Sam Anderson, the head bartender at Mission Chinese Food in New York, was sitting on a panel of mixologists last spring when the conversation turned to baijiu, the national drink of China.
By volume, baijiu (bye-ZHO), a clear liquor made primarily from sorghum and rice and aged in terra-cotta barrels, is the most widely consumed spirit in the world. But for many non-Chinese drinkers, it is also the most challenging, its aroma variously described as resembling stinky cheese, anise, pineapples, musk and gasoline.
With Mission Chinese about to reopen in a new spot, Anderson told his fellow panelists he was thinking about giving his menu a distinctive touch by concocting a baijiu cocktail. "Everyone sort of chortled," he said. "They said, 'Good luck with that.'"
Undeterred, Anderson raided a nearby liquor store and came back with 20 bottles, varying in intensity from near-vodka subtlety to Limburger pungency. He settled on a brand called Hong-Kong Baijiu, which is lower in proof and relatively tame in flavor. He paired it with white rum, pineapple juice, peach liqueur, lime juice and basil seeds to create Firewater Walk With Me, a spin on a Singapore Sling and a nod to the "Twin Peaks" theme that pervades the restaurant.
And it works: The fruit and rum tame the baijiu while it gives them a rich, earthy complexity. Anderson said the drink is one of his best-sellers. And while it's not uncommon for guests to send it back, many order a second round. "It's definitely for people who are adventurous, people who are down for something new," he said.
Baijiu isn't about to take over the bar, but over the last year it has established a solid beachhead. Bartenders in New York, Washington and Los Angeles have taken it on with the same sense of challenge they once brought to similarly aggressive spirits like overproof whiskey and mescal.
In New York, along with Mission Chinese, places serving baijiu cocktails include Red Farm, the Peninsula hotel, the Park Hyatt hotel and La Chine, a new restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria. In May, the country's first baijiu-centered bar, Lumos, opened on West Houston Street, featuring more than a dozen baijiu cocktails and infusions.
Still, getting Westerners to drink baijiu can be difficult. There is very little information available to help non-Chinese drinkers understand what makes a good baijiu, let alone how to appreciate it. "There hasn't been a good effort to introduce Westerners to the spirit," said Derek Sandhaus, a spirits consultant who lived in China for almost a decade and wrote "Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits," one of the few books on the liquor.
But baijiu's reputation precedes it. Even people who haven't tried it typically have a friend who, on a business trip to China, was subjected to a night of baijiu shots, a slow march toward a vicious hangover, one thimble-size glass at a time.
"In China, when you drink baijiu, it's like a knife fight," said Shawn Chen, the beverage director at Red Farm, a restaurant in the West Village and on the Upper West Side. "You enjoy the reactions on each other's faces."
Nor does it help that in China there are thousands of brands of baijiu, ranging in flavor and quality from dollar-a-liter rotgut to decades-old bottles that sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
"Baijiu is just a catchall term for all Chinese spirits, with as much variation as whiskey and rum," said William Isler, an owner of Capital Spirits, a baijiu cocktail bar in Beijing.
For all that variety, there are commonalities to all baijiu that take some adjustment, above all, an earthy, musky funk that lingers long after the liquid is gone. "I always tell people that it's an acquired taste," said Kris Baljak, a bartender at the Clermont, a bar in the Peninsula hotel, who started using baijiu in cocktails last spring.
Baijiu fans point out that its flavors are broadly appealing on their own: cheese, fruit, licorice. "There's no flavor there that's undesirable, but they're odd in this particular context," said Christopher Briar Williams, an owner of Coppersea Distilling in the Hudson Valley, who is considering making a baijiu of his own. "I tell people it's more of an eating experience than a drinking experience."
Put baijiu in a cocktail though, and things change. Because it has so many flavors, it works well in a variety of combinations.
The key to making a good baijiu cocktail, Anderson said, is to pair it with equally powerful flavors. "If you do a baijiu cocktail with St. Germain," he said, referring to the soft liqueur made with elderflower, "the St. Germain will get blown out of the water."
While baijiu's smell and flavors can be formidable, it is remarkably easy to drink. "When I first tried it, I got notes of an old sweat sock smell," Baljak said. "But when I tasted it, it's very smooth," a quality that lets it play well with others in a mixed drink.
Not just any pairing will work though. "Baijiu and sweet vermouth are gross, but baijiu loves Campari," said John Mayer, a former bartender who works for a liquor distributor in Massachusetts. Citrus goes very well with it; so do absinthe and mescal.
One way to approach baijiu in cocktails is to edit it, adding ingredients to mask some of its flavors and enhance others. Baljak mixes baijiu with absinthe, midori and lemon foam in a drink he calls the Hidden Dragon. The absinthe cuts some of the funkiness while the citrus brings out the fruit notes, like strawberry and pineapple.
Others take a more conservative approach. Fernando Sousa, the head bartender at the Back Room at the Park Hyatt, uses an atomizer to spritz baijiu over a gin and tonic. "It's a great way to start spreading knowledge about the spirit before throwing 2 ounces of it into a cocktail," he said. "So far, the reaction has been pretty positive."
And while baijiu isn't about to replace mescal or rye as the in-crowd's tipple of choice, it has a growing number of fans. Ben Collier, a hotel consultant sitting at the bar at Mission Chinese Food, said he fell in love with baijiu during a trip to China.
"It's commonly misunderstood as 'this nasty Chinese liquor I tried once,'" he said, sipping one of Anderson's concoctions. "I like that it's different. It is what it is. If you're truly open to new things, you should definitely try it." (Many online retailers and big-city liquor stores carry baijiu.)
Andrew Wong, an owner of Peking Tavern in Los Angeles, said putting a baijiu cocktail on the menu was an easy call. "It's something you can't find in other places," he said. The bar has several baijiu drinks, including Peking Coffee, made with Red Star baijiu and a coffee liqueur.
What bartenders aren't doing, at least so far, is recommending that anyone try baijiu on its own. "Occasionally people will order it neat," Anderson said. "But usually as a joke."
© 2015 New York Times News Service