By Jay A. Baird – A Bartender Journey listener, Bartender and Blogger (21+)
What is the most popular liquor sold worldwide? Is it whiskey, rum, gin, or vodka? If you guessed any of those, you are off the mark. In fact up until a month ago, I had no idea that this product even existed.
What is it? This mystery liquor called Baijiu, pronounced buy-jo, is the most popular liquor worldwide*; however it is uncommon to come across it in America and most of the world outside of China.
Baijiu is a distilled rice beverage made by adding water to brown rice along with a yeast strain and enzymes. You then allow the mixture to ferment. Once the fermented malt has aged to maturity, it is strained into a pot still where it is distilled to taste. After that, it is poured into a clay pot where it is aged; this can be done in a cool room, or more commonly buried in the earth where it is aged much like whiskey. And much like whiskey, classic bottles can raise a premium. In fact, some have been known to go at auction for over a million dollars a bottle.
But what does it taste like? Am I burying the lead here? Baijiu has a very distinctive flavor and can be hard to explain at first; in fact, it requires me to use the word funky, which I don't really think is appropriate either, because that makes me think it’s a bad flavor, and the flavor of Vinn Distillery in Wilsonville, Oregon, is anything but bad. After having read about it on other websites I was a bit hesitant about trying it.
I drove just south of Portland, to the suburb of Wilsonville to a farmhouse where I met with Michelle Ly, daughter of Phan Ly, the founder of Vinn Distillery and head of their Sales and Marketing. Michelle stated "Everyone uses Baijiu to honor their ancestors and welcome in the New Year." But it isn't just used for that - Baijiu is distilled for every aspect of life just like alcohol in the West.
When Phan Ly was offered the chance to either retire or start a new chapter of his life, he responded “A retired mind is a dead mind”. Phan Ly had always noticed the scarcity of Chinese spirits and none were available in Portland liquor stores. With experience from over seven generations of the Ly family making Baijiu in China and Vietnam, Phan created his own process here in the US using 100% whole grain brown rice from California, brewer buckets and a custom made pot still. He even named the company “Vinn”, the shared middle name of all five of his children to honor them and they, in turn, all work for the distillery either full-time or part-time
Michelle led me on a tour and explained how Baijiu was distilled,from fermentation through the distillation process. Then we moved on to my favorite part of my trip: sampling the goods. She started me with the rice based vodka, which had a pleasant floral aroma. She explained that they didn't want to distill all of the natural flavors and aromas out of the vodka they make, instead opting to leave some of the natural qualities of the white rice by not over distilling the product. This leaves sweetness to the flavor and is really unique.
Next up was the whiskey that they ended up producing as a happy accident. Michelle's sister found and purchased some small wooden kegs for aging whiskey at a garage sale to which they added the Baijiu and aged it in wood. The family aged the Baijiu for a year when they finally were able to sample it. Now however, when they produce the whiskey they use a blend of both white and brown rice. This product is still made in very small batches and only sold in pints and was terrific. Very smooth with a nice finish. People describe it as “a bourbon start with a scotch finish."
Finally I got to try the Baijiu. The flavor, as I said, has a funk to it but a heavier aroma and is unfiltered. The oil and proteins separate and float to the top. They then bottle it from the bottom of the batch. The flavor evolves on your tongue as you drink it and it changes from sake to tequila and then onto a white whiskey. They recommend using it in Bloody Marys or margaritas. However, I found that it would work really well as a Mule and created my own recipe, the Beijing Mule.
I loved this product and I think that it could be a very interesting addition to any serious cocktail fan or mixologist’s bar.