Photo: Akshay Chitwar
Photo: Akshay Chitwar

The most popular spirit in the world is no longer among China’s best-kept secrets. For centuries, baijiu (Chinese for “white alcohol”) was virtually unknown outside the Middle Kingdom – but now it is finally gaining popularity with Western drinkers.

Baijiu is a grain-based drink, fermented in large earthen pits, or jars made from clay or stone. Clear in appearance, it’s high in alcohol content (between 40% and 60% ABV) and bold and pungent in aroma and flavor. In China, it is usually imbibed with plenty of food but served neat, in small glasses, offered as a toast and then swallowed quickly. It’s also something of a drink for all occasions, whether a family celebration or in business or official settings.

Since 2014, the British capital has marked Chinese New Year with a baijiu-themed cocktail festival in which bars across the city offer customers special drinks made with the spirit, explain its origins and traditions and offer masterclasses in how best to appreciate baijiu’s very distinctive character. This year’s Baijiu Cocktail Week, marking the advent of the Year of the Rooster, is sponsored by premium baijiu brand Moutai and runs until February 12.

Derek Sandhaus, an American, is the author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, the very first book on the subject in English. He explains the drink’s complex flavors and the classification of ‘aromas,’ singling out three main types: strong, light and sauce.

‘Bold in its flavors, with prominent notes of overripe tropical fruit and licorice, with a touch of spicy pepper’

“A strong aroma tends to be bold in its flavors, with prominent notes of overripe tropical fruit and licorice, with a touch of spicy pepper. A light aroma is usually more subdued, with crisp floral flavors and a mellow sweetness typified by preserved fruit. A sauce aroma – named for soy sauce – is the most complex and umami of the bunch, with tastes that evoke mushroom, fermented bean, Chinese medicinal herbs and caramel.”

Sandhaus first became interested in baijiu while living in China. He was told that in order to appreciate and understand baijiu, one must first drink 300 glasses of the spirit. He then began writing a blog which charted his journey as he took on this challenge, working his way through different baijiu varieties.

Launch night for London's Baijiu Cocktail Week 2016, at Chinatown's Opium bar. Photo courtesy of Baijiu Cocktail Week.
Launch night for London’s Baijiu Cocktail Week 2016, at Chinatown’s Opium bar. Photo courtesy of Baijiu Cocktail Week.

It did not take him long to appreciate the qualities of the drink, but he recognizes how alien baijiu can taste to a Western palate: “Baijiu highlights flavors not often found in Western wines and spirits. For many new drinkers, this is mistaken for a defect – it’s not how liquor is supposed to taste. Add to this the fact that baijiu is usually bottled roughly 25% stronger than most Western spirits, and that the Chinese drinking culture favors mealtime binge-drinking, and you have a recipe for some serious culture shock!”

Sandhaus agrees that a gentler way to introduce baijiu to a new audience is to change the context: no more neat liquor shots; rather, present baijiu in elegant, stylish mixed drinks that highlight its exotic and unusual flavor attributes.

To get a picture of what participants in Baijiu Cocktail Week might expect, Paul Mathew, a former Beijing resident who has two venues taking part (Demon, Wise & Partners, in the City of London; and The Hide, in Greenwich) describes the challenges and pleasures of working with baijiu as a cocktail ingredient. The high alcohol content of baijiu means bartenders cannot use the same quantities as they would of vodka or gin in a drink, and the drink’s particular flavor profile requires imagination when designing a cocktail.

‘The next phase will involve the efforts of major Chinese distilleries, who have largely ignored the international market in the past’

“I use the sauce aroma baijiu in small quantities,” explains Mathew. “Umami notes are unusual in the cocktail world so you have to think differently about how to leverage them. This baijiu could work with tomato juice in a ‘Bloody Mary’ or a ‘Red Snapper.’” In contrast, he often teams light aroma baijiu with citrus flavors to complement the fruity and floral notes of the spirit. With a strong aroma baijiu, he recommends toning down its pungent scent by using a twist of citrus zest over the drink, or a dash of bitters, to make the cocktail more approachable.

As a skilled mixologist, Mathew relishes experimenting with a new ingredient “I have enjoyed working with baijiu as a challenge to my cocktail skills. I find creating drinks with baijiu mentally stimulating and fun.”

As more cocktail bars open throughout London, innovation has become a necessity as a way to entice customers. As Mathew explains, “Our guests like these drinks because they are a bit different. These days, cocktail lists make a virtue out of using unusual ingredients and obscure infusions – so customers are open to trying new things”.

With London’s Baijiu Cocktail Week having grown each year, its organizers hope to expand further and to take the event to New York next year. Sandhaus foresees a surge in the drink’s popularity in the West. “Baijiu’s journey overseas has just begun,” he says.

Five years ago, only a handful of bars in the United States and Europe would have stocked it.

“Now it can be found in hundreds,” he said, adding that this was largely thanks to the initiative of private investors.

“The next phase, which is already well underway, will involve the efforts of major Chinese distilleries, who have largely ignored the international market in the past. How they tackle these new markets will be exciting to watch.”

Find our more about London’s Baijiu Cocktail Week by visiting its website.