New collaboration: Thompson’s Baijiu
Updated: Jan 24
If you’ve never heard of baijiu, you may be surprised to hear that it’s the world’s most drunk spirit: nearly eleven billion litres of the stuff was sold in 2018. That’s more than whisky, gin, vodka, rum and tequila combined. It’s very popular in China, where it’s been made for many hundreds of years by fermenting and distilling grains from sorghum grass. Traditionally bottled at 50-55% ABV, the world’s most popular spirit has rarely left China: naturally, we wanted to have a stab at producing a fine English version of this Chinese spirit. So our Master Distiller, Dr John Walters, teamed up with the Thompson family to produce a spirit from their locally grown, 100% British sorghum grains.
It’s safe to say the Thompsons know a thing or two about Chinese produce. They’ve been growing vegetables for the UK Chinese community on their farm on the Tendring peninsula in Essex for three generations: they are the sole producer of ‘TL’ or Thompson’s Leaf, which is an important ingredient for Chinese restaurants all over the country. We were fortunate enough to have access to the perfect ingredients: from there, Dr John undertook to capture their essence in a British Baijiu made to the signature English Spirit standard.
Unlike traditional Chinese production methods that use bacteria or mold for fermentation, we opted for a ‘cleaner’ alternative. We treated Thompson’s 100% british sorghum grains with two different enzymes at two temperatures to turn starch into sugars, before fermenting with yeast. We then distilled this solution twice in one of our alembic copper pot stills: allowing us to take a precise cut from the heart of the spirit without losing any flavour. In the traditional style, this British Baijiu is bottled at 50% ABV. However, using a small 200 litre still, we were able to give rigorous attention to removing the harsher elements, resulting in a rich, flavoursome spirit that’s smooth enough to be enjoyed neat.
Dr John says: “We found that the traditional style of bacteria fermentation tends to result in a spirit with pear drop notes, fruity and fiery at the front of the palate. Using our novel approach to fermentation and distillation, we’ve succeeded in capturing the best notes from the base ingredient: light but rich malted milk notes, with a superb umami flavour.”
Pete Thompson says: “We’ve created Thompson’s Baijiu to honour Chinese tradition and British science and distilling expertise. We marry innovation in growing crops for flavour and desire to create a holistic farming system, with the experience and wisdom of our partners the English Spirit Distillery to create exceptionally delicious spirits.”
Thompson’s Baijiu is the latest in a series of projects between English Spirit and the Thompson family, home of the Reliquum brand. Last year, we distilled a Reliquum Apple Brandy made using waste apples from the farm: with 28kg of Opal apples being turned into cider, distilled into an eau de vie, and aged in red wine barrels made from Trombais Oak.
Thompson’s Baijiu is available to buy from www.britishbaijiu.co.uk.
James Lawrence is General Manager at English Spirit, and a newly converted exponent of traditional Chinese beverages.