Ming River Baiju

We created Ming River Sichuan Baijiu with a mission to spread knowledge and appreciation of traditional Chinese spirits among a broader global audience.

Bill Isler, Derek Sandhaus, & Matthias Heger Co-Founders

"We created Ming River Sichuan Baijiu with a mission to spread knowledge and appreciation of traditional Chinese spirits among a broader global audience. The story of who we are and how we came work together is essential to understanding why. I moved to Shanghai from the Boston area in 2006, and not long after began writing books about Chinese history. In 2011, I moved to Chengdu, capital of southwest China’s Sichuan Province, and I soon discovered that it was the leading production region of baijiu. Baijiu is a diverse category of traditional Chinese grain spirits. It is both the world’s most valuable best-selling liquor, but it is little understood or appreciated outside of China, and I became fascinated by the question of how a spirit could be so popular at home but functionally invisible abroad.

Over the next two years, I researched Chinese alcohol and drinking culture, and traveling the country to learn from the people who make baijiu. The result was two books, the first of which was Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. My partners enter the story in Beijing in 2014, where I was promoting my book’s release. After the talk Bill Isler, an American entrepreneur, approached me to let me know that he was developing a cocktail bar with friends. Seeing how much the audience was enjoying the drinks at my talk, he decided to make baijiu the concept’s centerpiece.

This was a novel idea. In China, baijiu is always served at mealtimes as a shooting drink. You drink it neat at restaurants and banquet halls, but never in mixed drinks at bars or clubs—domains reserved exclusively for Western spirits. This bar would be the first to offer customers baijiu flights and cocktails, a unique opportunity for new audiences to educate themselves on this fascinating category. Several months later Isler and his partners, among them Ming River co-founder Matthias Heger, who had worked in international development and founded his own German spirits brand, launched Capital Spirits baijiu bar in Beijing. It was an unexpected success, garnering the attention of international media and, crucially for us, Chinese baijiu distilleries. They were drawn to the bar because of its clientele. Baijiu consumption has been historically tied to business meetings, and it has acquired a reputation as an old man’s drink. But at Capital Spirits, there were young Chinese, men and women alike, as well as foreigners, all drinking baijiu together. It was seen as a novelty and an opportunity. At this point, various baijiu producers started reaching out to the Capital Spirits team to discuss partnerships, and they reached out to me to form an international baijiu consultancy. Soon we connected with the management team of one of my favorite distilleries, Luzhou Laojiao, about creating a brand specifically for the international market.

We were immediately interested. Luzhou Laojiao is both the oldest continuously operating distillery in China, with production facilities that date back to 1573, and the creator of the most popular baijiu style: strong-aroma baijiu, or what we call “Sichuan baijiu.” Without risking hyperbole, no one has played a bigger role in baijiu’s development than this distillery and the town it comes from, Luzhou. Our guiding principle in the brand’s development was to honor the distillery and baijiu culture to the extent possible in the international market. The product, for example, is made using the exact same techniques as any of the distillery’s other sorghum baijius, but our blend was taste-tested on bartenders in New York and Berlin to arrive at just the right balance for cocktails. Similarly, our bottle is based on our distillery’s classic 1980s Chinese lantern-shaped design, but we have extended the neck to fit a cork and speed pour, and designed a label that can stand out at a backbar.

In 2018, we launched Ming River in New York and Berlin, and have gradually expanded our operations to include dozens of markets in the US, Europe and Asia. Luzhou Laojiao oversees production, Bill is the CEO and oversees the North American market, Matthias oversees our operations in Europe, and I oversee our marketing and communications.

There’s still much work to do, but we’re proud of the progress we’ve made in creating a

place for baijiu outside of China."

Q. How did you come up with the name for your brand?

Ming River is not a geographic location, but an homage to where our baijiu originates. The town of Luzhou is one of the most important Yangtze River ports in Sichuan, and our parent distillery, Luzhou Laojiao, traces its history back to the Ming Dynasty. With our name, we honor both the town and the distillery.

Q. What are the secrets to your success?

Enthusiasm. Working with a globally unestablished spirits category is tough, because you don’t have to just sell a product, you have to sell an entire category that many people have never tried. All of our team was involved in baijiu education before we started this brand, so we understand and enjoy the process of presenting it to new audiences. If we didn’t love baijiu—all baijiu, not just the one we sell—this wouldn’t work.

Q. How did you persevere through the tough times?

Our brand was highly focused on bars and restaurants headed into 2020, so when COVID hit, we had to make a lot of major adjustments quickly. Staying focused on the larger picture—what we were trying to achieve with our brand—allowed us to prioritize what was essential, get back to work with a more balanced approach, and make 2021 our most successful year to date.

Q. What do you want to achieve next?

We want to see Chinese spirits taken seriously as a category, so I think I’d like to see a bottle of baijiu behind the bar of every major beverage program in the country. It’s expected that one carries tequila from Mexico, whisky from Scotland and rum from the Caribbean, so the fact that most bars don’t carry the world’s most-consumed spirit feels like a glaring omission. It doesn’t necessarily have to be our bottle in every bar, but if it were I wouldn’t complain.

Q. What are your tips for growing a company?

You can’t do everything yourself, so don’t try. A successful company will necessarily outgrow its founding team and you’ll never be able to internally solve all the problems you encounter. I recommend seeking out strategic partners who are trying to achieve some of the same goals as your brand. This can be a sales-driven industry partnership or a complementary brand in a completely different industry. So long as working together helps you both, it’s worth the effort.

Q. What do you have to say to the future aspiring AlcoBev entrepreneurs?

Focus on the why. People have countless options for what they consume, so you need to give people a reason why your product fills a need that the others don’t. There reason can be a number of things—your product tastes better, looks better, it uses unique ingredients or production techniques, it allows you to be part of a community—but it has to be something.