Words by Naomi Tomky
When Michelle Ly’s family arrived in the U.S. in the late 1970s, she and her four siblings helped their parents with household tasks. But along with basics like keeping the floors swept and washing the dishes, their chores included distilling rice liquor. “We didn’t know we were making alcohol at the time. Apparently, it was highly illegal,” she laughs, calling her family “sunshiners” rather than moonshiners, because they did it in broad daylight, unaware of their inadvertent transgression.
For at least seven generations, the Ly family made baijiu, a Chinese spirit, from rice—first in their tiny villages in China, then in exile in Vietnam. When they got to Wilsonville, Oregon, from a refugee camp in Hong Kong, they prepared for the new year the same way they always did, oblivious to American laws that forbid making one’s own liquor. Years have passed, but Ly and her siblings still use the same basic techniques they learned from their parents in the backyard to produce baijiu and rice whiskey legally as Vinn Distillery.
Like so many second generation Asian Americans, the Ly siblings take their parents' tradition and put their own spin on it, something more often seen in restaurants than spirits. Part of that is because Asian Americans make up only 2.7 percent of the beverage manufacturing industry, and even less of the alcohol wholesaling and retailing (2 and 2.2 percent, respectively, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), despite making up more than 7 percent of the population. Craft spirits is a notoriously difficult industry to break into, since so much liquor is dominated by international mega-corporations: almost 2,300 small distilleries share about 7 percent of the industry. The Lys and other Asian American rice whiskey distillers face compounding challenges because the underrepresentation in the industry makes it only more difficult to sell their tradition-based beverages to new customers.
Unlike Ly, Marie Estrada knew exactly what moonshine was when she and Hagai Yardeny, her partner at Môtô Spirits, brewed up their first batches of rice liquor about seven years ago. But they didn't quite understand the difficulty of selling it when they started distilling in the communal bathroom on the ninth floor of their Brooklyn apartment building. They used baby monitors to keep an eye on their micro-distillery until they grew into a larger space—the garage where Yardeny kept his five motorcycles.
“We didn’t know that we were making whiskey,” Estrada says of their early attempts. They just knew it didn’t taste great, so they threw it in barrels to see if that improved the flavor—it did. Then a friend who owned a distillery pointed out that it met the American definition of whiskey: an aged spirit, made from grain, bottled at over 80 proof.
Similarly, the Lys started out making baijiu, but when Michelle’s sister Lien, who is the company’s master distiller, found some small barrels at a garage sale, they experimented with aging and stumbled into producing a whiskey.
Itsara Ounnarath, on the other hand, knew how to make whisky—Maryland rye was one of his planned products when he opened White Tiger Distillery. Only when he started mapping out his business did the U.S. Army veteran learn that his mom had been a moonshiner back in her home country of Laos, a profession that goes back at least four generations in his family. Now, he makes a Lao-style rice whiskey based on the recipe she passed down to him.
What is Rice Whiskey, Anyway?
Part of the reason that Ly, Estrada, and Ounnarath all didn’t set out to make rice whiskey—and why they are the only people of Asian heritage making it in the U.S. right now—is because there’s a lot of blurred lines around what is or isn’t rice whiskey, and the specifications the drink needs to meet to be called whiskey in the U.S. don’t necessarily match up with traditional styles.
“It’s this really fun conversation of, basically, laws,” says Julia Momose, who recently reprinted the menu at her Chicago bar Kumiko to change the “rice whiskey” section to “koji spirits,” highlighting the use of the widely-used grain mold, because some of the products allowed to be called rice whiskey in the U.S. are not permitted to be called that in Japan, where they are made. Rice spirits made in Japan must follow the laws there, which are designed to delineate whiskey from shochu, and thus don’t allow rice in whiskey. However, many that would be considered rice whiskey if produced in the U.S. also cannot be called shochu in Japan, because the aging process for whiskey adds too much color. This clash pits the rules and culture of the countries of production or history against that of the U.S., where makers must find a way to appeal to drinkers without violating the U.S. Laws.
The most common rice spirits in the world are Japanese shochu and Korean soju, two distinctly different styles of clear, lower-proof, unaged spirits often conflated in the U.S. because of a California law that categorizes soju as a wine, rather than a spirit. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which mandates liquor categories nationally, says nothing about either, or about baijiu.
“When people hear whiskey, they think of something distilled from corn, barley, or rye,” Momose says. “It’s interesting that there aren’t more rice distillates that are aged and treated like a whiskey, since rice is such an important grain to so many cultures around the world.”
Bourbon from Baijiu
The Ly family started out commercially distilling Northern California Calrose rice into baijiu, a Chinese-style spirit that uniquely employs parallel fermentation, meaning that instead of first malting the grains by soaking them until their starch converts to sugar then fermenting the sugar into yeast, the two processes happen concurrently.
“Why is there no baijiu on the liquor store shelves?” Ly’s dad wondered when he wanted to buy some for the family's Chinese restaurant.
He decided to fix the problem himself, selling the restaurant and recruiting his five children to help him legally make it. He named his company “Five Kids” in Chinese, but those adult children quickly realized that might not project the right message for a liquor company, so the name changed to Vinn, the middle name the siblings share. Vinn got its license in 2009 and first tried to sell baijiu in 2011—with “tried” as the operative word. “No one knew what baijiu was,” Ly remembers. “There wasn’t anything on the web. We didn’t even know what it was, other than that we knew how to make it and drink it.”
When Lien found those tiny barrels at a garage sale around 2014, she figured fresh baijiu, at 77 percent alcohol, wasn’t that different from white (unaged) whiskey. A year later, the siblings opened the now-golden, much smoother spirit and marveled. “Can we call this a whiskey?” they wondered. Google—and later the TTB—said yes.
Now, they age the baijiu for about three years in virgin barrels of American oak with heavy char and wax seals, a method they chose because many of their customers appreciated that their rice-based spirits were gluten-free—using old bourbon barrels and grain-based seals could introduce small amounts of gluten.
The result tastes of oak, with bourbon-like notes and hints of vanilla. “We had no expectations for it,” says Michelle, but it quickly became their best-seller. Part of the reason for that low confidence is because few other Asian-Americans have managed to find a way to sell rice whiskey. Previously, she chalked this up to the lack of consumer familiarity with traditional rice spirits and the heavy bureaucracy in making and selling alcohol, but now she adds the recent ravages of the pandemic to the challenges she and similar companies face.
Southeast Asian Spirits
Estrada’s Môtô Spirits aims to join that space, but so far the tiny operation only distributes in New York. Estrada is Filipina and worked in the publishing industry, including on books related to food and wine. She ended up getting her sommelier’s license and starting a wine delivery in her apartment, which segued into distilling the rice liquor her partner Yageny fell in love with while touring Vietnam on his motorbike. Like Vinn, Môtô briefly tried on a questionable name choice: Riskey—a portmanteau of rice and whiskey.
Môtô uses a rice somewhere between short-grain sushi rice and medium Calrose style, ground to their specifications then soaked, filtered, and fermented using a koji-style yeast. They age it in small barrels to create a medium strength liquor with citrus and sandalwood notes, Estrada describes. “It’s a whiskey, but a little more graceful.”
But Ounnarath, who came to his Lao-style drink from the whisky world, says that if you close your eyes, you can’t tell the difference between the floral nose and sweetness of his rice whisky and ones made from other grains. He started out making the classic LaoLao, an unaged rice spirit, just like his mother had made. Moonshining was traditionally women’s work in Laos—something they could do when not able to work outside the home. After the LaoLao fermented the sticky rice for two or three months, he figured he might as well throw it into barrels as he did his American-style whiskies. He uses charred new American oak and says it takes only six months to get the ideal flavor. He bottles it under the name “Lao-style Whisky.”
What’s Next for Rice Whiskey
While these three distillers make the only commercially available Asian-style rice whiskies in the U.S., Korean American Ann Soh Woods founded the rice whiskey company Kikori, though she produces the spirit in Japan. Meanwhile, American distillers such as J.T. Meleck and Atelier Vie produce their own style of rice whiskey, modeled after traditional American-style whiskey, particularly in the South, where heirloom rice varieties grow.
Early in the pandemic, things looked bleak for Asian-style rice whiskies in the U.S. (and all craft distillers). Then White Tiger returned to focusing on drinks rather than hand sanitizer, and Vinn emerged from the toughest months since they opened. And, at the end of January, an early innovator announced its return: Wisconsin’s Lo Artisan Distillery. Lo first produced spirits in 2011 and lasted only a handful of years, but it created—among other drinks—Yerlo X, a rice whiskey based on a family recipe for a Hmong-style spirit and which received acclaim for the balanced and nuanced flavors. “I was hoping in my heart of hearts that there’d be another Hmong person that’ll do traditional Hmong rice liquor,” founder Po Lo wrote on Facebook. “But sadly no one has so now very soon Yerlo will be back on the shelves.”
Ly holds out hope, though. "There's finally some awareness of baijiu," she says, and she thinks rice whiskey is gaining respect. "Most connoisseurs of whiskey can't pinpoint it," she says, telling the story of one such person paying Vinn the backhanded compliment of expressing his shock at how well rice worked in a whiskey. This challenge of unfamiliarity and, often, lack of curiosity uniquely faces the Asian-American rice whiskey distillers as they interpret generations of tradition through American ingredients and modern liquor laws—the latter of which also means that only Vinn is currently widely available outside its home state.
Published on May 26, 2022
Words by Naomi Tomky
Award-winning Seattle-based writer Naomi Tomky explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersections of food, culture, and travel. Her first cookbook, The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, was declared one of 2019’s best by the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her culinary travels and hunger-inducing ramblings on Twitter @Gastrognome and Instagram @the_gastrognome.