By Neal MacDonald, Editor
First off, the bottom line right at the top: if you like to make Vodka martinis or other citrus-forward cocktails, you can throw away your vodka and replace it with Vinn Baijiu right now. You’ll never look back. Oddly, we don’t think it works at its recommended serving: neat at room temperature. It can be temperamental with tropical fruits. But in all of our tests with classic, citrus cocktails, it performed in exemplary fashion putting ordinary vodka to shame. We can also give this a high recommendation for any white whiskey folks out there: they’ll be pleased with the clean flavor, the flawless execution, and the complex flavors.
Now for the details.
Vinn is an Oregon distillery that dedicated to the craft of baijiu. This is a style of spirit next to unknown in the western world but is actually wildly popular in its historic birthplace of China and even includes a place in super-premium markets (according to a write-up by Just Drinks). Vinn is bringing that Chinese spirit to the western world via the cosmopolitan liquor atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest.
What is baiiu? It is traditionally a clear spirit distilled from grain—often rye, wheat, or even sorghum—and bottled at a relatively high proof without aging. We’re told in southern China that the traditional base is rice. From that standpoint, it can read like vodka but many here in North America would recognize it as a white whiskey or moonshine. Liquor indeed unites the world if it can bring Appalachian hillbillies and Chinese nationalists together!
If you’re going to drink it, then know how to pronounce it. We are told it is pronounced as “Bye – Joe” to the westerner.
Vinn baijiu is made from a base of 100% rice. It’s intentionally (and kindly) bottled at 80 proof, which is light in the world of baijiu but much more approachable to the western palate and on par with the vast majority of all vodka.
So this is right up our alley, here at Proof66: run this eastern spirit through its paces in a mob setting of several different spirits and cocktails to really find out what it’s good at and whom should buy it. To do this we obtained the following
- Vodka (we used Absolut) in order to compare it against the top-selling spirit in all of North America… if it can replace vodka, then there’s a huge audience for the stuff.
- Rum (we used Bacardi Light) because we wanted to see if it could stand up to the sweeter stuff. Maybe Chinese spirits are indicated for tiki drinks?
- Eau-de-vie (or un-aged brandy, we used Pisco Porton) because distilled spirit from fruit or wine grapes has a huge European heritage so a good chance to set East against West… Porton happens to be the currently highest rated eau-de-vie we have in our cabinet.
- And a whole passel of cocktail recipes.
Read on to see our results!
Neat out of a Glass (sipping a shot)
Preparation: pour out of a bottle and serve.
Neat at room temperature is the traditional way to take Baijiu, so we should expect it to stand WAY out in the crowd. Not to mention this should really get the party started.
Vodka: the Absolut is nice… there’s nothing wrong or defective about it. There’s a bit of heat and needle on the tongue at room temperature but it finishes clean and smooth. It’s kind of boring but boring in the same way diamonds are ultimately boring after you get over the sparkle.
Rum: the Bacardi has a very slightly sweet aroma in contrast to the vodka but it’s all molasses and syrup on the palate. The sweetness caused a bit of a hot but sweet finish. Drinking straight, it sort of like chewing on a sugar cane reed. There’s more character here compared to vodka.
Pisco: in this glass the big grape aromas are singing through and we’re sharply differentiated from the vodka and rum. The Pisco Porton has a richer, singular taste but it divides the group between “I love this flavor” and “that reminds me of dirty socks.” At ambient temperatures served right out of the bottle, it’s not good and appears to demand to be mixed.
Baijiu: now the Vinn… nothing else tasted that good at room temperature so the Vinn is set up for success. The aroma has a kind of sweet sushi rice nature to it. Or, to some, the smell is a little bit like the heads coming off the first part of a pot still (so we were worried) meaning a little banana and a little oil. It’s a rich character. The taste is very, very pure. At 80 proof it’s completely light and clean—exceptionally well-executed. It doesn’t have the depth of aged spirits—anything that’s kissed wood will have some more vanilla and caramel profile. But for a white spirit, south of higher proof corn whiskey / moonshine, this has as much body as anything we’ve tried. We think this is right up the alley of moonshine-idolaters who are looking for a milder spirit. While it may be the best of this lot, we have a hard time imagining ourselves sitting around and sipping this.
What have we learned? There is a combined rice flavor and a whiskey character… for all the stereotyping peril, we think this is fabulously paired with sushi or other salty foods (nachos?). We’re interested to see how this performs in cocktails.
Preparation: we make a classic Vodka Martini: 3 parts vodka (our Absolut), 1 part dry vermouth (we used garden variety Martini & Rossi), and a lemon twist (a real lemon, mind you!) because we like the citrus.
We expect the deeper flavors of the baijiu to present themselves but we’re a little worried about how it’ll mix with the spice and especially citrus. And how will it behave on ice?
Absolut: with the twist it’s nice and lovely. It’s chilled; nice… very good and refreshing drink. For all the Gin Martini people out there: settle down. This is still a good drink even if it’s not the traditional thing.
Baijiu: the aroma clashes a bit—that citrus and the rice don’t play very nice together. But that’s like an adolescent phase because when they grow up and get into the mouth, the flavor is nice as anything. The body comes through with a skin of the citrus flavor riding the top like a wave on the ocean. This is something exceptionally drinkable. This is exciting because we’re going to start mixing some more flavors and that’s a wide canvas for the Vinn to play in.
What have we learned? Vinn baijiu blows the daylights out of a regular Vodka martini in a classic preparation.
Preparation: 2 parts rum (Bacardi Light), 1 part Frangelico, a dash of grenadine (Stirrings, the real stuff) and lemon juice (real lemon!). Shake on ice and serve.
We needed to get our tiki on so this was it. The El Salvador is a sorority girl drink all the way and—for all our masculinity—one of our guilty favorites. This is a place where we wanted to see how the sweet went down with the richer flavors of the rice… and we can’t all drink Vodka Martinis: sometimes you want a party punch.
Rum: this drink would lay waste to any college party out there. Line up the glasses and make way for Cupid’s arrows. It’s a very sweet drink but has a crystalline purity. It’s the high-hat rhythm on the dance track. It’s fliration in a glass. This will be stiff competition for the Vinn.
Baijiu: But the Vinn does just fine. In fact, with the baijiu flavors now the base line gets into the high hat riff. The heavy aroma of the Vinn dries up the sweet and makes this sorority juice suddenly complex (a first). For some, it was unwanted complexity… but the whiskey drinkers in our group really appreciate the depth and vibrancy of the new drink. With the Vinn, this takes the party into the Love Shack.
What have we learned? Well, a trend is starting. Vinn baijiu blows the daylights out of Bacardi in a classic El Salvador, which proves to us again that flavorful base spirits are important in cocktail preparation.
Preparation: it’s the pre-Prohibition cocktail made famous in San Francisco before the Great Idiocy that was the Volstead Act began. We made it as the tag on the Porton bottle called it: 1½ ounce pisco (Porton), ½ ounce lime juice, ½ ounce
Now the baijiu is in for it. This is a famous drink and you have to drink it with a Roaring 20’s flapper attitude, which we have to say to our mind is decidedly against the Chinese cultural stereotype. If the Vinn can compete here, then it should be able to compete anywhere. The drink comes out thick and foamy with a sweet and sour profile.
Pisco: another winning drink and we’re on a roll tonight (that’s what happens when you go classic). The flappers really knew what they were doing. For all those in our group who had struggled with pisco to this point, this cocktail won them over. It’s not as sweet as the El Salvador but just as drinkable with an edge of naughty.
Baijiu: a Chinese spirit in a South American cocktail?! After trying it, we can say this: hell, yes. This is a magnificent serving for the Vinn. Once again, we find the strong flavors of the liquor complementing the sweet-and-sour flavors with a kick from way down low. We are becoming amazed at how easily this spirit mixes in cocktails earmarked for other liquors.
What have we learned? Again (!) the baijiu is victorious in a cocktail preparation specifically designed for another spirit. There must be a reason that billions of Asians drink this.
Fire and Ice
Preparation: the marketing website calls for 1½ ounces of baijiu (Vinn), 2 picked Thai chiles muddled (we used Japanese dried chiles), the juice from a half grapefruit (not having grapefruit, we used pineapple), and sweetened with agave nectar.
Finally we get to a baijiu-specific cocktail. This is a complicated cocktail and we approached it with what we had on tap. We were looking forward to getting away from the citrus and into some spice and sweet. The first thing we learned is that dried chiles carry more punch than pickled chiles (apparently). Still, this was a fun drink and one that could easily replace Bloody Mary cocktails. Sadly, outside of a faint aroma, it’s hard to say if you’re drinking baijiu or any other spirit. This is one where we don’t think Vinn stood out against any other neutral spirit.
Preparation: we thought all along that orange might work well with baijiu. So we put in 3 parts orange juice, 2 parts baijiu, and 1 part German bitters (Harlem Kruiden) with a dash of orange bitters. That wasn’t good, sadly. So we tried a straight-up screwdriver by remaking it without the bitters. This didn’t work either. In desperation, we gave the traditional Screwdriver a little Harvey Wallbanger action by floating some absinthe on the top… this was good.
This was a struggle. For all we thought orange and spice would work, we had a lot of trouble reconciling the tropical flavors with the baijiu flavors. At this point, we have to say that if you’re working with pineapple, orange, banana, or heavy spices, you have a journey ahead of you.
In summary, for a tasting group that has grown rather weary of vodkas and other plain spirits over the years, baijiu ended up being serendipitously flavorful. Even better, it wasn’t overly hard to work with, managing to match most standard cocktails rather fluidly if boldly. If you find yourself standing in the store wondering “What the holy heck is baijiu,” we can say: buy some. And we have to give credit to the craftsmanship of the spirit, which we’ll say again was as cleanly executed as anything we’ve run into.
[Disclosures: we received a 750ml bottle of Vinn Baijiu for review… all other ingredients mentioned were acquired on our own.]