Just a decade ago, asking for baijiu at a bar would likely lead to confused looks. But American bars are embracing the ancient Chinese grain spirit that was once considered too funky, too pungent, or otherwise too difficult to work with. Today, baijiu has found its way into everything from Jell-O shots to Daiquiris.
Although it’s known primarily as a funky spirit, baijiu is also expansive and varied, coming a long way from its origins as a spirit solely served neat. “Baijiu completely shook up my preconceived notions of spirits, where every spirit in the same category tastes somewhat similar to each other,” says Nick Lappen of Boston’s Backbar, “but that doesn’t apply to baijiu.”
The production of the spirit involves inoculating cooked grains such as sorghum and barley with a culture of mold, yeast and bacteria called qu. Through a process of parallel fermentation, the qu simultaneously breaks starches down into sugars and converts sugars into alcohol. Each distillery has a different recipe for qu, which can lend baijiu floral, spicy, nutty or umami flavor. Based on these characteristics, baijiu is classified by the Chinese government into four primary categories, called “aromas”: light, rice, strong and sauce (a descriptor referring to the umami flavor of soy sauce).
Until recently, consumers in China rarely considered baijiu a cocktail ingredient. Instead, for thousands of years, the clear liquor, served neat, has accompanied food. But stateside, baijiu has ridden the waves of the craft cocktail revival, thanks to scholarly work by early adopters like Derek Sandhaus, whose books helped demystify the spirit and articulate the nuances of its various aroma styles, inspiring a range of new cocktails.
Much like the different styles of rum, baijius from different categories aren’t always interchangeable. For example, light-aroma baijiu is grassy and sometimes smoky, and works particularly well with herbal flavors or paired with mezcal, as Katie Weismann demonstrates in her Season of Strangers. The bartender at Spoke Wine Bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, builds the drink around Er Guo Tou, a twice-distilled light-aroma baijiu, and echoes the spirit’s earthiness by infusing it with fennel. To complement this base, Weismann reaches for a similarly smoky mezcal, while acid-adjusted watermelon juice balances the drink, giving it a refreshing quality.
Rice-aroma baijiu, meanwhile, has a mild flavor, similar to vodka. Lappen of Backbar (which hosts a baijiu pop-up) contrasts the spirit’s subtly sweet quality with fish sauce, five-spice bitters and mole bitters in his Golden Years, which is inspired by pork ribs with fish sauce caramel glaze, a dish he first tasted in Vietnam. The drink uses Vinn, a domestically produced rice-aroma baijiu from Oregon, and adds a touch of maple syrup in a nod to Lappen’s New England roots. The cocktail is a testament to the way rice-aroma baijiu, like vodka, can provide a simple base for more saturated flavors to shine.
The hallmark flavors of the strong-aroma category, on the other hand, are overripe tropical fruit and green apple on the front, with a funky finish. It’s a flavor profile that can be difficult to work into cocktails, but Lappen suggests matching it with similarly assertive ingredients. “Bold herbal flavors pair well with it, such as green Chartreuse, génépy and amaro,” he says. Lappen likens the style to rhum agricole, and he calls for a strong-aroma version in his split-base Daiquiri riff, Mr.Daq, in which Ming River baijiu comes together with equal parts unaged Jamaican rum, brightened with an expected dose of lime juice.
Because strong-aroma baijiu also has notes of pineapple and papaya, it hasn’t taken long for bartenders to bring the spirit to the tiki genre. Doommersive (formerly Doom Tiki) founder Chockie Tom finds that baijiu “has lent itself well to cocktail-building and education [about tiki’s roots],” she says, referring to tiki’s history of co-opting Chinese food. Her Dan Dan Tai, inspired by New York’s Chinatown, is a spice-forward take on the classic Mai Tai, in which Ming River is supported by rhum agricole and a five spice–infused orgeat. Similarly, Jef Tate of Chicago’s Billy Sunday also incorporates strong-aroma baijiu in his tiki-style Wei Lei (“taste buds” in Mandarin), which layers bold flavors, such as a floral brandy and falernum, to round out the drink.
Finally, sauce-aroma baijiu, such as Kweichow (Guizhou) Moutai (also rendered as Maotai), can be more challenging to work with in cocktails due to its complex, delicate flavors that can easily become overpowered. This type of baijiu is also pricey due to its particular production process, which requires costly raw ingredients and a longer aging time. Still, sauce-aroma baijiu’s distinctively savory aftertaste has garnered a considerable fan base, attracting aficionados and collectors who mostly serve the spirit neat.
But when it comes to cocktails, getting creative with a wide variety of tastes is the name of the game. As with many other backbar staples, “the multitude of styles and variety of flavors makes [baijiu] so versatile behind the bar,” says Lappen. And whether it’s alongside the herbal, green flavors of alpine liqueurs or the tropical, spiced profile of tiki, there’s a baijiu cocktail for every drinker. “When you put the unfamiliar baijiu in a cocktail with flavors that they’re familiar with,” he says, “they’ll get excited about it.”