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January 19, 2012

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White liquor and Scotch whisky for holiday parties

Wine shall certainly be on my agenda for the Chinese New Year holiday but I also plan to partake of some spirits. Two of my favorite distilled alcohols are Chinese white spirits and single malt whiskies. I've spent the best part of my life learning the endless intricacies of wine and I don't pretend to be an expert in spirits, but I have been privileged to be invited by whisky distillers to Scotland on several occasions to learn more about whisky. I've also been invited by premium Chinese white liquor producers to discover their special liquid nectars. While readers shouldn't wait for me to lose my firm belief that wine is still the single greatest beverage ever created by mankind, there are some delicious Chinese and Scottish spirits that are sure to make a pleasurable Chinese New Year even more festive.

Chinese white liquor

One of the pleasures of living in China is discovering the country's cultural treasures. One jewel is white liquors, referred to in Chinese as baijiu. Wine jars from Jiahu are believed to be some of the earliest proof of fermentation-method winemaking in the world dating back more than 10,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of distilled alcohols in China is 800 BC. These early spirits were made from rice and were sometimes referred to in ancient texts as the "water of history." The quality and variety of distilled beverages grew rapidly and assumed an important role in Chinese economics and culture. As in the West, spirits in China were taxed and became an important contributor to government coffers. They were also used to reward government officers and soldiers and played an essential role in celebrations including festivities held during the Chinese New Year.

There are numerous types of baijiu and two of the best are Moutai and Shuijingfang. Moutai is the most famous. The production history of Moutai is relatively short, about two centuries, but the fragrance and clarity of this liquor has won fans worldwide. Since winning a gold medal in 1915 at the Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, Moutai has won nearly 50 prestigious international and domestic awards for excellence. With a unique distilling process that involves seven iterations of the brewing cycle, many spirit connoisseurs believe Moutai to be one of the world's three greatest distilled beverages along with Cognac and Scotch whisky.

Categorized into the jiangxiang (sauce-like strong aroma) style of baijiu, Moutai has a bold character with excellent aromatics and a fine almost oily texture that coats the mouth. The best examples also have fine persistence on the palate and a throat and body warming sensation as the alcohol is consumed. Best with strong flavored foods like lamb hot pot, this spirit is also a favorite with pickled foods. Traditionally, Moutai is served at room temperature or slightly warm though, as with Western spirits, there's a new cadre of fans who are serving it slightly chilled and even with ice when served with sweets.

While my experience with Moutai began three decades ago, a more recent baijiu discovery for me has been Shuijingfang. This remarkable spirit from Sichuan Province boasts more than 600 years of history. There are different styles but my favorite is the Shuijingfang Forest Green that is filtered using select Sichuan bamboo charcoal that imparts a purity and mellow nature that seduces the palate. The aromatic intensity and weightiness are also excellent as is the smooth yet persistent slightly sweet finish. Overall, this is one of the most surprising and pleasing baijiu experiences. The smooth and somewhat sweet nature of this spirit makes it an ideal Chinese New Year companion to after meal snacks and sweets. As with Moutai, this liquor may be served at varying temperatures though I suggest serving it not too cold in a generously sized glass to emphasize the aromatics.

Scotch whisky

There are numerous whiskies in the world, but only one Scotch whisky. Among all whiskies, Scotch whisky is the most tightly defined, and of all Scotch whiskies, single malt Scotch whisky enjoys the greatest heritage and renown. The various names and types of Scotch whiskies can be confusing but simply put single malt whisky consists only of malt whisky from a single distillery, as opposed to pure malt whisky, or vatted malt, which is a blend of malt whiskies from different distilleries. Pure whisky is named "pure" only because it contains no grain whiskies. When grain whisky is mixed with malt whisky, blended whisky is the result. Nowadays blended whisky is hugely popular and comprises the vast majority of today's malt whiskies. Only 5 percent of all whisky is bottled as single malt whisky, but the pure singularity of this liquor makes it uniquely distinctive and treasured.

While the barley, water, peating and distillation all play key roles, perhaps the most important factor in making a great single malt whisky is the aging. Where the whisky is made also plays a role in the style.

Here are two top whiskies that offer a great price/value ratio and are great for the Chinese New Year holiday.

The Singleton of Glen Ord 18 Year Old from the Northern Highlands combines a smoothness and elegance rare in a whisky of this age. The whisky has an amber color with hints of orange, a lively nose of almonds, figs and toast and smooth, round dried fruit, coffee and chocolate flavors with a long cinnamon and floral finish.

The Glenlivet 18 Year Old is a sophisticated and complex single malt whisky with a gold-amber color, nose of ripe pears with a touch of vanilla and lots of spicy citrus and chocolate flavors with a long finish that hints of peaches and cream.


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