Ming River Sichuan Baijiu 45% 70cl
Baijiu (pronounced Bye-jhoo) is the biggest selling spirit in the world, but there a good chance you probably haven't heard of it as very little is sold outside of China, where it is essentially the national drink. That, and it's such a bizarre flavour profile that it's really struggled to gain a foothold in the Western markets.
The spirit is distlled from fermented sorghum - other grains can be used but sorghum is the dominant source. The unusual flavour comes from a starter called 'jiuqu', which is a brick of crushed wheat, barley and peas that under certain temperatures grow yeast and fungi micro-organisms that break down molecules in the grain to produce both alcohol, and a very distinctive flavour.
Fermentation takes place in pottery jar that are buried underground for sometimes months. Inside these pots the micro-organisms do their work - but sometimes bacteria from the soil surrounding the pots themselves seeps in, increasing the activity within.
Baijiu has different categories based on the aroma profile, known as fragrances. Qingxang is a light aroma, dry, light and floral. Mixiang is a rice aroma, somewhat clean and clear in style. Nongxiang has a strong aroma, more sweet and with an emphasis on ester notes. Finally Jiangxiang has a savoury aroma - it called also be dubbed umami. The flavour is similar to bean pastes and soy sauce, and is probably the most difficult for a newcomer to Baijiu to deal with due to it's weird intensity.
Ming River is one of the first Baijiu brands to try and break into the US and European markets. It's a Nongxiang release, evidenced by a considerable funky sweetness on the nose. It brings to mind standing in front of a giant pick-and-mix in the height of summer, where the smell of all the sweets is mingling together in the heat in a somewhat overpowering way. But there's also an undercurrent of blue cheese, bizarrely. The palate is sharper than the nose, and that blue cheese note comes more to the fore, with hints of black pepper, chilli spice and even liquorice on the finish. It really needs to be chilled - at room temperature the sweeter notes get in the way of the drier funkiness.
This is categorically one of the most bonkers spirits I've ever encountered. It's unlike anything I've ever tasted before, and is absolutely not for everyone. But it certainly is an experience, and your mileage will vary massively - like heavily peated whiskies or funky Jamaican rums, you'll either love it or run to the hills screaming.
In terms of mixing, I still have no idea what to do with this. I tried it with some lemonade to see if the sweetness would help, all it did was bring blue cheese to the fore that was way too much to enjoy - and I love blue cheese too. The Ming River website itself suggests a number of basic cocktails, but it's interesting to note that the other ingredients in each drink are the same quantity or more than the measure for the baijiu itself, almost accepting the fact it needs to be held back.
One thing you can't deny though, is that Ming River will be one of the most memorable drinks you have ever had. I highly recommend sharing a bottle with friends and seeing their reaction!
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