Baijiu’s Journey to the West / by Thomas O'Malley

This article first appeared in Discovery, the inflight mag of Cathay Pacific.

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Is China’s firewater about to break into the global mainstream?

In the grey-brick alleyways of old Beijing, there’s a buzzing little joint that fuses Western bar culture with Chinese booze. Capital Spirits specializes in tasting flights of baijiu, the national spirit of China that’s as old as Kublai Khan with a kick like an angry camel.

Often described in the Western media as the world’s most-drunk spirit you’ve never heard of, baijiu is similar in potency to whisky, usually distilled from sorghum, a cereal grain, and a bottle costs from a few bucks 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 bread than booze. At baijiu distilleries, a solid ‘mash’ of grains and starter is left to ferment in pits – sometimes for many months – absorbing layers of flavor-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 (known, poetically, as “1000-year pit, 10,000-year mash”).

Luzhou Laojiao, it’s worth noting, is just one of four ‘aroma’ categories of baijiu, which can subdivide even further. The notion that there is a common baijiu flavor is a misconception that irks non-Chinese advocates like American Bill Isler. “Comparing two styles of baijiu isn’t like comparing bourbon to scotch, but rather comparing bourbon to mezcal,” says Isler, CEO of Ming River, a new brand targeted at the global bar market. Depending on whether it’s a ‘strong’, ‘light’, ‘sauce’ or ‘rice’ aroma baijiu, flavors can range from toasty rice to overripe tropical fruit to caramelized shitake mushrooms.

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Isler’s journey as a professional baijiu pusher began in 2014 as the co-founder of the aforementioned Capital Spirits. Beneath the worn beams and flickering Edison bulbs of the ‘world’s first baijiu bar’, his cocktails and mixed-aroma tasting flights came with a side of schooling on the oft-misunderstood spirit. The bar earned a diverse clientele, from curious expats to hipster locals. What was more surprising, according to current manager (and Isler’s cousin) 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.

For a bit of context, this played out not long after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on lavish spending among officials, which meant that baijiu suddenly lost its best customer – the government. Prices plummeted, and baijiu brands were forced to tweak their lines and broaden their appeal. It worked – Guizhou province’s Moutai, the official baijiu of state banquets, became the world’s most valuable spirits brand in 2017. (Out of the top five the only non-baijiu is Johnnie Walker whisky at four, one spot above Luzhou Laojiao.) Meanwhile, young Chinese drinkers, for whom baijiu had been the uncool tipple of officialdom, started getting turned on to new brands like Chongqing’s Jiangxiaobai, which sponsors rock festivals, has savvy styling, and is lower in alcohol (and cost) than traditional varieties. 

But the question of whether China’s favorite 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 suggests 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 Commie rotgut until the Moscow Mule, and later, James Bond’s vodka martini (shaken, not stirred). Tequila, likewise, was propelled to stardom via the Margarita - but let’s not mention those tequila shots.

One barrier to concocting baijiu’s ‘Moutai Mule’, as one article neatly put it, might well be its variety. Since each style of baijiu is so different, there can be no one-size-fits-all cocktail, although new brands like Isler’s Ming River have been blended under the tutelage of New York bartenders for increased cocktail compatibility. But there’s still baijiu’s inherent umami complexity to deal with, so only the most ambitious mixologists need apply. Mixologists like Phoebe Ling, a bartender from China’s Shanxi province who opened Shanghai’s Healer Bar in 2016, pouring joyfully experimental cocktails that celebrate baijiu, Chinese huangjiu (a sake-like rice wine) and traditional liquor infused with medicinal herbs. Unsurprisingly, big brands are lining up to work with Ling, who has performed 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 Ling, “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 your local bar? “Within five years, baijiu will reach the sort of level where mezcal is now,” reckons Putney of Capital Spirits, 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 underway. “Baijiu-focused bars have opened in places as far away as New York, Liverpool, Stockholm, and Buenos Aires,” notes Isler, who reckons that 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 flavor and aroma that has a compelling cultural heritage along with a handcrafted production method,” says Isler. “Baijiu delivers on all fronts.”


 3 Baijiu cocktails

 Name: Mandarin
Where: Healer, Shanghai
Chinese kumiss (fermented mare’s milk), baijiu, Campari, rice wine.

 Name: The Paper Crane
Where: Capital Spirits, Beijing
Mix equal parts Luzhou LaoJiao baijiu, Amaro Montenegro, Aperol and lemon juice. Shake well over ice and double strain over a large ice cube.

 Name: Monkey Writes a Poem
Where: Kings Co Imperial, New York
1.5 oz Ming River Baijiu, 0.75 oz Giffard Banane du Bresil, 0.5 oz Mattei Quinquina Blanc, and Orange Bitters. Stir; serve on large ice cube with star anise & orange twist.


Bill Isler’s baijiu aroma cocktail guide

 Light aroma Can play like a gin mixing with a broad array of brighter flavors like citrus. Includes Beijing’s famously potent Erguotou brand.

 Strong aroma Strong aroma baijius are more like a high ester rum and lend themselves to tiki-style drinks. Includes Luzhou Laojiao and Ming River.

 Rice aroma Made from rice rather than sorghum, these have a vodka quality but their delicate flavor is easily overpowered. Includes Guilin Sanhua.

 Sauce aroma With its umami saltiness, sauce aroma baijius have nothing analogous in the western tradition. They add an interesting savory edge to a Bloody Mary. Includes Moutai.