What, do you suppose, is the most widely consumed spirit in the world? If you’re thinking whisky, vodka or rum, you’re wrong – and if you’re thinking Pisang Ambon, we like your style but you’re also wrong.
It is baijiu (‘bai-ZHO’) the Chinese national spirit. Literally meaning “white spirit”, it is a transparent firewater distilled from sorghum (and occasionally other grains like rice and barley) according to a 1,000-year-old method. Only one per cent of it is drunk outside of China, but there are 1.3 billion or so Chinese, and they get through enough to push it ahead of vodka in the world’s most-ordered list. If you’ve ever found yourself trying to keep up with Chinese clients in Shanghai at 4.00am, you may be familiar with its weaponised role in Chinese business culture – and its, shall we say, challenging flavour profile.
Despite – or perhaps because of – its love-it-or-hate-it qualities, baijiu has been making inroads in recent years. Baijiu-themed bars, such as Lumos in New York, have given it a semi-illicit appeal. Diageo, the world’s largest spirits company, has acquired Shui Jing Fang, one of the oldest distilleries in China. Meanwhile, adventurous mixologists are taking up the challenge of making “the new tequila” accessible to Western palates. And with Chinese New Year approaching, it would be rude not to try.
OK, so full disclaimer. The first time I tried Shui Jing Fang (£99 for 500ml), the aroma struck me as somewhere between industrial accident and rotting fruit. Then again, it’s always worth bearing in mind the Chinese responses to Western delicacies recorded by the American cultural anthropologist, Mr EN Anderson. One Chinese chef described cheese as: “the mucous discharge of an old cow’s guts, allowed to putrefy.” And I would advise no one to give up on cheese from a single bite.
Mr Damian Williams of Opium bar in London’s Chinatown, encourages persistence. The signature pungency – not dissimilar to your really funky Jamaican rums, or East European moonshine – comes from its unique dry-fermentation process, he explains. (With whisky, you malt your grains prior to fermenting them; with baijiu you do it all in one go.) “It can be off-putting to newcomers, to put it mildly,” he says. “However, there are so many different types of baijiu, it’s well worth experimenting. Much like Marmite or Campari, both famous ‘acquired tastes’, once you’ve got the taste for it you’ll very quickly start to enjoy it.”
He recommends Hong-Kong Baijiu, specially formulated for the Western palate, as a gateway drug. “It’s fermented in Sichuan in clay pits, which gives it an earthy character similar to mezcal. It’s then shipped to Italy, where it’s reduced to a more Western style ABV – 40 per cent ABV as opposed to most baijiu which is over 50 per cent ABV. I think most Chinese baijiu enthusiasts would turn their noses up at the product as it’s much lighter and more delicate than the rich, pungent styles that the Chinese love.”
WHERE TO DRINK IT
DaJuHuton #3, Beijing
There is no better place to get yourself acquainted with the many styles and expressions of baijiu. Capital Spirits is a microdistillery and bar housed in a lovingly restored Old Beijiing-style house on a winding little hutong (alleyway), where you can sample tasting flights.
15-16 Gerrard Street, London
Located in a semi-secret doorway on the main pedestrian drag of London’s Chinatown, Opium is a loving tribute to old Shanghai. The cocktails are seasonal and the dim sum is excellent.
Baijiu Bar at Deng G
Queen’s Road East, Hong Kong
Bartender Mr Héktor Monroy’s signature creations such as the baijiu colada and the passion sour reveal a fruitier side to the forbidding spirit.
90 W Houston Street, New York
Heralded only by a scrappy sign in Chinese script, this SoHo speakeasy has a genuinely illicit feel, and baijiuphile Mr Orson Salicetti goes the extra mile: pumpkin pie baijiu anyone?
17-2 Xiangyang Bei Lu, Shanghai
One of the liveliest haunts in Shanghai, with lovingly kitsch décor, debonair bartenders and an experimental approach.
…or try it at home
Hong Kong Spring Punch. Photograph courtesy of Opium, London
Hong Kong Spring Punch
from Opium, London
25ml Hong Kong Baijiu (HKB)
25ml fresh lychee puree*
25ml raspberry leaf syrup**
25ml lemon juice
Bruno Paillard champagne, to top
Shake the first four ingredients with ice and strain in to an ice-filled highball. Top with champagne and garnish with viola flowers, mint and lemon.
*Fresh lychee puree: shell fresh lychees and blend and then strain. Mix one part caster sugar with four parts lychee to sweeten slightly and to prolong the shelf-life. This will keep in the fridge for three days.
**Raspberry leaf syrup: make a mug of raspberry leaf tea and mix one part tea with two parts sugar.
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