If you had to guess the most consumed spirit in the world, what would you guess? Vodka? Gin? Whisky?
All reasonable guesses, but also all wrong. The answer is actually baijiu, a Chinese spirit you've probably never heard of. Pronounced “bye-joe”, it means “white liquor” and it's the most consumed spirit in the world.
Global retail sales in 2017 were nearly $103 billion in China alone, where 99.6% of it is made and sold. That's over double the global retail sales of whiskey and over triple those of vodka, the second and third most consumed spirits.
Baijiu is a 9,000-year-old Chinese fermented spirit, traditionally made by digging pits into the earth and layering various grains on top of one another. Those grains range from barley to sorghum to rice to millet and they're aged for about two years before they're bottled. It's usually consumed straight and quick like a shot while at celebratory events, like weddings and Chinese new year.
Of course, the growth opportunity of baijiu outside of China seems enormous, especially in America where the popularity of spirits like Korea's soju and Mexico's mescal continue to rise. As such, state-owned distilleries in China are now joining with U.S. and European entrepreneurs to introduce Americans and Europeans to the world's most popular liquor.
It won't be easy. Baijiu isn't going to dethrone vodka, whiskey, and rum in America and the biggest reason is fear of the unknown. While corporate marketers are debating how to get over this hurdle, a few independent distilleries in America are already distilling baijiu and successfully selling it. One of those distilleries is a partner distillery of BigFish.
Vinn Distillery is owned and operated by the Ly family. They are located in Wilsonville, Oregon, and their story is one of a father's undying determination.
Despite being of Chinese ancestry, Phan Ly, his wife Kim Trinh, and their five children lived in North Vietnam, where their ancestors had emigrated many generations ago. Due to tensions against the Chinese during the build-up to the Sino-Vietnamese war, they were expelled and sent “back” to China, a home they had never known. Seen as outsiders there, as well, Phan feared staying in China meant he and his family would become innocent casualties of war. Even if they somehow managed to survive the war, there was a Communist regime in China killing innocents by the thousands. He knew the only way to live was to leave, but there were no easy roads to safety and a failed escape meant death. The next thing he did was desperate.
With sailing skills acquired from working aboard ships in Vietnam, he rallied other villagers to pool their money together and buy a fishing boat so he could sail them to Hong Kong and escape the perilous situation. Miraculously, many agreed to join. In the dead of night, away from prying eyes, they began a journey to Hong Kong that took a month and saved each one of them. In 1979, after their arrival in Hong Kong, a church in America sponsored the Ly family's move to the U.S.
After arriving in America, Phan worked a job washing cars while Kim assembled wood panels, biding their time until they could finally afford to utilize Phan's lifetime of experience producing authentic Chinese cuisine. It took ten years, but they opened the Wok Inn restaurant, Wilsonville's first authentic Chinese restaurant.
But even before the Ly's opened the Wok Inn, Phan was drawing on many lifetimes of experience doing something else. He was making baijiu in his backyard.
Baijiu wasn't accessible in the United States when the Ly's arrived in America. But it was a necessity to the Chinese way of life. As one of the most ubiquitous liquids in China, it's perhaps the most culturally important. The Chinese use it for every occasion, especially celebratory occasions, and by then, it was already November and they needed to continue their multi-generational custom of honoring their ancestors in the new year with baijiu. So out of necessity, and with plenty of determination, Phan built a still in their backyard and started distilling it.
Fast forward about twenty years. The Wok Inn was a successful venture, and while the Ly's had finally made it in America, something was missing for Phan. He was depressed that his own restaurant bar shelves didn't have any Asian spirits and he knew there was something he could do to change that.
In 2004, he finally acted on his knowledge. Perhaps he was just tired of running a restaurant, or perhaps he finally realized his children's survival no longer depended solely on him, but he decided to split his time between working at the Wok Inn and making baijiu in larger quantities. His first step, before doing anything irrational, was to open a still in a building in his backyard. Several batches of baijiu later, he threw caution to the wind and retired from the family restaurant so he could continue on with what would become America's first baijiu distillery.
His children thought it was just a retirement project at first. But two years later, he surprised them by telling them he completed the paperwork to become a licensed distillery. And he wanted them all to be a part of it. He suggested they sell the restaurant so they could focus on honoring their ancestors by becoming America's first independent distillery to produce and sell baijiu. He even suggested they name the distillery “Five Siblings” after his children. It was a heartfelt gesture that didn't stick, but the theme remained because they convinced him to name it after the middle name they all shared. Vinn. He obliged.
The Vinn Distillery brought another challenge to Phan's life. America wasn't yet familiar with baijiu or any Asian spirits. Selling it meant he'd have to educate Americans on its cultural importance to China. But the man who braved the open sea for a month on a fishing boat had seen worse challenges.
By 2009, the Ly family was officially all in on Vinn Distillery and Phan was living his dream. And while he didn't get to enjoy it for long before his death in 2012, it gave new meaning to his final years.
Since Phan's death, his wife and their five children have been perpetuating Vinn Distillery, all in various roles and while working full-time jobs in other fields. They do it to honor their father and the fathers before him. They do it because it's who they are and what they do. They do it for the love of family and for baijiu's deep history.
This Father's Day, you'll find your own way to honor your father. Maybe you'll do it with a bottle of baijiu to honor Phan. Or, if you're not sure that would match your dad's tastes, maybe you'll find that one of our curated Father's Day bundle packs does. Regardless, we encourage you to find some way to honor the man who has done so much for you, just as Phan's children did for him.