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.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Historical Tidbits About Baijiu, The World's Most Popular Spirit (Part 1)

"Baijiu is coming for the world, and the invasion is already well underway."
--Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus

Many Americans know very little, if anything, about Baijiu, a Chinese spirit, despite the fact that it is  the most popular spirit in the world. Baijiu remains a a niche beverage in the U.S. and has been slow to make inroads into our country. However, it's a compelling beverage, with a diverse range of flavor profiles, a fascinating history, and a unique method of production. As World Baijiu Day nears, occurring on August 9, I wanted to get you ready for it by highlighting this intriguing spirit and presenting some historical tidbits about Baijiu.

Through my research, I've compiled a chronological listing, spanning a period from 1665 to 1995, of Baijiu references, from the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Australia and more. This isn't a comprehensive listing of every Baijiu reference that exists, but more of a representative sampling. Some of the omitted references were extremely brief and add no real value to our understanding. In addition, please consider this a work in progress, which will likely be expanded and revised in the future as I conduct further research.

For a basic background on Baijiu, you can check out my nine previous articles, including:
Baijiu: The Durian Fruit of the Spirits' World (Part 1)
Baijiu: Its Unique Production Process (Part 2)
Baijiu: Drinking Etiquette & Some Reviews (Part 3)
Baijiu: Cocktails, Boston & World Baijiu Day (Part 4)
Baijiu: Food Pairings (Part 5)
Vinn Bajiu: Made in Portland
Baijiu: The Essential Guide To Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus
World Baijiu Day: August 9
Taizi Baijiu: A New Zealand Treasure

Baijiu is most often pronounced as "bye joe," but there are different sources claiming it is pronounced as "bye gio," "bah joo" or "bye zho." The term "baijiu" is derived from two words, "bai"(“transparent”) and "jiu" (“alcoholic drink”), so baijiu is roughly translated as "white liquor," reflective of its white color. In addition, throughout history, and even today, Baijiu has also been known by numerous other terms including samshu (Cantonese for "thrice fired or distilled"), samptsoo, samshew, sam shiu, samshoe, samshoo, samshue, sams-choo, samso, samsu, samtchoo, san-shee, san shao, baigan and shaojiu.

It's difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of Baijiu, with some sources claiming its ancestors extend back two to three thousand years. Many sources seem to agree that it was most likely invented about a thousand years ago, and there are some Baijiu distilleries that can trace their history back 500-600 years. The spirit probably didn't become known in China as Baijiu until about 300 or so years ago. Outside of China, it appears it was better known as samshu until around the 1970s, when the term Baijiu became more commonly known.

Europeans have had contact with China throughout history, from missionaries to merchants, and it's said that thousands of Europeans lived in China during the 13th and 14th centuries. Europeans may have tasted Baijiu at this time though I'm unaware of any written documentation concerning their experiences. When the Ming Dynasty was founded in 1368, much of the contact with Europe was ended and wasn't reestablished until the early 16th century. During this new period, travellers to China were even more likely to have tasted Baijiu though the first documentation of those experiences that I've found so far is from the 17th century.

Part of the reason for this seeming lack of early documentation may be that the travellers, such as sailors, merchants and missionaries, lacked an understanding of Baijiu, possibly confusing it with Chinese wines or other liquors. A deeper examination of the travel guides, journals and letters of these early travelers might be necessary to try to discern earlier, more subtle, references to Baijiu. If anyone else knows of such earlier references, I'd appreciate if you shared that information with me.

The earliest reference I found to Baijiu, under the name Sampson, is in An Embassy Sent by the East-India Company of the United Provinces to the Grand Tartar Cham or Emperor of China by Johan Nieuhof (1665, and in English 1669). Johan was a Dutch traveler who wrote about his travels to Brazil, China and India). His book stated, “After Dinner the Waiters brought up several Gold and Silver Pots full of Sampson, which they pouring out into Wooden Dishes or Cups, gave round the Company, and they drank lustily of it themselves. They told us that this drink was distilled from new Milk, and came out of the Emperor’s Cellar, and that this great favor and kindness was done to us, because we came from so remote a Country, and so we must drink away sorrow. And though this Liquor was almost as strong as Brandy, yet the Ambassadors were forced to pledge the Steward several times, and to take what was left home with them; but they gave it away to the Soldiers, and others who stood at the Gate, who were better pleased with it.”

It's intriguing that Johan states the sampson was distilled from milk. Most of the early references to Baijiu claim that it was made from rice, though we know some producers do make it from milk, though it is rare. Reference is also made that the sampson wasn't as potent as brandy, though close, and later references will often highlight the high alcoholic strength of Baijiu. In addition, as it was mentioned the spirit came from the Emperor's Cellar, it is possible this was high quality liquor, and possible even aged for some time.

The next written reference was in A New Voyage Round The World, Describing Particularly, The Isthmus of America, Several Coasts and Islands in the West Indies, the Isles of Cape Verd, the Passage by Terra Del Fuego, the South Sea Coasts of Chili, Peru, and Mexico by William Dampier (1697). Dampier received a present including “2 great Jars of Arack, (made of Rice as I judged) called by the Chinese, Sam Shu; and 55 Jars of Hoc Shu, as they call it, and our Europeans from them. This is a strong liquor, made of Wheat as I have been told. It looks like Mum, and tastes much like it, and is very pleasant and hearty. Our Seamen love it mightily, and will lick their Lips with it: for scarce a Ship goes to China, but the Men come home fat with soaking this Liquor, and bring store of Jars of it home with them." Later notes indicate that Hoc Shu was a Chinese beer and "was brewed from a special variety of rice, to which drugs were added." In addition, Mum was a strong German beer.

In 1727, Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish sea captain, merchant and privateer, wrote A New Account of the East Indies, mentioning receiving “a small Jar of Samshew, or Rice Arrack.” He later mentions, “...Samshew, a Kind of strong Arrack made of Rice, and with Hockshew, a Kind of strong Ale made of Wheatmalt by Fermentation.” Notes at the end of this book state that Samshew is the same as Chinese san-shao.

In 1744, John Philips, a midshipman, wrote An Authentic Journal of the Late Expedition Under the Command of Commodore Anson, and stated, “a But of Samshue: This Liquor is a Spirit distilled from Rice, and is either of a pale or reddish Colour; several Travellers give it the Name of Wine.”

A Narrative of the British Embassy to China in the Years 1792, 1793, and 1794, by Aeneas Anderson (1795) mentioned, “6 Large jars of samptsoo. The last is a liquor made in China, and imported from thence.” as well as “a small quantity of samptsoo, a spirituous liquor already described.

Looking back at these five references, we see that Baijiu was called something different by each of the sources, though the names were similar. Samshu is a common term for Baijiu, one which would become very common in the 19th century and into the 20th century. Most of the references also indicate the samshu was most commonly produced from rice.

In 1808, William Nicholson, an English chemist, wrote A Dictionary of Practical and Theoretical Chemistry: With Its Application to the Arts and Manufactures, and to the Explanation of the Phaenomena of Nature, referencing Baijiu, “The Chinese distill a spirit from rice, which they distinguish by the name of sam-shu, and of which considerable quantities are exported to Batavia, for the purpose, as it is said, of being converted into arrack by a second distillation: though perhaps it may be consumed among the numerous Chinese who inhabit that city."

More details on Baijiu production are provided in The Fan-Qui in China, Vol.1, by C. Toogood Downing, Esq. (1836-37). However, the book also gives a strong warning about sam-shu, alleging that the Chinese were intentionally adulterating the liquor. Besides being strong in alcohol, there is no evidence of any adulteration, and this is likely a racist attack on the Chinese, intended to blame them for the actions of overly drunk and rowdy sailors.

The book states, “The Chinese manufacture a kind of arrack, made chiefly from rice, and which is called Sam-shu. The ordinary mode of preparing it is as follows:--The rice is kept in hot water until the grains are swollen; water is then added to it, with which a preparation called “Pe-ka,” consisting of rice-flour, liquorice-root, aniseed, and garlic has been mixed. This hastens fermentation, and imparts to the liquor a peculiar flavor. This liquid, if prepared in the foregoing manner, would be highly pungent and stimulating, but would not occasion those deadly effects which appear to be produced by the ordinary sam-shu. It is most probable that the Chinese add other more deleterious ingredients, such as cocculus-indicus, to that which they supply to the sailors, as it has been considered of such an acrid and destructive nature, that an order is always given by the admiral to the officers of the ships belonging to the Royal Navy, which are about to proceed to China, to guard as much as possible against the introduction of sam-shu among the crews, as it is “found to be poison to the human frame.”

The Belfast News-Letter (Northern Ireland), November 10, 1840, published, “In China an ardent spirit is made from rice, and called sam-shu, of which punch is made in a coffee-pot, and it is drink out of China cups; but the natives are not much addicted to its use, a simple infusion of tea being the general beverage of all classes.” This points out that the Chinese are not big drinkers, preferring tea. It's also interesting that they allegedly made a punch out of samshu, and I wish more details were provided as to whatever other ingredients were added to the punch.

More negative attacks on Samshu! The Morning Chronicle, London, December 8, 1840, posted an article about the battle of Chusan, during the First Opium War. The article mentioned that, “The only formidable enemy we have found, in this place, is the infernal liquor they call Samshu. Incredible quantities of this cursed stuff were destroyed immediately after we landed, but several days elapsed before all the cellars were discovered and destroyed, and indeed it is too easily procurable still. The consequence has been, that a great number of men have been drunk. We have had courts-martial, and several men have been flogged.” There is another mention too, “Besides, this liquor appears to be more insidious than any to which they are accustomed.” Sounds more like soldiers simply got rip roaring drunk, and then some were penalized for their actions. Flogged for drinking samshu!

The Boston Post, January 9, 1841, also discussed the effect of samshu on the soldiers at Chusan. : “The overland mail from India brought dates from China of the 4th of August. On the 5th of July, the city and island of Chusan were captured by Brig. Gen. Burrell, after a brief but not very serious resistance. The inhabitants had left the town but were returning. The soldiers had been excited by unlimited indulgence in a spirt called samshu, and had committed several outrages, for which they had been severely punished.

More information on the First Opium War and samshu was referenced in The Ipswich Journal, (England), October 14, 1843. “One of the many causes of mortality amongst the British Forces in the recent war with China, was the two free use of a most pernicious liquor, called Sam-shu. Thus destructive spirit is distilled from rice, and also from sweet potatoes, and is used by the Chinese as an ingredient in cooking. They also drink it in small portions at their meals, warmed. In appearance and flavour it resembles an inferior sherry wine. Many men of all arms, as well naval as military, died miserable deaths from too unguarded an indulgence in its use; and to such an extent did the evil spread, that the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Hugh Gough, considered it necessary, with the view of checking the crime of drunkenness, to notice in in Brigade Orders, and vigilant measures were taken to prevent the Chinese from selling the spirit to the troops.”

This passage is interesting for several reasons. First, it is stated that some samshu is made from sweet potatoes, which appears to be the first time this is mentioned in English sources. Second, it is also stated that the Chinese generally drink it in small portions, with food, and warmed. It seems that Americans weren't able to control themselves with the samshu. Third, samshu is described as an inferior sherry wine, and this wouldn't be the last time that it would be described as similar to sherry in some respects.

The Encyclopedia Metropolitana (1845) published that, “The Chinese make rice wine perfumed, and distill the Rice wine lees, whence they obtain a spirit like brandy, which they call sam-tchoo, or san-tchoo. Before distillation the liquor is called tchoo only, and san, or same, means fiery or hot. The Chinese spirit is above proof, and is not found to contract the bad taste so frequently discovered in European spirits.” A more positive look at samshu.

Another more positive view came in Five Years in China: From 1842 to 1847 by Lieut. F.E. Forbes, R.N. (1848) who noted, “Some of the vessels are placed on a heated metal plate, beneath which is a slow fire, and contain very tolerable samshoo, of all strengths, from brandy to sherry.” The book also notes, “Down we sat to a very good Chinese dinner…,washed down with some very tolerable samshoo.” Seems that the alcohol content of samshu could vary.

Negativity returned! In the Narrative of a Residence in Siam by Frederick Arthur Neale (1852), he stated that “..that most baneful and least desirably-flavoured spirit in the world, samshoe, a Chinese invention, and which is distilled from rice, after the rice has been permitted to foment in, generally speaking, vinegar and water. This samshoe is sometimes flavoured with cinnamon and sugar, and under this guise it assumes the name of a liquor. Doctor B. assured me that its pernicious effects upon the human system were more speedy and sure than a double amount of pure brandy or rum would produce in a much greater space of time.” He also wrote, “..and of all vile potations, that vilest, called samshoe—a spirit distilled from rice, and which is more speedy and certain in its destructive and intoxicating effects than all the rum and brandy in the universe put together.” These comments certainly differ from others, who didn't perceive samshu to be so highly alcoholic. Trying to invoke a doctor's opinion as to the harmful effects of samshu is an attempt to gain some credibility though in this instance, it seems more likely to be a vast exaggeration.

In describing a Chinese banquet, The Daily Exchange (MD), February 25, 1858, published, “Meanwhile the ministering boys flew and fluttered round the table; forever filling the little wine-glasses with hot wine from the metal pots. There were three kinds; the strong samshu for every occasional ‘spike;’ the medicated wine, for those who, having once experience its many flavors, chose to attempt it a second time; and the ordinary wine, which is so like sherry negus, that any one who can drink that preparation may be very well satisfied with its China substitute.” This shows the different spirits and wines available in China, with samshu being the strongest one.

In a similar vein, there was an article on Chinese festivities in The True Northerner (MI), June 25, 1858. The article mentioned, “The women—hired singing women of not doubtful reputation—in the intervals of their music, they take their seats at the table opposite the men. They do not eat, but their business being to promote the conviviality of the feast, they challenge the men to the samshu cud and drink with them. It is astonishing to see what a quantity of diluted samshu these painted and brocaded she-celestials can drink without any apparent effect--.” The article continued, “For the first time since I have been in China, I have seen Chinamen under the influence of samshu. They are not boisterous, or even jolly when in this state, but only sheepish and good-humored. I saw no quarrels.” Again, it seems the Chinese rarely get intoxicated on samshu, and even when they do, they don't start arguments or violence.

This is further supported by Sir John Francis Davis in his Chinese Miscellanies: A Collection of Essays and Notes—1865. He indicates, “Generally, however, they are very moderate in their habits. Even the use of the distilled spirit called samshoo, so general on the arrival of the British, very much declined subsequently, in consequence of the many restrictions it became necessary to impose for the sake of the troops.”

Yet, the negativity against samshu would continue. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), May 11, 1867, printed, “Last Saturday, in the Police Court, a Chinaman was fined $100 and costs for selling a villainous kind of spirituous liquor to native, called ‘Samshu.’ It is manufactured in China from the juice of the green bamboo and is imported here in jars. It is said to be maddening in its effects on the brain—worse, of possible, than strychnine or ‘forty-rod’ whisky.” Worse than strychnine, a poison? This is clearly a vast exaggeration, likely fueled by racism.

And even more negativity! The Charleston Daily News, July 21, 1871, stated, “The Chinese prepare a drink from rice called ‘Sam-shu,’ which is not only intoxicating, but like absinthe, peculiarly mischievous in its permanent effects.” Lots of assertions about the terrible dangers of samshu but no actual evidence.

It doesn't end! The North Carolina Gazette, October 23, 1873, in an article titled, How Sailors Are Poisoned in China, discussed a meeting of the Marine Temperance Society. The article stated, “..; for sailors ashore, of whatever nationality, had no alternative, when weary or thirsty, than to go into some low Chinese grog shop where poisonous liquor was sold, which had the effect of filling both the jail and the hospital. It is well-known that nineteen twentieths of the crime committed by foreigners is committed by the drunken and disorderly classes of sailors.” It continues, “.., for the quality of the drink sold in Chinese shops to sailors defies description. Suffice to say that it is composed of native samshu, kerosene, tobacco bang, and sulphuric acid. One bottle of this stuff is sufficiently strong to make a whole ship’s crew drunk, and its price is only a shilling. It can be bought wholesale at about nine shillings per dozen, and is said to be a cheap and effective blister for horses;..”

Once again it seems that the main problem is drunken sailors, and it probably wouldn't matter what they had been drinking. As it was cheap, the sailors could buy plenty of it and any alcohol consumed in such large amounts would likely cause serious hangovers. Rather than blame the sailors, it was fair easier to blame the Chinese and their samshu.

A more measured mention was published in The New York Herald, August 20, 1874. In a visit to Formosa (now known as Taiwan), “there were great vessels of sweet potato samshu,.. It was reheated and then handed around with persistent, not to say oppressive, hospitality. The liquor was not particularly palatable but was extremely potent, with a flavor not unlike very inferior Irish whiskey.” Once again, we see a reference to sweet potato samshu, its strong potency, and some distaste at its flavor. However, we''l return to Formosa shortly for a more grisly samshu reference.

During the latter half of the 19th century, there were a number of cases of attempted smuggling of samshu, to avoid paying a duty, into the Territory of Hawaii. For example, The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), August 26, 1876, noted, “For violation of the Revenue Laws, will be sold In Bond, 5 cases—50 Gallons Fruit Flavored Samshu." It is interesting to see that the samshu was fruit flavored, which is the first mention of such.

Besides the auction of this seized samshu, there were auctions for legal samshu as well. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), June 16, 1877, had an advertisement for an Auction sale of Goods and Liquors, including “Jars Chinese Samshu.” This may be the first reference to the legal sale of samshu in the U.S.

Some samshu statistics. The Daily Honolulu Press, March 18, 1882, presented an Annual Trade Review for 1881, with a list of Increase of Exports and Imports. “Table of spirits taken out for consumption for 1881….shows that Brandy leads the list, standing together at a little over 18,000 gallons, while Gin and Samshu, the articles largely dealt in by the Chinese, show a large increase,…”  Imports for Gin were at 12,154 gallons while Samshu imports were at 9429 gallons. In comparison, twelve years later, in 1893, Hawaii imported only about 3,400 gallons of Japanese Sake.

Once again, negativity! The Boston Globe, March 24, 1882, wrote, “There is a vile decoction from China, called Samshu, is drank, compared to which benzine is nectar.”

The Stephens City Star (VA), December 23, 1882, discussed a visit to China, and a dinner at a  restaurant, where, “The drinkables were samshu of two different strengths, the one to imbibe while eating, the other at dessert—the former was flat, mild, and rather flavorless, the latter rough and potent—both, to my palate disagreeable. Samshu is a spirit distilled usually from rice, although it may be made from potatoes, beans, or sugar-cane; it is of a whitish color, and not altogether unlike bad whisky much under proof. It serves the Chinese in lieu of wine, which they never make from the grape.” It is interesting to see that a mention that samshu can be made by various ingredients. This is also the first mention of different types of samshu that are drank at different parts of a mea.

A bit more explanation of the translation of samshu is provided in The Middle Kingdom by Samuel Wells Williams (1883). “Only one distillation is made for common liquor, but when more strength is wanted, it is distilled two or three times, and it is this strong spirit alone which is rightly called samshu, a word meaning ‘thrice-fired."

There is an intriguing, albeit short, scientific paper dealing with samshu. In the one-page Analysis of Sam-Shu, A Chinese Liquor by Charles E. Munsell, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, November 1, 1885, samples of samshu were sent to the Health Department for chemical analysis. The report states, “This liquid, which has the color of rich sherry wine, is imported in large quantities and is sold here (New York City) in the shops of Mott and Pell streets to Chinamen, who are very fond of it, not only for drinking but for preparing their opium for smoking. It is not agreeable to the taste of Caucasians, as it tastes and smells like spoiled Jamaica rum. Hitherto the proprietors of the Chinese shop, where it is retailed, have refused to take out licenses, because they did not consider the liquid intoxicating; in consequence of this refusal a sample was sent to the Health Department by the Excise Commissioners, with a request for its analysis."

The test results indicate that the samshu has 45.70% of alcohol by volume (or ABV), and “These analyses show that Sam-shu contains as much alcohol as any liquor usually sold." In comparison, today, most vodka, rum, and similar spirits are about 40% ABV, so samshu is stronger and there are plenty of modern versions of Baijiu over 50% ABV.

Would you try a medicine called the Tincture of Five Poisons? The Iron County Register (MO), January 14, 1886, published an article on Chinese medicinal remedies, noting, “A favorite remedy is known as ‘the tincture of five poisons,’ made by steeping scorpions, snakes and other venomous creatures in samshu. This is given for fever, rheumatism and catarrh. In some parts of China it is considered the very highest degree of philanthropy for the rich to place this tincture at their doors, to be used without cost by the poor.Catarrah is an inflammation of the mucus membranes. A couple years ago, I had a Vietnamese "wine" which had a snake and scorpion in the bottle, and it was horrible, like rotted kerosene.

And the negativity returns. The Sunday Leader (PA), June 6, 1886, printed, “If he is ‘fond of his glass’, and can afford it, he will take a couple thimblefuls of ‘samshu,’ a fearful burning sort of spirit made from the juice of a plant called ‘Kowliang." The plant this reference mentions is Kaoliang, sorghum, which is now the main ingredient in many Baijiu spirits.

Another samshu seizure. The Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 22, 1887, reported that in San Francisco, “Seven hundred bottles of samshu, a Chinese liquor worth about $500, were to-day seized on the steamship San Pablo by the Customs officers and confiscated, as it was not in the manifest and was to be smuggled ashore.” This indicates that the price of a bottle of samshu is worth under $1.

Archibald John Little, in his book Through The Yang-Tse Gorges (1888), noted, “The business of the day commenced with swallowing endless thimblefuls of hot ‘sam-shu,’ a fiery spirit made from millet." This is the first reference to samshu being made from this grain.

Is samshu a killer? The San Francisco Examiner, November 26, 1888, in an article titled Sam-Shu Did It, it mentions that, “Thomas Stewart, an ex-trusty at nearly every public institution in the city, having been cook at the City Prison, County Jail and House of Correction, was found dead on the sidewalk, corner of Clay and Dupont streets, by Officer M. Hayes last night. Stewart was a native of Boston, Mass. And possessed a fine education, but had been ruined by drink. Of late he had been drinking sam-shu—Chinese rice brandy—and this is what killed him.”

A samshu drinking game! The Pittsburgh Dispatch, November 10, 1889, wrote a Chinese drinking game, stating, “A common game at Chinese dinners is the guessing the number of fingers which one man thrusts out quickly before the eyes of his neighbors. If the guess is wrong the guesser has to take a drink of samshu.” I suspect this is only one of plenty of other drinking games the Chinese play.

What's the penalty for stealing a bottle of samshu? The Evening Bulletin (HI), July 16, 1892, reported that “Oscar Schussler was caught last Wednesday breaking open a case of Chinese liquor and taking out a bottle of samshu. The case had just been landed from the British S.S. Palmas and Schussler was employed as a dock laborer in discharging the steamer. Customs officer Charles Clark found the bottle in Schussler’s pocket. He was arrested since then and was tried in the Police Court this morning. Schussler denied the accusation and stated some natives broke the case, got full on the liquor and left a bottle on the wharf. This of course was believed—not, and Schussler was found guilty of larceny in the 4th degree and sentenced to imprisonment at hard labor for thirty days.” Maybe he should have pled guilty and sought the mercy of the court.

A rather grisly method of drinking samshu. If you're squeamish, skip to the next paragraph. You have been warned. In the San Francisco Examiner, June 15, 1895, there was an article with a lengthy title, With Formosa Savages, Cannibals Who Drink Samshu Through Carved Chinese Throats, Wandering Warrior Bands That Eat Human Hearts and Livers and Have Chiefs Who Tread Like Conquerors. T.G. Gowlan, a tea exporter, recently traveled through the wild regions of the island of Formosa. Concerning the island's inhabitants, he said “these savages are head takers and cannibals. In their wars with the Chinese they cut off heads and then pour the native drink, samshu, into the mouths and drink it through the bleeding neck. They eat human hearts and livers.” Though there is evidence of head hunting and cannibalism among some of the indigenous peoples of Formosa, whether they actually drank samshu out of a bloody neck is suspect. However, they have been said to drink alcohol out of skulls.

In December 1895, a Chinese samshu saloon opened in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Gazette, January 14, 1896, wrote about this new saloon and interviewed the owner. The saloon was located midway between Hotel and King streets on the Waikiki side of Nuuanu, and it was noted, "The general appearance of the place is decidedly American.” It is also said to be more of a liquor store and not really a saloon as “…there is no drinking done there. Each and every man, woman and child is required to buy a bottle duly sealed with dirty sealing wax and stamped with the name “Kat Poo” or go home empty-handed.” The Chinese owner is named Kat Poo and had some difficulty speaking English, so the newspaper cleaned up his English for the answers they printed.

Kat Poo stated, “No, samshu is not the name of any particular liquor. It is the Chinese name for spirituous liquors of all kinds.” “Now, then, I have wines, whisky and gin of many Chinese brands here. The gin is white, the whisky yellowish, and the majority of the wine red. You may be surprised when I tell you that all Chinese liquors are manufactured from rice, but such is the case.” He then continued, “The power of intoxication of our liquor, I claim, to be above the average, but, then, I would not have this go abroad, as it might have a very bad effect, particularly since everything in my store is so cheap. The highest priced article in the house is only $.150.” As for his clientele, “most of my patronage comes from Chinese and Hawaiians. White men are not very far behind. Those who come here once always return.” And as for his sourcing, “All my liquor comes from Hongkong, to which place it is brought from surrounding smaller towns and cities.”

This was certainly an in-depth and interesting article, and largely positive in its depiction of samshu. It was also fascinating to learn that the saloon had many "white men" as customers, indicating the popularity of the spirit was spreading outside of its usual channels. It likely helps that everything is so inexpensive.

Not all samshu is inexpensive. The Buffalo Evening News, July 13, 1897, printed, “What shoa-shing is to the upper classes, sam-shui is to the masses. It is made from rice, and is its triple distillate. Old sam-shui is very expensive, and tastes like old sherry.” Nowadays, there are some very expensive Baijiu, especially some of the more aged versions.

To Be Continued...

Thursday, June 13, 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) Bergamot, in Somerville, has introduced their new Bar Menu and it’s all about the Ocean, “From the sea to your plate!” Chef Keith Pooler has come up with some exciting seafood including the following:

Fried Oysters (Scrambled Egg, Bacon, Tomato - Leek Fondue) $12
Tuna Tartare (Cucumber, Radish, Flying Fish Roe) $14
Fish Sticks (Roasted Pepper – Basil Aioli) $12 (Now the idea of Fish Sticks really intrigues me!)
Lobster Melt (Cheddar, Scallions, Brioche) $22 (Also sounds excellent)
Steamers with Brown Butter $14 (I haven't had steamers in much too long!)

Plus, Bergamot offers $1 Oyster Days on Sunday, Monday & Wednesday.

To make reservations, please call (617) 576-7700

2) Patina Restaurant Group (PRG) is announce the opening of the new Reef Bar at Boston’s New England Aquarium (NEAQ) today, June 13. The waterfront space, located on the Aquarium Plaza with views of Boston Harbor overlooking Long Wharf, is a scenic outdoor dining location. With a new open-air look and culinary program for summer, Reef Bar will open with a creative menu focused on fresh, sustainable seafood, creative sandwiches and salads.

Menu highlights for sharing and socializing include an iced shellfish bar, flatbreads and a traditional mayo, celery and lemon lobster roll on brioche. Charcuterie boards go a step beyond with a choice of meat, seafood, or plant-based charcuterie board. On the seafood board are blue fish pâté, salmon pastrami, cod brandade and ocean kimchi.

Following the trends of rosy-hued, fresh fruit-infused libations, Reef Bar's craft cocktails include the Cunning Cuttlefish (Bacardi Silver rum, fresh ginger, lime juice, mint), the Rockhopper (Tito's vodka, St. Elder, grapefruit juice, sparkling rosé), and The Myrtle (Jose Cuervo Silver tequila, hibiscus liqueur, ginger liqueur, and lime juice).

Reef Bar showcases ocean-friendly seafood, an ethos in keeping with the Aquarium's longstanding interest in sustainable practices. Working with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, as many ingredients as possible are sourced locally, including local oysters, lobster, mussels, and clams. Additionally, straws are available only upon request, and are made of paper. All of the disposable products are compostable, in cooperation with Eco-Products.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Early History of Sake Brewing in British Columbia

When was the first Sake brewery constructed in North America?

As I previously wrote, in A History of Sake Brewing in the U.S., the first legal Sake brewery in the U.S. started producing Sake in 1902, though there had been an earlier idea, which did not come to fruition, to start a brewery in Chicago in 1892. Was the U.S. the first country in North America with a Sake brewery? My latest research indicates there was likely a large-scale Sake brewery in British Columbia (B.C.) before 1902, but it was an illegal operation.

As Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1880s, some of the first Japanese immigrants to Western Canada arrived around 1889, to the coal mines in Cumberland. Others would soon follow, often coming to work on the railroads, in fisheries or the logging industry. Vancouver became the center of the Japanese community. By 1900, there were about 4600 Japanese in B.C. and by 1911, there would be about 8600, far smaller numbers than those that immigrated to Hawaii or California. And where there were Japanese immigrants, there was Sake.

Ryoji Onodera, who would become a significant figure in early Sake brewing in B.C., was born in 1854 in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan. In 1875, he married Uino Oikawa, whose father was a businessman involved in the transport industry, and he was subsequently adopted into their family, changing his name to Jinsaburo Oikawa. During the next twenty years, Jinsaburo became a successful business and, in time, was intrigued with reports of "the tremendous volume of salmon in the Fraser River (in Vancouver) and how fishermen discarded salmon roe, a delicacy in Japan."  Seeing a business opportunity, he traveled to Vancouver in August 1896 and liked what he found. He returned to Japan to gain more experience and acquire some workers, and then went back to Vancouver in 1897.

Jinsaburo and a partner, Souemon Sato, settled in Sunbury, "a rural district located on the south side of the south arm of the Fraser River directly opposite Don and Lion Islands.” Soon enough, he "brewed sake for sale to Japanese and trade with whites in exchange for dog salmon." In May 1899, he traveled to Japan and then returned to Vancouver, bringing with him a Sake brewer, Juro Saito, and a cooper, Tatsunosuke Suzuki. Oikawa's plans were to produce Sake, soy sauce and miso for the Japanese community in and around Vancouver. Eventually, in early 1901, Oikawa and about thirty others relocated to Don Island, which was previously uninhabited and located on the Frasier River, though the island soon became known as Oikawa-jima.

One of the first buildings they constructed on the island was a Sake brewery, showing the great importance of Sake to their community. The cooper would use cottonwood trees to construct barrels. Enough Sake was soon produced that some could be traded or sold to other local residents, much of it traded for dog salmon. For white fishermen, dog salmon were considered relatively worthless, but it was a commodity of value to the Japanese. Interestingly, two types of Sake were produced, a clear Sake to trade with white fishermen for the salmon, and a type of nigori, a cloudy Sake, for the Japanese. Because of their Sake business, Jinsaburo gained a new nickname, “raw sake Oijin.”

Despite Oikawa's Sake brewery being illegal, the authorities had never bothered it because they saw it as something too small scale for their attention, as well as something that was largely directed at the Japanese community. However, after receiving some complaints, possibly from competitors, the local police felt compelled to act. In September 1911, the police raided and shut down the brewery.  .

Much of the above information is based, in part, on a historical novel that was written by Jiro Nitta and published in 1979. Though some of the book is fictional, it is strongly rooted in fact, and based on numerous unpublished sources, including an autobiography by Oikawa. Additional sources have verified much of the information with the novel, and noted where there were fictional aspects. The general information about the early Sake brewing appears to be largely accurate, and supported by other sources.  

For example, Buck Suzuki, who was born into the Don Island community, verified that Sake brewers were brought from Japan and that the operation was on a large scale. He noted that the rice for the Sake was stored in huge barrels while thousands of gallons of Sake were produced. He also mentions that the police did raid the brewery, using axes to break open the barrels. Another man who lived in the area during that time, Albert Olson, stated that the Sake was being sold for $2 per gallon, or 35 cents per bottle.

The first legal Sake brewery in British Columbia originated around 1923, though there is some confusion over its legal status during its early years of existence. The Victoria Daily Times, July 19, 1923, noted that "Vancouver interests obtained approval for the organization of the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd, with a capital of $100,000." This new company, located at 2235 Triumph Street, planned on producing a large amount of Sake for both Japanese consumers and others. The article stated the Sake will be "sold through Government liquor stores, as many white persons have taken to the Oriental drink.”

The brewery was founded by Koichiro Sanmiya, a Japanese businessman who was born in Sendai, Japan, around 1880 and came to Vancouver in 1907. He also owned the Strand Hotel restaurant, an import/export business, and the Canada Daily Newspaper, a Japanese-language newspaper. He also founded the Canadian Japanese Association. At the time, his license for the Sake brewery was the only distiller's license issued in British Columbia so it was clear there were no other legal Sake breweries in the region. Unfortunately, Sanmiya died in March 1931 of appendicitis.

The Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. though faced a significant obstacle from the start, though this is where some confusion enters the situation. Two days after the announcement of the plans for the Sake brewery, The Victoria Daily Times, July 21, 1923 reported on the strong opposition to the plans from Attorney General Alexander Manson. Manson received a report on illegal Sake manufacture which noted that Sake consumption had "reached the proportions of a great evil.” And Manson's reaction was mentioned, “As soon as he learned of the evils of the sake trade Mr. Manson put machinery in motion to have the whole thing checked.”

One of the items in the report was that the Japanese were supplying it to the Indians, getting them intoxicated, and then taking advantage of them in trading for fish. Manson decided that no licenses to manufacture Sake should be authorized and he made it clear that "he will refuse his consent to the operations of the $100,000 sake corporation’s operations in Vancouver. This means that this company will not be able to operate."

For about the next three years, there appeared to be no mention in the newspapers of the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. so potentially they were denied authorization to operate their Sake brewery. Then, the Times Colonist, July 19, 1926, mentioned that authorities, seeking a source of illegal Sake, raided and seized control of the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. They found that the brewery was well-equipped and possessed "large quantities of liquor in cases for shipment or in the process of brewing." They arrested the only person they found at the brewery and left Provincial policemen behind to maintain guard over the facility.

In a curious turn of events, The Province, August 6, 1926, reported that “A charge of keeping liquor for sale laid against the Vancouver Malt & Saki Co. was dismissed by Police Magistrate J.A. Findlay." The person who was arrested, Sam Miya, the manager, was charged with selling liquor, pled guilty and received a $300 fine. "In the charge against the company, the defense contended that there was no evidence of other than one sale and none to show that other liquor in the place was to be disposed of illegally.”

The fact they didn't shut down the brewery for being an illegal still operation seems to indicate that it possessed a license to manufacture Sake, despite the Attorney General's prior opposition. However, they would have been obligated only to sell through Sake through government liquor stores. They couldn't sell it directly to any customers, including restaurants. bars, tea houses, etc. The police magistrate's decision makes sense then, as there wasn't any evidence that the brewery was selling their Sake outside of the government liquor stores.

In 1927, Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. entered into a contract with the Vancouver Brewers Ltd., which primarily manufactured beer. Vancouver Malt agreed not to brew or sell beer, for a period of fifteen years, in exchange for $15,000 and to obtain a listing in the government liquor stores for their Sake. This would help Vancouver Malt in their Sake production. That simple agreement though would eventually become a major point of legal contention.

The first advertisement I found for the Sake produced by Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. was in The Province, January 9, 1931. Their brand is Masamune, listed as “A Pure Rice Beer” at 28% proof spirit (14% ABV). It was priced at 70 cents for a 26 ounce bottle.

Around February 1932, after the death of Sanmiya, the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. was sold. Sanmiya's eldest son had come from Japan to take over the operation of the Sake brewery, but had difficulty replicating the Sake once made by his father. Thus, Sanmiya's wife, Morio, decided to sell the brewery. It was purchased by I.B. Hewer, of the real estate firm of McGregor & Hewer, and Fritz Sick, a veteran Alberta beer brewer. They also bought a site at 1445 Powell Street and began to construct a brewery, with the objective of producing beer. Fritz is also the president of the Associated Breweries of Canada Limited, the second largest brewing concern in the region.

Hewer and Sick apparently failed to do their due diligence as they immediately ran into legal difficulties. Vancouver Breweries Ltd. filed an injunction to enforce the agreement, specifically the noncompete section, it had entered into with Vancouver Malt back in 1927. According to that agreement, Hewer and Sick wouldn't be able to brew beer at their facility until 1942. Lengthy legal proceedings began, and Vancouver Malt was at least initially prevented from making beer. At the conclusion of the first trial, in June 1832, Vancouver Breweries prevailed and the noncompete was enforced. The decision was appealed by Vancouver malt.

In August 1932, Vancouver Malt was incorporated, an indication of confidence in their business. However, in January 1933, the Appeals Court upheld the previous verdict so Vancouver Malt took the next step, an appeal to the Privy Court in London. During the course of these legal proceedings, Fritz Sick took some time to travel to Japan, to study the manufacture of Sake. When he returned to Vancouver, he decided to produce Sake, especially as he couldn't yet make any beer.

Fritz decided to keep the Masamune brand name, but decided to push the Sake as a cocktail mixer and even provided a number of cocktail recipes using the Sake. The ad states, “Masamune is a pure cereal brew matured to minute timing and produced under the most exacting conditions of cleanliness. When the weather is warm try with well-cooled ginger ale or lemon. On a cool evening…if you would enjoy the true Oriental flavor….serve clear, and quite warm.” The price was reduced from 70 cents to 55 cents for a 26 ounce bottle.

Their first cocktail recipe was provided in an ad in The Province, June 21, 1933. The Masamune Julep is a mix of ½ ounce Gin, 1 ½ ounces Masamune Sake, a dash of Grenadine, and a dash of Pineapple Juice. Add crushed ice and a sprig of Mint dipped in fine sugar. Mix in the long glass. Add other fruit if desired and serve with a straw.

In The Vancouver Sun, June 30, 1933, the new recipe was for the Masamune Pink Lady,A mid-summer cocktail delicate as its name—pleasing and palatable." It is a mix of 8 parts Masamune Sake, 1 part Italian Vermouth, 1 part French Vermouth, 2 parts Gin, 2 dashes of Grenadine, 2 dashes of Lemon Juice, and 2 dashes of Pineapple Juice. Add crushed ice and mix in shaker.

The Vancouver Sun, July 7, 1933, presented the Masamune Dry Cocktail, “Served as an appetizer with a cherry or an olive—this Masamune Dry Cocktail is always a favorite.” It is a mix of 6 portions Masamune Sake, 2 portions of French Vermouth, 1 portion of Italian Vermouth, and 3 drops of Angostura bitters. Add crushed ice and mix in shaker.

For large parties, The Vancouver Sun, July 14, 1933, presents a recipe for the Masamune Punch Bowl. You'll need a large punch bowl as it is a mix of 6 bottles of Masamune Sake, 2 bottles of French Vermouth, 2 bottles of Italian Vermouth, and a few drops of Angostura bitters. Add crushed ice, a twist of Lemon Peel and other fruits if desired.

The Province, August 16, 1933, presented a recipe for the Masamune Fizz. It is a mix of 3 ounces Masamune Sake, 1 ounce gin, a dessert spoon of pure cream, 3 teaspoons powdered sugar, cracked or crushed ice. Stir well and pour into glass. Fill with club soda. If using crushed ice, strain off into glass before adding soda.

Allegedly, the Masamune Sake was even curative! In an advertisement in The Vancouver Sun, September 8, 1933, it states; “Serve warm for a cold. Masamune is widely recognized as being highly beneficial in relieving colds, and that is a big item now the rainy season is arrived. Serve quite warm either by itself or blended with hot lemonade.” Some people swear by a hot toddy, and this is simply more of a Japanese version, with a Canadian twist.

Good news than arrived for the Hewer and Sick of Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. in February 1934. The Privy Council overruled lower courts and sided with the defendants, allowing them to now brew beer. The brewery at Vancouver Malt was then renovated so it could produce beer and the company name was changed, in July 1934, to the Capilano Brewing Co, Ltd. That same month, they released their first beer, under the trade name “Capilano.” Was this the end of their Sale production?

Initially, you might have thought that they would continue to make Masamune Sake. The Province, November 2, 1934 presented an ad for “The New Masamune,” though the price had risen to 70 cents. The producer is now listed as Capilano Brewing Co. Ltd. The ad declares, “Brewed to perfection in the only Sake plant in the British Empire. The New Masamune, declared by experts to be the finest product of its kind in the market, is now on sale at Government Liquor Stores. Smooth as a rare old wine, The New Masamune is a pure cereal brew matured to minute timing under the most exacting conditions of temperature and cleanliness. Unvarying in content, purity and clarity, it is ideal for making cocktails since it blends so readily with other liquors and mixes perfectly with any favorite soft drink. And it is so economical, enabling you to serve in large numbers at surprisingly low cost with minimum of preparation.”

The ad also presented another Sake cocktail, The Soldier’s Cocktail. It is a mix of 1 part Rum “proof”, 8 parts Masamune Sake, a dash of pineapple juice to suit flavor, and a drop or few drops of Angostura Bitters. Strain and serve in cocktail glass. Dash of grenadine may be used. The approximate cost of the cocktail is 6 cents each.

In another ad, The Vancouver Sun, November 28, 1934, presented a recipe for the Masamune Flip. It is a mix of 6 oz Masamune, the juice of ½ orange, 1 whole egg, 2 teaspoons sugar, 2 pinches nutmeg, and ice. Shake well. Serve in wine glass. Approximate cost is 4 cents each.

However, the ads for Masamune Sake seem to end in 1934 and the only other reference I found was in The Vancouver Sun, March 28, 1935, where there is a mention that the price of Masamune Sake at government liquor stores had dropped to 60 cents. Possibly, Fritz had decided to end the production of Sake and concentrate only on beer, his first love. He might have attempted to sell off the Sake he had been aging prior to the Privy Council's decision. In June 1938, Fritz retired from Capilano.

Today, there are two Sake breweries in B.C., including the Artisan Sake Maker, owned by Masa Shiroki, which was founded in 2007 on Granville Island. The other is the YK3 Sake Producer, which was founded in 2013, taking over the the former Nipro Sake Brewery in Richmond. The legacy of Jinsaburo Oikawa, Koichiro Sanmiya, and Fritz Sick continues.

(The original version of this article was posted in May 2015, and has seen expansions/revisions over the years due to additional research. My research hasn't stopped so there will likely be additional expansions/revisions in the future.)