Though it’s among the world’s most consumed spirits by volume, American consumers know very little about baijiu. Pronounced “bye-joe,” this Chinese grain spirit spans a wide range of styles and flavor profiles, and while its widely enjoyed in China there are only a few bars in the United States that offer it, supported by a small group of bartenders who are mixing it into cocktails for adventurous drinkers.
In greater Boston, bartender Nick Lappen is a baijiu aficionado. A mixologist at Backbar in Somerville, Massachusetts, Lappen spent time working and living in China and now hosts a weekly baijiu pop-up bar at Backbar. He offers the spirit in cocktails and tasting flights, usually on Thursdays at Backbar, and he says the baijiu events are well received. “Baijiu is an incredibly versatile and diverse spirit,” Lappen says, adding that the difference between different baijiu expressions is like the difference between entirely different spirits categories. He describes strong-aroma baijiu as bold, fruity, and funky, similar to rum, while rice-aroma baijiu has a nutty flavor like sake, light-aroma baijiu adds floral notes, and sauce-aroma baijiu evokes soy and provides umami flavors.
The Boston Baijiu Bar pop up serves a rotating list of three to six cocktails. Popular selections include the Inseparable Pear ($14), made with Red Star Erguotou baijiu, Singani 63 and Clear Creek Pear brandies, St-Germain and Giffard Vanille de Madagascar liqueurs, and lemon juice, and the Peach Emoji ($14), blending Ming River baijiu, Cocchi Americano vermouth, and Cynar 70, Combier Crème de Peche de Vign, and Amari di Angostura liqueurs. “Baijiu is a very misunderstood spirit, but the guests who come to our pop-up events are curious and open minded,” Lappen says. “I think baijiu is on a similar trajectory as mezcal. It will take some time and some dedicated folks working very hard, but eventually it will become more popular.”
Baijiu does well in Chinese venues, where it adds authenticity to the theme. Peking Tavern in Los Angeles has been serving baijiu cocktails for almost a decade. Co-owner Andrew Wong says offering the spirit is nostalgic for him, as Peking Tavern is based on the bars and restaurants that were popular in Beijing in the early 1990s and baijiu was important in that scene. “Baijiu, as a liquor, has amazing properties and so much potential,” he says. “We tell people, if you ever plan to go China to do business, you have to learn how to drink baijiu.” Wong adds that he likens baijiu to Chinese whisky to avoid consumers getting it confused with rice wine, sake, or shochu.
Peking Tavern offers drinks like the One Inch Punch ($12), made with Red Star Erguotou baijiu, Bols Peach schnapps, and lemon and pineapple juices, topped with a few drops of Chambord liqueur, and the Liquid Jade ($12), mixing Red Star Erguotou baijiu, celery and lemon juices, and simple syrup. The venue also serves baijiu boilermakers, with a small shot of baijiu accompanied by a Chinese beer or lager.
At NiHao Baltimore, contemporary Chinese culture shines and baijiu cocktails are among the concept’s best-selling drinks. Bar manager Ashley Mac is a baijiu enthusiast who mixes creative drinks and offers baijiu flights, focusing on consumer education. Her menus include facts and history about the spirit and her staff is well-versed on discussing it. Along with a baijiu Negroni, NiHao serves drinks like the Yumi Tao ($15), made with peach rooibos tea-infused Guotai baijiu, Mellow Corn whiskey, Ancho Reyes Verde Poblano liqueur, and corn milk, and the Ms. Edie ($14), blending ginger-turmeric-infused Kinmen Kaoliang 38 baijiu, Catoctin Creek Watershed gin, lemon juice, and simple syrup, shaken with a whole egg.
“Baijiu’s aromas tend to have really interesting flavor stories that can add any number of qualities to a cocktail,” Mac says. “We love to split-base baijiu cocktails. We’ve used rum, gin, vodka, grappa, Scotch, mezcal, Tequila, amaros, vermouths, and even wines. It works like any other base spirit and loves modifiers. There’s a lack of knowledge about the spirit, but with a wide array of aromas, there’s a baijiu for everyone.”