Beverage a tradition brought with former refugees

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Michelle Ly, left, and her mother Kim Trinh came to Wilsonville as refugees with their family in 1979. Their family has brewed baijiu for generations.It’s a new chapter for the Ly family, who for more than 35 years have been a part of the history of Wilsonville.

After coming to the country as refugees with literally no more than the clothes on their backs and beating the odds by building their Wok Inn restaurant into a successful business, the family is several years into a new venture: distilling and distributing Chinese liquor called baijiu (pronounced “BY-joe”) that is rare in the United States.

In 1979, Wilsonville’s Meridian United Church of Christ — better known as Frog Pond Church — sponsored Phan Ly, his wife Kim Trinh and their five children to move to the United States from Hong Kong. They’d arrived in Hong Kong six months prior as refugees from China, to which they’d been deported from their native Vietnam because of their Chinese ethnicity.

After arriving in Wilsonville, Phan got a job washing cars, while his wife found work assembling wood panels. In 1989, they drew on Phan’s lifetime of experience with authentic Chinese cuisine to open Wok Inn in Wilsonville’s Town Center.

Even then, the Ly family was making baijiu, a rice-based liquor popular in Asia, and which the family has been producing for seven generations.

“It’s the most popular spirit category in the world,” says Phan’s daughter Michelle Ly, noting that baijiu trumps categories like whiskey, vodka and liqueur. But she adds, “Not many people in the U.S. know about it yet.”

The Lys used baijiu for a variety of purposes, as a beverage, a medicine and a votive poured on special occasions in ancestors’ honor.

“When we came to the United States, we didn’t know how to speak English, so we didn’t know how to ask for baijiu,” Michelle says. “We’d been distilling our own alcohol for so many generations, so our father built a still in the backyard and started distilling. He did it because we came in November, and we needed to honor our ancestors in the new year.”

Ly says that baijiu’s taste varies depending on the ingredients used, but the beverage is defined by its use of qu — a mix of enzyme and yeast mixed in at the same time to ferment the rice mixture into alcohol. Her family uses only brown rice, yielding a flavor that she describes as “like a marriage between sake, tequila, white whiskey, and there’s a floral note to it — almost a gin feel.”

“It’s a very interesting, complex spirit,” she adds.

Traditional baijiu is between 100 and 120 proof, Ly says, but she notes that Vinn Distillery’s baijiu is around 80 proof, making it more in line with the American palate.

Distilling became a business for the family around 2004, when Phan began to wonder why he didn’t see Asian liquors on the shelves of the Wok Inn’s bar. Seeing a need that he could fill, he began to consider making a business of baijiu himself, and opened a still in a building in the backyard of his home on Boeckman Road.

The company was named “Vinn” — a middle name shared by all five of the Ly children.

By 2009, the family decided to sell Wok Inn to focus full-time on distilling. They expanded their offerings, adding vodka, whiskey and blackberry liqueur to their production line.

Baijiu remains Vinn Distillery’s chief product, however.

“Currently, we are the only baijiu distillery in the United States,” Michelle says. She notes that other distillers have been supportive, and have helped the fledgling company to gain ground. Vinn’s beverages are now available in a number of liquor stores and restaurants in the northwest and in California and the distillery remains in Wilsonville.

Baijiu isn’t always an instant success, however. Michelle says that three is the magic number of many of her customers — after their third taste of the beverage, they develop a fondness for the fiery Chinese liquor. Some of those customers are now at work on drink recipes that incorporate baijiu, Michelle says.

Phan died in 2012, but his widow and all five children are perpetuating the company and working to bring their distinctive beverages to the market. They manage all parts of the production process, from production to bottling, distribution and marketing.

And on the whole, the future looks bright for baijiu, Michelle adds, noting that baijiu is gaining in popularity nationwide: She says that foreign baijiu is being imported into the United States more and more frequently.

“It’s kind of where tequila was back in the early ‘80s, when it was trying to make its way into the United States,” Michelle says. “I feel baijiu is kind of at that point.”

Contact Jake Bartman at 503-636-1281 ext. 113 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JAKE BARTMAN - Vinn Distillery produces vodka, a blackberry liqueur and whiskey in addition to baijiu.

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