The Ly family outside their home in Wilsonville, Oregon, in 1980.
Food

Baijiu in Portland: The Vietnamese family that brought China’s most famous liquor to America

May 30, 2019

We’ve written about baijiu here before.

A potent Chinese liquor with a stinging taste, baijiu is the most popular spirit in its home country—by virtue making it the best-selling alcohol in the world—but it’s almost completely unknown everywhere else.

In recent years, some companies have started to market baijiu to the West, plugging it as a suitable cocktail mixer.

But one immigrant family has been selling it in the United States for over a decade.

“It was a fortunate thing that we were ignorant to how much Americans weren’t ready for baijiu.”

Michelle Ly, co-owner of Vinn Distillery

“I think it was a fortunate thing that we were ignorant to how much Americans weren’t ready for baijiu,” says Michelle Ly, one of the owners of Vinn Distillery in Portland, Oregon. “It was only after we went out and tried to sell it that we realized, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the hardest stuff to sell!’”

Vicki and Michelle Ly, two of the sibling owners of Vinn Distillery in Portland, Oregon.
Vicki and Michelle Ly, two of the sibling owners of Vinn Distillery in Portland, Oregon. / Photo: Vinn Distillery

Baijiu has a reputation that precedes it. Its flavor has been invariably described in Western media as “firewater,” “moonshine,” and “wet dog smell.”

Still, with 2 billion gallons of the stuff produced every year, the spirit is considered China’s national drink, and different distilleries make it with varying levels of strength and complexity.

(Read more: What are baijiu aromas?)

“When your taste buds aren’t familiar with that flavor profile, you just kind of reject it,” Ly says. “With baijiu, you have to have an open mind.”

The Ly family started selling baijiu in 2009, but they’ve been distilling it for generations.

Baijiu from Vinn Distillery.
Baijiu from Vinn Distillery. / Photo: Vinn Distillery

Ly’s father, Phan Ly, was an ethnically Chinese refugee from Vietnam, and he used to distill baijiu in his Chinese community there.

After the Vietnam War ended, the Lys were caught up in the mass deportation of ethnic Chinese from the country in 1978.

“We shared a room with two other families.”

Michelle Ly

Their journey took them to mainland China and Hong Kong, where they briefly stayed in cramped refugee housing.

“We shared a room with two other families,” recalls Michelle Ly, who was a child at the time. “There were queen and twin bunk beds that were stacked three beds high.”

The Ly family on the roof of their refugee accommodations in Hong Kong.
The Ly family on the roof of their refugee accommodations in Hong Kong. / Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Ly

Eventually, a small church in Oregon offered to sponsor the family’s move to the United States.

“We were so lucky,” Ly says. “We landed here in Portland in November 1979. I had just turned 7. My sister Vicki had just turned 5. None of us spoke English. The community acclimated us to society.”

(Read more: How a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee built the Sriracha empire)

Through all their moves, baijiu was the consistent thread connecting them to their heritage.

“We’ve always distilled baijiu in our family,” Ly says. “Baijiu is used in ancestor offerings and in every celebra­tion. When we came to the United States, we still had to honor our ancestors and welcome the new year. We cooked with it, we made medicine with it.”

Kim Trinh and her husband, Phan Ly, at their distillery in Oregon.
Kim Trinh and her husband, Phan Ly, at their distillery in Oregon. / Photo: Vinn Distillery

Even when they were children, Ly and her siblings learned all the steps of distilling from their parents.

“Whenever they made rice for fermenting, we would help add the qu [the fermentation starter] and stick it into little buckets,” Ly recalls. “We’d do these little bits and pieces, we never did the whole process.”

(Read more: The Chinese-Americans who are taking over the family business)

For alcohol experts unfamiliar with baijiu, the process can be baffling.

That’s because most grain alcohol begins with malting, where the grains are left to soak in water until the starch turns into sugar. Fermentation kicks off the second step.

Baijiu, on the other hand, uses parallel fermentation, wherein both processes happen at the same time.

First, the grain is cooked and then left to soak in water. The qu is then added to the mix, which the Ly family lets sit for six months.

Fermentation buckets at Vinn Distillery.
Fermentation buckets at Vinn Distillery. / Photo: Vinn Distillery

The difference in the distillation process has been credited for creating baijiu’s distinctive sharp notes and extremely high alcohol content, sometimes as high as 65%.

(Watch: Inside a very large baijiu factory)

Although Americans were unfamiliar with baijiu, Phan Ly was confident that they would come around to it when he started planting the seeds for his distillery in the early 2000s.

“We’d have to say, ‘We have Tsingtao [beer],’ and that was it.”

Michelle Ly

At the time, he owned a Chinese restaurant, and customers would frequently ask whether they had any Chinese liquor.

“We’d have to say, ‘We have Tsingtao [beer],’” Michelle Ly says, “and that was it.”

Tsingtao is a popular beer brand from China.
Tsingtao is a popular beer brand from China. / Photo: Shutterstock

Phan Ly’s frustration with not being able to give his customers what they wanted led to the creation of Vinn Distillery in 2009.

“We didn’t understand the industry. We just drank.”

Michelle Ly

“We were very new to the market,” Michelle Ly says. “We didn’t understand the industry. You know how wine connoisseurs really understand the nuances of wine, the flavors? We didn’t understand that at all. We just drank.”

(Read more: The desert in China where wine is made)

But slowly, they built up a following in Portland, which had an active microbrew community that was willing to try new things.

Vinn Distillery adopted some of their products for the American palate, making baijiu infused with honey and berries and even a barrel-aged baijiu whiskey, something unheard of in China but popular with U.S. drinkers.

Barrel-aged baijiu whiskey from Vinn Distillery.
Barrel-aged baijiu whiskey from Vinn Distillery. / Photo: Vinn Distillery

But after the patriarch passed away in 2012, Phan Ly’s children decided to honor him by releasing a baijiu that was more to his taste: distilled in the traditional style and strong.

Today, Vicki Ly has become known among family and friends for her watermelon baijiu margaritas and baijiu mules with ginger beer and lime. Michelle has developed a fondness for baijiu bloody Marys.

But both sisters agree that when they’re feeling “lazy,” they just “pour it in a glass and drink it straight,” just as their parents had.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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