Pappy Van Winkle Distiller Experiments With a Baijiu Whiskey

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Buffalo Trace, in Frankfort, Ky., is known for bottling some of the world’s most sought-after whiskeys such as Pappy Van Winkle and a rare, half-century-old bourbon. But when the distillery released its latest brown spirit last month, it was met with an outpour of curiosity: a “Baijiu Style Spirit,” part of an ongoing experimental series. The limited release is intended to evoke a category of liquor from China that happens to be the bestselling one on the planet, yet it struggles to gain traction outside its home country. Response to this latest entry could signal whether or not American drinkers are finally willing to build a bridge to baijiu.

First they’ll require a fuller concept of what baijiu (pronounced bye-j’yo) actually is. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and in charge of labeling laws, provides no official guidance: Baijiu remains in a catch-all grouping known as distilled speciality spirits. 

In China, however, it retains an identity as clear—and a history as complex—as the distillate itself. The country has been producing it for well over 1,000 years, synthesizing the aromatic elixir from all sorts of grain. The most popular examples today are built from sorghum. And this, along with peas, is what Buffalo Trace master distiller Harlen Wheatley opted to use as the primary base for his experiment.

“The peas were unusual, for sure,” he admits. “But it’s been done in China before. We thought [they] gave a nice herbal character that showed through in the distillate. Baijiu spirit has been the leading global spirit for many decades, and the history, techniques and recipes are vast.”

Pappy Van Winkle Distiller Experiments With a Baijiu Whiskey

Common ingredients, however, are where connections to the bona fide Chinese offering begin and end. 

“Baijiu is literally translated as ‘white spirit’ [in Mandarin], so traditionally, barrel-aging is not a component of the process,” says Steaven Chen, chief operating officer for CNS Imports, the leading importer of baijiu into U.S. markets. “I am not aware of any major [Chinese] brands aging baijiu in barrels.”

In the Buffalo Trace iteration, by comparison, oak plays a starring role. The distillate spent 11 years in a combination of virgin casks: some uncharred, some toasted, some fully charred—as is customary for bourbon maturation. It retains many of the associated vanilla and caramel top-notes familiar to fans of American whiskey. Tasted side-by-side with a bottle of baijiu, the relationship is discernible, especially on the malty bite of sorghum. It’s very much a distant cousin, twice removed. 

It’s not baijiu “in any way, shape, or form,” says prominent bartender and cocktail author Dale Degroff. “In whiskey, over 80% of the flavors come from the barrel. In baijiu, about 99% is coming from the fermentation.”

Degroff observed the process first-hand at Kweichow Moutai, a state-run operation (in China’s Guizhou province) that overtook Diageo in 2017 to become the world’s most-valuable liquor distiller. “I had never, in any Western spirit, seen this much complexity and aroma and flavor as I got from their fermentations—everything from fruit to tobacco. There’s soy and umami; it goes on and on.” 

Pappy Van Winkle Distiller Experiments With a Baijiu Whiskey

The aromatics are actually the byproduct of seven separate fermentations repeated over a 10-month period. During that time, starches in sorghum are broken down into sugar using qu, a combination of mold, yeast, and bacteria. That same kickstarter also coaxes out the sweatier, funkier tonalities that many American palates find off-putting. Some Western spirit writers have even described a nose of “dirty diapers.”

Baijiu fans can be equally put off by American whiskeys, says Degroff. “They’re kind of confused by the fact that most of our stuff tastes like wood, that we take our flavor from barrels and not the fermentation process.” 

He maintains faith that U.S. markets will warm to baijiu, just as many vodka drinkers did to gin in the 1990s. Back then, the introduction of offerings with lighter aromatic profiles, notably Bombay Sapphire, helped pave the way. Behind the bar in New York, Nicole Salicetti reminds her patrons to take their time with baijiu, especially if they’re newcomers to the category. It requires developing your palate—much as with any other novel flavor. 

“It’s a matter of giving it a shot, with the same approach that you’d give to trying the peatiest of scotches and the funkiest of skin-contact wines,” says the bartender at Llama San, a Nikkei restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village. “Few people ‘get’ these stronger-flavored categories upon first exposure. And then something clicks, and they fall head over heels.”

Salicetti attributes a personal passion for the category to her own Chinese heritage. But if it takes an American company such as Buffalo Trace to help win over whiskey drinkers, she says she’s on board. “When you say sorghum, some people are like, ‘Huh?’ So, I think this could be an interesting gateway for getting people to explore a spirit that is new to them.”

Pappy Van Winkle Distiller Experiments With a Baijiu Whiskey

Chen, meanwhile, stresses that the category might not need such a boost. “Sales of baijiu are constantly growing year over year [in the U.S.],” says the importer. “Where 10 years ago, most had never heard of it, today I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the industry that doesn’t have some knowledge or experience. Products are now readily available in large chains such as Total Wine, as well as at many local retailers throughout the country.”

Ironically, it’s the Buffalo Trace “baijiu” that will be more challenging to spot on American shelves—for now. “We have a very limited amount of bottles,” admits Wheatley. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility turning it into a recurring release. “We will see how the current experiment works out.” 

A 375ml bottle carries a suggested retail tag of $47, a far lighter financial commitment than the top-shelf Kweichow Moutai that’ll set you back $420 for the same amount of liquid. According to Wheatley, Buffalo Trace is reviewing the possibility of sending a shipment of the spirit to China.

“We would be interested to see how the Chinese market would react to these flavors,” he tells Bloomberg. Whether it ultimately ends up pulling more whiskey drinkers to baijiu or vice-versa, at the very least, this experiment ought to give them middle ground upon which to meet. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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