Baijiu: China’s Old-School Liquor Gets Cool
It’s been China’s most popular alcohol for thousands of years, but baijiu is now appearing on American backbars. Pronounced, approximately, “by Joe,” baijiu can come as a shock to uninitiated Western palates. But its complexity, high proof, and uniqueness make for an adventurous new frontier in mixology. Here’s our primer on the most-imbibed liquor in the world:
Baijiu translates in Chinese to “white liquor,” but this high-proof spirit is more than just moonshine. It starts with letting sorghum and other grains like rice or millet ferment underground for as long as seven months. The process forms a starter culture of local yeasts and microorganisms, which imbues the final product with its terroir. After distillation, the spirit is decanted in ceramic jars for a couple years to much longer. (The luxury label, Moutai, offers a 50-year-old bottle that could be yours for a cool $6,000. Recently, specific vintages from China’s famine years have sold at auction for upwards of $200K.)
Despite being the liquor of choice for over a billion Chinese, Baijiu has a mixed reputation in the US. Many drinkers haven’t heard of it, and expats have often viewed imbibing baijiu as a horrific rite of passage, describing it as “fire water” or smelling like a cross between old gym socks and rotting fruit. These characterizations, however, only describe a small segment of baijiu, of which there is an astonishingly huge range of types and flavors. Typically 100-120 proof, baijiu certainly packs heat. But layered within are complex flavors and scent profiles. Different varieties of baijiu are categorized into six “fragrances” — honey, layered, light, rice, thick and “sauce.”
Orson Salicetti — co-owner of Lumos, America’s first bar specializing in baijiu (and formerly the head mixologist of Apothéke) — loves the “intense” and “powerful” characteristics of the spirit. He has a lot of experience introducing baijiu to new crowds and keeping them coming back for more. “I wanted something unique to share with the New Yorkers that hasn’t been done before,” Salicetti says. “For beginners, I recommend starting with the soft aroma baijiu, which is easier to understand and enjoy. Then little by little, it’s interesting to upgrade and try stronger, richer baijiu.”
According to Christine Deussen, who represents Moutai and newcomer Hong Kong Baijiu (HKB) in the US, it’s expert mixologists and the spirits cognoscenti, including Dale DeGroff and Gaz Regan, who are bringing their love of baijiu to wider audiences. “They’ve introduced baijiu to tons of people, which has opened lots of doors,” Deussen says. With Millennial drinkers seeking more authentic experiences, and more people warming up to umami flavors, Deussen anticipates baijiu flowing onto the bar scene the way absinthe did when it first returned to the U.S. — pioneered by cutting-edge establishments before becoming ubiquitous.
Moutai (the preferred drink in China for lubricating business deals and served to every U.S. President to visit the country since Nixon) is the most widely recognized baijiu label, but its “sauce” aroma packs an umami punch that’s best reserved for the well initiated. If you’re familiar with regional Chinese food like fermented stinky tofu and Sichuan hotpot, the appeal of sauce baijiu is less likely to get lost in translation. Moutai’s tasting notes include, “floral nose with notes of miso, gingko nuts, and burnt rice. The palate is dry and smooth with notes of toffee, coffee, and earth.”
Softer baijiu, like the rice and light aromas, go down easier. Look for “modern” varieties like HKB and Byejoe and Taiwanese varieties, called Kaoliang. To make baijiu more adaptable to cocktails, HKB is proofed to 86 and has a flavor profile tailored for Western imbibers that is “attractively sweet, with notes of fruit and toffee.”
“One analogy is, rather than growing up on American cheese and switching right to Epoisses, HKB is like a fine Camembert: still classic, authentic, and full of flavor, but gentler,” says Deussen.
So how do you drink it? In China, baijiu is traditionally knocked back neat, in small stoneware shot glasses, at room temperature — and usually following an announcement of “gan bei,” Chinese for “bottoms up.” However, in the US, baijiu is also showing up in cocktails, at hotels and restaurants like The Peninsula, The Park Hyatt, Hakkasan Beverly Hills, and of course, Lumos. Two baijiu cocktails that Orson Salicetti developed for Lumos include a sesame colada with mangosteen, sesame paste, and pineapple, as well as an intricate goji cocktail: “goji-infused baijiu base, mezcal, a few drops of maraschino liqueur, absinthe, pink grapefruit, lime juice, and flambé Himalayan salt topped with Aleppo pepper.”
Spices, herbal flavors, and citrus can go well with baijiu — depending on the type of baijiu, of course. For Salicetti, the key is balance when mixing. He also notes that as a clear, high-proof spirit, baijiu makes a great base for infusions. Imbibers who like infused baijiu have grown to appreciate the stronger stuff.
“For adventurous people, I would recommend trying a shot of baijiu by itself,” says Salicetti. “That allows you to fully understand the taste and realize the rich diversity of aromas that baijiu has to offer.”
Want to try mixing baijiu? Here are some recipes to get you started: