Bai­jiu sun­rise?

Dis­tillers look­ing over­seas want to make spirit the ‘new te­quila’

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE -

The fiery Chi­nese grain liquor called bai­jiu has been dis­tilled and quaffed in the home­land pretty much the same way for a mil­len­nium. Yet, as th­ese brands ex­pand over­seas, spir­its com­pa­nies are won­der­ing: How would it taste with 7-Up?

Mak­ers of the 106-proof al­co­hol that’s pop­u­lar at wed­ding re­cep­tions and gov­ern­ment ban­quets are cop­ing with a steep rev­enue drop af­ter the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment or­dered pub­lic ser­vants to cut their ex­pense tabs. Sales de­clined 13 per­cent, and store prices plunged by half. With less than 1 per­cent of

bai­jiu con­sumed abroad, Chi­nese dis­tillers now want to trans­form the liquor into “the new te­quila” for Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans. So they’re di­lut­ing its stom­ach-burn­ing po­tency, hir­ing mixol­o­gists to ex­per­i­ment with gin­seng and trop­i­cal fruits, and pro­mot­ing the con­coc­tions at bars in New York, London, Syd­ney — even at­walt DISNEYWORLD.

“We want to see bai­jiu have its mo­ment in the world,” said Tony Tian, com­mer­cial di­rec­tor of Di­a­geo Plc’s China White Spir­its unit, which in­cludes the high-end Shui­jing­fang brand. “Te­quila had it, vodka had it. Why not bai­jiu?”

Ven­er­a­ble brands like Shui­jing­fang, less-ex­pen­sive of­fer­ings such as Beijing Red Star Co and star­tups such as Bye-Joe and HKB are search­ing for the right in­gre­di­ents that will do for bai­jiu what the mar­garita did for te­quila. They’re try­ing grape­fruit juice, An­gos­tura bit­ters and brown sugar to mask a pun­gency con­sid­ered on par with the durian fruit pop­u­lar in South­east Asia.

They’re also low­er­ing the liquor’s al­co­hol con­tent to make it more akin to the 80-proof spir­its fa­vored by West­ern­ers, in­fus­ing bot­tles with fla­vor­ings and pro­mot­ing the an­tiox­i­dant pow­ers of the main in­gre­di­ent sorghum. The mak­ers have noth­ing to lose and ev­ery­thing to gain, since ex­ports made up just 0.1 per­cent of bai­jiu sales last year, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from London-based In­ter­na­tional Wine and Spirit Re­search.

“Bai­jiu is not a spirit you can just pour into a mar­tini glass and grow an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for its taste im­me­di­ately,” said Or­son Sal­icetti, co-founder of the Lu­mos bar in New York that serves about 40 dif­fer­ent brands. “The trick to ap­pre­ci­at­ing bai­jiu is em­brac­ing its un­fa­mil­iar fla­vor in cock­tails.”

Va­ri­eties of bai­jiu, or “white liquor,” are made from sorghum, rice, wheat or corn, and can contain as much as 53 per­cent al­co­hol by vol­ume. About 5.5 bil­lion liters, or 1.5 bil­lion gal­lons, were sold last year, ac­cord­ing to Lon­don­based Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional.

In­dus­try rev­enue last year was 766 bil­lion yuan ($115 bil­lion), com­pared with a peak of 882 bil­lion yuan in 2012, when con­sumers were prop­ping up de­mand and prices for top-shelf brands like Shui­jing­fang and Kwe­i­chow Moutai by gift­ing bot­tles. The gov­ern­ment’s edict ended that party.

“Bai­jiu must change, trans­form and ex­plore,” said Song Shuyu, di­rec­tor of the China Al­co­holic Drinks As­so­ci­a­tion, a gov­ern­ment over­sight and pro­mo­tion body.

Bai­jiu tra­di­tion­ally is im­bibed in ex­tra-small shot glasses dur­ing big, cel­e­bra­tory meals. At least in China.

At nightspots abroad, Di­a­geo ad­vises bar­tenders to mix Shui­jing­fang, the brand it bought in 2011, with 7-Up to make it more palat­able to non-Chi­nese. The world’s largest dis­tiller, based in London, also cre­ated a recipe — sim­i­lar to an Old Fash­ioned— it will pro­mote in 50 Hong Kong bars by year’s end. “We want to in­tro­duce our

bai­jiu to Western drinkers slowly,” Tian said. “We want peo­ple to first try it in the con­text of a cock­tail. They may be in­trigued by it and then slowly move up to the real ver­sion.” Shui­jing­fang has pro­duced

bai­jiu in Chengdu, south­west China, for 600 years. The dis­tillery smells like strong blue cheese as grains fer­ment in rec­tan­gu­lar pits. Work­ers fol­low en­dur­ing in­struc­tions dic­tat­ing the di­rec­tion in which grains are spread and the tempo with which the wa­ter is stirred.

Af­ter fer­men­ta­tion, bai­jiu is poured into urns that can sit for 35 years. A mas­ter blender mixes liq­uid from sev­eral urns be­fore it’s poured into an iconic Shui­jing­fang bot­tle—a bot­tom-heavy, in­tri­cately etched glass meant to be the cen­ter­piece of a ban­quet ta­ble.

Other old-school dis­tillers like Beijing Red Star, which traces its lin­eage to 1680, are try­ing to keep pace with new va­ri­eties. It’s in­tro­duc­ing Nuwa, which has 42 per­cent al­co­hol and comes in a grooved bot­tle for easy han­dling by har­ried bar­tenders.

And just like other in­dus­tries, an ad­her­ence to tra­di­tion can cre­ate gaps where in­no­va­tion ger­mi­nates. Star­tups are de­vel­op­ing cheaper, less-po­tent prod­ucts with names like HKB and Bye­joe, and us­ing slick ad­ver­tise­ments tar­get­ing 20-some­things.

The new­com­ers, founded by West­ern­ers who lived in China or have Chi­nese her­itage, are found in trendy nightspots in New York and London, and in main­stream va­ca­tion spots like Dis­ney World.

HKB founder Charles Lan­thier, who lived in Shang­hai for four years while work­ing in the fi­nance in­dus­try, sources his bai­jiu from China and re-dis­tills it in Italy. Back­ers of HKB, or Hong-Kong Bai­jiu, in­clude the French in­vest­ment fund We­ber In­vestisse­ments.

About 100 lo­ca­tions in New York use it in cock­tails, he said.

“You can bring the her­itage, but you also need to adapt to a cer­tain con­sump­tion mode,” Lan­thier said. “Te­quila in the US is not drunk the same way it was drunk in Mex­ico 20 years ago.”

Matt Tr­usch, whose dragon fruit- and ly­chee-in­fused bai­jiu is served at two Dis­ney World bars in Florida, started Bye­joe af­ter liv­ing in Shang­hai for 12 years. Back­ers in­clude for­mer NBA star Yao Ming’s in­vest­ment team, and Tr­usch said the com­pany is prof­itable af­ter four years.

“What we’ve done that the bai­jiu com­pa­nies didn’t man­age to do is cre­ate a prod­uct for the young con­sumer,” Tr­usch said. “There’s a de­mand in the mar­ket that’s not filled.”

Bye­joe’s web­site in­cludes a recipe us­ing Star­bucks frap­puc­cino, Frangelico, creme de ca­cao and Bit­ter­mens or­ange cream cit­rate. There also are com­mer­cials fea­tur­ing Bye­joe drinkers at a hip nightspot.

A place just like that is Lu­mos, where bot­tles of HKB, Kwe­i­chow Moutai and Wu­liangye line the shelves. Lu­mos serves a Sesame Co­lada— bai­jiu mixed with man­gos­teen, white sesame paste, caramelized pineap­ple and agave.

Sal­icetti and part­ner Qi­fan Li opened the bar in June 2015, and now Sal­icetti teaches classes on mix­ing bai­jiu with prune, basil and fig.

“It’s an evo­lu­tion,” he said. “We in­tro­duce cock­tails in a fun way.” Down the bar, Kayla Deaton agreed. The 27-yearold, who works in fi­nance, learned about bai­jiu while study­ing in Shang­hai.

“I al­ways sipped it and had the shot in China, but I ac­tu­ally pre­fer it in a cock­tail,” she said. “It’s bet­ter if you add a lit­tle sugar.”

BLOOMBERG

A worker packs bot­tles of Shui­jing­fang bai­jiu into boxes at the Yongx­ing dis­tillery op­er­ated by Sichuan Swell­fun Co, a unit of Di­a­geo Plc, in Chengdu, China, on Sept 20, 2016.

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