Can Chi­nese ‘white light­ning’ make it in US?

The world’s most con­sumed al­co­holic bev­er­age and China’s na­tional spirit is try­ing to make its way into the US. Served in half-ounce shot glasses or made into a cock­tail mix, bai­jiu is gain­ing recog­ni­tion, re­ports Hezi Jiang from New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - DEPTH -

It is the world’s most con­sumed hard liquor, but sit at a bar in most parts of the US and ask for a shot of bai­jiu and you’ll prob­a­bly be asked, “What is it?’’ It’s China’s na­tional liquor, pro­nounced “bye-jeeoh” — English trans­la­tion “white liquor’’ — and pro­mot­ers are seek­ing to make the drink whose history spans thou­sands of years a hot one in the US.

Among the most com­mon de­scrip­tions for bai­jiu: “White light­ning. Smells like aged cheese; tastes sickly sweet, rot­ten and spicey all at once.”

“It’s sur­pris­ing and rich,” said Or­son Sal­icett, co-owner of Lu­mos, which calls it­self New York City’s first and only bar de­voted to­tally to bai­jiu. It opened in May be­low a hat shop in lower Man­hat­tan’s Soho dis­trict.

Added co-owner Li Qi­fan: “Very dif­fer­ent from any other liquor one has ever had. Strong, earthy.”

Bai­jiu is com­monly made from the grain sorghum, which is al­lowed to fer­ment for a few weeks be­fore be­ing dis­tilled, cooled and bottled.

The 100-plus-proof high-proof liquor has re­mained ob­scure out­side of China, and un­til re­cently there has been lit­tle ef­fort to pro­mote it in the US.

Bar­tenders in ma­jor US cities who serve the spirit of­ten use it as the base for cock­tails, Lu­mos’s spe­cialty. It comes in four fragrances: rice aroma, light aroma, strong aroma and sauce aroma. The fla­vor may be dif­fer­ent, but bai­jiu’s main char­ac­ter­is­tic stands out: Strong, very strong. “A lot of per­son­al­ity. For vodka, you drink it, and it’s gone. Bai­jiu, it stays,” said Sal­icett.

Baiju- based cock­tails and sin­gle shots also are avail­able through­out the city. The RedFarm Chi­nese restau­rant on the Up­per West­side of Man­hat­tan of­fers a “Marco Polo” cock­tail of bai­jiu with toma­toes, basil and vine­gar. The JakeWalk in Brook­lyn cre­ated “Shaolin Land”, bai­jiu with an Ital­ian myr­tle berry liqueur. Bai­jiu can also be found at ho­tels bars in the Penin­sula and the Park Hy­att in Man­hat­tan.

‘Empty the glass’

In China, peo­ple drink baiju straight from small shot glasses, of­ten af­ter say­ing gan bei, trans­lat­ing to “empty the glass.”

Few had tried to mix a bai­jiu drink due to tra­di­tion, and its “too stand-out” taste, said Li. It took her and Sal­icetti, a vet­eran mixol­o­gist, a year to ex­per­i­ment with bai­jiu cock­tails.

“We try to com­bine it with tra­di­tional Chi­nese in­gre­di­ents,” said Sal­icetti, “White sesame, goji berry, al­mond.”

The first listed drink on the menu, Sesame Co­lada, is a mix of bai­jiu, white sesame paste, caramelized pineap­ple, agave, and man­gos­teen, a pop­u­lar fruit in China. An al­mond cock­tail is mixed with Lu­mos’s house-made al­mond milk that’s as rich and fla­vor­ful as the bai­jiu, said Li. Both cock­tails are served in del­i­cate china cups.

In China, peo­ple drank more than 11 bil­lion liters of bai­jiu in 2012, or more than one-third of all spir­its con­sumed in the world, ac­cord­ing to data from In­ter­na­tional Wine & Spirit Re­search. And ac­cord­ing to McKin­sey & Com­pany and UBS, baiju is an es­ti­mated $23 bil­lion mar­ket.

The high de­mand for bai­jiu left Chi­nese brands of the liquor with no in­cen­tive to ex­pand sales be­yond China. That was un­til 2013 when Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s an­ti­cor­rup­tion cam­paign struck the liquor mar­ket, and gov­ern­ment agen­cies re­frained from pur­chas­ing and con­sum­ing bai­jiu.

That caused an­nual profit in 2014 for the bai­jiu in­dus­try to drop by 12.6 per­cent from 2013, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Bureau of Sta­tis­tics of China.

A spokesman for the Wu­liangye com­pany, one of the ma­jor bai­jiu man­u­fac­tur­ers in China, told Xin­hua News Agency that consumption of bai­jiu is about 7 bil­lion liters per year, but the cur­rent bai­jiu sup­ply is twice that amount.

“Man­u­fac­tur­ers sold the ma­jor­ity to the gov­ern­ment. Now they have to find new cus­tomers,” said Jim Boyce, who has part­nered with bai­jiu pro­duc­ers around the world, restau­rants and bars to get peo­ple to try the spirit. Boyce is Cana­dian, has lived in China for a decade, and has a blog called Beijing Boyce. He said he does not get paid for pro­mot­ing bai­jiu.

He es­tab­lished World Bai­jiu Day this year on Aug 8 to get peo­ple around the world to learn about the drink. On that day he co­or­di­nated 28 events in 20 cities in eight coun­tries.

In the US, there was bai­jiu in­fused ice cream in Hous­ton; bai­jiu with hand-pulled noo­dles and ping pong games in Los An­ge­les; bai­jiu with karaoke in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal; bai­jiu with dim sum in Miami; and two tast­ing events in New York City and Port­land, Ore­gon.

“I want the events to be cre­ative so that more peo­ple can get in­ter­ested,” said Boyce. “I don’t want to con­vince peo­ple to like it; I just want peo­ple to try it.”

He rec­om­mends that West­ern­ers not judge bai­jiu on one bot­tle or a bad Gan Bei ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Right now, it’s a trendy thing. The ques­tion is, will it go from trend to nor­mal?” he said.

“Can an out­sider gain an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Chi­nese bai­jiu?” That was the ques­tion posed by Derek Sand­haus, an Amer­i­can writer and ed­i­tor. So start­ing in De­cem­ber 2011, he vowed to drink 300 shots of bai­jiu to find out. And his an­swer: Yes.

Sand­haus wrote on his blog that he gained an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the drink much ear­lier than when he fin­ished the 300 shots in six months.

Sand­haus has writ­ten a book Bai­jiu: TheEssen­tialGuideto Chi­ne­seSpir­its that was pub­lished by Pen­guin Books on the first of this month. He also has joined Beijing-based Cap­i­tal Spir­its, LTD, a con­sult­ing busi­ness that fo­cuses on help­ing pro­duc­ers and for­eign brands nav­i­gate the mar­ket for bai­jiu im­ports and ex­ports.

Si­mon Dang, co-founder of Cap­i­tal Spir­its, said that for a bai­jiu brand to be suc­cess­fully ex­ported to the West, a pro­ducer will have to repack­age it. “They’ll need to up­date the lo­gos, brand­ing, and slightly tone down the fla­vor (in the be­gin­ning),” Dang wrote in an e-mail to China Daily.

“It’ll need an easy name to pro­nounce and a sig­na­ture cock­tail that can be en­joyed and rec­og­nized (think about how the mar­garita has helped boost consumption of te­quila). Once they do this, they can get some trac­tion among con­sumers and break out of the mold as be­ing just an old Chi­nese liquor but some­thing more sexy, trendy and fash­ion­able,” he wrote.

“Our Cap­i­tal Spir­its, LTD con­sult­ing busi­ness team has been con­tacted by a few of the big bai­jiu pro­duc­ers to help them with th­ese brand­ing is­sues, so I do have a lot of con­fi­dence that Bai­jiu will be­come the next big in­ter­na­tional spirit quite soon,” he said.

Di­a­geo Plc, the world’s largest liquor com­pany, ac­quired more stock in Chi­nese bai­jiu maker Sichuan Shui jing fang Co in 2013.

At the Lu­mos bar, a shot of Shui Jing Fang costs $23. Most of the bar’s $15 cock­tails are made with the brand Hong-Kong Bai­jiu (HKB), pro­duced in China’s Sichuan prov­ince, bottled in Italy and crafted to ap­peal to North Amer­i­can and Euro­pean palates. A half ounce shot glass of bai­jiu costs $12.

HKB founder Charles Lan­thier launched the brand six months ago and mar­keted it as “hand­crafted bai­jiu for dar­ing mixology”. HKB is 43 per­cent al­co­hol, in com­par­i­son to Wu Liang Ye and Shui Jing Fang with 52 per­cent.

Lan­thier started pro­mot­ing HKB from New York City by go­ing from bar to bar. “At first, it’s very, very hard,” he said. “It’s a new cat­e­gory.” He said now there are about 40 bars car­ry­ing HKB in New York City, 50 to 60 to­tal in the US, and about 20 in Lon­don and 15 in Italy.

The Ly fam­ily, own­ers of the Vinn Dis­tillery in Port­land, took their fam­ily craft from China to Viet­nam to the US. Their mar­ket ex­panded from a lo­cal liquor store to Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton state, and now they are sell­ing it in Cal­i­for­nia.

Hous­ton-based brand Bye­Joe and Wash­ing­ton-based Con­fu­cius Wis­dom also im­port their bai­jiu from China and pack­age and sell it in the US.

“Liquor is part of life and part of the cul­ture. Go to a bar and look at the menu, it rep­re­sents the cul­ture of the place, the na­tion,” said David Zhou, owner of Con­fu­cius Wis­dom. “China is ris­ing. Rather than say I’m bet­ting on bai­jiu, I’m bet­ting on China.”

“When we were about to open Lu­mos, I was scared,’’ said Li. “Be­cause this is some­thing no one has done [out­side of China]. It’s ei­ther a big suc­cess or a big fail­ure. So far it’s go­ing well. And it’s sur­pris­ing that most of the cus­tomers ac­cept bai­jiu very quickly. Some go right from their first cock­tail to shots.”

“There was a cus­tomer who was dragged to our bar by his friends, and I knew he didn’t enjoy the drink. How­ever, I saw him com­ing back days later, and I asked him why. He told me, ‘You know what? Bai­jiu is ad­dic­tive. It’s the kind of taste that I can find nowhere else. It’s the kind of taste that one will miss.’ ”

Very dif­fer­ent from any other liquor one has ever had. Strong, earthy.”

Con­tact the writer at hez­i­jiang@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

HEZI JIANG / CHINA DAILY

A bar­tender makes a pear cock­tail con­tain­ing

at Lu­mos, the bai­jiu- de­voted bar in New York City.

REGIS DUVIGNAU / REUTERS

Oak bar­rels are stored in a cel­lar used for stor­ing rare and old cognac at the Remy Martin fac­tory in Cognac, south­west­ern France, on Nov 6.

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