Thursday, June 27, 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.
1) The Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center’s Action Kitchen is stirring things up with a brand new dinner and wine menu. Action Kitchen lets guests prepare and savor gourmet cuisine with guidance from Seaport Boston's award-winning culinary team, making this unique opportunity perfect for social and corporate events.

Some of the new collaborative cuisine options include Moroccan Fish Tagine made with potatoes, bell peppers, onions, chermoula and Basmati rice, as well as Marinated Seaport Honey Soy Skirt Steak, baby bok choy with coconut scallion rice cakes. Action Kitchen is also offering a new Wine Education package with a personalized 20-minute education experience led by the Seaport Hotel’s sommelier, Eric Loring, during each event when guests upgrade their wine. Learn the basics with Wine 101, taste across the globe with Old World vs. New World, or mix up your own classic summertime sip with the Sangria Station. Imagine your guests, 12-40 guests for a seated dinner and 60 guests for a reception style event, gathered in a gleaming gourmet kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment. Add music and lively conversation, and this is no ordinary family, friend or corporate gathering - it's the ultimate reception, cooking party or wine tasting in the ultimate kitchen.

Seaport is also announcing its new 'Cooking for the Community' initiative. For every group, company or organization that hosts a collaborative cooking event in Seaport's Action Kitchen, Seaport will donate $1 per person to their long-time partner, the Boston Rescue Mission. “We have worked with Seaport for many years, as they provide food to our organization when they have leftovers from a large event,” said Dennis Gaskell, Food Service Manager at the Boston Rescue Mission, “it’s a perfect partnership: a portion of the proceeds from events held in Seaport’s Action Kitchen benefit the Mission, which provides hearty meals to our hungry neighbors, emergency shelter to those living on the street and residential recovery programs for those who need a fresh start.”

2) The Wine Bottega in the North End is hosting some wine makers from the country of Georgia during the next two days. Tonight, from 6pm-8pm, they will host Gvantsa Abuladze of Baia's/Gvantsa's Wine and Mikheil Chonishvili of Chona's Marani. Tomorrow night, from 5:30pm-8:30pm, they will host Zurab Mgvdliashvili of Nikalas Marani and Beka Gotsadza of Gotsa.

Yesterday, I attending a Georgian wine tasting event and got to meet these wine makers and sample their wines and I was impressed. I've long been a fan of Georgian wines and I strongly encourage you to go to Wine Bottega, meet these winemakers and taste their compelling wines.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Gonzalez Byass La Copa Vermouth Extra Seco: From Sherry With Love

Copy of a newspaper advertisement from the Memphis Daily Appeal, September 18, 1869

It's time for more Vermouth! After yesterday's selections from California, we now turn our eyes to Spain, and more specifically to the famed Sherry region, a place very dear to my heart. A year ago, I reviewed the Gonzalez Byass La Copa Red Vermouth and I concluded that, "This is a Vermouth for Sherry lovers, wine lovers and cocktail lovers, earning my highest recommendation." For more information about Gonzalez Byass, please review my prior post.

"..the world renowned sherry house of Gonzalez Byass of Xeres, purveyors to King Alfonso, the enormous casks telling the fruitful story of the golden beads within."
Boston Daily Globe, December 19, 1883

"The most delicious of 'natural' sherries, free from all charge of 'brewedness,' free from all charge of over strength, with a taste as delicate as claret and as distinct as Burgundy, a tonic, a refresher, a stomachic, a cure of biliousness and gout, and most of the ills that flesh is heir to, is the so-called Tio Pepe."
The New York Times October 16, 1887

Besides their Red Vermouth, Gonzalez Byass also produces an Extra Seco Vermouth, and I recently received a media sample. This is an extra dry, white Vermouth that is produced from a selection of Tio Pepe Fino Sherries which have been aged for an average of three years in American oak. As you can see from the newspaper quote above, Tio Pepe has a long and illustrious history as a fine Sherry. The first Tio Pepe Fino was bottled in 1844, and it was also the first trademark in Spain. Tio Pepe is made from 100% Palomino, the primary grape used to produce Sherry.

"Immense quantities of vermouth are used in the United States. Vermouth is half of a Manhattan cocktail and nearly all of a vermouth cocktail. It is drunk clear sometimes, and enters as a flavoring into many mixed drinks."

--The Buffalo Commercial (NY), July 20, 1899

Gonzalez Byass used to produce Vermouth from 1896 to 1926, and their new versions are firmly based upon the old recipes. Thus, the Extra Seco Vermouth has strong historical roots. In addition, this Vermouth also possesses elements of terroir, a sense of place, as it is clearly a wine of the Sherry region. When you taste either of their two Vermouths, you can distinctly detect a Sherry aspect, and you feel a sense of southern Spain. This isn't Vermouth that can come from anywhere else. It is so specific to this wondrous region.

"According to the Spanish official list the total export of Sherry from Cadiz was, for the nine months ending the 30th September, 47,295 butts, against 39,503 in 1862. The principal shippers from Jerez were Gonzalez and Byass, 4,824; P. Domecq 2,891; M. Misa, 2,549; ..."
The Morning Post (London), October 15, 1863

The Gonzalez Byass La Copa Vermouth Extra Seco, which has a 17% ABV, was produced with numerous botanicals, including wormwood, savory, clove, and cinnamon. In addition, some red fruits were added "to achieve a long and persistent balsamic aftertaste." All you have to do is to smell this vermouth and it will remind you of a Fino Sherry. On the palate, it is bone dry, like a good Fino, with a compelling blend of flavors, including citrus and peach, herbal notes, and a hint of bitter. It is fresh and elegant, with a pleasant mouthfeel and a long, pleasing finish. It would be easy to drink this on its own, simply slightly chilled. However, it also is delicious over ice with some club soda, and would make an excellent addition to a cocktail, though I'd suggest you make it the star ingredient of the cocktail rather than in a supporting role.

I also re-tasted the Gonzalez Byass La Copa Red Vermouth and it was equally as good as it was last year. So, I should now reword one of my comments at the top of this article. "These are both Vermouths for Sherry lovers, wine lovers and cocktail lovers, earning my highest recommendations."

"American consuls at cities in the vermouth-producing regions have recently been asked to find out of what this liquor is composed....It is thought perfectly feasible to make vermouth in this country, and it was with an idea of helping such a project that the consuls made their report."
--The Buffalo Commercial (NY), July 20, 1899

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 24, 2019

Rant: Get Your Nose Out Of A Glass!

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets are $75 per person. For Reservations, go to

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.

Use a thimble cup. The New York Tribune, December 23, 1900, printed an article about a foreigner dining out in China. He noted, "Hot wine, of various brands and vintages, is served throughout. That most commonly drunk is a kind of sack or sherry negus--a yellow wine distilled from Indian corn. Being comparatively mild, it is served in small cups; ardent white spirits of rice--samshu--in thimblefuls."

With the start of the 20th century, we see some early and interesting stories from Hawaii. We begin with the Daily Bulletin (HI), January 30, 1902. The Anti-Saloon League, dedicated to temperance in the Hawaiian Islands, held a conference discussing matters of importance to them. They talked about the Chinese community, stating, "In the Chinese community here, we have five wholesale liquor houses. I ascertained that the dealers are losing money every year, which is not strange, as the Chinese have not intemperate habits and only drink on special occasions. The liquors offered for sale here by the Chinese liquor dealers are, with the exception of samshu, not as strong as whisky or like liquors."

Next, we go to The Hawaiian Star, August 9, 1902, which discussed 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.

The Repository (OH), November 30, 1902, printed an article titled Reasons Why The Chinese Are Needed In Hawaii. It discusses how hard the Chinese work on the plantations, also noting, "No wonder he drinks the fiery samshu (rice whisky); it is medicine, food and drink to him."

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.

The Arizona Republican (AZ), July 1, 1904, published an article about Manchuria, noting, "Millet is largely raised and forms the staple food of the people, and from it is distilled the national drink, samshu, which retails at 1 1/2 cents a pint."

Drinking dolls? The Daily People (NY), September 18, 1904, had an article about the Dolls of the Dragon Empire. China was the birthplace of the "tilt-up" doll, where "The round ball that answers for a body and legs is loaded with sand or clay, so that tip it whichever way one will or however violently one may, it always 'bobs up serenely' and rights itself without trouble." One use of this doll was as "junketing or drinking dolls" because they were used in an after-dinner game.

As detailed, "The host takes the doll and sets it spinning as we whirl the platter; every eye is upon it, for the man before whom it stops is not only entitled to a drink of samshu--rice wine--but he must take it. He in turn sets the doll going, and if he is an adept manages so that it shall stop where he wishes it. The game goes on for hours until it guest gets all the samshu he wishes, and sometimes more than is good for him."

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.”

Animals being force fed samshu. The Hawaiian Star (HI), April 11, 1908, had an article about temperance, and worries about water buffalo and horses. On Chinese rice plantations, both water buffalo and horses are commonly fed, in the evening, some samshu, forcefully sometimes. "I asked one Chinese why this was done, and he said it was good, 'make animals strong' in the hard season." The temperance writer was shocked that these animals received "a cocktail big enough and strong enough to lay out a dozen men." It's unclear whether the animals actually received such a large amount or not, as the temperance writer might have been exaggerating the matter.

Making Samshu in a small shop? The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), February 3, 1909, detailed the experiences of a man in Canton, China. He noted a shop keeper who made samshu in the back of his shop, providing some insight into how this spirit can be produced. "In the back regions of his shop stands a huge stone boiler in which the rice for the samshu is first cooked before it is put into a jar where it ferments for a month. It next goes into a metal pot, and is set on a stove inside rings of canvas thickly padded. On the top is another pot of cold water, and, as the spirit is distilled, it runs out."

Some negativity about samshu. The San Francisco Chronicle (CA), September 23, 1910, wrote, "From purely a health point of view it is a mistake to think that samshu is a more wholesome liquor for the Chinese than European wines." The article continued with an explanation, "..Chinese samshu is offered for sale and consumption immediately after coming from the still and is contaminated with toxic aldehydes, or, in other words, fusel oil." No actual evidence of this allegation was offered in this brief article.

The Sun (NY), September 24, 1911, had an article on alcoholic beverage in China. It was stated, "The Chinese treat the lees as we do. They produce in this way a spirit closely allied to our grape brandy, except that it contains more alcohol." It is variously known as "...choo, show, samtchoo or sau-choo.." In addition, it was noted, "One of the peculiar customs of the Chinese is the serving of all wines and spirits hot."

Liquor rather than opium. The Manchester Democrat (IA), September 16, 1914, published an article questioning whether foreign spirits would sell well in China now that opium suppression was being strictly enforced. The writer thought the answer was negative, claiming, "In short, China taught the white man the use of spirits; the natives of this country have manufactured spirits from time immemorial." The article continues, noting the Chinese "possess an immense variety of intoxicating liquors. Any Chinese may set up a distillery and sell its products without let or hindrance. So plentiful and cheap is the native article that the equivalent of two cents will buy enough 'samshu' at a street corner to bowl over a navy."

The writer also notes that the Chinese will not become a nation of drunkards, that very few Chinese are very seen to be drunk. "In China, even at feasts, when men begin to get 'red in the face' they withdraw." He also mentioned that the main fear would be that the Chinese somehow found a replacement drug for opium.

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.

Smuggling Samshu. In the Seattle Daily Times (WA), July 13, 1923, there was a brief notice of a seizure of a shipment of samshu found on a ship, the President Jackson. 2,820 quarts of samshu were seized, with an estimated value of $8560, about $3 per quart.

More negativity. The Oregonian (OR), June 24, 1928, mentioned samshu but stated it, "is an insidious blue ruin distilled from rice, and is drunk generally throughout coastal China."

And some positivity. The Dallas Morning News (TX), April 7, 1929, described the experiences of a naval officer from Texas who visited China. He stated, "Samshu, by the way, is a mild rice wine. Like all good wines, it improves with age, and this was supposed to be very old. This wine is served hot out of pewter pots and the little cups from which it is drunk hold about two large tablespoonfuls." He also expressed his dismay with a Chinese drinking custom.

The Chinese term "gambay" means "bottoms up," or "draining the cup at a single gulp." He continued, "In order to check up on the manner in which this act was accomplished, everyone had to invert their cup, and if a single drop fell out the guilty party had to drink another full cup."

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 first mention I found of the term "Baijiu" was in Dragon Pink On Old White (1963), by Phillip Bonosky, a political analysis of the Chinese revolution. It briefly mentions Baijiu two times, without providing any description of it. The first passage stated, "We continued to drink toasts, all but Shao Hua, in red wine and baijiu." The other passage noted, "Nobody was drinking mowpm, or baijiu or pijiu. There was a modesty to this entertainment that made it seem somehow touching and pure."

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 was 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

Check out Part 1 of this article.

(This article has been updated, expanded and revised as of May 7, 2020).

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 niche beverage in the U.S. and has been slow to make inroads into our country, beyond the Chinese community. 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 added 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, samshy, 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 existing 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.

In an interesting article, Chinese Alcohol Use and Hong Kong by Henry J. Antkiewicz (1993), he states, “Most authorities agree that the Mongol conquest introduced distilled or spirituous liquor into China. The Chinese called distilled alcohol a-la-chi (from Arabic arrack), but it more commonly became known as shao chiu (burnt wine)." However, Antkiewicz also stated, “Intriguingly, a pre-Mongol Chinese technical manual on the distillation of liquors exists which dates from 1117. Also, there are some references to shao chiu from the ninth century. All this may indicate a variety conclusions: the art of distillation arose independently in China; it was associated with crops other than sorghum; it was practiced earlier but fell into disuse or went unrecorded and was reintroduced by the Mongols; shao chiu meant something different before the Mongol period."

The manual he referred to was the three-volume Beishan Jiujing ("The Wine Classic of North Mountain) by Zhu Gong, a physician. The book provides a lengthy history of wine and wine-making, including such matters as heating wine to preserve it (long before Louis Pasteur), how to blend wines properly, as well as how to distill alcohol.

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. It is possible that Baijiu during that period may have been more of an obscure beverage, one that hadn't yet become popular and more commonplace.

There's a fascinating account of a European's visit to China during the 13th century, detailing an ornate fountain that spouted various alcoholic beverages. The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253-1255 (1900), edited and translated from the Latin by William Woodville Rockhill, is a travelogue by a Franciscan missionary who visited the Mongol Empire. In one passage, he describes an elaborate fountain, the Silver Tree of Karakorum, which could pour four different alcoholic beverages.

Rubruck wrote, "In the entry of this great place, it being unseemly to bring in there skins of milk and other drinks, master William the Parisian had made for him a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares. And four conduits are led inside the tree to its tops, which are bent downward, and on each of these is also a gilded serpent, whose tail twines round the tree. And from one of these pipes flows wine, from another caracosmos, or clarified mare’s milk, from another bal, a drink made with honey, and from another rice mead, which is called terracina; and for each liquor there is a special silver bowl at the foot of the tree to receive it. Between these four conduits in the top, he made an angel holding a trumpet, and underneath the tree he made a vault in which a man can be hid. And pipes go up through the heart of the tree to the angel."

So, the four alcoholic beverages included a grape wine, fermented mare’s milk, rice wine, and a honey mead. None of these were Baijiu and notes to the text added by the editor mentioned, “There is another stronger liquor distilled from millet, and called shao chiu: in Anglo-Chinese samshu. Mongols call it araka, arrak, and arreki." Thus, Baijiu didn't seem popular enough to the leader of the Mongols to include in his elaborate fountain, and probably didn't provide it often to his guests. That might be another reason for a lack of mention of Baijiu by European travellers during this time period. Even famed Marco Polo, who journeyed from Europe to Asia from 1271 to 1295, didn't mention Baijiu in any of his writings.

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. It's interesting to see how popular Samshu was with seamen, and the fact that they brought it back home with them. This meant that Samshu was also being experienced in Europe, shared by the various sailors and merchants.

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 prevalent 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."

The Hampshire Gazette (MA), December 5, 1832, printed an article about Canton and the European sailors that stop at the port. The article stated, "Foreigners 'catch' (or obtain) too much samshu (a strong drink made from rice). 'No good' results from it. They make great disturbance." It was then noted that the Chinese would drive the drunken sailors back to their ships. This is but one of the first references to drunken sailors, who drank too much samshu, causing problems.

The Christian Watchmen (MA), April 26, 1833, published a letter from a Reverend who was stationed in Canton. It stated, "Almost all the frequent disturbances among sailors here, arise from the forbidden use of the native spirit, 'Samshu.'" It seemed that due to the problems caused by drunken sailors, an order came down that they were prohibited from drinking Samshu.

A placard warning against Samshu. The Dedham Patriot (MA), May 19, 1836, printed the contents of a placard for "The Sailor's Coffee Shop" in Canton, China. The placard stated, "A friend warns you against the stuff sold to you in Canton for Rum. Much of it is not rum; it is fiery Samshoo, with sugar and tobacco, and sometimes arsenic (which you know is deadly poison) mixed up with it; all intended to stupify you as fast as possible, that you may be cheated or robbed, by the bad people who deceive you and sell this abominable stuff to you. By drinking it you are not only cheated out of your money, but your bowels and health are injured; so as to make dysentery, and by and by death not unlikely occurs. The death of many sailors in China is occasioned by their drinking the nasty samshoo sold at Whampoa and Canton." Obviously these claims have to be taken with a grain of salt as it was an advertisement for the coffee shop, trying to scare sailors from drinking native liquors and drinking only at the coffee shop.

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 issues with soldiers and samshu. The Herald (NY), December 22, 1842, reported that, "We are sorry to learn that sickness prevails to a great degree on the island of Kolongaoo, near Amoy, amongst the garrisons, and that out of 400 of the 18th Royal Irish there are 117 sick, mostly with brain fever, we suppose brought on by the too liberal use of that dangerous spirit, Samshoo."

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, especially sailors and soldiers, 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.

In the Ottawa Free Trader (IL), December 5, 1845, there was a lengthy article about the Chinese, including information about their food and drink. In one part, it stated, "..samshoo, a liquor distilled from rice, which is mingled with hot water, and served in small covered vessels with a glass to drink from, quite in the manner of hot whiskey toddy at some of the fashionable hotels in this country. The Chinese pledge healths in drinking, and empty and reverse their glasses."

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.

The article Chinese Alcohol Use and Hong Kong by Henry J. Antkiewicz (1993) briefly mentioned that, “The first European hanged in Hong Kong in l845 allegedly committed it under the influence of ‘samshoo!” More details were provided in The History of the Laws and Courts of Hong-kong: Tracing Consular James William Norton-Kyshe. Three English sailors, Charles Ingwood, Thomas Cox, and John Mears, were arrested for murdering another Englishman, Wilkinson. The four men had been drinking samshu together, and then took a Chinese sampan back to the shore. However, they fight together, leading to the first three men to tie up Wilkinson and throw him into the water, where he died.

It was later alleged that Wilkinson and Ingwood were the two who actually fought, while Cox and Mears just watched, not interfering in the matter. Ingwood was convicted of murder and sentenced to death while Cox and Mears were acquitted. Ingwood was then hanged on July 3, 1845, but before he died, he said to a shipmate that he wanted to "warn his shipmates against 'samshoo' (a native intoxicating drink), and he hoped his fate would make an impression upon them which would not be effaced."

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.

How much Samshu was consumed in Hawaii? The Polynesian (HI), February 1, 1851, provided some figures for spirits which paid customs duty in 1850. Brandy was by far in first place, at about 6484 gallons, with Gin in second place at about 1159 gallons. Rum was in third place with about 337 gallons and Samshu was in fourth place with only 112 gallons. So, Samshu was still relatively a niche beverage at that time.

The Congregationalist (MA), April 18, 1851, printed a short article from a Seaman's Chaplain in China. who noted that "..., sailors from different ships meet ashore, where the Chinese ply them with poisonous 'samshu,' and rob them of their money." Blame is placed on the Chinese though it's fairly obvious that the seamen quite voluntarily consumed samshu, and its doubtful the Chinese tried to steal from the drunken sailors.

In comparison to the prior year, the Polynesian (HI), May 8, 1852, provided statistics for 1852, showing an increase in Samshu consumption.  Brandy was still in first place, at about 6397 gallons, with Gin also again in second place at about 1183 gallons. However, Samshu had risen from fourth to third place, with about 286 gallons, more than twice the consumption of the prior year. Whiskey, at about 87 gallons, was in 4th place and Absinthe, at about 61 gallons, was in 5th place. Rum dropped to sixth place, with only 46 gallons, a significant drop from 337 gallons.

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.

Paradise or drunkenness? The Sun (PA), June 3, 1854, briefly noted that "There is a shop for the sale of samshoo, or rice whiskey, in Hong Kong, which bears over its door the following inscription: The joys of Paradise are nothing compared to a perpetual drunk."

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.

There was a brief mention of samshu in the New York Evangelist (NY), February 2, 1860, which mentioned, "the Chinese wine, or samshu, is universally drank by all classes..."

The Maine Farmer (ME), July 12, 1860, publishing an article, Wine-Drinking In China, which mentioned that "China is emphatically a sober country; though her wine is cheap, sound and good--though there is no tax upon it, no restriction whatever in its sale or manufacture--though nearly all persons, both men and women of all classes, freely use it, but few comparatively drink to excess." There was also a note that what English sailors and soldiers refer to as samshoo, is what the Chinese call seaou tsiew, a distilled spirt.

More support that the Chinese rarely get drink was provided 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.

A Chinese birth-day feast. The National Baptist (PA), April 4, 1872, provided a detailed list of the food and drink for such a feast, including the prices of each item. There is a listing for "Whiskey (Samshu)" with a cost equivalent to 3 cents. That is opposed to "Old Wine" which had a price of 67 cents. In comparison, the hiring of a cook for two days only cost 60 cents.

Drinking at a "true" Chinese dinner. The Springfield Republican (MA), December 18, 1872, provided an article about this dinner, noting they received "a tiny cup and saucer for the 'samshu,' or liquor, which we were expected to take a sip of at the end of each course." Though their reactions to the food were mentioned, the article didn't say what they felt about the samshu.

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 was 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 far easier to blame the Chinese and their samshu.

7 types of Samshu? The Massachusetts Ploughman & New England Journal of Agriculture (MA), May 16, 1874, detailed a Chinese dinner, which included "Seven different sorts of samshoo," made from items including ".., made from rice, from pease, from mangoes, cocoanut, all fermented liquors;.." It was also mentioned that, "The samshoo was drunk warm in tiny cups during the course of the dinner."
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.

Samshy? The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (HI), July 24, 1875, had a short article about samshoo, also known as samshy. The term means "thrice distilled" and is said to be, "a strong spiritous liquor distilled from the yeasty liquor in which boiled rice has been fermented under pressure many days." The article mentioned many Chinese on the islands drink samshoo, and it is imported in earthen jars from China at a duty of $3 a gallon.

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.

The healing power of Samshu? The Evansville Courier & Press (IN), November 12, 1881, published an advertisement for "Carolina Tula Tonic," for "Pulmonary Diseases and General Debility." It was also said to be a cure for dispepsia, coughs, colds, bronchitis, asthma, and "the only remedy that is beneficial in malarial climates." The basis of this tonic is "Rice and Rye Whiskies" and the rice whiskey was Samshoo, said to have "been used for many years by the the only antidote to Malaria and Rice Fever." The ad even states, "We guarantee a positive cure in every case. Harmless and very pleasant to take."

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."

Some details on the distillation process of Samshu were provided in the Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society: Volume 18 (1884) in the article, Samshu-Brewing in North China by H.B. Guppy, M.B. Surgeon, R.N. Guppy visited a couple "Samshu breweries" in the suburbs of Tientsin, taking notes about what he saw. He began with, “The first step in the process is concerned with the production of the fermenting-element or yeast. This is obtained by grinding down a quantity of oats and barley or some other cereals: the powder is then moistened and shaped into brick-like cakes, and is kept for a period varying between six and twelve months before it is ready for use: some of these cakes, which I observed stowed away like bricks in the corner of one of the buildings, were much worm-eaten and partially encrusted with mould. When required for use the cakes of this fermenting-element are reduced to a fine powder, which is kept dry and ready at hand. This powder when examined microscopically is shewn to be composed in great part of the starch-cells of either barley or wheat, together with a large number of small disconnected bodies which exhibit a lively molecular motion when moistened, and are evidently the spore-cells of the ferment-fungus."

The article then continued, "The next stage — that of fermentation — may be thus described. In a building, which is kept cool in summer and artificially warm in winter, a number of large earthen jars are buried in the ground with their mouths on a level with the surface; these jars are filled with millet-grains previously mixed with about five catties of the powdered yeast-cake, and moistened with water; when filled, each jar is plastered over with mud and covered with millet-refuse; and there it is allowed to remain undisturbed for ten or eleven days, during which time the fermentation is in active operation."

Finally, he noted, "The process of distillation occupies about an hour. When the fermented millet is taken out from the jars, it is placed in a large wooden vat or tub, the bottom of which is made of a kind of grating; and beneath this vat is placed a large boiler of water which is heated by an adjacent furnace. The steam ascending through the grating and passing through the fermented millet finally comes into contact with a cylinder of cold water; it is there condensed, and trickling off into a little gutter finds its way out through a long spout in a clear stream of veritable samshu. After the process is completed, the vat is emptied of the millet, which is subsequently dried and sold as fodder for ponies, donkeys, etc."

As an addition, he also mentioned that, "Kow-liang" is, I believe, the name of samshu thus prepared from millet. The spirit to which these notes refer, is that which is in common use amongst the poorer classes in Tientsin; and in two different samples which I examined the proportion of alcohol by volume varied between 48 and 54 per cent. I was informed that the samshu drunk by the higher ranks is a weaker spirit, and is only prepared on the approach of the warm season."

The New Ulm Review (MN), February 18, 1885, in an article titled, Chinese Tangle-Foot, described Samshu and its production. "Samtchoo is the famous drink of China. It is made from rice. The grain is steeped twenty or thirty days in water and then gently boiled. When it is soft and pulpy and completely diluted by the heat it is allowed to ferment in vats of glazed earthenware." The article continues, "The yeast is made from wheat, several wholesome ingredients being added during the process of fermentation, such as fruits and flowers to impart a pleasant flavor and color." In addition,  "At the end of several days it is drawn off into glazed vessels where a second process of fermentation goes on. It is then shipped in jars all across the empire. The lees are distilled and yield a strong liquor."

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.

We can note the amount of Samshu which was exported from China in 1886 and 1887. In China. Imperial Maritime Customs. Returns of Trade & Trade Reports 1887, there was a table of “Export of Native Goods to Foreign Countries 1886 and 1887” and there was a listing for Samshu.
In 1886, China exported 36,381.09 Piculs, with a Value of 80,930, and in 1887, they exported 123,480.24 Piculs, with a Value of 370,068. A Picul is a Chinese unit equivalent to about 133.33 pounds. From 1886 to 1887, there was almost an increase in exports of four times the prior amount.

Though some people warned of the dangers of consuming Samshu, of how it can negatively affect your mind, a doctor who analyzed Samshu disagreed. In A Manual of Practical Hygiene (1887) by Edmund Alexander Parkes, M.D., F.R.S., there was a section on “Alcohol as an article of Diet in Health.”  Within that section, it addressed Samshu, noting, “Dr Dupre analysed for Dr Parkes a specimen of the best samshu from Singapore. It contained in 100 c.c. 23'91 per cent, of alcohol by weight, and this was made up of 23’874 parts of ethyl alcohol, and 0’036 parts of amylic alcohol : the amount of free acid (almost all acetic) was 0’105; of residue (sugar almost entirely) 6’01, and of ash 0’06 per cent. Cheap samshu gave nearly the same result. There seems to be nothing deleterious here; and from inquiries among soldiers who have served in Hongkong, it seems doubtful whether good samshu docs produce the effects ascribed to it. It is probably the adulterated (with opium, &c.) article which acts so violently.”

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.

Samshu as medicine? In China. Imperial Maritime Customs. Medical Reports for Half-Year Ended September 30, 1891, it noted that, “A peculiar disease of an epidemic nature is said to be constantly present during the hot weather; yang-mao-ch’eng is the common name for it. It begins with fever and diarrhoea, during which the Chinese doctor is called in, and, from the character of the pulse, diagnoses the disease and proceeds to apply the remedy. This usually consists of Wheaten flour mixed with hot samshu, which is spread over any part of the patient’s body the physician may select. It is removed after some time and examined, when some small white hairs may be seen in its substance. I was fortunate enough on one occasion to see a similar treatment applied.”

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.

The Salt Lake Herald (UT), October 23, 1893, in an article titled Chinese Surgery, also had information on alcohol in China. "The native spirit, samshoo, is very extensively consumed, but it is invariably in minute quantities and never excepting with meals, intoxication being a thing practically unknown in China."

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.

Check out Part 2 of this article.

(This article has been updated, expanded and revised as of May 7, 2020.)