Created in 2018, US-based Ming River was formed in partnership with Luzhou Laojiao, China’s oldest distillery, which wanted to create an international baijiu brand.
Baijiu is the world’s most widely produced and consumed alcohol category by volume, selling more each year than whiskey and vodka combined. In China, eight billion litres of baijiu are consumed yearly. Baijiu is an umbrella term for all traditional Chinese spirits.
Ming River is Sichuan style baijiu, distilled from sorghum grain and is 45% alc./vol.
“There is a large group of drinkers around the world that liked spirits but wasn't drinking baijiu,” said Derek Sandhaus, co-founder and communications director of Ming River.
While baijiu is undeniably the most popular alcohol in China, its presence overseas was mainly restricted to Chinese communities.
According to Sandhaus, there were many importers of baijiu in US and Europe, but these were usually targeting the local Chinese communities and expats.
“We got into the market when there weren't other brands that were actively trying to capture a mainstream North American and European user.”
In China, Baijiu is typically drunk neat, at room temperature, alongside food as a celebration drink.
However, the brand saw cocktails as the ideal entry point to educate and attract consumers in Western markets.
It says it pairs well with citrus and tonic water, and also with other strong-flavored spirits like overproof rum, amaro and mezcal.
“We spent a lot of effort on not only promoting our brand, but promoting baijiu as a category to the international audience, and that it would represent Chinese distilled spirits. We want to make sure that our audience, many of whom have never tried baijiu before, know about baijiu, its source, and how it is consumed in China,” Sandhaus said.
Ming River is made at Luzhou Laojiao in Sichuan province, and is China’s oldest operating distillery since 1573.
“We knew we wanted a product that would work well in cocktails, so the product itself is made the same way as Luzhou Laojiao’s baijiu, it's just a different blend that's more bartender friendly,” Sandhaus said.
Production of Ming River starts with locally harvested red sorghum grain which are steamed, fermented with wild yeast and buried in earthen pits to ferment for about two to three months. It is distilled in small batches with steam. The baijiu is then aged for up to two years in terra-cotta jars before the master blender balances the flavour before bottling.
Sandhaus explained Ming River was also designed to attract an international audience yet pay homage to the Luzhou Laojiao brand.
“On our label, we put information on what baijiu is and where it comes from. It was important to us that we had a Chinese name and packaging design, as we want people to recognise it as a Chinese product.”
The bottle is also glass material, which is resealable and bartender-friendly. Sandhaus explained that in China, most baijius are consumed by the bottle in one setting, and so there wasn’t a need to reseal.
Ming River is majority owned by Luzhou Laojiao who produces the product, while the founders are minority owners. The founders of Ming River come from US and Europe, and have experience in the alcohol industry.
“At that time, Luzhou Laojiao was looking to create an international brand, so we spent a few years developing the Ming River product and brand with them, before launching simultaneously in New York and Berlin in the Spring of 2018,” Sandhaus said.
US and Europe presence
From 2018 to 2020, sales were mainly in the US, to liquor stores, bars, and some supermarkets.
In 2020, Ming River entered a strategic partnership with Sazerac Company, a large liquor importer in the US, which helped increased its presence from five states to more than 20 states in 2021.
Sazerac manages the imports and sales of Ming River in the US.
“As a result of this partnership, we had by far our best year of sales last year. So we’re hoping to grow again this year, entering a few more states in the US but also to grow in our existing markets,” Sandhaus said.
In Europe, Ming River is working with importers to bring the product to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, France and the UK. Sales are mostly in liquor stores.
Ming River also has online stores in the US and Europe.
The firm’s CEO, William Isler told us: “We have sold over 4,000 cases in US and over 1,000 cases in EU in 2021. We are targeting approximately 50% growth in US and 100% growth in the EU for 2022." Each case comprises of six bottles (750ml in the US, 700ml in Europe).
“The main strategy this year is not necessarily to open new markets, but to get more out of the markets that were already. We’re doing this in a few ways, including planning sales and promotions around Chinese holidays like Chinese New Year's, Dragon Boat Festival, and Mid-Autumn festival to engage more users.”
Ming River also has global distribution partners in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea.