No matter how often the beverage industry touts the potent Chinese liquor baijiu 白酒 as the “most purchased spirit in the world” (simply by the sheer size of the Chinese market), it remains unknown to most of the world.
It makes up less than 1% of distilled spirits sold in the United States, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, and it doesn’t help that the high-alcohol liquor—sometimes as high as 65%—has a stinging flavor that’s been invariably described as “firewater,” “moonshine,” and “wet dog smell.”
But the market opportunity has spirit makers and enthusiasts trying new ways to introduce baijiu to the wider public.
In China, the liquor’s image is still associated with businessmen downing shots in a smoke-filled room.
But some bars and distilleries are trying to change baijiu’s reputation, whether it’s selling it in hipper packaging, holding pop-up events, or mixing it in cocktails for a younger and more cosmopolitan audience.
Capital Spirits, a baijiu speakeasy in Beijing, is one of many bars focused on introducing the spirit to new consumers.
“I can convert more than 90% of the people who come in.”
“I can convert more than 90% of the people who come in,” claims owner David Putney.
The bar, which is moving to a new location this summer, has been offering baijiu-based cocktails and tasting flights since 2014.
Despite its stinging reputation, baijiu comes in a wide range of flavors. The liquor, which is usually made from a grain called sorghum, can fit broadly into four categories: strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma, and rice aroma.
(Read more: What are baijiu aromas?)
Putney says the bar tries to mix baijiu with other spirits, syrups, and fruits that best bring out those aromas.
One example is their popular Maotai Coco Cream cocktail.
The drink mixes Maotai baijiu—which has a salty, soy sauce-like aftertaste and oily finish—with coconut cream and chocolate liqueur to complement the baijiu’s umami flavor.
Many distilleries with international ambitions are promoting baijiu as a liquor that can be mixed into cocktails.
One of the founders of Capital Spirits, Bill Isler, is also the head of Ming River, a baijiu from Sichuan that the company is marketing as ideal for mixing.
“Baijiu should claim its rightful place on the back bar.”
“Outside of China, baijiu should claim its rightful place on the back bar,” Isler says.
Ming River sells itself as a baijiu for bartenders. The company’s website features recipes for drinks ranging from a simple spritz to more complex ones involving bitters and egg-white foam.
The baijiu comes from the Luzhou Laojiao distillery, which has a history dating back to the Ming Dynasty in the 1500s.
It’s a sorghum-based strong-aroma baijiu with notes of pineapple and anise. Isler says the team made the conscious choice of not picking a milder flavor, which might be easier to adapt but would lack the distinct character of a more complex baijiu.
Another baijiu maker, Texas-based ByeJoe, has opted for a different strategy. It’s targeting consumers with a light-aroma baijiu of 35-40% alcohol content—and encouraging people to drink it chilled or on the rocks, breaking from the traditional way of drinking it neat.
The distillery also filters its baijiu after it’s been imported to the United States to produce a smoother and milder taste.
“We want it to be attractive to young people, to be modern.”
Baijiu purists might scoff at the modifications, but Matt Trusch, the founder of ByeJoe, believes it’s the best way to expand the market.
“The average baijiu drinker is a 40- to 50-year-old male,” Trusch says. “We want it to be attractive to young people, to be modern, and show that baijiu is cool, sexy, and trendy.”
Dumbing down baijiu?
While the menu at Capital Spirits includes plenty of innovative cocktails, Putney insists the star of the show remains the baijiu.
“My biggest critique of people who are trying to make baijiu international is that they are trying to stop it being baijiu,” he says. “They’re adding flavors, redistilling it. I think it’s important to understand the cultural context of where the drink comes from.”
“In China, baijiu is part of food culture, not drink culture.”
Some purists believe baijiu should only be mixed with one thing: food.
“In China, baijiu is part of food culture, not drink culture,” says Jordan Porter, who runs a baijiu club in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. “You're not supposed to eat without drinking, so you create long meals with foods that are slow to eat so that you're able to entertain a group of people and drink at the same time. Baijiu is perfect in that context.”
It’s this cultural context that also makes baijiu difficult to export to the West, where spirits are more associated with bars than the dining room table.
“If you put it in a restaurant, it’s out of context, it’s confusing,” Porter says. “People aren’t going to drink it straight.”
“I would love to see people in a hot pot restaurant in New York sipping on baijiu.”
For now, marketing baijiu as a mixer might be the industry’s best bet for introducing it to the wider world.
“Baijiu is not about to become the next vodka or whiskey, but it is well on its way to becoming the next amaro, mezcal, or pisco,” Isler says, referring to spirits that were once regarded as foreign and difficult to drink but are now embraced by the mainstream.
Putney sees a future where consumers in the West might be more willing to drink baijiu the same way it’s enjoyed in China: straight and with food.
Indeed, the most popular item at Capital Spirits is not a cocktail, he says, but a tasting flight of various baijiu.
“It’s become common to drink sake while eating sushi,” Putney says. “I would love to see people in a hot pot restaurant in New York sipping on baijiu.”