Chinese liquor baijiu takes a shot at the US cocktail scene

By Associated Press ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-01-23 06:57:40

Chinese liquor baijiu takes a shot at the US cocktail scene

A showcase of bottles of baijiu made in Shanxi province, known for its famous liquor brand Fenjiu, in an exhibition room in the ancient town of Pingyao. [Photos Provided to China Daily]

Think bourbon is hot? It's got nothing on baijiu.

Yet chances are good you haven't even heard of baijiu, the high proof, pungent, spicy, savory, sweet traditional liquor of China. It packs a fiery punch. It also happens to be the world's best-selling liquor by volume, a drink with a pedigree stretching back centuries, and was poured to toast the warming of Sino-US relations during Nixon's historic 1972 visit.

Now, producers are making diplomatic overtures to an entirely new audience - the US craft cocktail scene.

"We feel that it has incredible potential," says Yuan Liu, senior vice president of business development for Los Angeles-based CNS Imports, the largest importer/distributor of baijiu in United States.

Baijiu is sorghum-based, though it also can contain wheat, rice and corn. An it's not a uniform product; it's a class of spirits with many categories. Think whiskey with its range from smoky Scotch to mellow bourbon. But unlike whiskey, which is fermented in a liquid state, baijiu is more or less dry fermented inside in-ground pits. It then is steam distilled several times in goose-neck stills, aged in massive terra cotta vessels, then finally blended (itself a complex and labor-intensive process.)

It generally is bottled at around 100 or 120 proof (well above the typical 80 proof for vodka, gin, etc.) and is classed by aroma, such as "light," "rice," "strong" and "sauce" - labels which aren't all that helpful to Westerners. Typical reactions from first-timers are that it smells and tastes like blue cheese, mushroom or soy sauce - not the most alluring descriptors.

"This is not a spirit you can just pour into a martini glass and enjoy," says New York bartender Orson Salicetti.

But introduced more gently as part of a cocktail? That can work, says Salicetti, co-founder of the Lumos bar, which focuses on the Chinese spirit and has a menu of more than 60 baijiu cocktails. Salicetti was introduced to baijiu by his architect partner Li Qifan and realized baijiu would be a great way to stand out in a city awash with specialty bars.

A popular option at Lumos is the "sesame colada", which includes caramelized pineapple juice, white sesame paste and agave syrup. There's also the goji baijiu punch, consisting of goji-infused HKB baijiu, mescal, pink grapefruit juice, lime juice, agave syrup and orange bitters.

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