Enter The Dragon: U.S. Bars Welcome Chinese Spirit Baijiu

Forward-thinking bars across the States have found their next big ingredient: Baijiu, a traditional Chinese spirit that brings an earthy, funky, complex note to cocktails. 

Courtesy Park Hyatt
OF 10

The first thing you’ll notice about Lumos, a dimly lit bar in New York’s Greenwich Village that opened this past May, is an aroma you can’t quite place. It unfolds like a Russian nesting doll, first recalling the distinctly eastern perfume of warm bean-paste pastries and soy-rich broths; then sweet, overripe fruit and flowers in full bloom; and finally, something deliciously fetid, like stinky cheese. It's a smell that doesn't usually belong in a cocktail lounge, but then again, this is New York’s first bar dedicated exclusively to baijiu—the potent Chinese spirit knocked back by Beijing businessmen that’s quickly become the next big trend-setting spirit in the States.

Baijiu (pronounced “bye-joe”) is to China what scotch is to Scotland. As one old adage goes, “You cannot set the table without baijiu.” Though still largely unknown outside the nation’s borders, baijiu is considered the most consumed spirit in the world, thanks to China’s love of the stuff—more than 10 billion liters of baijiu were produced last year, accounting for 99 percent of the market there—and the sheer size of its population. Top-shelf baijiu is so coveted that bottles must be retrofitted with anti-refill mechanisms to thwart counterfeiting. (Moutai is considered the most premium brand and has been served to every visiting dignitary, including every U.S. president since Nixon’s inaugural visit to China back in 1972. Priced at around $165 for a half bottle of 375 milliliters, a vintage edition once sold for nearly $200,000 at auction.) Customarily taken neat and served in tiny shots, to toast weddings, celebrate business deals, and even to pair with fine dinners, per Chinese tradition, a bottle is never left unfinished.

But now that a number of trend-setting westerners are peddling the spirit in bars across the country, the Asian elixir is taking on a whole new life some 7,000 miles from home: namely, in the form of cocktails. Whether it’s exposing people to bitter Italian amari or smoky mezcal from Mexico, bartenders have employed the mixing method of introduction for years. Call it the gateway approach.

“When I introduce someone to baijiu, I take it slow,” says Orson Salicetti, a partner and head mixologist at Lumos, and one of several westerners championing the spirit outside China. He says that even though most of his customers have come specifically looking for baijiu, newbies often need a moment to process the flavors and aromas flooding their senses. “We start with a cocktail, then maybe move on to an infusion. Then, if the person seems ready, we’ll try it neat.”

The reason for his caution is baijiu’s unique flavor profile. To say it’s an acquired taste is an understatement, and for most of us, a baijiu appreciation must be learned. Said to be at least 600 years old, evidence suggests baijiu may be much older. Certain families claim to have been making the spirit for as long as 1,000 years, and recipes are closely guarded and passed down through generations. Still, there is no official formula for making the spirit, which is produced throughout the country in some 10,000 distilleries (mostly small and midsize operations). Traditionally, it’s made from sorghum and may include a blend of other grains (millet, wheat, barley, rice, or corn) fermented in underground mud pits using a slab of starter culture called qu—another secret recipe. Everything from the base ingredients to the qu to the length of maturation (from six months to many years, generally in terra cotta urns) can influence the spirit’s unique smell and flavor profile.

With notes of soy sauce, fermented bean paste, mushrooms, and blue cheese, baijiu is best described as umami. It often invokes earthiness, even decay, requiring an open mind and a well-traveled palate. Not that it’s all about funk—baijiu can also be fruity, floral, candied, and nutty, and the various types are classified according to their fragrance: rice aroma, primarily from the southern provinces, is mild and delicate thanks to triple distillation; sauce aroma (as in, soy), which is rich and complex, and popular in Guizhou; light aroma, a fresh style common in Beijing and Shanxi, the northeastern provinces, and Taiwan; and strong aroma, the most prevalent style, typically from Sichuan, with certain expressions aged as long as 30 or 40 years.

All this can make baijiu tricky for western palates to register on its own, while making it a fun, though at times challenging, ingredient for bartenders to work into cocktails. A number of bartenders are working with Hong Kong Baijiu, aka HKB, which was designed to appeal to the western palate with a lower proof and subtler flavor profile. At Lumos, Salicetti mixes baijiu with better-known Asian ingredients, like goji, while other bartenders frame the spirit in a familiar context—think variations on classics like a martini, gin and tonic, or piña colada. The results have been so successful, in fact, that the trend is now coming full circle with several high-profile Hong Kong bars and restaurants serving up their own baijiu concoctions.

Whether you’re ready to drink it straight or desire a slow-and-steady familiarization with the spirit instead, we scoured the States for the best bars to try baijiu, from New York, to Beverly Hills, Boston and beyond.