Innovative Spirits for the Bar have not at all yet been thoroughly discovered and put to use. Especially Asia hides an immense potential, and a certain growth can already be perceived when it comes to Sake or Shochu and Whisky from Japan or Taiwan enjoys a very good reputation. But still rather unbeknown in the western world is the most consumed Spirit worldwide – Baijiu.
In the course of the BCB Pouring Digital Programme we find an illustrious Panel to discuss the opportunities and the manifold varieties of Baijiu. The talk will be presented by Derek Sandhaus, whose books about Baijiu and Chinese drinking culture are becoming bestsellers. His competent and affectionate view of aromas and history in the Middle Kingdom are both informative and compelling.
We talked to Derek about Baijiu, China and the BCB-Panel.
Hi Derek, please explain Baijiu to a novice in 3 sentences.
Derek Sandhaus: Baijiu is a large and diverse category of traditional Chinese grain spirits. Unlike most Western spirits, baijiu is fermented and distilled as a solid rather than a liquid by using naturally harvested cultures of yeast and other microorganisms. It tends to emphasize complex aromas, umami flavors, and lingering finishes.
How did you get in contact with Baijiu and how did the fascination start?
Derek: I got into baijiu while I was living in China, from 2006 to 2013. I first encountered it early in my time there, while I was living in Shanghai. It confused me, because it was so unlike what I was used to from distilled spirits, and I initially rejected it.
Later on I moved to Chengdu in Sichuan, where most of China’s baijiu is produced, and there I learned not only was baijiu a big business—around 10 billion liters of it is produced each year, making it by far the world’s biggest spirits category by volume and value—but that it was incredibly rich and diverse. I learned that there was not just one type of baijiu, but that baijiu was 12 distinct spirits, and once I found the ones that I liked most, it was much easier to appreciate them all.
I spent the next couple years traveling the country and learning about baijiu from the people who make and drink it. There is so much care and tradition that goes into every bottle that I found it impossible not to love. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Tell us more about the Ming River project.
Derek: Ming River launched in the summer of 2018, but the partnership behind it goes back much further. I met Bill Isler in 2014, while I was in Beijing promoting my first book on baijiu, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. He and a couple of other expats, Matthias Heger and Simon Dang, had been kicking around the idea of opening a cocktail bar, and after attending my talk decided that it should focus on baijiu. This was a revolutionary idea; no one had ever built a Western-style bar around Chinese baijiu, which is always served neat alongside food in China. Despite widespread scepticism, the idea was a great success, first mostly with other expats, and later with the local community. The bar, “Capital Spirits”, is still there, serving baijiu cocktails and tasting flights to the baijiu-curious.
Around 2015 we teamed up with Luzhou Laojiao, China’s oldest distillery and one of my personal favorites, to create a brand for the international market. Our mission was to make a baijiu that was both representative of the category and could succeed in the mainstream international spirits world. So we worked with our distilleries blenders to come up with a blend that is both instantly recognizable as a high-quality Sichuan baijiu, but that emphasizes natural flavors that work well in a cocktail.
If you like drinking Sichuan baijiu, you’re going to love our product, but if you’ve never had baijiu before, this is a good, representative entry point.
What can we expect of the BCB talk on Baijiu?
Derek: I’m looking forward to our session, because I already know it’s a great one. Given this year’s digital format, we pre-recorded the session, and I can confidently tell you that the bartenders I’m speaking with about baijiu cocktails have a well-informed and thoughtful perspective on mixing with baijiu. We cover not just what makes baijiu an exciting cocktail ingredient, but why it’s so important that bartenders start stepping out of their comfort zones and experimenting with new ingredients. And Chockie, Kan and Gergö are all such wonderful bartenders that their passion animates the session throughout.
Your new book is becoming a great success. Tell us more about the fun of being drunk in China.
Derek: This is a very different book than my first book on China, which was an attempt to explain the baijiu category in a straightforward manner. Drunk in China uses the story of how I fell in love with baijiu to tell the story of China through its alcohol. It contains all of my favorite personal and historical anecdotes about drinking in China, and more than a few musings about what China’s alcohol can tell us about ourselves and how we react to the unfamiliar.