The world’s most popular spirit has arrived in the U.S., and it’s not what you might expect. Baijiu (pronounced BYE-joe), meaning “white spirits” in Mandarin, isn’t whiskey or vodka, but an aromatic Chinese liquor made by fermenting steamed sorghum in mud pits. And new, American-skewed brands such as Ming River are making appearances in bars and at retailers all over the country.
Ming River and other “strong aroma” baijius are fermented in one of 1,600 large pits dug from river clay that have been in use continuously for more than 30 years, each about 8 feet deep, holding 20 to 30 tons of grain. As the pits age, the mud absorbs microorganisms that participate in the fermentation and lend complexity to the flavor.
Some of the pits at Luzhou Laojiao, the distillery in China’s Sichuan province where Ming River is made, date back to the roots of baijiu production, in the late 1500s. “Ours, however, is not from those,” laughs Derek Sandhaus, one of Ming River’s partners. “We could never afford it.”
Another trick unique to baijiu production, is a solid starter culture called qu (pronounced “chew”) made from wheat that is cured in brick form to attract natural native yeasts, then mixed with the steamed grains to ferment them. After a couple of months in the pits, the spirit is distilled in pot stills, aged in terra cotta urns, and blended.
How does it taste? The first sip of Ming River Baijiu can be surprising to a Western palate. Fruity, spicy, almost perfume-y in flavor and aroma, the tropical notes scream to be mixed into a Tiki drink. But the subtle earthy and peppery notes beg the bartender to back off and simplify the presentation. Traditionally, baijiu is served in thimble-sized shot glasses with lots of food, accompanied by lots of toasting and mutual refilling of said tiny shot glasses, until the bottle is empty. The rich cuisine of the Sichuan province, with its chile-infused and peppercorn-spiked flavors tastes marvelous washed down with a river of baijiu.
Shawn Thomson, general manager of Chicago’s River West standby Twisted Spoke, came back from a recent trip to Taiwan surprised to find baijiu featured by a supplier. “You’d do like a million of the tiny glasses,” says Thomson. He created a highball with the Ming River called a Magic Sarsaparilla, with baijiu, soda, loads of fresh mint and a “magic” syrup he makes with sassafras extract, vanilla and licorice.
“I use the baijiu because of the sorghum; it reflects the flavor of the sassafras,” he says. The tall sweet drink tastes like root beer’s cousin. At the Whistler in Chicago, head bartender Marina Holter mixes up a lavender-hued coconut and taro bubble tea spiked with baijiu named Spheres of Influence.
Sandhaus and his partners at Ming River have been encouraging bartenders around the globe to use their versatile spirit in cocktails in an effort to crack the market outside of China. Although I can’t recommend bringing a bottle to your favorite Sichuan restaurant (my friends and I were scolded horribly for plopping one on the table at a Chinatown dumpling house where the staff did not want us taking shots with our meal), ordering a spicy feast for takeout and toasting the night away at home sounds like a celebration.