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Matsu islands serve up alcoholic pleasures
2014-07-15
By John H. Isacs

EVEN wine guys like myself occasionally crave something different, as long as it’s not beer.

This week I have the privilege of visiting the Matsu islands off the coast of Fujian Province and learning more about one of my favorite liquors. Before I get into the pleasures of Matsu’s alcoholic treasures, allow me to give a short primer on these beautiful unspoiled islands.

Matsu is a group of small hilly islands divided into four townships and 22 villages. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), migrants from Fujian populated the islands. They were predominently fisherman who lived a harsh life harvesting whatever they could from the sea. Over the centuries, pirates raided the villages frequently. Residents mostly speak the Fujian dialect.

Attractions are many including breathtaking scenery, bird-watching, impressive tunnels, fortifications, picturesque traditional Fujian villages, numerous temples including the giant statue of Matsu, the goddess of the sea, and so much more.

But my priority this journey is to learn more about Matsu’s legendary Kaoliang white liquor.

Kaoliang

Matsu’s most famous product is Kaoliang liquor. The Kaoliang from Kimen Island may be better known but personally I prefer the white elixir from Matsu.

I find it more subtle with a silkier texture and more impressive length. One of my first stops is Dongyin Distillery where the general manager of the distillery, surnamed Lin, describes in detail the method of making Kaoliang. Then comes the fun part, a tasting of its most renowned liquors.

Kaoliang is made from sorghum that undergoes a natural fermentation followed by a laborious double distillation.

After distillation the spirit is aged in deep tunnels and caves with stable micro climates for several years. Just as with Scotland’s great single malt whiskeys, water is an important factor that influences the quality of Matsu Kaoliang. Pure rain water that filters through the stony hills and cliffs of the island impart attractive sweet mineral flavors.

The finished product is a brilliant transparent white color. Alcohol content ranges from 38 to over 60 percent.

Additional qualities that make Matsu Kaoliang a special treat are aromatics and persistence.

Pour a glass of this Kaoliang and sweet perfumes envelop your senses then after a generous sip the sweet but remarkably clean flavors linger on your palate for several minutes. As with wine the persistence of sensations on your palate is an important discriminator of quality.

During the cold and breezy winters locals serve the liquor warm but in the summertime heat it is served chilled or even frozen.

When chilled, the freshness of the liquor is emphasized and when Kaoliang comes directly from the freezer there’s a lovely syrupy texture.

Because of the high alcohol content the spirit doesn’t actually freeze rather it becomes super thick and the sensation of alcohol is significantly mitigated. Frozen Matsu Kaoliang is the perfect foil for a hot summer day.

Fans of white alcohol shouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience this distinctive liquor and I’ve already packed a few bottles to share with friends in Shanghai.

Two highly recommended styles are Tong Yung Kaoliang Liquor that’s aged up to five years and the popular Tunnel 88 Kaoliang.

Laojiu

I’ve long enjoyed the special attributes of Matsu Kaoliang but learning about the locally made Matsu rice wine was quite a revelation.

Laojiu as this naturally fermented wine is called in Chinese is technically a yellow wine made from a combination of sticky white rice and a special red colored rice-like grain that’s referred to as hongzao in Chinese. The relatively high sugar content of the rice results in wines having a heady 12 to nearly 20 percent alcohol content.

Laojiu is very much a cottage industry in Matsu with almost every family making their own batches with their own particular characteristics. Therefore its impossible to stereotype the qualities of these individualistic wines, but in general they tend to be aromatic, mellow and quite round on the palate.

Every Laojiu maker is quick to point out that their wine is the best in Matsu and all you can do is nod and drink more.

Local fare

One of the best ways to enjoy Matsu Kaoliang and Laojiu is both with and in food.

Matsu fare is seasonal and based on what can be grown and caught locally.

In the winter migrating sea bass are a local delicacy often served with winter vegetables while in the summer season mussels, clams and other crustaceans plentifully grace tables with large plates of sweet cabbage.

Fish noodles, fried hongzao-flavored rice, sweet potato dumplings and other simple dishes comprised of fresh local ingredients are staples.

The food like the people of Matsu is unpretentious, honest and accommodating.

The best dishes are those made with liberal doses of Laojiu and served with the rice wine or Matsu Kaoliang. I still love the Kaoliang liquor but I’ve come to realize that Matsu has much more to offer thirsty travelers.

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