Can you be won over by baijiu (pronounced “bye-joe”), China’s firewater-like liquor?
Ask someone who didn’t grow up on the the high-proof, fermented spirit made from sorghum and other grains, and the resounding answer will be no. It's definitely an acquired taste. Sometimes that taste has essences of ripe melons or pears; often it has funky, nose-wrinkling notes approximating soy sauce or aged cheese.
To the American palate, the liquor can smell and taste harsh, but it’s a staple in China, where businessmen go head-to-head to see who can down more tiny shots. And if the baiju industry has its way, the spirit is about to make a break into the U.S. market.
Baijiu is already the world’s biggest-selling spirit category, representing an estimated $23 billion market, according to McKinsey & Co. and UBS. The vast majority is consumed within China, but in 2012, the Chinese government enacted anti-graft measures, tamping down the extravagant government-sponsored meals at which the spirit flowed freely. Baijiu producers still are smarting from the loss of sales and have now set their sights on Western drinkers.
There are some obstacles ahead. First of all, baijiu is very powerful, often bottled at 100 proof or higher. Americans are unused to the ingredients—primarily sorghum, though this may be mixed with glutinous rice, millet, wheat, or corn. And the production process—it is fermented in mud pits, distilled, and then aged in large earthenware vessels—introduces flavors we don’t understand. If you haven't tasted baijiu, its earthy funk and powerful aroma is a real eye-opener.
But American tastes are changing. We embrace alternative ingredients—think quinoa whisky and spelt vodka—and we have grown to adore smoky mezcal, which itself is roasted in underground pits, sometimes distilled in clay pots, and often sold without benefit of barrel time.
Whatever the roadblock, there’s only one way Americans are going to swallow the estimated 10.6 billion liters of baijiu that China produces each year: cocktails.
For as long as America has had access to firewater, we’ve found a way to gussy it up in mixed drinks. (Somehow, not drinking hasn’t occurred to us as an option; file “Temperance, Prohibition” under “failed experiments.”) We dissolved rough lumps of rock candy to make fiery rye palatable in saloons, and poured honey to turn bathtub gin into the Bee's Knees. But baijiu is hard to work with, and you can't just swap it in for vodka in traditional drinks—the flavor is too strong. The first baijiu-spiked cocktail I ever sipped was modeled after a classic Cosmopolitan, and it tasted like someone had infused the pretty pink drink with dirty, sweat-saturated socks.
New York’s First Baiju Bar
The secret to making baijiu cocktails suited to the Western palate, explains Orson Salicetti, a New York-based cocktail consultant, is to find a way to hide the aroma that Western palates just can’t seem to abide. Some baijius are classified as “strong aroma” and “sauce aroma”; to me, both can have notes that bring to mind cooked mushrooms, stinky blue cheese, soy sauce, or balsamic vinegar. Salicetti has been testing baijiu drinks for several weeks now, in anticipation of opening Lumos, New York’s first cocktail bar devoted to baijiu and complementary, Chinese-inspired cuisine. (Baijiu traditionally is served with food.) While Salicetti is consulting on the opening, the venue's backers are Chinese.
When it opens next month with a menu of 60 cocktails made with baijiu, Lumos will probably be the first Westernized baijiu bar to hit the States. (Of note, Los Angeles also has Peking Tavern, a restaurant with a handful of baijiu-based drinks, such as Wong Chiu Punch, made with hibiscus, and the relatively downmarket Red Star baijiu—destroyer of many a backpacker in China. If Lumos is a success, it has the potential to become a template for other baijiu-centric bars—Salicetti is already eyeing splashy Las Vegas—elsewhere around the country.
Salicetti has been tweaking drinks and throwing private parties to see what people like and what they push away. “The ones with fruit go fast,” he notes. So he’s been infusing Wuliang Chun Jiu (a mid-priced bottling) with ripe apricots, dates, and figs. A second drink, which involved marinating strawberries in baijiu before mixing with fennel, citrus, and sparkling wine, was a major hit, he says. Salicetti is now experimenting with barrel-aging baijiu to add layers of caramel and vanilla. (While some baijius are aged for years in clay vessels, Salicetti is counting on the fact that Americans find oak-aged spirits, like whiskey and brandy, comfortingly familiar.)
An additional hit with his test crowd was a drink called "the Sesame Colada." Containing less than an ounce of baijiu, the drink is filled out with mangosteen, white sesame paste, muscovado syrup, and orange liqueur. The sesame paste helps to bridge the baiju’s savory notes. Note: While a scant ounce of baijiu represents a lot less volume, when compared to the 1 ½ to 2 ounces of base spirit in most standard cocktails, these drinks still pack a major buzz—so let’s hope New Yorkers pace themselves.
Drinking Baiju in New York
Until Lumos opens in March, adventurous tipplers can find the occasional baijiu cocktails at some U.S. outposts of the Hakkasan chain. During a recent visit to the Times Square Hakkasan, surrounded by pulsing music and suits on expense account binges, I sipped an effervescent mix of melon-scented Mianzhu Daqu baijiu, yuzu, lemongrass, lychee, and prosecco. The fizzy cocktail is so new that it doesn’t yet have a name and isn’t on the menu—just ask for it.
At the sedate China Blue, a familiar red bottle of Maotai is given pride of place on a mirrored tray on the bar, lined up next to the bright green of Tanqueray gin and a square-shouldered bottle of Dad’s Hat Rye. This is one of the few places in New York at which curious sippers can purchase a single shot of baijiu ($28), as well as a full 375-ml bottle for the table ($308). There are no cocktails on the menu, but they can always be requested.
In addition, LuckyRice, an Asian food festival coming to New York on Feb. 24, will showcase a baijiu-spiked pear cocktail created by Salicetti. (See recipe below.)
If American tipplers do develop a taste for baijiu, the stakes are potentially huge, from a commercial perspective. According to a prediction by Jim Rice, managing director of Diageo’s Sichuan Swellfun, within five to 10 years the portion of baijiu volume sold outside of China might grow to 40 percent.
If baijiu producers want to hit that mark, it’s time to step up the cocktail game—the sooner the better. Although it seems unlikely that distillers will abandon centuries of tradition and stop making “sauce aroma” spirits that make us cringe, I’m betting it won’t be long before savvy marketers start to adjust baijiu formulations to suit Western tastes. The subtle fruit notes of Shui Jing Fang, for example (see below) might find fans here, as might a value-priced iteration intended to mix into cocktails. Who knows? By this time next year we might all be toasting the Chinese New Year with baijiu cocktails (like the one below) in hand.
Kweichow Moutai ($160 for 375 ml)
If you can find it at all, this red-and-white bottle is the standard in high-end restaurants. It's earthy and rounded, with a dry cocoa finish.
Shui Jing Fang ($100 for 375 ml)
Hinting at overripe tropical fruit, this baijiu carries notes of raspberry, lychee, and a tinge of violet.
Luzhou Laojiao Zisha ($80 for 375 ml): Bold lychee flavor plus hints of banana and anise are contained in a traditional clay jar.
ByeJoe Red ($30 for 750 ml)
Spicy and savory, this bottle has an almost jalapeno pepper-like prickle of heat, tempered by slight sweetness on the finish. There's also a chili pepper-flavored version.
Mianzhu Daqu ($25 for 750 ml): Fragrant and lightly fruity, with musky suggestions of cantaloupe, finishing crisp, it's a taste that works well in citrus-y cocktails.
Created by Orson Salicetti, this drink will be served at the LuckyRice Festival on Feb. 24 to celebrate the advent of the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Sheep. “Pyrus” refers to a white pear species native to China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.
2 ounces white pear juice
1 ½ ounces Bombay Sapphire East Gin
3/4 ounces lime juice
1/2 ounce baijiu
½ ounce agave
¼ ounce Maraschino liqueur
2 dashes Lumos Spice Elixir (baijiu infused with allspice, clove, and cinnamon, similar to bitters)
2 fresh sage leaves
In a cocktail shaker, combine all ingredients (except sage leaves) with ice. Shake well and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with sage leaves.