First it was beer that underwent a revolution. Then came gin (and let’s not forget the tonic it’s served with). Now China’s most ancient and popular spirit, baijiu, is busy being reinvented for western markets.
Baijiu is one of the biggest mysteries of the alcohol industry. Despite achieving total sales of 10.8 billion litres in 2018, which is more than whisky, vodka, gin, run and tequila combined, practically no one in the west has ever heard of it.
But a British entrepreneur is determined to change all that by launching a handcrafted baijiu distilled in the UK that he says is more than a match for the most prestigious state-owned Chinese brands.
V.I.P Jiu 8 is the brainchild of Irving Graham, a Chinese antiquities dealer from Newcastle. Back in 2014 Graham bid £300 for a cracked Chinese wine cup at an auction in southern England. He later discovered it was a piece from the Imperial Chinese collection once housed in the Forbidden City during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor between 1654-1722.
Irving went on to sell the cup for £28,000, but not before it offered up one last valuable secret – a handwritten note hidden in its wooden presentation box containing a 300 year-old recipe for an alcohol-based tonic known as a jiu. All nine ingredients had been specially chosen by the Emperor himself.
A few years later Graham embarked on a gruelling journey across Russia and China on the Trans-Siberian railway, keen to learn more about baijiu and its importance in Chinese culture.
He discovered that baijiu was once produced in thousands of small, family-owned distilleries throughout China until the Chinese Communist Party took over and set about shutting them down or merging them together to create state-run ‘mega distilleries’.
Graham returned to the UK determined to resurrect the Kangxi Emperor’s recipe and create a craft baijiu distilled in Britain. He spent more than a year conducting intensive trials to get the balance of the ingredients just right.
“What I’ve created is a modern yet authentic Imperial craft baijiu made in Britain that embraces and celebrates the history and traditions of China’s favourite spirit”.
Irving admits convincing western drinkers to embrace baijiu, which was once famously described by celebrated US journalist Dan Rather as “drinking liquid razor blades” can often be challenging.
“Baijiu is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but as with anything the more you try it and learn about it the more you appreciate what an amazingly versatile drink it is.
“It’s a sad fact that a lot of the art of creating baijiu was lost when it was industrialized by the CCP. Today the huge mega brands blend batches and cut corners to produce a uniform product on a mind-boggling scale”.
“I’m committed to bringing the craft back to baijiu, only distilling small batches that are made by human hands and not machines.”
In fact, Irving is so confident the Kangxi Emperor’s 300-year-old recipe is superior to the best Chinese brands available he sent a sample of it together with a sample from the famous Kweichow Moutai distillery (from which rare bottles can fetch thousands of pounds at auction) to an accredited UK laboratory to have them analysed.
“Not only did they conclude that V.I.P Jiu 8 is more complex than the Moutai sample, it also contained many more compounds that have potentially positive health benefits” he said.
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