Liquor baijiu takes a shot at the US cocktail scene


Think bourbon is hot? It’s got nothing on baijiu. Yet chances are good you haven’t even heard of baijiu, the high proof, pungent, spicy, savory, sweet traditional liquor of China. It packs a fiery punch. It also happens to be the world’s best-selling liquor by volume, a drink with a pedigree stretching back centuries, and was poured to toast the warming of U.S.-Sino
relations during Nixon’s historic 1972 visit.
Now, producers are making diplomatic overtures to an entirely new audience — the U.S. craft cocktail scene.
“We feel that it has incredible potential,” says Yuan Liu, senior vice president of business development for Los Angeles-based CNS Imports, the largest importer/distributor of baijiu in United States.
Baijiu is sorghum-based, though it also can contain wheat, rice and corn. And it’s not a uniform product; it’s a class of spirits with many categories. Think whiskey with its range from smoky Scotch to mellow bourbon. But unlike whiskey, which is fermented in a liquid state, baijiu is more or less dry fermented inside in-ground pits. It then is steam distilled several times in goose-neck stills, aged in massive terra cotta vessels, then finally blended (itself a complex and labor-intensive process.)
It generally is bottled at around 100 or 120 proof (well above the typical 80 proof for vodka, gin, etc.) and is classed by aroma, such as “light,” ‘’rice,” ‘’strong” and “sauce” — labels which aren’t all that helpful to Westerners. Typical reactions from first-timers are that it smells and tastes like blue cheese, mushroom or soy sauce — not the most alluring descriptors.
“This is not a spirit you can just pour into a martini glass and enjoy,” says New York bartender Orson Salicetti.
But introduced more gently as part of a cocktail? That can work, says Salicetti, co-founder of the Lumos bar, which focuses on the Chinese spirit and has a menu of more than 60 baijiu cocktails. Salicetti was introduced to baijiu by his architect partner Qifan Li and realized baijiu would be a great way to stand out in a city awash with specialty bars.
A popular option at Lumos is the “sesame colada,” which includes caramelized pineapple juice, white sesame paste and agave syrup. There’s also the goji baijiu punch, consisting of goji-infused HKB baijiu, mezcal, pink grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave syrup and orange bitters.
Lumos carries a full range of baijiu, including the No. 1 brand, Kweichow Moutai, recognizable by its distinctive packaging of a white bottle with a red and gold label. Other major players include Wu Liang Ye and Shui Jing Fang. A newer brand is HKB, designed with cocktails in mind and bottled at a relatively mild 86 proof. There also is a U.S.-produced baijiu, from Vinn, a distillery just south of Portland, Oregon.
Most of the USD23 billion baijiu market stays in China, though there’s been growing interest in exporting. Most of the baijiu imported to the United States goes to Chinese restaurants and shops. But about two years ago, CNS Imports decided to expand their reach. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Why aren’t we introducing this category of spirits to people outside the Chinese community?’” said Liu.
They’ve moved slowly, introducing the spirit to bartenders and learning, from experience, to work with rather than mask the unique flavors. “Instead of trying to mask the spirit and make it into something it isn’t, like vodka, they’re essentially creating and building a cocktail around the spirit,” says Liu.
Clearly, there’s a push to raise the profile of baijiu in the West. Whether it will be successful is another story. Baijiu has an exotic appeal which is both a weakness and a strength, says Jim Boyce, who blogs about Beijing nightlife at “Baijiu is such a novelty and that’s going to be its challenge, going from ‘Yes, I tried it once and it’s interesting,’ to something people buy regularly or even stock at home.”
Chinese traditionalists wouldn’t dream of drinking baijiu anything but neat and in very small glasses, which is how Kathy Fang serves it at her family’s FANG restaurant in San Francisco’s bustling SOMA district. Meant to go with food, baijiu pairs well with savory bites, such as Fang’s fried pork confit eggrolls, and it’s been a surprising hit with tech workers who tend to be open to new tastes, says Fang.
“If you tell them it’s really strong like moonshine they’re even more like, ‘Oh, I want to try,’” says Fang. Michelle Locke, AP

Categories China