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The World’s Best Baijiu Bars - Words by Mr Richard Godwin MR PORTER

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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

Capital Spirits

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.

capitalspiritsbj.com

Opium

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.

opiumchinatown.com

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.

Lumos Bar

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?

lumosnyc.com

Yuan

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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Baijiu is the Eastern spirit Londoners need to know about - The latest from Evening Standards resident drinks expert - Douglas Blyde

It’s China’s best-selling spirit with over 600 years of heritage, so why in the West is it still hiding?’ asks barkeeper Marco Matesi as he draws a scarlet flask of ‘Hong Kong baijiu’ at Manetta’s Bar in the velvety underbelly of Flemings, Mayfair. ‘It’s the weirdest product — in a good way,’ continues the suave Sicilian, swivelling off the lid, unleashing a fantail of overripe mango and aniseed aromas. ‘There’s no reference point to such extremity in Western spirits, which is why it deserves its own page on my menu.’

Pronounced ‘bye, Joe’, baijiu often soars above 50 per cent alcohol, its base mostly led by hardy, tall, crimson-tipped sorghum, patiently fermented in mud pits, then distilled, then rested in clay jars. In modern China, baijiu tends to be ceremoniously shot in small glasses, fast re-filled to the encouraging cry, ‘Ganbei!’ Such a jovial conveyor can lead to unexpected scenarios. I recall being summoned to sing Sinatra’s version of ‘Yesterday’ to the Mayor and cronies of cashmere capital, Ordos, Inner Mongolia. But, even inebriated, I remembered to respectfully clink my vial lower than my comrade’s; a bow in miniature.

I advise sipping, not shooting, quality baijiu, including instalments such as Kweichow Moutai, which finishes with smooth soy sauce and almond notes (£118.80, at SeeWoo in Chinatown); strong, sour plum-scented Shui Jing Fang Wellbay (£74.90, alexanderandjames.com), which harks, phoenix-like, from the ruins of a 600 year-old distillery; and rich, gravy-like Kweichow Maotaizhen 9 (£167, thewhiskyexchange.com).

Noting no bartender likes ‘an easy ingredient’, Matesi has tamed baijiu in a gateway cocktail. ‘Year of The Rooster’ convincingly fuses baijiu and London gin with jasmine, sage and cherry nuances.

As well as Manetta’s, you can count off your abacus a wealth of atmospheric bars offering baijiu cocktails during the annual baijiu festival, held from 27 January to 12 February. (baijiucocktailweek.co.uk)

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BAIJIU GETS A SLICE IN THE METRO

Baijiu is the world’s most popular spirit you’ve never heard of and it will get you DRUNK. Happily, now is your chance to learn all about the Chinese ‘white liquor’, because as well as being Chinese New Year, it’s also about to be Baijiu Cocktail Week . The celebratory week launched in 2014 to raise awareness of Shui Jing Fang baijiu and also hit the spot for cocktail aficionados. A host of bars and restaurants across London will be getting in on the baijiu action, from Bo Drake to Ping Pong, where they’ve created a moreish cocktail called Dizzy Monkey (pictured) to mark the new year.

 February 5-14


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Highball Hoodoo

Welcome to Baijiu Cocktail Week 2016!
Every Chinese New Year, for one week, the ‘white spirit’ takes over London to test London’s bartenders with a spirit the city isn’t that familiar with – and this beginning of the Year of the Monkey isn’t different.

From the 5th to 14th of Feb 2016: 9 venues across London, 9 different cocktails, 5 of which will be reviewed in this post. The Hoodooist and friends hit the road to tour the town for Baijiu deliciousness.

Firstly, Baijiu is an intriguing spirit, never quite becoming a permanent fixture in the London bar scene – something drinks giant Diageo is trying to change – with their signature Sichuan province ‘strong aroma’ Shui Jing Fang Baijiu. Made with sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn, it ain’t called ‘strong aroma’ for nothing. Neat, the scent can be detected from a mile away, a flowery aromatic with hints of rice, it tastes surprisingly different, but surprisingly similar.

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Bars set to celebrate Chinese spirit with Baijiu Cocktail Week

Bars across London are set to celebrate China’s world-leading spirit with special drinks and menus for Baijiu Cocktail Week in February.

Original cocktails will be available at some of the capital’s top bars and restaurants to demonstrate the versatility of what is the biggest-selling spirit in the world but little known in the West.

Now in its third year, the celebration runs from February 5 to 14, tying in with Chinese New Year on February 8 – the year of the monkey. It is organised by London-based SeeWoo Foods, a specialist supplier of Asian food and drink.

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BAIJIU COCKTAIL WEEK GEARS UP FOR A THIRD YEAR

Bars throughout London are preparing to celebrate China’s leading local spirit as Baijiu Cocktail Week readies to return for a third year.


Baijiu Cocktail Week is set to return from 5-14 February 2016
Coinciding with Chinese New Year on 8 February – the year of the monkey – the festival will take place from 5-14 February and is organised by London-based SeeWoo Foods, a specialist Asian food and drink supplier.

First launched in 2014, Baijiu Cocktail Week is sponsored by Diageo-owned baijiu brand, Shui Jing Fang.

 

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London to host Baijiu Cocktail Week to celebrate oldest Chinese spirit

A nine day cocktail festival is set to bring more Chinese festivities to London this month, where aficionados can celebrate the Year of the Monkey

Baijiu Cocktail Week is launching on Friday (February 5th) for the third year to celebrate the Chinese New Year .

What should you say when drinking it?
To appreciate the baijiu you are drinking, it is necessary to consider the colour, aroma and taste –these three senses will determine the ‘type’.

A good baijiu should be bright, shiny and clear with no suspended particles and it is best served at room temperature in small tasting cups.

A celebratory toast takes place, 'Yum Sing' (Cantonese) or 'Gan Bai' (Mandarin) meaning 'cheers' before shooting or sipping baijiu.

It is traditional to drink baijiu with food rather than on its own.

Where can I go to celebrate Cocktail Week?
As well as longstanding bars hosting once again, such as Bo Drake, Hutong at The Shard, Opium, and Ping Pong Dim Sum , there will also be celebrations at 68 & Boston, China Tang at The Dorchester, Demon, Wise & Partners, The Hide, plus Nam Long which is believed to be the first UK-based restaurant to specialise in the strong-flavoured rice and grain-based drink.

Asian inspired cocktails will be served at these bars and restaurants using Shui Jing Fang baijiu.

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The Handbook - 6 OF THE BEST PLACES TO CELEBRATE CHINESE NEW YEAR

Monday 8th February marks Chinese New Year, a date celebrated across the globe. 2016 is the ‘Year of the Monkey’, a zodiac symbol characterising quick-witted, curious, innovative but also mischievous people, which leaves The Handbook wondering what lies ahead! In anticipation, we’ve rounded up our six favourite restaurants and bars in the capital to go and celebrate:

What: Chinese 'firewater' cocktails

Why: This year coinciding with Chinese New Year, Baijiu Cocktail Week celebrates the most popular spirit in the world - but you may not have heard of it. Baijiu is aromatic, white and 52% proof so it's no surprise it gets the nickname 'China's firewater'. Over four billion gallons are drunk each year and this week aims to promote it to the UK market with Shui Jing Fang baijiu-based cocktails being served up in bars all over the city including China Tang at The Dorchester, Chinatown's Opium and Soho's 68 & Boston, from Friday 4th February.


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BAIJIU: THE CHINESE SPIRIT

The UK has gin, Russia has vodka... and China has baijiu. You may not have heard of it, but it’s the most consumed spirit in the world. The name roughly translates as ‘white alcohol’ and, like many things Chinese, baijiu connoisseurship is on the rise.

This February (in time for Chinese New Year), London’s Baijiu Cocktail Week will encourage restaurants and bars to put baijiu cocktails on their menus. Chelsea bar Nam Long has launched its new baijiu menu, which suggests that more baijiu bars are round the corner – adding to the 4-10 billion litres (hard to get exact figures) drunk around the world each year.

 

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Baijiu Cocktail Week - Bureau of Taste

Baijiu is the world’s number one selling spirit, and yet is relatively unheard of in the UK. The clear liquor is known as ‘Chinese fire water’ and has such a complex flavour, it is quite unlike any other drink. If you haven’t tried it yet either splash out on a whole bottle Dragon Er Guo Tou (£54) or Shui Jing Fang (£95), or take the opportunity to taste it in a cocktail during Baijiu cocktail week.

Baijiu Cocktail Week celebrates the famous spirit in bars across London – from the 13 to 22nd February to coincide with Chinese New Year. More details are online here.

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Baijiu Cocktail Week at Opium- The Hedonist

Following its launch last year, Baijiu Cocktail Week will run again this year, coinciding with Chinese New Year 2015. Kicking off on Friday 13th February the festival, will run to Sunday 22nd February, to celebrate the Year of the Goat, which signifies good fortune in all aspects of life.

Read more

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