When veteran bartender Ashley Mac landed a job heading up the bar program at D.C. restaurateur Peter Chang’s new Baltimore institution NiHao, she had zero grasp of what the gig would entail. “[Chang’s daughter] Lydia requested me to develop a program centered round this spirit referred to as baijiu. However I used to be like, ‘what’s baijiu?’” Mac says.
Regardless of not realizing a lot in regards to the spirit, Mac took on the problem out of curiosity: She was drawn to baijiu’s aromatic aroma and complicated taste after the primary sip, which contained “floral” notes, “tropical fruits,” and “caramel” — someway unexpectedly. Her curiosity in baijiu solely continued to develop. “Baijiu is the form of spirit that the extra I discovered about it and its historical past, the extra fascinated I turned,” she remembers.
Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe) is a class of alcohol that features all grain-based distilled Chinese language liquor. It’s identified for being high-proof, averaging 50-plus % alcohol by quantity, and in some circumstances approaching 80 % ABV, which has earned it the nickname “hearth water,” alluding to its flammability. Its types are characterised by their “aromas” and every type varies drastically; 4 main aroma types (robust, sauce, rice, and lightweight) have emerged because the main classes of baijiu throughout China, with the manufacturers Moutai, Luzhou Laojiao, and Wuliangye garnering probably the most nationwide acclaim. Historically, it’s served in a small, third-ounce shot glass that appears like a miniature goblet.
“What distinguishes baijiu from their Western counterparts is using strong moderately than liquid fermentation,” explains Derek Sandhaus, a D.C.-based historian who devoted two books to baijiu. This course of requires qū (曲/麴 pronounced “chew”), a fermentation agent utilized in Chinese language alcohol manufacturing for a number of thousand years. Qū, beginning off as a clump of grains, is made via an advanced course of and turns into the agent that concurrently converts starches into sugars and sugars into alcohols. “Briefly,” Sandhaus says, “Western grain alcohols are often fermented in a liquid type utilizing cultured yeast, whereas Chinese language grain alcohols are fermented in a strong state utilizing wild yeast and different microorganisms.”
Right this moment, baijiu is the most-sold spirit on this planet, in keeping with a 2021 report from valuation consultancy Model Finance. Its main producers — led by Kweichow Moutai — dominate the chart of the globe’s most profitable liquor manufacturers; by comparability, Jack Daniel’s, America’s highest-valued spirits producer, is available in at sixth place. However regardless of its recognition amongst China’s customers, consciousness of baijiu within the U.S. had been sparse and ephemeral. Lumos, the primary devoted baijiu bar in New York, quietly vanished from the general public eye after a number of years.
Earlier than Lumos opened in 2016, even most Chinese language eating places within the U.S. didn’t serve baijiu. “There have been 46,000 Chinese language eating places within the U.S. earlier than the pandemic however most of them are takeout companies with skinny margins and no seating so it was arduous to justify buying liquor licenses to serve alcohol,” says Lucas Sin, chef and co-founder of Junzi Kitchen in New York and a 2019 Eater Younger Gun. However now, a rising variety of bar managers and bartenders are taking a contemporary take a look at baijiu, adapting it to their audiences with flights, cocktails, and experimentation, resembling lychee and jujube date infusions.
Eating places highlighting Chinese language regional cuisines — resembling Sichuan, Cantonese, and Hunanese – have taken be aware of the distinguished and sometimes ritualized social function of baijiu consumption with meals in these areas. By providing baijiu flights, they mirror the best way through which baijiu is historically served in China (straight and at room temperature) whereas additionally exposing prospects to quite a lot of types.
“Sichuan is house to many well-known strong-aroma baijiu, so it’s becoming to go together with the meals we serve,” says Travis Submit of Loads of Clouds, a Seattle restaurant specializing in Sichuan and Yunnan cuisines. “We often begin with three baijiu on a flight served on a board with explanations for every type.”
James Kyle, who co-runs cafeteria-style restaurant Danwei Canting in Portland, Oregon, additionally affords the foremost aroma types in each single-serving glasses and flights. “Touring round China, I used to be amazed by the wide selection of baijiu types — and their perfume and mouthfeel which might be all completely different,” Kyle says. Not solely does Danwei Canting showcase the varied types of baijiu from China, however the restaurant additionally makes certain to incorporate Vinn, a home baijiu from a small-scale household producer in Oregon. “We solely provide Vinn in our baijiu cocktails — it’s a rice-aroma baijiu, which is mild and floral, making it simply rendered in cocktails.”
Excessive-end bars and even non-Chinese language eating places are beginning to see baijiu as a spirit worthy of their drinks menus. Darrell Bathroom, the bar supervisor at Waldo Thai in Kansas Metropolis, Missouri, was aware of the spirit from rising up in Malaysia in a Malaysian Chinese language household and finding out in Taiwan, however he was at first hesitant about introducing it to his American prospects. His expertise working at a whiskey bar modified his thoughts. “I spotted that baijiu is just like whiskey by way of its selection and the types and the way vastly completely different they are often,” he says. Bathroom now hosts tastings for his choosy, bourbon-loving prospects.
Patrick Smith, the bar supervisor of lately reopened Manhatta in New York, took be aware when he sipped on the baijiu cocktails at Capital Spirits, a Beijing hutong widely known as one of many first profitable baijiu bars. Now, he’s engaged on launching a full baijiu menu on the Union Sq. Hospitality Group restaurant. “We wish to begin with 4 to 6 varieties representing the foremost types, in addition to conventional serveware,” Smith says. To Smith, that includes baijiu on the menu makes enterprise sense, as individuals go to bars and eating places to strive issues that they don’t have the time, instruments, or information to make for themselves at house. “This implies issues like complicated amaro, distinctive gins, and lesser-known classes to Individuals resembling sherry, cachaca, or eau-de-vie. I believe baijiu belongs in that blend,” Smith says.
Some restaurateurs additionally imagine that baijiu has an ideal potential in cocktails — not solely on account of its distinctive flavors, but in addition as a method to introduce Individuals, who usually devour liquor in blended drinks, to this beforehand unfamiliar spirit. Sarah Thompson and Henji Cheung, the couple behind Queen’s English, a Washington, D.C., restaurant serving traditional Cantonese dishes, see baijiu as an inseparable a part of the tradition they search to signify. After including it to the restaurant’s menu, prospects more and more expressed curiosity in baijiu, so Thompson introduced on Tracy Eustaquio, who expanded the bar program at Queen’s English to heart across the liquor.
“From promoting principally beer and wine, we now promote six varieties of baijiu by the ounce for visitors to pattern varied types,” Eustaquio says. However she additionally expanded the cocktail program to seamlessly work completely different types of baijiu into the classics. “I take advantage of baijiu as a modifier, not a base spirit, so I took inspiration from current cocktails — analyzing the flavour profiles and ensuring baijiu would slot in.” Because the title “baijiu” pertains to a various class of liquors, there’s no one-size-fits-all resolution to together with baijiu into blended drinks. Eustaquio incorporates Moutai, a sauce-aroma baijiu with notes of chocolate, caramel, and low right into a Manhattan, whereas Ming River baijiu, a fruity, strong-aroma type, subs in for tequila in a margarita.
Like Eustaquio, Submit of Seattle’s Loads of Clouds has additionally opted to change acquainted cocktails to focus on the flavors of baijiu. “Certainly one of our top-selling cocktails known as Ernest Goes East, which is drawn from the traditional Hemingway Daiquiri. We use a powerful aroma baijiu on this cocktail. We like its complexity and skill to face as much as citrus,” Submit says.
However some bartenders have eschewed utilizing baijiu in acquainted cocktails in favor of altering the flavors via experimentation, opting to let baijiu take the starring function in revolutionary drinks that seize each the cocktail-savvy and baijiu-curious crowds. After initially feeling caught together with her baijiu experiments, Mac of NiHao in Baltimore determined to infuse baijiu with dates. “I discovered about Chinese language jujube dates, that are candy with a barely tart aftertaste. I infused a sauce-aroma baijiu with these dates and made a drink referred to as Inch of Gold, which was a layered cocktail with jujube-infused baijiu — I nonetheless suppose that’s the perfect cocktail I’ve ever made.”
At Kwei Fei in South Carolina, bar supervisor Aneel de Albuquerque additionally infuses baijiu with varied elements he sources regionally. This system, which introduces the complexity of baijiu in mild, refreshing drinks, has been significantly fashionable with the Charleston crowd, who’re comparatively new to the mouth-numbingly scorching Sichuan delicacies through which Kwei Fei specializes. “Fruit-infused light-aroma baijiu in a fruit punch tends to do fairly properly,” de Albuquerque says. “We additionally hosted occasions to teach bartenders and fanatics in South Carolina in regards to the spirit.”
Sin, who grew up aware of baijiu, is thrilled to see it discovering its place in American eating places, whether or not toasted in tiny shot glasses or blended in cocktails. “Whereas I believe there’s one thing to be stated about preserving the normal Chinese language ritual and technique for consuming baijiu with meals,” Sin says, “I’m additionally a fan of artistic functions of the spirit in contexts past what would strictly be ‘conventional’ by cooks and bartenders.”
With the scene as crowded as it’s, bar creatives are dashing to select up the following development, and baijiu’s distinctive flavors might help. “It’s identical to portray a panorama and discovering a brand new shade to place in your palette,” as Smith places it.
“We’re all the time on the lookout for new spirits to play with,’’ says Nick Lappen, bartender at Backbar in Somerville, Massachusetts, and host of Boston Baijiu Bar, a well-liked pop-up that persistently has a waitlist. “Baijiu has attention-grabbing taste notes — with the fitting training, individuals can actually respect it.”
Even in China, the place baijiu has lengthy been the nationwide alcohol of selection, younger creatives are interesting to a brand new technology by making use of trendy know-how and methods to present this historic drink a facelift. Such efforts embrace a devoted baijiu cocktail bar named Bar SanYou in Guangzhou, the place proprietor Bastien Ciocca and his group are elevating infusion experiments to a brand new degree. Utilizing a rotovap, baijiu and gin are infused with herbs and botanicals in a low-pressure surroundings, which decreases their boiling level and permits for the extraction of unusually contemporary and delicate flavors.
The bar goals to captivate members of a younger crowd that usually “don’t drink and don’t like baijiu” — seeing it as unexciting and old school subsequent to liquor like cognac and bourbon. To date, SanYou’s efforts to rejuvenate the recognition of China’s nationwide drink amongst native youth have been profitable, as a second location of SanYou has opened in close by Shenzhen.
And as bartenders take growing curiosity within the spirit, baijiu corporations are taking be aware. Ming River Baijiu, which is made in a centuries-old distillery in Sichuan, is likely one of the most generally distributed baijiu manufacturers within the U.S. since its launch in 2018. Lappen, who’s constructed Ming River into his cocktail repertoire, credit its bar service-friendly bottleneck, eye-catching graphic design, and deliberately underproofed ABV for simple mixing as elements in Ming River Baijiu’s success. With Ming River laying the stepping stones for different centuries-old baijiu producers to observe, we’ll possible see extra manufacturers modernize and adapt, and extra cocktails created with a contact of this aromatic, generally earthy and funky hearth water.
Valerie Li Stack is a meals author and editor whose work has appeared in Cook dinner’s Illustrated, America’s Take a look at Kitchen, USA Right this moment, Reviewed, and extra.