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Sweet potato, rice, and sugarcane: Local distillers promote Taiwanese flavors

Taiwan has long enjoyed an abundance of agricultural products - rice, sweet potatoes, and sugarcane; they can do more than serve as foods: they can also be used to make alcoholic beverages

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Sugarcane was introduced into Taiwan in the era of Dutch colonial rule, and thanks to the island’s hot, humid climate, it was grown in large amo...

Sugarcane was introduced into Taiwan in the era of Dutch colonial rule, and thanks to the island’s hot, humid climate, it was grown in large amo...

Taiwan has long enjoyed an abundance of agricultural products. Moreover, rice, sweet potatoes, and sugarcane can do more than serve as foods: they can also be used to make alcoholic beverages. While ordinary people did not in the past have access to modern fermenting and distilling techniques, they could always use whatever equipment they had to hand to bring together raw ingredients, water, and other elements and produce tasty alcoholic drinks. This was the embryonic form of localized alcohol production in Taiwan.

Kinou Luo, founder of Heng Chi Distillery, tells the story of how a corporate chairman in his 70s, whom Luo had never met before, made a point of ordering the distillery’s sweet potato spirit. Luo’s voice reveals the deep emotion he felt at the time: “He explained that in the past it was illegal to privately produce alcoholic beverages in Taiwan, but people with extra sweet potatoes would still make their own liquor, which they would give away to whoever’s family was celebrating some special occasion. He said that Heng Chi sweet potato spirit tasted just like the liquor his grandfather made back then.” *3

Sweet potato, rice, and sugarcane: Local distillers promote Taiwanese flavors
Besides making pure sweet potato spirit, Heng Chi Distillery founder Lo Chi-neng also combines barrel-aged whiskey and fruit wines with his main ingredient to create novel products that go beyond the aroma of sweet potatoes. (Taiwan Panorama photo)

Homemade sweet potato spirit

However, the first time Luo ever tasted sweet potato spirit was in Japan. “Why doesn’t Taiwan have sweet potato spirit, too?” Armed with this inspiration, he decided to open a distillery in Taiwan to make it.

With a background in the machinery industry, Luo first sought out books and information to understand the principles of liquor distillation, and then through practical experimentation he gradually established his process for distilling sweet potato spirit.

At the Heng Chi distillery, located in Taoyuan, the air is filled with the rich fragrance of roasted sweet potatoes. We listen as Luo explains the process of brewing and distilling sweet potato spirit.

He tells us that before sweet potatoes are fermented, they must first be thoroughly steamed. Potatoes of any size can be used, so Heng Chi buys Tainung No. 57 sweet potato “rejects” that don’t meet market ­standards in terms of size or appearance and therefore can’t be sold for a good price.

“I tell farmers, ‘You sell the good ones, and I’ll buy the ugly ones.’” Luo has spent a great deal of time in production areas, both to ease farmers’ minds about putting their sweet potatoes in his hands and also to confirm the environmental safety of the farms.

By taking sweet potatoes that do not meet retail specifications, Heng Chi not only provides farmers with some extra income, but also reduces food waste.

After processing, repeated rounds of distillation release the essence of the flavor of the dense mass of sweet potato.

Luo invites us to taste-test some sweet potato spirit. The body of the liquor looks clear, and the nose is complex and layered. On taking a sip, the first sensation is the distinctively powerful sweetness characteristic of sweet potatoes, followed in an instant by a sense of refreshment.

As the spirit glides down our throats, Luo recounts the story of how he got to know a very important person. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Heng Chi conceived the idea of putting out a product with paintings of door gods on the packaging, to symbolize protection of people’s wellbeing. Their search for an artist to work with finally brought them to Hung Ping-shun, temple painter for Shuntian Temple in the Fanshu area of Yunlin County’s Shuilin Township.

After several in-person meetings and heartfelt conversations, Hung finally gave the nod to “lending out” images of door gods that he had painted. The outer box for these products shows a temple door god looking on approvingly at the sale of these sweet potato spirit gift packs. This not only caused a stir in the market, it also brought new public attention to Hung, who has been named a living national treasure by the Ministry of Culture. Coincidentally, Shuilin is also an important production center for Tainung No. 57 sweet potatoes.

The links between the production area, the liquor and the artist naturally suggested numerous marketing angles. But Kinou Luo says: “It’s enough for me if more people learn about this master painter.” He doesn’t want to push his product directly in consumers’ faces, but prefers to hide the trademark. “It is more meaningful if customers are first attracted by the fragrance of the spirit and personally come to understand the story behind the product.” Just as the corporate chairman in his 70s rediscovered the flavor of his grandfather’s home-distilled alcohol through Heng Chi’s sweet potato liquor, Luo hopes that even more Taiwanese people will be reminded of their hometowns amidst the fragrance of sweet potato spirit.

Sweet potato, rice, and sugarcane: Local distillers promote Taiwanese flavors
Besides making pure sweet potato spirit, Heng Chi Distillery founder Lo Chi-neng also combines barrel-aged whiskey and fruit wines with his main ingredient to create novel products that go beyond the aroma of sweet potatoes. (Taiwan Panorama photo)

Limitless possibilities for rice wine

Rice wine has long been popular in Taiwan, and it has played a key role in family cuisine made by mothers across the island.

For the people of Yilan County’s Sanxing Township, this kitchen staple comes from the Yudo Distillery and Winery Company. It is common to see local people riding their motor scooters to the winery to buy alcoholic beverages. Its founder, Ma He-tseng, says with a smile: “Everybody comes and puts their money on the table and leaves with their purchases. We are like a big general store.”

Most of the visitors who come here to tour the facility are initially struck by the honeycomb-shaped medicinal wine cabinet and the 50-year-old rice-mill machinery in the winery’s foyer. However, it is the tasting room next door, lined with cabinets of alcoholic beverages, that is the real highlight at Yudo.

We watch as Ma He-tseng lines up seven bottles on the table: alcohol-free amazake (sweet sake), rice champagne, ginjo sake, rice wine, plum wine, tea wine, and coffee wine. This sequence is based on the various steps involved in producing each of the beverages, and it offers a microcosm of the accomplishments that Yudo has accumulated over the last 20 years.

Back in the day, Ma had just left military service, and he went to China to work in a Taiwanese-owned biotech company. Not long afterward, he returned to Taiwan to work on a research project to culture koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) for the purpose of producing sake.

While Ma lacked an understanding of the sake brewing process, he applied the practical spirit he had developed in the military to successfully produce ­Yudo’s first sake. However, because at that time there was little awareness of sake in the market, sales lagged. To keep the company afloat, his only option was to distill the sake into rice wine, which he named after the Taiwanese expression for “no alternative.”

Having described how Yudo’s focus turned away from producing only sake, Ma pauses and mysteriously brings out an unlabeled glass bottle, from which he pours a glass of clear liquid. Then he asks us to guess which of the drinks bottles on the table it matches.

The clear liquor is fragrant and has a very smooth mouthfeel, but we cannot readily identify what ingredient gives it its flavor. Ma laughs and announces that this is rice wine. He explains that because Yudo’s rice wine tastes different to the cooking rice wine generally sold on the market, many visitors (unless told in advance) will guess that this some other beverage. Through this kind of comparison, he hopes to break down people’s stereotypes about rice wine.

Rice wine production marked the turning point for Yudo. As the firm’s reputation for making premium wines spread, not only did local residents become long-time customers, many farmers also came forward hoping to turn their surplus paddy rice into wine.

But Ma had even longer-term plans in mind. Besides making rice wine for these farmers, he also tried to guide them to undertake planned cultivation and resume cultivation of rice varieties from the past.

The plum wine, tea wine, and coffee wine that Yudo has gone on to produce are a small part of the innovative possibilities the company has devised for rice wines. Ma says with a laugh: “To tell you about every one of our wines would take three days and three nights.” For behind every one them lies the wholehearted commitment of the master wine makers as well as the sweat and tears of the farmers who have assiduously grown the rice and the fruit that make up their ingredients.

Sweet potato, rice, and sugarcane: Local distillers promote Taiwanese flavors
Every cask in the barrel storehouse embodies the rice fragrance and sugarcane sweetness of Cliff Cheng’s memories. (Taiwan Panorama photo)

Recovering the ideal taste of sugarcane

Sugarcane was introduced into Taiwan in the era of Dutch colonial rule (1624–1668), and thanks to the island’s hot, humid climate, it was grown in large amounts. It therefore became one of the options for ordinary people to use to produce alcoholic beverages, making it the third most popular foundation for such drinks after rice and sweet potatoes.

However, after legal restrictions were placed on the making of alcohol by private citizens in the 1920s, lasting until Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, and the sugar industry went into decline from the 1960s, the use of sugarcane to make alcoholic drinks also gradually disappeared.

Today, the Taiwan Sugar Corporation’s Huwei Refinery is one of only two remaining working sugar refineries in Taiwan. Each year at harvest time you can see the intriguing sight of narrow-gauge sugarcane trains passing alongside trains of the Taiwan Railway Administration, while fresh-cut cane fills the air with a sweet aroma.

“This is the fragrance I loved as a child,” says Favorland distillery founder Cliff Cheng, and it is the flavor he insists on recreating in the rum that he produces.

Entering Favorland’s Huwei distillery, we follow Cheng as he shows us the well-established process of making rum, from the processing of the raw ingredients to distilling to aging. However, Favorland’s initial attempts to distill rum did not go so smoothly.

After getting a distillery operating license in 2013, Cheng decided to use Huwei’s main crops—paddy rice and sugarcane—as the major ingredients for Favor­land’s production of alcoholic beverages. However, while his rice whisky hit the market back in 2016, his rum, made from sugarcane juice, was still nowhere to be seen.

Cheng says that this was because the flavor of the rum he distilled was never the same as the aroma that he had smelled at harvest season.

Most rums are made by diluting sugarcane molasses with water, fermenting it with yeast, and then distilling the resulting liquor multiple times. Although these rums meet the expectations of the market, they don’t have the flavor he was looking for.

Rhum agricole, as made on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, has fresh sugarcane juice as the raw material, and Cheng decided to use this method as his foundation. After he modified the process by adding raw cane sugar to the juice, Favorland rum finally hit the shelves in 2020.

Favorland’s rum sold out within a few months of reaching the market. There was even a French sommelier who told Cheng: “Favorland rum is the most delicious rum I ever tasted in Taiwan.”

However, he adds that there is no right or wrong when it comes to taste. Just as not everyone enjoys stinky tofu, Favorland aims for its own unique style: It wants its rum to convey memories of the long-term relationship between the people of Huwei and its land, so that people who drink Favorland rum can taste a flavor that belongs exclusively to Huwei.

Cliff Cheng carefully opens the only remaining bottle of Favorland rum at the distillery, and as he pours it the delicate fragrance of sugarcane wafts out of the glasses. In our mouths the rum releases a sweet taste, and in our mind’s eye we see the abundant sugarcane harvest of days gone by in Huwei, once known as Taiwan’s sugar capital.