Sanyou distillery in Tasmania is pushing the boundaries of baijiu beyond Asia. The trio of Ian Sypkes, Tim Ye and Chris De Bono are combining the traditional continuous fermentation method associated with Chinese baijiu with ingredients sourced from Australia to give their spirit a sense of place. I asked Sypkes about the inspiration, mission and technical challenges behind Sanyou. Plus, about their experiments with barrel-aging baijiu.
1 It’s impressive how quickly Sanyou has grown given inspiration for the project came just over four years ago, in 2018, during a trip to China.
I know that from the outside looking in, it sounds quick, but when you put your life on pause to pursue something like baijiu made in Tasmania, it has been an incredibly long time. I think I told my friend and business partner Tim while we were in China that my forecast was we would be selling baijiu in 2019. Our first limited release was in April 2022.
Having said that, we are in for the long haul. I’ve given up a pretty easy life as a civil engineer to pursue this. Hand on heart, I actually believe Sanyou could be an anchor point in how Australians interact with Chinese in the future–it’s a complex relationship that needs a few points of common ground and Sanyou could be one of them. And the founders–Tim, Chris and I–are deeply invested personally into Sanyou.
2 You guys sourced local ingredients for your baijiu. Where are you getting your water and grain, and is there anything that makes them unique?
We get the wheat for our daqu* from Tasmania. We get red sorghum from New South Wales in Australia. Our water is Tasmanian–for steaming it is pure Tasmanian water, for cutting it is Tasmanian spring water.
I think this is special because unlike other spirits baijiu is connected to place. Our ingredients speak of our place, Tasmania. There is a real chance that Sanyou is the rarest baijiu on the planet. A maximum of 5000 litres is produced per year in a far corner of the planet — Tasmania.
[* Daqu / qu is the fermentation agent for baijiu. Grains are pressed into balls or bricks, then incubated before use.]
3 You guys draw on common baijiu styles from Sichuan and Guangxia, the two most famous being strong aroma and sauce aroma. How would you categorize Sanyou’s style? Or have you created an entirely new category?
I think we are a new category. When you consider how place-based baijiu is, we are in a new place. I like to think of our style as Tasmanian. We think of it as familiarly Chinese, distinctly Tasmanian.
As to our method, we are making wheat-only daqu (as with sauce aroma style) and running a continuous fermentation (as with strong aroma style). The reason for this combination is Tasmania is famous for its wheat and I loved the story of really old continuous pits in China.
One of my favourite stories is when Tim and I were in China, we visited a baijiu museum and after an hour or so we realised the workers weren’t pretending, they were actually distilling pits that were over 800 years old into a continuous ferment. I’d love for my great, great, great grandkids to have that same story in Tasmania.
4. The equipment and facilities for baijiu are quite unique to China, from the stills to pits for fermentation and saccharification to ceramic jars for aging. What were the biggest challenges in sourcing and building everything?
When we started our baijiu journey, all of this stuff was easy work. We had Tim who could call suppliers in China, shipping was easy and cheap, and life in general in 2018 and 2019 was easy. Since the pandemic, all of these things have been very challenging.
We have a still from China. We have large aging pots from China that we combine with smaller pots that are made in Tasmania.
Large above-ground custom-made pits serve us for now, but our next step is a custom-made location with pits in the ground.
Our story is one of test, iteration, grow, test, iteration, grow, test iteration, grow — and we are not at the end of that process.
I like to look on the bright side of things. The challenges of the past three years stopped others doing what we are doing. We are to determined not to stop. Baijiu made in Tasmania means something–it is more than a drink.
5. Another key ingredient is the “qu” which kickstarts the fermentation and saccharification process and is linked to the baijiu’s flavor. How challenging was it to create your own “qu”?
I’m glad you brought up qu because no one outside of China likes to talk about it. My theory is no one outside of China has made it… until Sanyou. I’m happy to have this theory challenged, because I would love to talk about our method with someone else who is doing it.
Daqu has been very challenging. When we returned from China, we thought we had baijiu making figured out. We were wrong.
Chris was our saving grace. Chris had the fermentation knowledge and expertise that unlocked daqu for us. Our Daqu is all wheat: we tested other mixes but felt wheat was the best representation of Tasmania.
We incubate our daqu in an insulated room built from the back of a cool room [refrigerated] truck we cut in half to create two incubators. We add no additional heat. Our daqu reaches internal temperatures of 55 degrees Celsius.
6 What kind of drinkers have been interested in Sanyou so far? People who already know about baijiu? Total newbies?
So far we have only had a limited release of baijiu. Our main bottle will be available later in July.
Our main drinkers have been Chinese in Australia. It is a really interesting group.
I come from a migrant family, basically like almost everyone in Australia, but my family was able to come in the 1950s after World War Two. Chinese-Australians have only had the ability to migrate since 1973, because of a hugely racist policy in Australia literally called the ‘White Australia’ policy. This policy meant the Chinese-Australian demographic arrived in Australia about one generation later than my Dutch forebears. The Chinese-Australian group are hugely successful in Australia and add an incredible amount to the Australian culture and economy.
They have been really supportive and we have had reviews of our baijiu that are better than we had ever imagined. There is something magical about Tasmania’s water, grains, and fermenting and aging environment.
7 You guys are also doing lots of experiments, including with barrel-aged baijiu. What are the initial results of baiju meeting wood?
We are trying a lot of things. I think this is an outcome of being very early in the baijiu industry outside of China. As you would expect, we are getting very mixed results with our tests.
Our cherry-infused baijiu needs more time in clay pots to mellow it out. Our barrel-aged baijiu is tasting really great out of our Sherry casks, but might need more time in the Port cask.
The Sherry cask baijiu has been aged in clay for one year and then put into the barrels–the barrels have added a really pleasant sweet note to the baijiu that I think will really please the whisky drinking public of Australia.
8 Finally, Sanyou is based in Launceston. Do any of the restaurants and bars there stock Sanyou?
Because we have only just finished our first limited release and it sold out almost exclusively through direct sales, our baijiu is not widely available.
Our location is in central Tasmania, in Launceston, a city of 90,000 people that is perfect for making baijiu but imperfect for selling baijiu. That said our baijiu is available in Melbourne’s @liquortown and a limited other group of locations.
Following our release this month we will be making Sanyou available across Australia and with the right connections we will reach into China.