroma baijiu, uses red sorghum.
Baijiu not only ranges extensively in source ingredient but also in distillation, fermentation, yeast type, aging and blending techniques—mostly dependent on whatever winemaking region it originates. Other factors like ABV and cost all vary wildly; you can pick up a bottle of cheap swill for a couple of bucks at the corner store, while high-end collector’s nectar can run six figures for a single ceramic carafe.
One thing that unites all baijiu is that it is fermented in a solid state, unlike most spirits that are fermented in liquid form. Qu (pronounced “chew”)—a mold, yeast and bacteria starter culture—is used to transform both starches into sugar and sugar into alcohol simultaneously. These are separate processes in western spirits. Fermentation pits (some mud-lined, others stone) and qu are mixed with new grains and reused over and over again, so the age of the pits adds to the terroir of the baijiu. The older the pit grows, in other words, the more it is valued for the complexities it bestows on the spirit that ferments within. This is part of the alchemy of baijiu, making older distilleries more cherished. The same way the time a whisky ages in oak barrels is valued, the irreplaceable age of the fermentation pits is equally valued in baijiu creation.
Traditionally, baijiu is sipped during business meetings, but the importance of baijiu in social and familial interactions has taken prominence recently. “You don’t give someone a bottle for the liquor cabinet—it should never make its way to the shelf,” explains Jordan Porter, who runs food tours in Chengdu. As he also throws his own baijiu clubs in the city, Porter has tried to absorb the sprawling etiquette of a spirit that dates back to the Ming Dynasty. “It’s brought to dinner and shared, poured out evenly to the diners. It’s a sign of commitment to the group, to the meal, to the event.”
Unless there are special circumstances, the bottle should never leave the table until it’s empty
“The meal is not just sustenance,” he continues, echoing a point we learned in our hours-long ceremonial meals. “It is a happening. And unless there are special circumstances, the bottle should never leave the table until it’s empty.”
Of the dozens of different baijius we’ve sampled in China, Ming River was among the most approachable—in smoothness, potency (45% ABV) and palate. It is pleasantly sweet, with initial notes of ripe banana and pineapple before taking a sharp turn; like many in the strong-aroma vertical, there is a final wisp of blue cheese funk, a ghost of the spirit’s fermented roots.
It’s important to consider that while strong-aroma baijius are the most popular, and considered by many to be the best, they just might not end up being your preferred style. Ming River suggests you make your way to a local tasting and see which of the big four best aligns with your palette. The sauce-aroma—born from the southern Guizhou province— was most intriguing and compelling. A bit briny with a touch of soy sauce, it’s got such a unique flavor profile that there’s little doubt someone will unlock its secret umami magic. That’s the seductive, great unknown with baijiu: there is a sprawling world out there waiting to be discovered by curious spirit enthusiasts.
Images courtesy of Ming River