In the grey-brick alleyways of old Beijing, Capital Spirits is a buzzing little joint of worn beams, flickering Edison bulbs and a bold proposition: the bar specialises in tasting flights of baijiu, the national spirit of China that’s as old as Kublai Khan and has a kick like an angry camel. And they’re served with a side of schooling on the oft-misunderstood tipple.
Frequently described in the Western media as ‘the world’s most-drunk spirit you’ve never heard of’, baijiu is similar in potency to whisky. It’s usually distilled from sorghum, a cereal grain, and a bottle costs from a few RMB to the price of an iPhone or three. Traditionally paired with food, baijiu is the toast of Chinese banquets and business dinners, knocked back neat in thimble-sized glasses. It tastes… well, tasting notes are nothing if not contradictory: pineapple, cheese, soy sauce, liquorice, anise, mushroom, gasoline, old socks. Confused?
It’s an understatement to say that complexity is written into the DNA of baijiu. Unlike most spirits, which are distilled from liquid, crafting baijiu is a process more akin to making cheese or sourdough. At baijiu distilleries, a solid mash of grains and starter is left to ferment in pits – sometimes for many months – absorbing layers of flavour-packed bacteria before being distilled and then aged in terracotta jars. Some baijiu producers, notably Luzhou Laojiao from southern Sichuan, have been using the same funky mud pits for centuries, while also recycling part of the old mash with every new batch.
Each baijiu falls under one of four aroma categories, which can subdivide even further. The notion that there is a common baijiu flavour is a misconception that irks non-Chinese advocates like Bill Isler, chief executive of Ming River, a new brand targeted at the global bar market. ‘Comparing two styles of baijiu isn’t like comparing bourbon with scotch, but rather comparing bourbon with mezcal,’ says Isler. Depending on whether it’s a ‘strong’, ‘light’, ‘sauce’ or ‘rice’ aroma baijiu, flavours can range from toasty rice to overripe tropical fruit to caramelised shiitake mushrooms.
credit: Stefen Chow
Isler’s journey as a professional baijiu pusher began in 2014, when he co-founded Capital Spirits, which quickly earned a diverse clientele ranging from curious expats to hipster locals. What was more surprising, according to managing partner David Putney, was that bigwigs from major Chinese baijiu companies were also dropping in to see how this upstart bar was successfully promoting their antiquated booze to a young, global audience.
This played out not long after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on lavish spending among government officials, which meant premium baijiu suddenly lost its best customers. Prices plummeted, and baijiu brands were forced to tweak their lines and broaden their appeal. Their efforts seem to have worked: among the world’s top five most valuable spirit brands in 2017, four were baijiu makers, with Moutai from Guizhou province at number one. (Johnnie Walker whisky was the lone non-baijiu brand.)
credit: Stefen Chow
Meanwhile, young Chinese drinkers, for whom baijiu had been the uncool tipple of officialdom, started getting turned on to stylish new brands like Chongqing’s Jiangxiaobai, which sponsors rock festivals and is lower in alcohol (and cost) than traditional varieties.
But the question of whether China’s favourite tipple can become more than an exotic curiosity in bars overseas is a tricky one. In Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, American author Derek Sandhaus writes that ‘a good cocktail may be the perfect delivery system for taking baijiu from Chinese restaurants into the bars and clubs of the world’. The rise in the West of other once-alien spirits backs up this theory. Vodka was considered Russian rotgut until the Moscow mule and, later, James Bond’s vodka martini (shaken, not stirred). Tequila, likewise, was propelled to stardom via the margarita.
credit: Stefen Chow
The challenge with creating a new classic cocktail using baijiu might be the spirit’s variety; since each style of baijiu is so different, there can be no one-size-fits-all cocktail.
Mixologists like Phoebe Han, a native of Shanxi province who opened Shanghai’s Healer bar in 2016, pours experimental cocktails that celebrate baijiu, Chinese huangjiu (a sake-like rice wine) and traditional liquor infused with medicinal herbs. Big brands are lining up to work with Han, who has demonstrated at events across the country. ‘Baijiu can make good cocktails if we understand its aroma like we do the botanicals in gin and the esters in rum,’ says Han. ‘But I think more time is needed for bartenders to really get to know its unique qualities.’
So when can you expect to see a bottle of baijiu on the back shelf of a local bar in Europe or North America? ‘Within five years, baijiu will reach the sort of level where mezcal is now,’ reckons Putney, referring to tequila’s smokier cousin currently having its time in the sun. But whether that growth can stick around for the long term, he is less sure. ‘Will baijiu be accepted as a spirit of the world in the same way as whisky and tequila, or will it mostly be consumed in restaurants, like sake? That’s the question.’
By some measures, though, the revolution is already under way. ‘Baijiu-focused bars have opened in places as far away as New York, Liverpool, Stockholm and Buenos Aires,’ says Isler, who thinks baijiu is a natural fit for this new era of craft appreciation and connoisseurship. ‘Bartenders around the world are always looking for something new and different in flavour and aroma. They’re also looking for something that has a compelling cultural heritage along with a handcrafted production method. Baijiu delivers on all fronts.
Baijiu aroma cocktail guide, by Capital Spirits co-founder Bill Isler
Baijiu with light aroma can play like a gin, mixing well with an array of brighter flavours such as citrus. Includes Beijing’s famously potent Erguotou brand.
Strong aroma baijiu are more like high-ester rums and lend themselves to tiki-style drinks. Includes Luzhou Laojiao and Ming River.
Made from rice rather than sorghum, this type of baijiu has a vodka quality, and its delicate flavour is easily overpowered. Examples include Guilin Sanhua.
With its umami saltiness, sauce aroma baijiu are unlike any spirits in the Western tradition. They add an interesting savoury edge to a Bloody Mary. Moutai falls under this category.