The Hard Stuff
Baijiu is the top-selling liquor in the world. But will Americans drink it?
“We’re available in Disney World now!” Matt Trusch says with glee, a tasting glass of a clear spirit poised between his fingers. We’re at a bar in Beijing called Capital Spirits, one of the only bars in the world dedicated solely to baijiu, or “white liquor,” China’s national drink. The place is small, lamp-lit, and occupied by just a few patrons, all foreigners, all drinking baijiu.
Trusch is the CEO of Byejoe USA, an American producer and distributor of the drink. He lived in Asia for 15 years before moving home to Houston in 2009 to launch the company. His product, sourced from China but filtered in South Carolina, is available in Asian-fusion restaurants in 15 states, and last year Disney approached him about offering a Byejoe cocktail at its Polynesian Village Resort. Trusch, who wears a yarmulke and black blazer, is in China on a business trip and happens to be at Capital Spirits when the small group I’m with shows up for an education through imbibing. Between sips Trusch tells me, “If you go to any bar you get whiskey, you get tequila, you get vodka — you get the U.N. of spirits. Why isn’t China in the U.N. of spirits?”
China’s biggest baijiu makers and distributors are also targeting foreign markets. In fact, they didn’t blink at flying a bunch of journalists overseas on an elaborate junket just to sample the stuff, which is how I’ve ended up here, investigating the spirit’s chances of cracking the American market despite the notable obstacle that almost no Americans have ever heard of it. Baijiu — which is usually sorghum-based but can be made with a variety of grains — is ubiquitous in China, downed in celebratory shots at government banquets and business dinners and in alleyway noodle shops. Legend has it that the fiery spirit helped fuel Mao Zedong’s troops during the Long March. Little consumed outside the mainland, baijiu is actually the number-one-selling liquor category in the world, representing a $23 billion market, according to reports by McKinsey & Company and UBS. But premium baijius sell for more than $300 per bottle, and a slowing economy and President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption and anti-luxury campaigns have tanked sales in China.
There’s one problem with the industry’s push abroad, though: Many Westerners find baijiu virtually undrinkable. I lived in Beijing for six years, and though I grew to appreciate baijiu’s, let’s say, complexity, the uninitiated might describe its taste and smell as ranging from herbal and medicinal to barnyard animal. When I post a photo of a baijiu flight on Facebook, one friend, a former expat, commented, “I’ll never touch that stuff again.” Another queried: “You’re doing that voluntarily?”
The investigatory team I’m with includes my friend Mike, a gourmand based in New York, and Eric, a food and drink writer from Boston. Our guide for the Beijing leg of our trip is a tightly wound man in his early 40s named Li. For our welcome dinner, on a smoggy summer night, Li orders a bottle that costs close to $100. “First we take the baijiu,” Li instructs, “then we take the meat.”
Baijiu, which is typically bottled between 100 and 120 proof (compared to roughly 90 proof for whiskey), is fermented in mud pits or jars buried underground, distilled, and aged in clay vessels. The drink is often divided into four different “fragrance” categories: sauce (as in soy), rice, light, and strong. In its best iterations the flavor notes range from smoky, not unlike mescal, to fruitcake, like sherry-cask-aged whiskey. Mike and Eric are novice baijiu drinkers, and our first taste does not bode well. While I find the shot to be surprisingly smooth and fruity, at least as far as baijiu goes, I notice a grimace on Mike’s face. I can tell he’s struggling for something to say. “It’s got a pine-nut thing going on,” is all he musters.
We hope to fare better a few days later in the booming city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, which is to baijiu what Kentucky is to bourbon. There we’re greeted by a friendly 30-something man named Peter who works in Shanghai for a massive liquor conglomerate. Peter takes us for a dinner of chopped chicken in Sichuan peppers, tree-smoked duck, candied walnuts — and, of course, baijiu.
“We believe this is a very good pairing with spicy, strong-tasting food,” Peter tells us.
I take a sip. It has notes of licorice and burns a little going down.
“Feels like fire,” Mike says.
The baijiu is actually a good complement to the Sichuan numbing spice — good enough, anyway, that the shots get a little out of hand and pretty soon we’re all fairly drunk and convivial. Baijiu bottle in hand, we circle the restaurant looking for people to toast. We soon come across a particularly lively group of drinkers, airplane mechanics on a company outing. The boss, Mr. Wang, welcomes us to the table. “With me, it’s good food, good drink, good women!” Mr. Wang says as he hands me his business card.
We pour 16 tasting glasses. I Google a Chinese toast on my phone: “If we’re friends, drink it all in one gulp, otherwise just take a sip like we’re strangers!” Ganbei! Another toast, and another. The airplane mechanics procure a bottle of their own, and Mr. Wang says he is bound by custom to return the toast. This is the joy of baijiu and what makes it so fundamental to the Chinese tradition of guanxi — relationships or connections — the single most important aspect of business and politics in China. It’s also one of the main challenges of introducing baijiu to the States: You can import the spirit, but not necessarily the culture that goes with it.
There have been some successes. A handful of restaurants — notably Hakkasan, a Michelin-starred modern Cantonese chain — now offer the liquor. And a number of bars have cocktails made of baijiu, which experts say will be the key to attracting American drinkers. Peking Tavern in Los Angeles features concoctions like the Wong Chiu Punch, made with hibiscus, lemon juice, and baijiu. At last February’s LuckyRice Festival in New York, Lumos, the first bar devoted to baijiu in the U.S., introduced the Pyrus Martini, named after a white pear species native to China that was featured in the drink alongside baijiu, gin, and lime juice.
Still, baijiu has a ways to go before it will appeal to the American mainstream, and by the end of the tour we’ve had our fill. At our farewell meal in Chengdu, as our guide flips through the menu, she asks what we’ll have to drink. Without hesitation, we reply almost in unison: “Beer.”