Opinion

Why Baijiu Belongs on the Backbar

From Apotheke to Polite Provisions, U.S. cocktail bars are getting in on the world’s most consumed spirit in a new way—through cocktails

Why Baijiu Belongs on the Backbar
Photo courtesy of Derek Sandhaus.

On entering a baijiu distillery, it’s immediately evident that a unique spirit is being crafted. The sweet-and-sour funk of fermenting grains scents the air for blocks, and inside, the air is hot and musty, thick with steam. The walls are streaked with mold. There are no copper stills, wooden barrels, or vats of any sort. There is only a small army of workers furiously raking and shoveling piles of solid grain, from the stone floor into a massive steamer, and back again.

This is how the world’s most consumed distilled spirit is made.

Baijiu is a category of grain-based Chinese distilled spirits fermented with a culture of wild yeast and other microorganisms. It can be made in a variety of ways and with a variety of ingredients. Most often, it’s distilled from a cornlike grain called sorghum. A dozen distinct spirits exist within the world of baijiu, classified by the government according to their aroma category, and there are many more divisions within these subcategories. They range from delicately floral to aggressively pungent and tend to have more umami notes than can be found in other countries’ spirits.

For several thousand years, the Chinese have been working with an ingredient called qu (pronounced “chew”), which uses mashed grains as a vector for harvesting mold, yeast, and bacteria. Qu allows baijiu distillers to ferment and distill steamed grains as a solid rather than a liquid. It also imparts every liquor with the stamp of local terroir. This helps make baijiu a wide-ranging but highly specific spirit.

Different regional styles of baijiu can taste as different from one another as pineapple and roasted sesame. Indeed, these are the dominant flavors of two popular regional styles—strong-aroma baijiu and sauce-aroma baijiu, respectively. So baijius are not always interchangeable.

Each year, more baijiu is produced by volume than vodka and whiskey combined—roughly 3 billion gallons in 2017, according to official Chinese estimates. Bottles of baijiu sell for anywhere from a few dollars to several thousand. According to the Brand Finance Spirits 50 Report of November 2018, four of the five most valuable spirits brands are baijiu. In 2017, the baijiu industry leader, Kweichow Moutai, became the world’s most valuable spirit distiller, with a market value worth more than liquor conglomerate Diageo.

The strength of baijiu’s market derives largely from its status as the favorite drink of the world’s most populous country, but as more distillers target a broader international consumer base, the U.S. beverage community should pay attention.

Sorghum field
Pictured here is a sorghum field in the Sichuan province of China. Photo courtesy of Derek Sandhaus.

The Modern Baijiu Industry

Those who are completely unfamiliar with baijiu needn’t worry; the spirit’s popularity in China is matched only by its obscurity elsewhere. “I think one of the biggest challenges facing baijiu is that people know nothing about it,” says Erick Castro, the proprietor of Polite Provisions and Raised by Wolves in San Diego and Boilermaker in New York City, and host of the Bartender at Large podcast. “Some of the world’s best bartenders, and people who are really into spirits, know nothing about it.”

Even in China, consumers often don’t have a full understanding of the category’s complexity. Baijiu was initially produced and consumed largely by the laboring classes and attracted little attention among China’s elites. The modern baijiu industry arose in the mid-20th century, driven by large-scale central investment. During this time the Chinese government also systematically modernized and improved production techniques. “In the past 50 years, baijiu-making processes were standardized and spread throughout the nation,” says Zhong Yuchen, the cofounder of Yuan Kun, a baijiu educational consultancy in Chengdu. “Many of them are drastically different from ancient baijiu-making practices.” As baijiu production became more standard, product quality and consistency improved, so the baijiu consumed in China today is a relatively modern incarnation.

In contemporary China, the baijiu industry is dominated by massive state-run—or formerly state-run—distilleries. Significant baijiu exports first hit U.S. shelves in the 1980s, primarily targeting Chinese Americans. Only in the past decade, as Chinese distillers looked to diversify their consumer base, has baijiu been marketed toward a mainstream international audience—and only in the last couple of years have these efforts started to gain traction.

Broadening Consumer Targets

Less than a decade ago, only three of the two dozen or so available baijiu brands sold in North America targeted non-Chinese consumers: Byejoe, Confucius Wisdom, and Vinn. But in the past year alone, three more have jumped into the game: Ganbei, Snowbridge, and Ming River, the last of which I cofounded. Crucially, major Chinese distillers with deep pockets are also now attempting to enter mainstream international markets. Distillers like Red Star, Jiangxiaobai, and Luzhou Laojiao (which produces Ming River) have all ventured into the U.S. and Europe in recent years in hopes of becoming the first major producer to create a crossover baijiu.

The international alcohol community is also taking more notice of baijiu. More baijiu brands are competing in international spirits competitions, with encouraging results. Anthony Dias Blue, the Los Angeles–based executive director of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, says that “the emergence of baijiu on the international stage is one of the big stories of the year. Quietly, this unique spirit is invading bars, becoming a key ingredient in many craft cocktails.”

In China, baijiu is consumed almost exclusively as communal shots at the dinner table, and 10 years ago it had rarely, if ever, been used as a cocktail ingredient. Today baijiu can be found on cocktail menus around the world—including Existing Conditions in New York and Apotheke in Los Angeles, as well as the Tea Room in London and Goldfisch Bar in Berlin. “Every cuisine we adapt and ingest always has a new spirit piggybacking on it,” says Leo DeGroff, a drinks consultant for Liquid Productions in New York. “Chinese foods, along with many other Asian cuisines, are becoming better understood and evolving in their own complex way in the Western world.”

Ming River
Photo courtesy of Ming River.

From Cocktails to the Dinner Table

As with any spirit category, there are good and bad examples of baijiu. Expensive baijiu is not necessarily going to be to everyone’s taste—indeed, the best value in the category exists in the midrange, from about $20 to $40 per bottle—but the cheapest baijiu rarely achieves the complexity most drinkers seek. The best baijiu creates a strong sensory impression, layering several distinct but complementary flavors that interact with all parts of the nose and palate.

Baijiu doesn’t smell or taste like spirits from the Western canon, and that’s by design. It’s also the single greatest argument for the category’s utility in new markets. “It has a flavor that’s so unique,” says Castro, “that anyone who’s serious about drinks and serious about having a spirits program needs to have at least one or two baijius on the backbar.” Castro’s Polite Provisions bar will debut a baijiu-based tiki drink called the Atomic Dog in mid-July; it’s inspired by strong-aroma-style baijiu’s natural spice and tropical fruit notes. Sauce-aroma-style baijiu’s savory umami flavor lends itself well to stirred, spirit-forward drinks and dessert cocktails. Crisp, fruity, and herbaceous, light-aroma baijiu works a lot like Italian grappa, while rice-aroma-style baijiu lives nearer to the vodka universe.

“I think what’s most exciting about baijiu is the untapped potential there,” says Castro. “So often in the cocktail community it’s difficult to create something new because so many of the flavors that we have at hand are ones that have been used to death. With something like baijiu, the sky’s the limit.”

Making sure that the industry understands the category’s versatility is essential to ensuring that baijiu’s potential is realized and that it becomes more than just a novelty overseas. “I’m afraid the first baijiu shots that gain popularity will simply be basic shots, where [barely] a small part of [baijiu’s] profile is even recognized,” says DeGroff. “I’m not against a gimmick, if it’s the gateway to someone one day understanding the culture.”

Understanding baijiu culture means also seeing the drink in its natural context: at the dinner table. A regional style of baijiu is intended to be paired with the food from that region, and the tens of thousands of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. could take the lead in promoting the spirit. Just as Japanese restaurants introduced Americans to sake, and Mexican restaurants made tequila and mezcal familiar, baijiu could benefit greatly from the shift from American Chinese food to more traditional regional Chinese cuisine, as well as the interest of an American public that is increasingly appreciating these regional flavors. DeGroff thinks this is its best path forward. “Baijiu goes hand in hand with food,” he says. “It loves food—makes food taste better.”

Whether baijiu becomes a fixture at the dinner table, in cocktails, or both, one thing is certain. “The future for baijiu outside China,” says Dias Blue, “is most assuredly bright.”

Derek Sandhaus has written several books on Chinese history and culture, including Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and the forthcoming Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture. He is a cofounder of Ming River Sichuan Baijiu and currently serves as the brand’s education director. He is also the editor of DrinkBaijiu.com. He lives with his wife and dog in Jerusalem, where he is developing a fondness for arak.

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