As spirits go, baijiu (BYE-joe), which is Chinese for “white spirit,” must suffer from a serious inferiority complex in the U.S. While it holds a roughly 38 percent share in global spirits consumption, it has yet to take America by storm. This lack of appreciation isn’t surprising given that it can run at upwards of 60 percent ABV and has a flavor often likened to rotting fruit. The American palate is made for tamer stuff. Still, baijiu’s fiery, funky nature hasn’t stopped dogged importers, new brands and evangelizing bartenders from trying to convert the masses.
With the burgeoning cocktail renaissance, bringing baijiu to the U.S. could be seen as little more than a marketing ploy. In fact, when sales in China declined sharply after a moratorium on luxury spending, baijiu producers scrambled to find ways to counter their domestic losses. The Western market was a natural target.
However, according to Yuan Liu, a senior vice president of business development for CNS Imports, which owns the premium Moutai brand among others, it’s not quite that simple. “To introduce a new spirit category to a new market is not something that can be achieved overnight,” he says. “Therefore, it can never be a viable solution for developing new business.”
CNS, which has been importing baijiu into the U.S. for almost 40 years, has only looked beyond its Chinese-American base market in the last four years. The company’s strategy has been to focus on the authenticity and history of the spirit, which is traditionally sipped in a miniature glass with great ceremony.
Isaac Fish Stone, a fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations, thinks it will take a lot more than authenticity to appeal to the masses. “Baijiu is the only spirit I know of that tastes worse in cocktail form than drunk neat,” he says. “For baijiu to work in the United States, that off-putting pain has to be part of the charm. Baijiu could succeed if bars and drinkers embrace its grittiness and street cred.”
Despite Stone’s opinion, Orson Salicetti, a co-owner of Lumos, a New York City bar dedicated solely to baijiu, sees cocktails as the ideal entry point for the novice. “Baijiu’s flavor is different from any other spirit,” he says. “It’s a powerful fragrance, and that’s good. The advantages of baijiu to me are the sweet, rotting fruit and nutty sherry—you need to respect these notes and play with them. The strategy we use to introduce baijiu to first-time consumers is to use baijiu brands and categories that are more appealing to the Western palate. ” These categories range from downright dirty to fruity/floral to almost neutral, depending on the choice of grain—sorghum, wheat, rice and corn—and distillation method.
Shiu Jing Fang baijiu
Like all things steeped in tradition, baijiu will need to evolve, moving beyond its inherent “grittiness” in order to flourish. New brands are doing just that. Texas’ byejoe, with its phonetically spelled name, offers a dragon-fruit-, lychee- and red-chile-infused flavor. HKB, which receives a second distillation at a grappa factory in Italy, offers an eye-catching red bottle and more familiar 43 percent ABV. In fact, spirits giant Diageo, which holds the pungent Shui Jing Fang brand in its portfolio, is positively bullish on baijiu. According to a recent Bloomberg article, Tony Tian, a commercial director of Diageo’s China White Spirits unit, thinks baijiu could be the next tequila.
Only time will tell whether baijiu can conquer the spirits world the way tequila has. At this time, bars on both the East and West Coasts have baijiu offerings on their menus. The byejoe brand is even served at Walt Disney World, which in and of itself is a sort of mainstream triumph. Perhaps this ancient sorghum spirit is just one classic cocktail away from bibulous fame.