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)