Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A Baijiu Class with Derek Sandhaus

Baijiu might be the most popular spirit in the world, but it's still relatively unknown in much of the U.S. More education and exposure to Baijiu is needed to elevate the recognition of this fascinating spirit. I've written about 15 articles about Baijiu, helping to promote this beverage. Recently, i attended a Baijiu class held by Derek Sandhaus, a Baijiu expert, to expand my own knowledge and it was fun, tasty and informative.


The class was held in Chinatown, at Shojo, and only a small group attended. It would have been better if the class was better attended, if more locals had come to learn about Baijiu. It remains a tiny niche spirit, but that needs to change. With all the emphasis on mixology in the Boston area, Baijiu would be an excellent addition to any bar as it's a versatile and unique cocktail ingredient. 

Derek Sandhaus, pictured above, has spent many years in China as a China-based writer and editor and has previously published two books, Tales of Old Peking and Tales of Old Hong Kong. He also wrote two books on Baijiu, including Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture. I've read both books and they are comprehensive, educational and fascinating, definitely recommended. Derek also runs a Baijiu consultancy and is a partner in the Ming River Baijiu project. In person, Derek is very personable, down to earth, and obviously passionate about Baijiu. 

During 2006-2013, Derek was in China working in the publishing business, eventually moving from Shanghai to Chengdu. He learned that the Sichuan province was the center of the Chinese distilling industry, and he became fascinated with Baijiu. He started to learn everything he could about Baijiu, visiting numerous distilleries, and that led to the publication of his first book on Baijiu.

During the course of the class, Derek provided plenty of information about Baijiu, from its lengthy history to its intriguing production process. Although many Americans think all Baijiu tastes like the famed Maotai, the category actually has much diversity, including at least 12 different styles. During the class, we sampled Baijiu from the top four types. 

About 8 billion liters of Baijiu are annually produced in China, and there are a few Baijiu distilleries outside of China, in places from New Zealand to Oregon. Currently, the term "Baijiu" isn't legally protected so it can be used by any distillery around the world. As there are only a handful of non-Chinese Baijiu distilleries, there hasn't been a real need to protect the term, but that could change in the future. 

Brand Finance creates lists of the most valuable spirit brands in the world, and in their latest list, the Top Five Spots all belonged to Baijiu producers, including Maotai, Wuliangye, Yanghe, Luzhou Laojiao, and Gujing Gong Jiu. The 6th spot was taken by Jack Daniels, and the rest of the Top Ten included Hennessy, Smirnoff, Bacardi and Johnnie Walker. Who would have realized the vast popularity of Baijiu?

We began the class with a Baijiu cocktail, the Bai Bai Mule, which is on Shojo's Drinks menu. It's made with Ming River Baijiu, Cucumber, Lime, Mint, and House Ginger Beer. It was tasty and refreshing, not too sweet, with some tropical fruit flavors. An excellent summer drink, and a nice way to show the versatility of Baijiu. It possessed more flavor than a traditional Moscow Mule, which is made from Vodka. 

We then tasted 4 types of Baijiu, the most popular types, including Rice Aroma, Light Aroma, Strong Aroma, and Sauce Aroma. The Baijiu included Vinn Baijiu, Kinmen Kaoliang, Ming River and Maotai Prince, varying from 40% ABV to 53% ABV. The Vinn was produced from brown rice while the other three were made from sorghum. Each Baijiu had their own distinct flavor profile, and there certainly would be at least one type that appealed to any spirit lover. In China, Baijiu is commonly drank straight, in shots, but Americans might find Baijiu more appealing in cocktails, at least until they get used to the unique flavors of Baijiu.

The Ming River Baijiu, which I previously reviewed, is a Strong Aroma Baijiu, the most popular type, which occupies about 70% of the market. It possesses three layers of flavor. 1) tropical fruit-pineapple, 2) floral, anise, licorice; and 3) funky, cheesy, earthy, umami. After Derek's first Baijiu book was published, he was approached about opening a Baijiu Bar in China. This bar, Capital Spirits, became the first Baijiu bar in the world. It's primary clientele were ex-pats and younger Chinese, who enjoyed cocktails.  

Then, Derek, and his partners, Bill and Matthias, were approached by the Luzhou Laojiao distillery who wished assistance in producing a Baijiu that would appeal to the international market. They joined this project, which led to a variety of blending experiments, with input from numerous bartenders. The end result was Ming River Baijiu, which was intended to work well with a variety of cocktails, such as Tiki drinks. 

The Ming River (about $38) recently became available in the Boston market and it would be an excellent introduction to Baijiu, showcasing its delicious taste and versatility. I've been enjoying a simple and refreshing blend of Ming River and lemonade. You can also find some suggested cocktails on their website. You could enjoy the Ming River on its own, or experiment with cocktails at home.  

Shojo also provided some snacks for the class.

Duck Fat Fries with Sriracha Aioli.

Fried Chicken Bao

For more information about Baijiu, Derek has created an online course, Baijiu 101: The Fundamentals of Chinese Spirits. It is free and additional courses will be added in the future. 

Expand your palate and try some Baijiu, ignoring your preconceptions about it. The Ming River Baijiu would be a good starting point, to experiment with your favorite cocktails. Or go to some of the restaurants and bars that have Baijiu cocktails and give one a try. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

International Plavac Mali Day: Skaramuča Plavac Mali

Today is International Plavac Mali Day!

The Croatian Wine Alliance, a group of global teams promoting Croatian wines led by the US-based duo, Aroma Wine Co., and Croatian Premium Wine Imports, Inc., made September 21 to be International Plavac Mali Day. This collaboration is a public and private partnership among organizations from the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and Croatia – all dedicated to telling the many stories of this indigenous and predominant Croatian red variety. 

Plavac Mali is a descendant of Zinfandel (aka Tribidrag or Crljenak kaštelanski) creating a natural hybrid with another indigenous variety, Dobričić. Plavac Mali produces several styles of wines, from medium-bodied and easy-drinking, to elegant and robust wines. The aromas in Plavac mali are predominantly dark berries and Mediterranean herbs with expressive tannins, and mineral on the palate. Plavac Mali means ‘little blue’, referring to its appearance, small and dark blue berries.

Two years ago this month, I visited Croatia, and wrote numerous articles about my experiences in that beautiful and wondrous country. I learned much about Plavac Mali, having visited numerous vineyards and wineries, and tasted a diverse variety of the wines. That diversity is compelling, as you can enjoy fresh and light Plavac Mali wines, as well as heavier, more robust wines that will age very well. So, you can enjoy Plavac Mali with a wide assortment of foods, just dependent on which style you prefer. 

My article, Volarević Winery: Organic Rakija & The Complexity of Plavac Mali, provides more information about Plavac Mali, its origins, as well as the efforts to study and research this fascinating grape. In some respects, and despite the long history of Plavac Mali, there is still much to learn about this grape, and that that times, research and experimentation. As I said in that article, "This is a grape which can present greatness, which can compare well to other famed red grapes around the world."

Onto a couple Plavac Mali wines that I recently drank.

The family behind Vina Skaramuča family has growing vineyards on Pelješac Peninsula of Croatia for several generations. However, when Ivo Skaramuča, the vineyard only had a few hectares which has now grown to about 20 hectares. Most of their vineyards are in the Dingač region,  and they now  possess the largest vineyard in this region. In 1961, Dingač became the first protected wine region in Croatia and it is well known for its Plavac Mali wines. Today the winery is managed by Igor Skaramuča, Ivana and Branimir Anđelić

The 2017 Vina Skaramuča Plavac Premium ($16) is made from 100% Plavac Mali from vineyards in Pelješac and the Dingač. It was fermented in stainless steel, aged for 6 months in large 3000L barrels, aged for another 6 months in the bottle, and has a 13% ABV. This is a lighter, easier drinking Plavac Mali, with plenty of tasty red and black fruit flavors, good acidity, and some subtle spice notes. This is an everyday wine, perfect on its own or with everything from pizza to burgers, tacos to salmon. 

The 2016 Vina Skaramuča Plavac Mali Dingac ($24) is a different style of Plavac Mali, a bigger, bolder version. It is 100% Plavac Mali, all organically grown, and using natural yeasts. It is aged for 12 months in large 3000L barrels, aged for another 6 months in the bottle, and has a 14% ABV. This wine tends more to richer, black fruit flavors, like plum and black cherry, with an ample spicy element, strong tannins, and a touch of earthiness. A lengthy finish, nicely balanced, and quite tasty. This is a wine to pair with hearty dishes, from steak to stews. Or some wild boar. 

How did you celebrate International Plavac Mali wine Day?

Monday, September 20, 2021

Rant: Going Beyond Beef, Pork & Chicken

For many Americans, they rarely, if ever, go beyond the basic trio of beef, pork, and chicken. Those three proteins constitute the center of the vast majority of their meals. It hasn't always been that way. Historically, our ancestors had much more diverse palates, enjoying a wide variety of other animals on their plates. Somehow, during the last hundred years, Americans stopped eating so many different meats. 

Why have Americans become so boring with their food choices?

There are numeroius reasons why you should be eating other animals, beyond the common three, the cow, pig and chicken. First, other animals can be more sustainable, better for our environment, and that is currently a significant issue for our world. Second, they can be more nutritious, better for your health, especially if the common three are produced by factory farms. Third, other animals can be quite tasty, presenting different flavors that the common three animals. Fourth, they are usually no more difficult to cook and prepare as the common three. Fifth, it's just exciting to try something new and different, to be adventurous with your palate. 

As for poultry, most people only eat chicken, with an exception for turkey, although that is usually only on holidays like Thanksgiving. Why not expand your palate to include duck, quail, goose, squab, pheasant, and guinea hens? As for other meats, go beyond beef and pork, and try animals such as bison, elk, venison, rabbit, wild boar, lamb, goat, or go even more exotic with items like kangaroo, snake, yak, llama, and more. 

Did you know that the USDA stated Rabbit was the most nutritious meat? It's also very sustainable, can be prepared in a myriad of ways, and has a tasty, mild flavor. 

At the very least, you should seek out more heritage and special breeds of cows and pigs, from Waygu cattle to Mangalitsa pigs. Those breeds are usually raised in a more sustainable method, on a smaller scale, and possess much more flavor than the usual beef and pork you consume. 

Why have Americans become so boring with their food choices? Primarily, it's a psychological issue, that many people won't eat other animals because it seems so strange, or the animal is too cute, or they are unwilling to venture out beyond their comfort zone. It's rarely a taste issue as these other animals are delicious. 

Practically, there are a couple obstacles, but they are relatively minor, and can be overcome. First, it can be difficult to find these other animals at the usual grocery stores, although even they are now offering more than the common three. And a couple chains, like Wegmans and Whole Foods, offer a variety of different meats, from duck to bison. Some of these meats can also be ordered online, delivered to your home. If you are willing to have an adventurous palate, you can find these different meats.

Price may be a concern as well, but you need to properly consider that issue. First, most people eat too large a portion of protein and it would be healthier for you to eat a smaller portion. And small portions would be less expensive. Second, you also get what you pay for, usually higher quality meat, free from the problems of the larger factory farms. Third, not all of these different meats are as expensive as you might think. 

If you want to step your toes into the water, try some different meats at a restaurant. Many restaurants commonly offer something different than the common three. And once you enjoy such a dish at a restaurant, you'll be more likely to want to eat it at home as well. Try duck wings instead of chicken wings, some chicken fried rabbit, or a venison steak. 

Stop being so boring, and let your palate take an adventure. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

New Sampan Article: Balut Brings Business to Cavendish Game Birds

"The most interesting feature of Chinese life to me was that on board their boats, or sampans, as they are called....Upon these boats live whole families of three and even four generations."
--The Fall River Daily Herald, November 20, 1888

For over a year, I've been contributing to Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England. It is published in print as well as online, available in both Chinese and English. I've previously written twenty-nine articles for Sampan, and you can find links here.

My newest article, Balut Brings Business to Cavendish Game Birds, is now available in the new issue of Sampan. On a recent trip to southern Vermont, I visited Cavendish Game Birds, to tour the farm and learn more about the fascinating success story during the pandemic. Pre-Covid, the farm's customers were nearly all restaurants, so when all those restaurants had to close, the farm faced a serious dilemma. Fate intervened to provide them a unique opportunity. The farm primarily raises quail, and now has entered a niche market, supplying Quail Balut all across the country.  Learn more about this intriguing tale in the full article.

What is a "sampan?" The newspaper's site states, "A sampan is a popular river boat in traditional China. This small but useful vessel, by transporting cargo from large boats to the village ports, creates a channel of communication among villages." And like that type of boat, Sampan delivers news and information all across New England, and "acts a bridge between Asian American community organizations and individuals in the Greater Boston area."

Sampan, which was founded in 1972, is published by the nonprofit Asian American Civic Association, "The newspaper covers topics that are usually overlooked by the mainstream press, such as key immigration legislation, civil rights, housing, education, day-care services and union activities. These issues are crucial to the well-being of Asian immigrants, refugees, low-income families as well as individuals who are not proficient in the English language."

There is plenty of interest in Sampan which will appeal to all types of readers, from restaurant reviews to historical articles, from vital news stories to travel items. In these current days when racism and prejudice against Asians and their restaurants is high, it's more important than ever that accurate information about the Asian community is disseminated and promoted. We need to combat the irrational prejudices that some possess, and support our Asian communities just as we would support any other element of our overall community. We are all important aspects of a whole, and we need to stand together.

Support Sampan!

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

2019 Les Vins Pirouettes Eros By Vincent: An Orange Wine From Alsace

When you look at the tall, slender bottle, the wine appears to be a Rosé, yet it was produced from only white grapes. In fact, it's what is commonly called an "orange" wine, a skin-contact wine, and it's delicious and intriguing. Many excellent wines comes from Alsace, and this is certainly one of them.

Domaine Christian Binner is over 250 years old, having been established in 1770. The estate now owns vineyards in the Kaefferkopf, Schlossberg and Wineck-Schlossberg Grands Crus and other parcels in Ammerschwihr, with most vines averaging 35 years old, and the rest between 60 and 100 years old. It has been sustainable farmed for about 35 years and in 2012, the winery built an eco-friendly winery, whose roof is covered in soil. They produce a wide range of wines, from Crémant d’Alsace to Late-Harvest.

As a related endeavor, Christian Binner established the Les Vins Pirouettes label as a means for small, organic and Biodynamic grape growers, to produce their own wines instead of selling off their grapes. There are currently 14 grape growers in this project, and their first name is always placed on the label. I haven't discovered yet why the label doesn't include their full name. The grape growers are assisted by the enologists Xavier Couturier and Pierre Sanchez,  and collectively produce about 80,000 bottles annually. 

The name Pirouettes was chosen to "symbolize the fun they’re having" as well as  because “these wines are like beautiful artistic figures, the result of certain know-how and mastery. Pirouette is a gesture of freedom, emotion, and joy,”  All of their wines are natural, using spontaneous fermentation, and there is no fining, filtration, or added sulfur. 

The 2019 Les Vins Pirouettes Eros By Vincent (about $25) is a blend, of 20 year old grapes from a Biodynamic vineyard, of 40% Pinot Gris, 40% Riesling, and 20% Sylvaner. The grapes are fermented on the skins for about 25 days, and the pink color of the wine comes from the Pinot Gris, which is a pink-colored variety. The wine is also aged on the lees in large foudre for about eight months. 

On the nose, there's an intriguing aroma of spice, citrus, and apples, although there are hints of even more. And on the palate, there's a compelling and complex melange of flavors, such a joy in the mouth. It is primarily savory, with baking spices, pepper, black tea, and more, combined with a variety of fruits, from citrus to pineapple. It is crisp, dry, well-balanced and with a pleasing, lengthy finish. Each sip brings something a little different to your mouth, and this is a wine you can slowly savor and enjoy. I paired the wine with some quail breasts and it was a very fine pairing. 

This is a wine I'd highly recommend for any adventurous wine lover.