When MoM caught wind that third generation farmer and fruit grower Pete Thompson had started producing China’s national drink, baijiu, right here in the UK – using 100% British-grown sorghum, no less – our ears pricked up. Here, we talk crispy seaweed, closed-loop farming, and his partnership with the experimental English Spirit Distillery….
The adage ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ applies in a very literal sense to Essex-based farmer and fruit grower Pete Thompson. After he lost an apricot crop to frost, leaving him with a very small amount of the fruit come harvest time, he did what any one of us would do in such a situation: make apricot-infused gin. Reliquum Spirits was born. From there – in collaboration with the English Spirit Distillery – Thompson went on to release a small range of fruit-soaked boozes, from a London Dry gin infused with calamondin tree fruit grown on his farm to an Opal apple brandy aged in red wine barrels made from French Trombais oak. His latest project? Baijiu.
“We’ve been supplying and working with the UK’s Chinese wholesale food service sector for donkey’s years,” Thompson explains. “We supply 90 plus per cent of the UK’s crispy seaweed* to Chinese restaurants – all grown here, all year round.” Even so, when Dr John Walters, master distiller at the English Spirit Distillery, suggested Thompson create a baijiu, his initial response was a resounding ‘no’. “I’ve been through various long dinners with my Chinese customers where I’ve been force fed baijiu at the end, and if I do have memories, they’re not very good ones,” he explains. “But John said, ‘No, wait! We can make something beautiful here.”
They went away separately to do research – Thompson on the farm, Dr Walters in the distillery – and find out more about producing the Chinese spirit. For those new to baijiu, it has a pretty unique production process compared to vodka, whisky, Tequila and so on. Steamed sorghum grains and water are mixed with a fermentation agent called jiuqu or ‘qu’ – “I say it’s like a sourdough starter,” Thompson explains – and aged in an underground pit or buried jar for anywhere between one month and 30 years. First, the team looked into the raw ingredients.
“Lots of farmers, ourselves included, have wildflower mixes around the farm for birds, and sorghum is quite a popular one in them,” says Thompson. “So we knew it could grow here. Then we looked at how it’s made in China, in the earth pits. The fermentation process is complicated and potentially dangerous because of the chemicals you can produce.”
There are different types of qu for different styles of baijiu – ‘big qu’ might be made from wheat, whereas ‘small qu’ is typically made from rice. Thompson and the English Distillery team took an altogether different approach, mimicking the traditional processes used in baijiu production through laboratory conditions. “We analysed qu to find out which enzymes are in it,” Thompson continues. “We used chemical analysis to find out which enzymes are in qu, and then developed the enzymes that we needed. I can’t give you too much detail on the qu itself, and I won’t reveal which enzymes they are, but we’re essentially mirroring the traditional process in UK laboratory conditions to meet with food hygiene and food safety standards.”
After the fermentation period, the mix is distilled in small batches and bottled at 50% ABV. With such a diverse flavour profile to pick from, how does Thompson’s Baijiu – the name of the bottling – taste? “It has that umami, almost savoury note that you’d expect from a good baijiu, along with earthy, smoky notes,” he says. When people try it, they compare it to mezcal or Islay whisky. We never set out to create another Maotai – we wanted something uniquely British.”
When it comes to pouring, Thompson’s baijiu is intended to be as versatile (and accessible) as possible. “It works as a traditional shot, knocking it down as you would after a dinner in China,” Thompson explains. “It’s smooth and doesn’t burn the back of the throat, so you can also sip it like you would a very good mezcal or malt. But it’s also really interesting as a long drink and as a cocktail mixer as well.”
With baijiu under his belt, what’s next in Thompson’s spirited endeavours? “I think everyone will shoot me if I decide to do something else,” he laughs. “Though somebody did recently ask me about South American flavours in our innovation work. We do have some interesting South American herbs, so you never know, we might go to South America after Asia.”
* It’s actually a special type of cabbage.