Ming River Brings Baijiu to America
China's blockbuster spirit—"a transformative experience: funky, fruity, and floral—terroir in Technicolor"—gets a big push Stateside thanks to Ming River and the team behind Beijing's Capital Spirits.
Most Americans have never had or even heard of baijiu, but that hasn’t stopped the Chinese staple from becoming the stinky tofu of the spirits universe—a wild 'firewater' that strikes fear in the hearts of foreigners. This reputation is often reinforced by deceptive headlines like "Why Does Chinese Alcohol Taste So Awful?" and "The Stench of the World's Best-Selling Spirit Makes Westerners Puke," but baijiu's real setback on these shores is a lack of knowledge about what is arguably the industry's most idiosyncratic liquor category. (The word baijiu simply means "white alcohol" in Chinese, and can be applied to a wide range of grain-based greatness, as different in its flavor profile and process as gin, tequila and whiskey.)
Longtime expat Bill Isler can relate to this confusion. When Isler was studying abroad in Beijing nearly 20 years ago, he slammed a shot of Red Star at an outdoor barbecue and "thought it was terrible, the worst spirit I'd ever had in my life."
The problem was its potency. Hovering somewhere between 50 and 60-percent ABV, the Budweiser of the baijiu world doesn't emphasize its eccentricities, something Isler realized this when he sampled a slightly more sophisticated brand (Mongolian King) at a hot pot dinner and noticed how well its gnarly top notes meld with the bold flavors of Sichuan cuisine. Much like a longtime Miller Lite drinker who'd just had their first hit of actual hops, Isler was hooked and left the meal wanting more.
He wasn't the only one. When Isler and a friend (Matthias Heger of the short-lived artisanal vodka company Westkorn) stopped by Beijing's Bookworm shop in early 2014, they were surprised to see at least 50 fellow expats show up for author Derek Sandhaus' (Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits) discussion about China's most notorious export. By the time Sandhaus was done highlighting baijiu's history and its seemingly endless styles, Isler—a serial entrepreneur who'd already ran a successful nightlife spot (Kokomo) and introduced black Angus breeding to mainland China—was convinced of his next career move.
"I turned to Matthias and said, 'If you're looking to do a bar, put this in it.'" He also walked right up to Sandhaus afterwards and ran the idea by the Kansas native.
"To be honest, I thought Bill was crazy," Sandhaus says. "It's not every day that someone wants to open a bar after listening to you talk for 20 minutes. It's like, 'sure, man; good luck with that.'"
Luck had little to do with the launch of Capital Spirits in late 2014. If you don't count the occasional police visit or the time an irate neighbor dumped concrete down their toilet—the bar was opened on an otherwise quiet block, so not everyone was a fan—Heger, Isler, and Simon Dang, a marketing vet who'd worked on campaigns for major brands such as Microsoft, California Walnuts, and McDonalds—had an immediate hit on their hands. Not just with foreigners who knocked back neat glasses and expertly curated flights, either. Young Chinese customers who'd long associated baijiu with boozy family gatherings and masochistic business meetings were suddenly ordering cocktails that softened the bite of straight baijiu.
"Journalists all over China were writing about 'these crazy white people in Beijing'," says Isler. "Sometimes we'd get there at 8 and there'd be a line of people outside the door with their cameras out, waiting to take pictures."
"The reason people thought we were crazy—building a bar around baijiu—actually helped us," adds Dang.
No one was more surprised about this development than the distilleries themselves. Within six months of opening, high-level execs started arriving in suits to see how Capital Spirits had managed to draw a mixed crowd of the two demographics distillers were having trouble courting themselves.
"A lot of times, they'd say, 'This is it?'," Isler says, referring to the bar's low-key locale within Beijing's winding hutongs. But then they'd notice tourists and expats working their way through progressively complex pours, and the shock would set in. "They figured that foreigners who can't use chopsticks or speak Chinese won't be able to drink baijiu either. So it blew their minds to see people open their wallets and be served baijiu by other foreigners.
And so began several talks about bringing Capital Spirits on board as consultants—offers the trio deflected at first, but started entertaining once they added Sandhaus to their team and formed a separate Capital Spirits Ltd. company. But rather than rush into an exclusive contract they'd regret later, Isler presented a here's-what-we-can-do-for-you pitch to a room full of curious parties at Chengdu's massive Food & Drinks Fair in March 2015.
Several major outfits expressed their interest, but one wanted Capital Spirits all to itself. Luzhou Laojiao, China's oldest continually operated baijiu distillery, saw the Capital Spirits Ltd. crew as more than mere consultants. It wanted them to infiltrate the international market firsthand with a new product: a traditional baijiu sold in the U.S. and Europe, but manufactured within Luzhou's vast network of "wine city" workshops in the Sichuan province. (The company is named after its hometown, an area so dominated by baijiu production that its street lamps resemble drinking vessels.)
When asked why a national brand needs to think beyond China now more than ever, Sandhaus explains how President Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption has slowed one of its steadiest revenue streams: big money bottles as a blatant form of bribery. With 'gifting' all but outlawed, the baijiu industry—much of which is owned by the state, including Luzhou Laojiao—can't throw all of its marketing dollars behind middle-aged businessmen anymore. It has to transcend China's ironclad borders and finally attract long overlooked sectors: women and young people.
"Most of China's nightlife scene takes cues from the international community," explains Sandhaus. "So the idea is this: Once baijiu has a place in Western bars, its popularity will flow back here. The end game of baijiu overseas is actually in China."
To keep their collective eyes on that prize, Luzhou Laojiao asked Isler, Heger, and Dang to sell their stakes in Capital Spirits before finalizing a full-on partnership. The bar's first manager—Isler's cousin, David Putney—now runs its new speakeasy-like space not far from the original flagship. "I came on board about a month after we opened," says Putney. "Initially the bar's customer makeup was around 70 percent foreigners and 30 percent locals. Now it's the other way around: about 60 percent locals and 40 percent foreigners."
Luzhou Laojiao general manager Emma Xu would like to see the entire industry come full circle. "Baijiu is the most consumed spirit in the world," she explains, "but a majority of that consumption happens within China. The market has grown over the past decade but we recognize that baijiu is still relatively unknown. So in order to successfully launch a new brand, the team must also educate the public about the category itself."
To accomplish that in a way that respects baijiu's deep cultural roots, Sandhaus and Capital Spirits' co-founders have spent a considerable amount of time not just studying Luzhou Laojiao's competitors, but introducing them to other people. Or as Sandhaus puts it, "We believe there's value in getting people to drink baijiu even if it’s not our baijiu because it creates a market for the product we’re trying to sell.”
It took six months and four trials to decide what that product would taste like, and even longer to arrive at a name—Ming River, a nod to the early Ming Dynasty era of baijiu making and Luzhou's plush waterways—and an elegant design (Chris Edmunds of the Manchester agency United Creatives toyed with around 100 different combinations of color, ink, paper stocks, and typography).
"The one thing we knew is that we didn’t want to create a typical baijiu," explains Dang. "We wanted it to look a little more Western, but not completely Western. It had to have some Chinese characteristics to it, too."
A blend of both languages, a date stamp (1324) that harkens back to baijiu's humble beginnings, and subtle iconography (woodblock-inspired waves instead of trite motifs) strikes a classy yet contemporary balance on the final label, but the bottle's shape also has an elongated neck and speed pour opening that's function-meets-form. So while Sandhaus' "favorite way of enjoying baijiu is on the table"—a fuel source for epic meals—Ming River is aimed at forward-thinking bars, first.
This is one of the main reasons why Ming River is distilled from locally sourced red sorghum in a "strong aroma" style—floral notes unfolding into layers of tropical fruit, licorice, and straight-up funk—rather than the more accessible "rice aroma" method. While the former is a perfect fit for elaborate tiki cocktails, the latter can be a little one-note: as close as baijiu comes to a blank canvas.
"We initially brought a rice aroma blend to bartenders," explains Sandhaus, "and they said, 'This is easy to drink, but there’s not that much flavor. If I’m going to work with something neutral, I already have vodka, which I can get four or five dollars cheaper.' Strong aroma baijiu is unlike any of the spirits in their bar—a conversation starter. People are looking for that kind of product right now."
Bartenders are especially open to pyrotechnic flavor profiles, as it plays right into the ever-expanding palates of their most demanding customers. Ming River was able to recruit top-notch talent for its R&D efforts as a result, including Don Lee (Existing Conditions), Joaquín Simó (Pouring Ribbons), and A-K Hada (PDT). While they all had different ways of approaching baijiu cocktails or refining the raw distillates that went into Ming River's final blend, everyone agreed on one thing: Don't water it down.
"There have been two problems with trying to target a non-traditional market in the past," explains Sandhaus. "The first is people who said they’re going to find a distillery in the middle of nowhere China, and buy a bunch of cheap product they could sell under a different name.'"
"And then there were the companies that started with the basic premise that baijiu is undrinkable for a non-Chinese market," adds Isler. "Instead of trying to find a great product and presenting it in an authentic way, they charcoal filtered and flavored it with chili pepper or passion fruit."
Glady’s bartender Shannon Mustipher didn't like baijiu when she first tried it a few summers ago—"It wasn't bad, per se; I just didn't know what to make of it."—but she decided to consult on cocktails for Ming River because of how challenging the spirit is. Much like the robust Jamaican rums featured in her upcoming book Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails, baijiu can be a transformative experience: funky, fruity and floral, terroir in Technicolour.
"Baiju is one of the few spirits that remains intimately linked to the industry's oldest production methods," she explains. "It's a taste of history—an opportunity to travel back in time."
Justin Lane Briggs is another bartender who's been with Ming River from the very beginning, starting with a cocktail menu at the Lower East Side location of hip Chinese restaurant King's County Imperial. He first tried baijiu with Chris Bogart, an old roommate whose father was the chef behind the Vermont restaurant A Single Pebble. "When Chris and I moved to Brooklyn together, I remember him bringing some Moutai to our apartment from a liquor store near Canal Street. I definitely wasn't sure what to make of it; it was intense, but it definitely piqued my curiosity. Here was a whole category of spirit that was entirely mysterious to me.
"When I was getting acclimated to the more powerful stuff, I recall describing it to someone as banana-flavored bubblegum, dark chocolate and a rind of parmesan stuffed inside an old sock. It's that good," he says. "Baijiu can be a shock to the system when you haven't encountered such bold flavors before, just like mezcal or your first stinky cheese. A lot of mainstream European and American spirits are pretty far on the other end of that spectrum: vodka, London dry gin, Puerto Rican rum, blended whiskey. Their flavors have been stripped away. This is the opposite: a good thing, I think, but people get freaked out by it."
If there's one person who understands how to handle that knee-jerk reaction, it's Antoinette Cattani, the F&B vet who helped set the amaro resurgence in motion a decade ago with her west coast marketing work on Fernet-Branca. While shots of the stuff are a secret handshake between most bartenders these days, it's easy to forget the decades when the menthol-y digestif merely collected dust. This is why Ming River made Cattani its newest hire a couple months back.
"The first time I tried baijiu was during my interview with Bill," says Cattani. "I was surprised that in my 25 years in the biz I had never heard of it! I was immediately intrigued—mostly because it tasted so different than anything I had had in the past. But more importantly, I realized I was signing on to build a whole new category in the U.S. market, not just a new brand. That was the hook for me—a product that people either love or hate."