Immigrant-Run Distillery Produces National Drink of China on American Soil02 Apr 2019
Even though baijiu is the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage, most Americans have never heard of it. The potent, intensely flavored spirit is guzzled at the rate of ten billion liters a year in China, where it was first produced more than 400 years ago. But it’s been much slower to catch on in the United States, even as the proliferation of so-called “foodie culture” has created a demand for ethnic cuisine. Some insiders in the alcohol production industry have pointed to baijiu’s unique tang as the reason it has not commanded an American following, while others consider the labor-intensive distilling process a non-starter for large-scale production. Currently, there is only one distillery in the U.S that produces the drink from scratch – and it is helmed by a family of immigrants who are determined to respect the time-honored baijiu recipes of their ancestors, while introducing the drink to a whole new customer base.
At Vinn Distillery in Wilsonville, Oregon, the Ly siblings have been crafting baijiu since 2012, when the family patriarch passed away and left the distillery he had founded to his five children. The Ly’s father, Phan, built Vinn partly out of necessity. Although he grew up in Vietnam, he and his family were Chinese, and in 1978 the Lys were deported from Vietnam because of escalating tensions leading up to the Sino-Vietnamese War. After a long journey across the Pacific Ocean on a sailing vessel, the family made their home in Oregon. The Lys started a restaurant business and settled into their new life in the U.S, but there was one thing missing – the powerful alcoholic drink that is a fundamental part of the family’s identity. As Michelle Ly, one of the siblings running Vinn Distillery, explained in a recent interview with Atlas Obscura, baijiu “[is essential for] honoring our ancestors, welcoming the new year. Any kind of holiday celebration, baijiu is toasted.” Phan Ly grew up brewing baijiu using his family’s centuries old recipe, and he vowed to start a distillery in the family’s pole barn after retiring from the restaurant business. [See Five Siblings Run the U.S.’s Only Baijiu Distillery in Their Mom’s Backyard, by Anne Ewbank, Atlas Obscura, 17.Dec.2018.]
While his children initially thought the distillery would just be a hobby for their aging father, within a few years, his retirement project evolved into a fully-licensed distillery. Phan convinced his children to sell the restaurant and focus full time on selling baijiu, and the distillery was christened Vinn after the shared middle name of all five siblings. Today, the Ly siblings all hold down full-time jobs, while meeting on the weekends to brew, bottle, label, and sell the baijiu recipe passed down to them through generations. And while they’ve expanded the business to include other spirits such as rice vodkas, fruit liquors, and whiskey, they still take the most pride in offering their father’s original 106 proof baijiu to the curious visitors in their tasting room. The siblings are pleased that their father’s recipe has earned rave reviews from baijiu experts, but they take the most pride in sharing their family’s legacy with a new generation. After all, their treasured middle name translates to “infinite,” which they hope “… is the amount of pleasure and taste derived from a single sip …” of their father’s baijiu. [See Vinn Baijiu: Made in Portland, by Richard Auffrey, The Passionate Foodie, 08.Jul.2016.]
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