Fire Water

Vinn Distillery brings Chinese rice-based spirits to Portland

By Margarett Waterbury December 2, 2013 Published in the December 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

They say it takes 300 shots to understand the appeal of baijiu. Historically tossed back neat, at room temperature, the 9,000-year-old Chinese spirit (pronounced BYE-joe and meaning “white liquor”) is made from a range of distilled grains, including barley, sorghum, rice, and millet. It’s China’s unofficial national drink, and the world’s most popular spirit. But with alcohol content often surging to 65 percent, Chinese baijiu is notorious for going down like fire and inducing chills along the way.

A visit to Vinn Distillery’s tranquil Southeast Portland tasting room proves otherwise: subtle and elegant, Vinn’s spirits have a touch of heat at the front, but go down smooth. The Ly family (mom, dad, and five children) launched the company in Wilsonville in 2009, using custom stills modeled on versions used by relatives in China and Vietnam to make rice-based baijiu, maijiu (rice wine), and vodka. The family’s formulas, passed down through more than seven generations, include a proprietary yeast blend prepared by hand, meticulously monitored fermentation, and longer-than-average aging to cool things down for discerning palates. “Our process is simple, and we want to keep it this way,” says daughter Michelle Ly.

All of this ensures an unfamiliar yet alluring form of baijiu: creamy and earthy, with hints of almond and caramel. We’re guessing it won’t take 300 tastes for Vinn to attract converts. 

Tasting Notes

Baijiu: Distilled from brown rice and aged for over a year, Vinn’s baijiu combines vegetal qualities of tequila with the earthiness of sake. Notes of baking chocolate, mushroom, pepper, and rain-soaked soil are supported by a backbone of toasty brown rice and a slightly sour sweetness.

Maijiu: Vinn makes two maijius, or fortified rice wines: Ice, a nutty, savory, sherry-like wine made from brown rice; and Fire, made from black rice, with plummy fruit-skin notes and a sweet finish. 

Vodka: Most familiar to a Western palate, Vinn’s vodka is smooth and balanced with just the slightest aroma of cooked rice, like steam from a pot. This is a great way to enter the world of rice spirits for cautious drinkers used to wheat- and rye-based vodkas.  

 Try It 

Oryza Cocktail: Stir 2 oz sake, 1 oz baijiu, and 1 squeeze lemon juice with ice, strain into a rocks glass and top with ice cubes.  Find more recipes using Vinn’s baijiu.

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