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to change. “When we first started,” says Michelle, “nobody knew about baijiu unless they’d gone to China.” “Even the Wikipedia entry was just one line,” laughs Vicki. “’All it said was: ‘A white spirit.’” But today, more consumers have at least heard about baijiu, and Vinn’s challenge is less about introducing the category for the first time than it is countering consumers’ ideas that all baijiu is an intense, fiery spirit with a funky taste. Rice fragrance baijiu is a style that is associated with Southern China. It’s the lightest style of baijiu in terms of flavor and aroma, although that doesn’t mean it lacks character. Vinn’s regular baijiu expression is also bottled at 80 proof, quite a bit lower than the typical Chinese bottling strength of at least 100 proof. “For people that haven’t tried our baijiu before, their first response is ‘Oh god, I don’t think I want any of that,’” laughs Vicki. “But once they try it, it’s ‘Oh, this is really nice.’” Vinn’s baijiu is somewhat reminiscent of sake, albeit a bit stronger, with a delicate floral aroma and an earthy, mushroom-like flavor. The production process at Vinn is still very traditional. The Lys use California-grown rice as their main fermentation substrate— brown rice for the baijiu, and white rice for their rice vodka. The rice is steamed, laid out in an even layer to cool, and then inoculated with qu. Vinn makes its own qu using a family recipe that combines rice flour with herbs and spices. Michelle says it’s hard to make, but that a well-made qu can last for years in its solid state without losing any of its power. The inoculated rice is then transferred to five gallon buckets, which ferment in a solid state for six months. The Lys add a little bit of water to each bucket, just enough to enable them to get the grains out easily. Then, the completed ferments are triple distilled on a pair of 26-gallon pot still and rested in stainless steel for at least a year before bottling. The resulting spirit is delicious on its own, especially when paired with Chinese food (it shone alongside steamed chicken with soy dipping sauce and fried whole fish with scallions), and it also performs well in cocktails. In Oregon, tasting rooms can serve mini-cocktails, a rule Vicki and Michelle happily exploit with watermelon margaritas and Shanghai mules, a baijiulaced variation on a Moscow mule. “You can substitute it for rum, you can substitute it for tequila, or you can substitute it for vodka,” says Michelle. “It’s really versatile.” The day when baijiu is as ubiquitous as whiskey or gin in the United States are probably far away, but pioneers like Vinn are leading the way—and perhaps opening their customers’ eyes to the vast and diverse range of baijiu styles. “Baijiu has a challenging road ahead,” says Yuan, “but when I explain to people what they are tasting, people get very intrigued. I think once people give this category a chance, they will find brands they enjoy, and they will find the way baijiu is made very, very interesting.”

Margarett Waterbury is the managing editor of The Whiskey Wash and Edible Portland, and regularly contributes to other publications about food, drink, and agriculture. She was named the 2017 Alan Lodge Young Drinks Writer of the Year by Spirits Business Magazine. WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM

Artisan Spirit: Fall 2017  

The magazine for craft distillers and their fans.