Tuesday, June 25, 2019

T.W. Hollister Oso de Oro Vermouth: Worthy of Attention & Respect

"The French vermouth is a very different thing from the Italian, and much more popular. Within a few years the demand for the liquor has greatly increased, partly because the cocktail habit has steadily grown and vermouth enters into nearly all cocktails."
--The Morning Call (PA), June 6, 1890

In a number of respects, Vermouth is the Rodney Dangerfield of the wine world, not getting sufficient respect. Many people don't even realize that it's a wine, thinking it's only a minor ingredient in cocktails. That needs to change and Vermouth needs to be respected and loved for all that it can offer. With all of the new artisan Vermouths that are now being produced, there is so much to taste and enjoy.

As I've said before, "It's a wine with a fascinating history that extends back thousands of years...It can be delicious and complex, intriguing and diverse, and offers a template upon which a producer can put their individual stamp." Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine, which works well in cocktails but also can be enjoyed on its own, maybe with a ice cube or two. The intriguing complexity of some Vermouth makes it a compelling wine on its own. Fortunately, there are numerous producers taking Vermouth seriously, creating some unique and fascinating Vermouths, from a wide range of base wines and botanicals.

"Furthermore, the habit has grown of serving before a heavy dinner a glass of vermouth and bitters."
--The Morning Call (PA), June 6, 1890:

Back in 2010, I wrote an article about Carl Sutton, formerly of Sutton Cellars and who is now consulting on a number of endeavors. Back then, he had just come out with a Vermouth, and Boston was the second market, after San Francisco, for this new product. "Carl's vermouth was inspired in part by the Italian Amaro, a herbal liqueur. His vermouth contains 17 ingredients besides white wine, and he would only tell me that two of the ingredients were chamomille and dried orange peel." In addition, its creation was a lengthy and complicated process. "It took plenty of experimentation for Carl to get his vermouth as desired. The timing of the infusion was very important to the end flavor of the product. Eventually, he determined the best way was to first produce the wine, then fortify it and finally then do the infusion. It was difficult as there is little written about how to make vermouth, and producers keep their methods and processes secret."

I was impressed with his Vermouth, which possessed such a complex and enticing herbal flavor, and would commonly drink it with some club soda and ice. It was a refreshing summer drink and it was a bit sad when it was no longer available locally. However, Sutton has returned to the world of Vermouth and that is excellent news. With his clear passion for Vermouth, it's not surprising that he returned to it.

"Although Italy is the largest wine producing country in the world, the importation of Italian wines and cordials into the United States is comparatively limited. In the past ten years the increase in importation of wines and cordials from Italian ports has amounted to nearly 200 per cent. This gain, however, is not due to any increasing popularity of Italian wines among American consumers,.."
--The Sun (NY), December 30, 1895  

A new wine label, T.W. Hollister & Co., has recently launched in Santa Barbara, California, and possesses a strong historical connection. The company is led by Clinton Kyle Hollister, a descendant of William Welles Hollister, a rancher and entrepreneur who had a major impact on the development of the Santa Barbara region. One of their initial products is Vermouth, including both a Dry and Red Vermouth. It's certainly unique to find a new wine label which begins its production with Vermouth.

The creation of this Vermouth is due to a partnership of three men, including Clinton Kyle Hollister, and his childhood friend, Jesse Smith of Casitas Valley Farm. Jesse and Carl Sutton eventually bonded over Vermouth and Carl was brought on board for this project as well. They decided to produce French-style and Italian-style Vermouths, which they simply label as Dry and Red. It is also important to them that they use as many local botanicals as possible, including some that grow on the Hollister Ranch. They source their wormwood from Sonoma, as it is a milder version than many other American wormwoods. I received media samples of their two Vermouths, and they lived up to my expectations.

"The importation of vermouth , which were 84,000 gallons in 1891, 150,000 gallons in 1892, 186,000 gallons in 1893, and over 200,000 gallons in 1894, will, it is believed in the wholesale wine trade, exceed 225,000 gallons this year."
--The Sun (NY), December 30, 1895  

The T.W. Hollister Oso de Oro Dry Vermouth ($37) begins with a base of "quality white wine" and is macerated with a blend of 12 botanicals that include orange peel, wormwood, chamomile, rosehip, and hyssop. It has a 16% ABV and only 1000 bottles were produced of this batch. I felt the touch of Carl Sutton in this Vermouth, as it reminded me of his own White Vermouth that I used to enjoy so much. The Oso de Oro was dry and light, with an intriguing melange of herbs, bright fruit, and a touch of bitterness. Nice acidity, a lengthy finish, and such a pleasing taste on the palate. It went down so easy.

You can enjoy this Vermouth on its own, though I loved it mixed with some club soda and ice. It would also work well in a cocktail though I'd suggest making it the star of a cocktail rather than as a minor ingredient. I'm thinking about mixing it in a cocktail with a nice Fino or Manzanilla Sherry. The Oso de Oro Dry Vermouth is perfectly refreshing and has such a delicious taste. Highly recommended!

"Of late vermouth has come to be a necessary ingredient in nearly every cocktail compounded at an American bar."
--The Sun (NY), December 30, 1895 

The T.W. Hollister Oso de Oro Red Vermouth ($37) also begins with a base of "quality white wine" but is then macerated with a blend of 19 botanicals that include hummingbird sage, grapefruit peel, blood orange, vanilla bean, ginger root, and wormwood. Finally, they add some European caramel, sourced from a 5th generation family, to add texture, color and some sweetness. It has an 18% ABV and only 1000 bottles were produced of this batch.

This vermouth had a mild sweetness, well balanced with its acidity, and a complex and enticing blend of flavors, with bright red fruit notes, intriguing herbal notes, and more prominent bitter notes. It also possessed a lengthy and satisfying finish, a medium-body, and would also work well on its own or in a cocktail. I also enjoyed this red Vermouth with just some club soda and ice. It would work well in a cocktail, and it would be great with a starring role, though it would excel as a co-star too. Highly recommended.

At a price of $37, this may not be an easy buy for some, especially those who don't have much experience with Vermouth. However, you should consider the fact that they are produced in a very small quantity, and have been well-crafted. They are complex, intriguing and delicious, and I consider the price very fair for the quality of this Vermouth. This isn't the Vermouth you stow away in a cabinet and let gather dust before you need it for a cocktail. This is a Vermouth to savor on its own, to enjoy its fascinating blend of botanicals. Expand your palate!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Rant: Get Your Nose Out Of A Glass!

It's a photo that has become so overused that it has crossed over to the cliché. Sometimes it seems that everyone involved in the wine industry has taken such a photo, and many still use it as a primary photo for their websites or social media. I've certainly taken such a photo in the past. However, maybe now is the time to retire this photo, to try to find new ways to depict one's passion for wine.

I'm referring to those pictures where a wine person has their nose deep into a wine glass. They're everywhere! It's almost as if it is a prerequisite for someone in the wine industry, to take such a photo and show it to everyone. I've grown so tired of seeing this trite photo, wishing people would be more creative and come up with a different way of showing their love for wine. Wine writers can come up with hundreds of words to describe wine, so why do they get stuck on the same clichéd photo?

What does this photo actually represent? In some respects, it is indicative of one's wine knowledge, of someone who just doesn't drink their wine. They take the time to learn more about it, to assess its aromas before putting the wine to their lips. A photo of you drinking a glass of wine doesn't indicate that same level of knowledge. Anyone can just drink a glass of wine, but it's the people with some knowledge of wine who take the time to sniff the glass first.

However, it can also be seen as a sign of being a wine snob, someone who can't just enjoy a wine but must first dissect it. I've seen plenty of people make fun of wine professionals for swirling and sniffing their wine glass. So, when an everyday person sees such a photo, they don't always have a positive reaction to it. It can seem snooty to them.

Let's see more creativity in wine photos. Let us showcase different aspects of the wine world, and not just the same old one all the time. Get your nose out of a wine glass and show us something else, something interesting and new.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
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1) Bright flavors and colors embody the essence of RUKA, where Peruvian, Japanese and Chinese staples feed the culinary and cultural curiosities of gourmands and travelers alike who pass through Downtown Crossing. This summer, RUKA is incorporating New England’s freshest catches into its sushi offerings and taking over Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bars’ waterfront patio.

Summer Sushi Rolls: COJE Culinary Director Tom Berry has created four seasonal sushi rolls which will be featured all summer long on RUKA’s menu. A celebration of New England cuisine at its peak, Berry’s culinary passions are reflected in these lively mashups of Japanese ingredients with iconic New England fare.
--Clam Shack (Fried Ipswich clams, kimchee slaw + tartar sauce, avocado, lemon soy paper) $22
--Spicy Lobster (Grilled Portuguese chouriço, baby corn, sesame avocado, huancaína sauce) $21
--Garlic Shrimp (Grilled pineapple, avocado, crunchy garlic, hot sesame, lemon-soy butter) $17
--Sunflower (Summer fluke, marinated zucchini, avocado, zesty yuzu vinaigrette, sunflower seeds) $18

Patio Takeover: On Wednesday, July 10th from 4pm to 7pm RUKA will take over Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar’s Fort Point patio. The sibling restaurant of Lolita and Yvonne’s is making its outdoor debut serving a curated selection of RUKA’s menu, including new summer sushi rolls, garlic and chicken fried rice, Asian-style tacos, and signature cocktails. A DJ will be spinning during this kickoff to summer patio party, COJE-style.

2) Learn the art of pastry with Grill 23 Executive Pastry Chef Valerie Nin. On Saturday, July 13, starting at 11am, guests are invited to participate in an intimate two-hour class where you'll learn how to make your own shortcake biscuit from start to finish, as well as summer fruit compote, jam and macerated berries. Then, guests will enjoy their creations with tea or coffee during a Q&A with Chef Val.

Guests will make their own dough and customize the cake flavor with a variety of ingredients, including citrus zest, poppy seeds, herbs and Earl Gray tea. After, Chef Val will teach the class how to make an array of shortcake toppings including macerated strawberries, peach compote and blueberry jam. Finally, guests are invited to enjoy their composed dessert with coffee, tea, espresso or a non-alcoholic beverage during a Q&A with Chef Val. Alcoholic beverages will be available for purchase.

Tickets are $75 per person. For Reservations, go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/summer-pastry-class-with-chef-valerie-nin-tickets-63125089843

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Historical Tidbits About Baijiu, The World's Most Popular Spirit (Part 2)

As the 19th century came to an end, it was good to see a positive article being one of the final articles of that century. The New York Tribune, June 24, 1900, noted, “The Chinese do not drink much intoxicating liquor. The native drink is a sort of arrack, of which rice is the basis. It is only once distilled and is of low proof, but when stronger spirits are required this is redistilled, and in that state it is known as samshu, which means thrice fired.” Once again, we see that the Chinese are temperate in their drinking, that samshu is made from rice, and that it is distilled at least twice.

With the start of the 20th century, we see some early and interesting stories from Hawaii. We begin with The Hawaiian Star, August 9, 1902, discussing a legal case. “Officer An On was driven to drink this morning at the police station….he drank the liquor in Judge Wilcox’s court room. An On drank the liquor under orders, for he was used as an expert witness on samshu, the Chinese liquor. The case was that against Ma Quai charged with selling Samshu without a license. An On was called upon to testify as to whether the liquor illegally sold, had really been samshu. The little police officer drank the stuff from a bottle while on the witness stand, and after making wry faces, declared that it was the liquor claimed.” The Defendant was assessed $100 for the violation.

A tale of ghosts and samshu. The Hawaiian Star, January 22, 1904, related the story of Peleliilii, an elderly native guide who escorted a party of scientists to the summit crater of Mokuaweoweo. On December 31, during a prior visit to the volcano, Peleliilii claimed, “As darkness set in I saw over 1,000 akuas of all nationalities.” Akuas are Hawaiian gods. When he left the crater, over 100 akuas came with them, following him to his home, Puakalehua, where his wife and children were buried by the mudflow of 1868. Eventually, there were only 8 akuas left and Peleliilii stated, “I got eight glasses and filled them with samshu which I placed on a small table near them. I watched to see what they would do. Did not see the akuas drink but when I looked in the glasses they were empty.” He gave them a refill and had some himself. He went to bed, and in the morning the akuas were gone.

Another alleged case of the illegal sale of samshu, but with a twist. The Honolulu Advertiser, April 7, 1905, printed, “Is Sam Sue the victim of the machinations of an overzealous and irresponsible police spy?” Sam was a grocer who had been in business for 20 years, with no prior trouble. He was recently arrested though for selling liquor without a license. The evidence against him included two bottles of samshu and some marked money, which was allegedly used by a Japanese police spy. However, a harness maker next door to the grocery claimed that he had seen the spy enter the store, carrying 2 bottles of samshu. The spy then bought some pork, took out the samshu, started drinking, and then signaled a police detective. Sam wasn’t even in the store when the spy first arrived. When Sam did show up, he told spy not to drink in his store. The Sheriff though claimed he had a witness who saw the transaction with the spy. No decision was made on the case, and I didn't find any subsequent article indicating the end result.

More flavored samshu. The Sun (NY), July 20, 1905, mentioned that, “Such of the Chinese liquors as I have sipped have as their basis samshu, which is a spirit made from rice, and they taste like fire water slightly impregnated with a variety of sweet nastiness. One, however, better than the rest, is made in northern China, and is flavored with orange peel.” This is the first reference to an orange peel flavored samshu, though fruit flavored samshu has been referenced before.

Samshu and a shave? An article in The Logan Republican (Utah), October 4, 1905, provided a fascinating tour of Chinatown of San Francisco, titled What is Seen During a Three Hours visit after Dark. Amidst all the other details, there is an intriguing reference to samshu at a barber shop, not the type of business you normally associate with that liquor. “One feature of this shaving business of interest to many customers, no doubt, is that with each shave goes a drink of liquor, ‘samshu,’ by name.” I wonder how many people went there for a shave on a daily basis.

A bit of history, though with a tinge of negativity. The Belding Banner (MI), February 22, 1906, published a brief bit, “The Chinese claim that they distilled alcohol so far back as 2200 B.C. whereas the Europeans only learned how to produce eau-de-vin in the thirteenth century. Certainly the samshu tastes as if its secret was discovered when man was barbaric and his digestion very strong.”

The Panama–Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), a World's Fair, was held in San Francisco from February 20 to December 4, 1915. China attended the fair, showcasing a number of exhibitors,  including distillers from Maotai and Xinghuacun. China entered a number of their alcoholic beverages into competition, and it's alleged they won over 1000 awards. Nowadays, a number of Baijiu producers brag about their wins from this event. However, records from this time period seem to say very little about China's participation in their competitions. Why is that so? Derek Sandhaus has done an excellent job in researching this event and you need to check out his findings on his blog, 300 Shots at Greatness. He helps to bring some clarity to the myths surrounding this competition.

The Salt Lake Tribune, March 21, 1917, notes how sorghum, referred to as Kaoliang, is used for the production of samshu. “A species of tall millet grown throughout Manchuria, China, serves to supply the Chinese with heat, food, and drink. Kaoliang is the name of this wonderful plant which is put to so many uses. The grain is used as food and is also largely used in the production of samshu, an alcoholic drink that is consumed in large quantities by the Chinese.” Sorghum is now the main grain used to produce Baijiu.

One of the most extensive articles on samshu was in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, September 8, 1917, which mentioned how all imports of foreign liquors were to be stopped due to the food control law. In Hawaii, who would that hurt the most? “The liquor edict will perhaps fall hardest on the consumers of samshu for the quantity of this in bond is limited and Hawaii’s Chinese population is not incline to adopt the ‘’fire water’ of other nations." The medical virtues of samshu were then discussed. "Nearly all the consumers of samshu, of which there are 24 brands imported here, look upon this liquor as having medicinal virtue. It was this belief that led to a treasury decision sometime ago that it should be classified as drugs containing alcohol and the knowledge that the so-called Chinese wines are distilled and not brewed.” In addition, “Belief that samshu has medicinal properties is indicated by the titles of the wine, the following being a few samples: Tri-Serpent, Deer Horn, Lizard, Dragoon, Tiger, Monkey, and Undressed Snake medicated wines."

It was interesting to see that 24 different brands of samshu were being imported into Hawaii, though no specific brand names were provided.  The Treasury decision is strange and I will need to look into it at more depth. The article also mentioned, "All the Chinese wines are generally referred to in the liquor trade as sam-shu, perhaps the Chinese equivalent of the American term “booze.” As such, it sometimes can be difficult to determine when an article that mentions samshu is referring to Baijiu or not.

Although Prohibition didn't start arriving in the Territory of Hawaii until April 1918, illegal stills were still being shut down bring to this Prohibition. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, January 25, 1918 and The Honolulu Advertiser, January 26, 1918 detailed one such case. “Lee Wah Chung’s hog farm in the Palolo Valley has come to a bad end” as a U.S. Marshall and revenue agents found “twenty gallons of the choicest samshu liquor in the cellar of the house, twenty-six mash barrels and a kettle in an outbuilding,..” Chung was arrested when he returned home, charged with possessing an unregistered liquor manufacturing outfit. He was held under a bond of $1000, and the potential penalty was 6-24 months imprisonment and/or a fine of $1000-$5000.

The family of another moonshiner caused a bit of an uproar at the U.S. Marshall's office. The Honolulu Advertiser, November 14, 1918, printed that the wife a convicted moonshiner created a "mad scene" in the office of the United States Marshall. “Pang Sang was convicted Monday for distilling three barrels of samshu at Waikiki two months ago.” He had to serve a one month sentence as he couldn't afford to pay the fine of $500. As he turned himself in, his wife and children accompanied him to the marshall's office. “With her nine children, ranging from six months to fifteen years of age, grouped about her, all shrieking at the tops of their young voices, Mrs. Pang Sang, a Chinese woman, dashed her head against the walls of the United States Marshal’s office yesterday afternoon as her husband was being led off to the penitentiary by Deputy Marshal Charles Laval."

How much samshu was China exporting in 1917? According to the Commerce Reports, Volume 1, Issue 10, January 3, 1919, “Rice wine, sam-shu, is made in enormous quanitities in China, although the people are not given to intemperance. The best rice wine is made at Shaoshing, in Chekiang. Six thousand tons of ordinary sam-shu, and 4,000 tons of medicated sam-shu, were exported in 1917.” The statistics didn't mention what portion of these exports were sent to the U.S.

The Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, Volume 5, by Ernest Hurst Cherrington (1929) had a listing for samshu, initially noting some alternative spellings, including Samshoo, Samchoo, Sam-tchoo, Sam-tseou, and San-tsiu. It then provides a short definition, that it is “An intoxicating drink made form rice, in general use in China. ‘Samshu’ signifies ‘thrice-burnt,’ and has reference to the method of producing the liquor.” The entry continues, “Samshu, like all other spirits and rice-wines in China, is usually served hot.” It then finishes with, “The lower classes seldom, if ever, partake of a meal without a small cup of samshu.”

The Des Moines Tribune, February 1, 1932, reported on the city of Chapei, in Shangahi, which was currently occupied by the Japanese. “One sees ‘sam-shu’ houses (sam-shu is a potent native drink made from rice) crowded with coolies, many half bad from the effects of this violent intoxicant.”  Back to that negativity. With the occupation, who could blame them for drinking?

Beer becoming more popular than samshu? The News Journal (DE), October 20, 1938, noted that the “Chinese are drinking more beer and less samshu (rice wine). The daily consumption of beer here has risen in the past six months from 30,000 bottles to 70,000. Samshu was formerly the most popular beverage among Chinese but it is now no longer available." Why was samshu not available? "The Chinese government has restricted the brewing of this wine in order to preserve all the rice for war needs.” So samshu consumption during the extent of the war probably remained low, though after the war returned to its previous heights.

The best samshu? The Brooklyn Citizen, May 25, 1942, stated, “The samshu or rice wine of Shaohing is regarded as China’s finest. Its quality is attributed to the water of a local lake used in its production.”

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 2, 1970, related some history, “Under the Ming Dynasty, 1348-1644 A.D., China took its most intensive interest in chrysanthemum growing. Ming literati showed particular interest in the flower and in the emotions they could provoke, and scholars drank ‘samshu,’ a distilled rice wine, with chrysanthemum petals floating in their cups to stimulate their senses.”

Curiously, there were close to nearly thirty years, from around 1942 to 1972, when samshu largely remained out of the newspapers. A whole generation of Americans heard almost nothing about this Chinese liquor. it wouldn't return to the front pages until 1972, when President Richard Nixon drank Baijiu on his visit to China.

In The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, she wrote, "On February 21, 1972, President Nixon, his staff, and members of the American media attended a banquet in Peking to mark the beginning of Nixon’s historic trip to China. The ceremonial drink that night was mao-tai, a sorghum spirit with an alcohol content over 50 percent. Alexander Haig had sampled the drink on an advance visit and cabled a warning that 'Under no repeat no circumstances should the President actually drink from his glass in response to banquet toasts.' Nixon ignored the advice and matched his host drink for drink, shuddering but saying nothing each time he took a sip. Dan Rather said it tasted like “'iquid razor blades.”

The historic toast of Kweichow Moutai Baijiu between President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai sparked curiosity about this liquor. The Chinese capitalized on this curiosity and put plans into operation to ship Moutai to the U.S., Canada and other countries.

Canada might have been the first country to receive Moutai. The Ottawa Journal (Canada), April 29, 1972, noted that The Ontario Liquor Control Board had ordered Mou-Tai for the government-controlled liquor stores. It was thought that it would be available in 2-3 months. This was only two months after the historic toast, which indicates Canada was quick to react.

The Philadelphia Daily News, May 25, 1973, received a question from a reader, wondering if they could obtain the liquor President Nixon drank in China. The newspaper responded, “Mou-Tai Chiew, a rare 106-proof potable distilled from millet and wheat will soon be available nationwide on a limited basis. The price: $10-$15 a pint.” For comparison, a pint has about 473ml and currently, a 375ml bottle of Mou-Tai sells for about $170.

In the Traverse City Record-Eagle, March 16, 1974, there was a short article, with the above picture, that stated, “Mou-Tai Chiew, the Chinese whiskey that President Nixon toasted his hosts with on his recent trip to China, tastes like ‘moonshine’ says Howard Laviolette, a chemist in East Lansing who tests liquor and wine for the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

Baijiu in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), October 20, 1974, reported that, “The Chinese Trade Exhibition at the showgrounds has a secret weapon—a beverage called kweichow mou-tai chiew. Innocent Westerners who tried it claimed, after recovery, that it definitely was atomic and named it the “two-megaton cocktail.” Around this time, Moutai was about 106 proof,  53% ABV, so it was potent, though primarily intended for drinking out of small cups.

According to The Gazette (Canada), March 22, 1975, there was an article about a visit to a Chinese restaurant, the Mandarin, in Morocco. It mentioned, “—a fine Chinese liqueur, Mou-Tai Chiew, which tastes like a minty Cointreau. It is made in Kweichow, China, and it not obtainable in the United States.” Apparently, it took longer than expected to import Moutai into the U.S., except possibly in very limited quantities.

At a private dinner at the Imperial Palace Restaurant, The Baltimore Sun, April 6, 1975, reported that  “This was accompanied by tiny cups of Mou-Tai, a searing, powerful Chinese liqueur made from wheat and millet which comes from the province of Kweichow near the border of Burma.”

Moutai arrives in the U.S.! The El Paso Times, April 9, 1975, published a story from Cambridge, MA titled U.S. Gets ‘Chinese Lightning.’ “Mou Tai Chew, brewed from the grain millet, has been produced for over 200 years in central China’s Kweichow Province." Apparently imported by Federal Distillers, Inc., Mou Tai Chew recently arrived in the U.S., especially the East Coat. Jack Guttag, president of Federal Distillers, stated, "For one thing it’s ‘outrageously expensive. It costs as much as $27.95 for an 18.39 ounce bottle.” Part of the reason for its high price are high tariffs but the Chinese also set a high wholesale price because ‘they feel it ranks with the finest of French cognacs.” Finally, Guttag said the Mou Tai has ‘a lot of taste and a tremendous bouquet.”

The Boston Globe, April 9, 1975, had a similar article, though with more negativity, titled Mou-Tai Chiew (ugh) at $27.95 (yum for the importer) a Bottle. Some of the information is more basic, “The liquor has been brewed from grain millet in China’s Kweichow Province for more than 200 years. It is sold in a squat bottle with a red label, which has a picture of a sunflower on it.” However, Harvey Cooper, VP of Federal Distillers, is clearly not a fan of Mou-Tai, commenting on the taste, “It was horrible, terrible, I wouldn’t give you 8 cents for it.” Despite his comments, “The firm has since found a small but select market for the liquor,…” and “In New York, we’ve had months where we sold 25 to 50 cases.” So, it was popular with some people. And when is the last time you heard an importer criticize the taste of a product they brought into the country?

As a little background, the town of Moutai, in the Guizhou province, has been producing Baijiu for a few hundred years and in 1951, the different distilleries were consolidated into a single company, Kweichow Moutai Winery. It is now the official state liquor of China and about 200 tons of Kweichow Moutai are sold in over 100 countries. It is currently the #1 top selling spirit brand in the world.

The Daily News (NY), March 18, 1983, in a review of a Omei, a Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn, noted, “If you’re adventuresome, try the Chinese after-dinner drink ‘Kweichow Moutai’—at 106 proof—it’s clear up your sinuses or anything else.”

During the late 1980s, there were a number of brief references go Baijiu in the newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 8, 1987, mentioned “a cup of baijiu, the potent rice wine.” The Northwest Herald, May 28, 1987, noted “baijiu, a popular Chinese spirit distilled from grain.” And the Detroit Free Press, October 21, 1988, stated “high proof bai jiu, a sorghum-based liquor.

And in the 1990s, there were a number of brief references as well. The Tampa Bay Times, February 10, 1994, published an article which mentioned that Chenliang Baijiu and Mao Tai are brands of Chinese ‘white wine.’ This is what Westerners would refer to as "grain alcohol, " and "it is the only hard liquor most Chinese drink.” The Missoula Independent (MT), March 25, 1994, referred to  “a bowl of baijiu, searing Chinese whiskey.” The Wisconsin State Journal, December 24, 1995, stated, “Baijiu is the local liquor, which could stand in for ethanol with grace and aplomb.”

How much Baijiu was produced in 1995? The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), February 3, 1997, noted that "distillers bottled almost seven million tonnes of the clear, 45 per cent alcohol drink known as baijiu,.." This can be compared to their production of over 15 million tonnes of beer and 200,000 tonnes of wine.

On a more grisly note, the illegal manufacture of Baijiu in China can be an extremely serious offense. The Index-Journal (SC), January 26, 1997, reported that "China on Saturday executed five people convicted of manufacturing or selling liquor spiked with poisonous industrial alcohol that killed 36 people and sickened more than 100."

It is only within the last twenty years, and especially the last five years, when Baijiu has been mentioned significantly in the media. However, it continues to remain a niche beverage which hasn't spread much to the general population. It still has a bad reputation in many circles for possessing an off-putting taste. We need more articles that explore Baijiu in greater depth, discussing its extensive history, its diverse flavor profiles, and intriguing production process. We need more tasting events, to show people that not all Baijiu tastes the same, and that they can find Baijiu that will please their palate. Let's see some Baijiu-paired dinners.

"These are exciting times for the Chinese spirits industry. Like the nation that created it, baijiu has in a matter of decades achieved a level of quality and sophistication that rivals any of its global competitors. It is time that spirits lovers take note. That few have, thus far, can only be attributed to its current obscurity outside of Asia."
--Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus

Monday, June 17, 2019

Rant: Asian Spirits Are The Future

In general, Craft spirits are the future while Asian spirits are taking the lead in this category. It's time to explore Asian spirits, from Baijiu to Soju, and to understand their growing popularity.

The Association for Packaging & Processing Technologies (PMMI) has released a new report, indicating the significant growth of the spirits industry and the slowing down of the craft beer industry. In 2018, the overall Beer category decreased by 1%, though the Craft Beer category grew by 4%. The number of new breweries increased by 1,049 but 219 breweries also closed. The report feels that the craft beer industry may have hit its peak, and any further growth will be low, if at all.

On the other hand, the Spirits category in 2018 was booming, with the opening of 1835 distilleries, a growth of 15% from 2017, and total sales were $3.7 Billion, a growth of 30% from 2017. This rate of growth is expected to continue at double digits for a number of years to come.

The Drinks Business also wrote about the "10 Fastest Growing Spirits Brands In The World In 2018." These ten brands included Jing Jiu Baijiu (China), Officer's Choice Whisky (India), McDowell's Brandy (India), McDowell's Whisky (India), Magic Moments Vodka (India), Royal Stag Whisky (India), Imperial Blue Whisky (India), Tanduay Rum (Philippines), Chum Churum Soju (Korea), and Jinro Soju (Korea). Jinro was named the #1 fastest-growing brand for a second consecutive year. As you can see, all 10 of these brands are from Asia, with India occupying five spots.

Have you tasted any of these spirits? Or at least spirits from these categories made by other producers?

It's always good to expand your palate, to try new drinks and see if you can find any new favorites. It's time to check out some of the new Asian spirits, many which have a lengthy history in their countries of origin. Read about them, learn about their complexities, and taste them. Take a chance on Baijiu and Soju, and discover the myriad flavor profiles that are available.