Baijiu—to put it mildly—isn’t for everyone.
It’s a strong, aromatic white distillate usually made from sorghum or wheat, as well as other grains. It’s rarely seen outside of China. The intense spirit has finally starting gaining some drinking traction in the U.S. recently, at places such as Peking Tavern in Los Angeles and the soon-to-be-opened Lumos in New York. What better time than now and place than Beijing to extol baijiu’s goodness?
Why Baijiu and Why Now
“We wanted to challenge most people’s negative reactions to the spirit,” says Simon Dang, the Chinese-American co-owner of the less-than-a-year-old Capital. He and his three co-owners, an American and two Germans, opened the bar in August 2014. Dang notes that Capital has experienced a 90-percent plus conversion rate to the polarizing spirit.
Not All These Things Are Like the Other
One of the big surprises for Capital’s customers, according to Dang, is that “not all types of baijiu taste the same; and especially that they don’t all taste like [the corner store] 50-cent bottles.”
Given China’s more than 11,000 baijiu distilleries, “there’s something for everyone’s taste.” The bar offers more than 50 types of the spirit and presents its clientele two new ways to experience baijiu: straight up or in cocktails.
Flights of four typical types of baijiu—rice, light, strong and sauce—are served on antique trays in traditional baijiu shot glasses, for approximately $6.50 each. The multi-lingual staff is primed to discuss and present comparisons.
Out of the Home and Into the Bar
The baijiu bar experience has been largely absent in China, as the spirit, notes Dang, is usually served with meals at restaurants or at home. Selection is typically limited and,” It’s not about the taste so much as the flashy cost and quantity of baijiu you drink.”
In an homage to traditional baijiu infusions, the bar also makes its own concoctions, such as the “spicy” version, made from Sichuan peppers, red and yellow peppers, garlic and smoked bacon.
Locals seem to enjoy the bar, as they don’t feel pressured to drink excessively, and visitors often appreciate the smoke-free environment. It doesn’t hurt that that Capital is also located in a historic Hutong (an old Beijing alleyway) in a restored shop house that features period decor. It seats 30 to 40 patrons inside and has a small outside terrace.
Begin With Baijiu and Wind Up Somewhere Else
Capital also features a wide range of artisanal spirits from around the world, and distills its own vodka and grappa on the premises, which are offered as free samples at the bar.
There’s even a show-and-drink aspect to Capital’s drinking culture. Says Dang: “We encourage our guests to bring in lesser-known craft spirits, wines and beers from around the world.” So far, the bar has welcomed floral gins from Germany, an aged rum from Colombia and distinctive tequilas from Mexico.
“We’re celebrating more than just Baijiu,” says Dang. “Guests come by and try a white Port from Portugal or a locally-produced Chinese wine,” explains Dang. These spirits are typically sold by the shot, and people who bring in bottles are given bar credit for the product cost.
In time, the foursome behind Capital intend to bring the concept to cities outside mainland China. Baijiu: coming to a bar near you.
Liza B. Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about drinks for two decades. She is the principal of the San Francisco–based Liza the Wine Chick consulting firm and regularly contributes to publications such as Wine Business Monthly, DrinkUpNY and the SOMM Journal.