If you lately happen upon baijiu (pronounced BUY-joe) as a cocktail ingredient at your favorite hot spot, take note. The latest weapon in the arsenal of the American bartender isn’t some small-batch, hard-won, under-the-radar potion, but actually the most widely drunk spirit in the world.
What’s that now? But, but…vodka! You might insist. Or whiskey! And you would be well-reasoned to believe in either of those seemingly ubiquitous spirits. But despite the comparable hugeness of mother Russia, and the fact that it seems every country on earth is now producing whiskey (“e” optional), enter China, population 1.4 billion, and its traditional spirit of choice.
Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World's Oldest Drinking Culture, $29.95 on Amazon
Read more about it in this book by Derek Sandhaus.
The rise of the American cocktail bar over the last decade has definitely produced a rise in profile for the spirits of the world, many of them with ancient history, that had long gone unnoticed or underappreciated by young, American tipplers. Spanish Sherry is no longer a thing of the past that sits dusty in the back of your grandmother’s pantry, but a mixed-drink rockstar capable of texture and nuance. If you made the rounds of the hottest cocktail bars in your city but never had a single drink anointed with absinthe, did it even count as a night out? Nowadays it seems your average American drinker not only has a strong opinion on London Dry versus New American style gin, but can also name at least two or three different amari, and also knows that the plural of Italian amaro is amari. And the recent emergence of baijiu beyond its motherland is definitely part of that same trend.
What Is Baijiu?
“Baijiu is super hugely popular in China,” says Steaven Chen, owner of CNS Imports, an American company largely responsible for bringing various brands of baijiu to the U.S.
Baijiu, or shaojiu, is a distilled, white spirit whose name literally means “white alcohol,” but that drinks with more flavor and a much fuller mouthfeel than the other white spirits of the world. Baijiu is typically made from sorghum, and utilizes a starter culture for fermentation. If vodka is the white bread of the spirit world, then baijiu is the sourdough. Variables of production and mash bill produce a number of different styles categorized by their aroma, with the four most common being strong aroma, light aroma, rice aroma and, wait for it…sauce aroma.
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If you want to sip baijiu in the traditional manner, tiny glasses are the way to go.
Strong aroma tends to be sweet with notes of tropical fruit on the nose. Light aroma is light and clean, gently redolent of flowers. Rice aroma is made from a rice-based starter culture with light aromatics, and sauce aroma promotes a flavor that has the prized umami quality of fermented bean paste or soy sauce. According to Chen, strong aroma is most popular worldwide, while light aroma is the most approachable for novice drinkers. As for sauce aroma and its decidedly “earthy” quality? “You know Dale DeGroff? He loves sauce,” says Chen. “Some people love the sauce, and some people can’t handle the sauce.”
Why Is It Becoming More Popular?
CNS has been importing baijiu to the U.S. for over 30 years, but Chen credits the current rise in interest to the baijiu brands themselves. “There’s been a lot of interest from the brands in China to do more marketing in the U.S. Baijiu has been around for hundreds of years, but they are now wanting to share their spirits with the rest of the world.”
In China, baijiu is typically served in tiny glasses at room temperature and only with food, but American bartenders are finding its value as a cocktail component. “In the metro areas, especially like New York and Los Angeles, bartenders are making their own unique drinks,” Chen explains. “It’s not like we suggest that they should substitute it in a Moscow Mule. The general strategy is to go and experiment.”
Browse baijiu on Drizly
Price & availability varies by location.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.