The first time I tried baijiu, China’s signature white spirit, I didn’t love it. But I figured I just hadn’t tried the right one yet. After all, I’ve grown to love, or at least appreciate, many other spirits that challenge the palate: mezcal, funky agricole rhums, super-peated scotch, cask-strength whiskeys. Yet almost five years after sipping my first baijiu, it’s still the spirit I love to hate. To me, it’s too pungent, evoking overripe fruit just seconds away from rotting.
For those unfamiliar with baijiu, it’s a high-proof spirit made from sorghum and other grains and fermented in stone pits or jars. It can be produced from a wide variety of grains, using a broad range of production techniques, but in general, it’s made in four main styles: strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma and rice aroma. Needless to say, it’s an intensely aromatic spirit, ranging from fruity to floral to outright funky, with notes that resemble soy sauce or aged cheese. And it tends to be fiery, often bottled at 100-proof or higher.
Sorghum, one of the main grains used to make baijiu (image: HelloRF Zcool)
Baijiu is often dubbed “the most consumed spirit in the world” because so much is drunk within China. But consumption is still fairly limited outside of the country, including within the U.S., where we seem a bit befuddled by it. Though it was long available in the U.S., it wasn’t often seen in mainstream liquor stores or bars until recently. In 2012, anti-graft measures in China crimped the flow of baijiu at government-sponsored meals and tamped down lavish gifts of expensive liquor.
With sales substantially slashed, baijiu producers set their sights on Western consumers. America gave the spirit an interested sniff but never fully embraced it.
I figured that bartenders, who always seem to be leading the charge with unusual flavor combinations and far-flung, unfamiliar spirits, would be able to offer insight into the all-too-elusive charms of baijiu. But with very few exceptions, it seems they haven’t warmed to it either.
Ben Rojo, formerly of George Washington Bar in the Freehand hotel in New York City, says, “I’ve tried hundreds and can’t wrap my brain around the appeal, outside of perhaps some cultural nostalgia.” Chaim Dauermann of NYC’s Stay Gold offers a more succinct view: “It’s terrible.”
Most of the people I spoke to cited the off-putting flavor profile. While multiple types of baijiu exist, and can range widely, the colorful descriptors most bartenders used painted a picture of overpowering stink. “It’s distilled from the socks of long-distance runners,” says London bartender Paul Bradley jokingly, quickly adding, “I simply don’t have a taste for it, and that’s on me, not the product.”
Aging Ming River baijiu
Similarly, Washington, D.C., bartender Joe Pereira, recalls his experience tasting what he terms “the Pappy of baijiu” (a reference to Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most sought-after bourbons). “I was not impressed,” he says. “I thought I was being punked. I thought I was tasting and smelling a hot sweaty sauna post-workout.”
Many note the high price tag relative to other spirits too. “I’d rather drink Yoo-hoo from a marathon runner’s shoe,” says Matt Friedlander, the general manager at NYC’s Grand Banks. “At least that’s cheaper.”
Baijiu cocktail at Lumos in New York City
As with many spirits that Americans find challenging to sip neat (genever! aquavit! grappa!), I had assumed that baijiu cocktails would be the on-ramp to appreciation. When Lumos, New York’s first baijiu-focused bar, opened in 2015, I was among those at the dark alleyway-like bar on East Houston Street, sipping on Sesame Coladas laced with baijiu.
Lumos bartender Orson Salicetti infused drinks with apricots, dates and figs, barrel-aged the white liquor and masked it with spiced nut milks or rich tahini paste. The bar closed, then reopened on Second Avenue in the East Village as Lumos Kitchen, positioned as a restaurant that happened to also serve baijiu. After about six months, it too closed.
Has baijiu disappeared completely? No, it still can be spotted on cocktail menus, but it feels like tokenism—one drink on the menu, if that. We haven’t yet found the Margarita or Old Fashioned of baijiu, a singular cocktail built to spotlight the spirit.
Lumos, an NYC bar dedicated to baijiu, didn’t stay open very long.
That’s because baijiu is strikingly hard to work into cocktails, bartenders posit. Fred Yarm, a bartender at Boston’s Nahita, recalls a colleague trying to work it into a drink. “Even at a quarter-ounce, the weird plastic funk was a major distraction from the other ingredients,” he says. Even “egg white and heavy cream in a Ramos Fizz riff didn’t mollify this beast.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that every bartender dislikes baijiu. Yet every time I speak with someone who claims to be a fan, they tell me in the same breath that we’re all drinking it wrong. It’s meant to be sipped with food, especially spicy food and that it takes time to learn to appreciate it. I gave it five years. How much more time does it require?
Its most vocal advocates seem to be those who’ve traveled to China, often under the wing of baijiu producers. “You don’t understand unless you’ve tried it with the right food or in the right context,” some of these proponents argue. But here I am, trying it in this context and repeatedly. I’m still not getting it. Maybe the problem isn’t me.
The baijiu I’ve come closest to not hating is Ming River, a newish bottling released by author, expert and baijiu poster boy Derek Sandhaus. He knows my feelings about baijiu. “I remain determined to change your mind about baijiu,” he said, via email, when inviting me to try the product at a preview tasting this past summer. “An open mind is all I ask.” Indeed, it’s a more approachable baijiu style, more earthy than “sweaty,” with a mild hint of pineapple and bottled at a palatable 45% ABV.
By now, I accept that I probably will never learn to love baijiu or appreciate its signature funk. While I recognize it has a profound history and place in China’s culture, the best I can do is to offer some respect, at a broad distance, and pour something else in my glass.