Are Americans ready for baijiu, China’s overproof firewater?
No, they are not. But baiju is coming for them anyway.
Here’s what’s going on:
Baijiu – a clear, rice- or grain-based spirit produced in China – has long been a staple of business culture in China. A friend living in Shanghai explained it to me this way “that’s what Chinese businessmen drink, and if you’re doing business in China, may as well get used to it, because repeated baijiu toasts at long banquets are de rigueur for doing business here.”
Usually, it’s distilled at a tongue-numbing 100 proof or higher (by comparison, vodka usually is bottled at 80 proof), and it’s downed as a shot. Matching your host shot-for-baijiu-shot at a banquet is a test of endurance and solidarity. To the Western palate, it “tastes slightly worse than petrol,” my friend insists.
But times are changing in China. Younger drinkers in China are favoring Western-style tipples (wine, beer, whiskey, brandy) over traditional baijiu. And most troubling of all: a crackdown on Chinese officials’ lavish spending has affected domestic sales of baijiu, a customary drink at those legendary banquets and a common luxury gift.
So baijiu producers are setting their sights on Western drinkers. Never mind that baijiu is the top-selling liquor in the world (according to International Wine & Spirit Research, baijiu accounts for more than a third of all spirits consumed globally). Outside of Asia, few have heard of baijiu. But by this time next year, that may change.
Signs of the times:
• More baijiu bottlings are coming to the U.S.: The San Francisco World Spirits Competition, often a harbinger of trends in the marketplace, wrapped up a few weeks ago. Of note: increased entries of the Chinese spirit, Baijiu.
• More producer-led industry education is available: Moutai (a producer of baijiu) has been sponsoring events at conferences (LA cocktail week, Tales of the Cocktail), hiring brand ambassadors to promote the spirit. And Americans seem interested in learning more: at the upcoming Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, the “Baijiu: Demystified” seminar has already sold out.
• More English-language information is becoming available: Author Derek Sandhaus has a new English language)book called “Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits,” released by Penguin Books Australia.
• More baijiu cocktails suited to Western palates: London (a particularly adventurous and forward-looking cocktail city), held its first-ever Baijiu Cocktail Week in January (timed to coincide with the Chinese New Year).
•More baijiu cocktails suited to AMERICAN palates: In LA, Peking Tavern opened a few months ago, calling itself a “Beijing gastropub.” It’s probably the only place in the US right now where you can sip baijiu cocktails like the “Bloody Mei Lee” (Bloody Mary variation, natch). Peking Coffee (baijiu, coffee and horchata liqueur) or Wong Chiu Punch (baijiu, hibiscus, fresh lemon juice). My opinion: cocktails are the only hope for getting Americans to drink baijiu.
• American-made baijius are starting to pop up: Personally, I think these stand a better chance of gaining traction than Chinese-made versions – they tend to be lower proof, and have packaging that’s more accessible to American buyers. Houston, Texas-based distillery Byejoe USA is importing a baijiu base that is then filtered and sold in the U.S. (It’s 40% abv, infused with fruity flavors, and tastes like vodka, in my opinion. It’s also packaged in a cutesy-poo box that looks like a Chinese food takeout container.) Meanwhile, Portland, OR-based Vinn Distillery is producing a small-batch artisan baijiu.