The Chinese spirit Baijiu (pronounced, approximately, “bye–j’oh”) is a complex, robust and potent little drop that is one of the most consumed liquors in the world. But let’s face it, it’s definitely an acquired taste.
A huge part of China’s history spanning thousands of years, Baijiu is usually enjoyed with food, often primarily imbibed by old men, and is busted out mostly for special occasions.
In China, they don’t drink it in nightclubs and definitely do not mix it in cocktails.
And that last point is unfortunate because if you put Baijiu in a cocktail, then things definitely change. Baijiu itself is made up of so many flavours that it works well in a variety of combinations.
For many non-Chinese drinkers, its aroma is variously described as resembling stinky cheese, anise, pineapples, musk and gasoline. But don’t let that put you off.
Why It’s Worth Giving It A Try
It’s easy to forget that in the 1950s, Vodka was considered a weird exotic drink that nobody drank, but today, we think of it as the least challenging of hard liquors. Tequila and Mescal are both spirits that within our lifetimes have started appearing more and more frequently in bars and cocktails.
Slowly but surely unusual spirits gain a foothold and became a very popular spirit. Baijiu is not there yet, but there is no reason why it won’t follow a similar path forward.
At the end of the day, people adjust and palettes change. It’s often just a case of getting used to something that is a little different than what we are used to and stepping outside your comfort zone, especially with drinks, expands your appreciation and your knowledge.
What To Use
And this is what importers like Hong Kong Baijiu (HKB) are hoping will happen as they bring awareness and interest in the spirit to the west.
HKB is a great introductory brand to Baijiu. It is crafted to appeal more to western tastes while respecting the tradition of Sichuan Baijiu’s strong style, characterised by fruity aromas and some sweetness.
They believe that as Hong Kong itself is a perfect introduction to China, Hong Kong Baijiu is a perfect introduction to the spirit.
It is made by a small producer in Sichuan, a province in south-west China bordered by the Himalaya mountains. It is produced by fermenting a blend of five different kinds of cereal in mud pits.
After careful distillation, it is left to rest in large ceramic jars for at least two years. The result is a modern Baijiu, perfect for mixing and excellent as a base for classic or innovative cocktails.
As it stands at the moment, Baijiu is definitely for people who are adventurous and people who are down for something new. Sure, it may not immediately replace Whiskey or Gin in your home bar but keep in mind that it has a growing number of fans.
How To Use It
The trick with working with Baijiu us to find the fruits, herbs and other spirits and liqueurs can mix well and tame the Baijiu while bringing out its rich, earthy complexity. Or in other words, finding flavours that are equally powerful.
While a combination like Baijiu and sweet vermouth may not work all that well, Baijiu loves Campari. Citrus goes very well with it; so does Absinthe and Mescal.
So play around with spices, Ginger, Sherry, Nutty Liqueurs, Herbal Liqueurs, and Amari, is the perfect way to introduce yourself to Baijiu. While fruits like fresh red berries tend to get lost, others like Pineapple is a great compliment. Blackberries, grapefruit, passionfruit and other more pronounced fruits can also stand beside Baijiu.
A good way to think about Baijiu is through the lens of Chinese culture itself, and the emphasis it puts on the harmonious balance between the yin and yang. Working with Baijiu is the same, it’s finding the flavours that will compliment it and worth harmoniously with it and your taste buds as well.