Chinese liquor baijiu aiming at the US cocktail scene

Michelle Locke
Associated Press

Think bourbon is hot? It’s got nothing on baijiu.

Yet chances are good you haven’t even heard of baijiu, the high proof, pungent, spicy, savory, sweet traditional liquor of China. It packs a fiery punch. It also happens to be the world’s best-selling liquor by volume, a drink with a pedigree stretching back centuries, and was poured to toast the warming of U.S.-Sino relations during Nixon’s historic 1972 visit.

Now, producers are making diplomatic overtures to an entirely new audience — the U.S. craft cocktail scene.

“We feel that it has incredible potential,” says Yuan Liu, senior vice president of business development for Los Angeles-based CNS Imports, the largest importer/distributor of baijiu in United States.

Baijiu is sorghum-based, though it also can contain wheat, rice and corn. An it’s not a uniform product; it’s a class of spirits with many categories. Think whiskey with its range from smoky Scotch to mellow bourbon. But unlike whiskey, which is fermented in a liquid state, baijiu is more or less dry fermented inside in-ground pits.

It generally is bottled at around 100 or 120 proof Typical reactions from first-timers are that it smells and tastes like blue cheese, mushroom or soy sauce — not the most alluring descriptors.

“This is not a spirit you can just pour into a martini glass and enjoy,” says New York bartender Orson Salicetti.

But introduced more gently as part of a cocktail? That can work, says Salicetti, co-founder of the Lumos bar, which focuses on the Chinese spirit and has a menu of more than 60 baijiu cocktails. Salicetti was introduced to baijiu by his architect partner Qifan Li and realized baijiu would be a great way to stand out in a city awash with specialty bars.

They’ve moved slowly, introducing the spirit to bartenders and learning, from experience, to work with rather than mask the unique flavors. ““They’re esentially creating and building a cocktail around the spirit,” says Liu.