Ming River Is Baijiu’s Best Chance at American Success
To say that baijiu is an acquired taste is an understatement. Though the Chinese spirit comes in a variety of flavors as different from one another as tequila is from gin, it has an underlying savory funkiness that Americans find challenging. And yet, those in the baijiu business just won’t give up, and are determined to make China’s number one spirit equally popular in the U.S. If baijiu has any chance of breaking into the American mainstream, though, it’s with Ming River, a new brand that is popping up in bars and restaurants across the country.
Before we dive into how Ming River is making waves, here’s a brief crash course on baijiu: Baijiu, which translates to “white spirits” in Mandarin, is usually made from sorghum but can also be made from other grains. It’s extremely varied and very regional, but generally it can be divided into four flavor classifications: strong aroma (full bodied, spicy, fruity), light aroma (light, floral, slightly sweet), sauce aroma (umami, mushroom, earth) and rice aroma (light, clean, honeyed). Ming River is a strong aroma baijiu, though the label identifies it as a Sichuan style version of the spirit.
The brand is not even a year old, but it comes with a serious pedigree. It’s made at Luzhou Laojiao, China’s longest continuously operating distillery. And the four gentlemen who started the company, though young, are experts in the field. Before teaming up on Ming River, Simon Dang, Matthias Heger, Bill Isler and Derek Sandhaus (who literally wrote the book on baijiu) opened a successful bar dedicated to the alcohol called Capital Spirits in Beijing.
Then, there’s the quality of the spirit inside the bottle. While some baijius on the market in the U.S. are made with mass produced white label spirits, Ming River is quality baijiu made by a distillery that’s been doing it for hundreds of years. Made from red sorghum and fermented the traditional way—in pits with locally harvested yeasts—the resulting spirit is packed with bright, fresh pineapple along with star anise and something sweetly funky. It’s not hiding its true self behind any artificial flavorings. It is not trying to be anything but baijiu.
Finally, Ming River is also (smartly) using the spirits world’s greatest educators to get their product into your glass: bartenders. Traditionally, baijiu is sipped neat with dinner in dollhouse-sized glasses. Americans, typically, don’t drink neat spirits with dinner. And even if we do, we don’t do it out of teeny glasses. While the Ming River team would love it if everyone started pairing their mapo tofu with straight pours of baijiu, they recognize that there’s a better way to ease people into the practice. “If we can get Ming River into every Sichuan restaurant and get people to drink it straight, that would be great,” Dang says. “But there isn’t a big culture of drinking spirits neat with your food in America, so we are introducing it in the form of a cocktail ingredient.” Ming River’s baijiu is already appearing in cocktails at celebrated restaurants and bars across the country such as Kings Co. Imperial’s new Lower East Side location where bartenders mix it with Jamaican rums, apricot, ginger, lime and nutmeg, as well as at The Modern in NYC and Win Son in Brooklyn. Chicago’s Fat Rice also recently featured Ming River on the menu at their New York pop-up.
If Ron Cooper had insisted on people drinking Del Maguey mezcal straight and at room temperature when he first started bringing bottles stateside, it probably would have never caught on. Americans are stubborn. We want to do things our way. Ming River is just leaning into that and, by doing so, the company is opening up palates to the intriguing world of baijiu. If this doesn’t work, nothing ever will.
Photos courtesy of Ming River.
This article, written by Justine Sterling, originally appeared on the MICHELIN Guide digital platform. View it here.
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