"Think about two things as you taste it: The first thing is to think about sweaty socks, and the second thing is to think pineapple gummy bears."
That's Gaz Regan, cocktail book author and bartender emeritus at NYC's The Dead Rabbit, describing the best-selling spirit in the world. It's called baijiu, and if you haven't heard of it, you're not alone. A Chinese liquor that hails from the Sichuan province, this stuff is hard to come by outside of its home country. Or, at least, it was.
Thanks to a recent import called Hong Kong Baijiu, the Chinese alcohol is starting to make a splash in the U.S. In fact, Regan and a slew of other bartenders and drinks professionals are predicting a baijiu breakthrough—one that Regan likens to another liquor that was once perplexing to the American palate but is now exploding in popularity: Mescal, anyone?
When Regan first tasted mescal, he thought it tasted like diesel—the same experience many have when they taste baijiu for the first time. Baijiu is a clear alcohol distilled from sorghum and wheat, and sometimes millet or barley. The many varieties are classified by fragrance, which range from floral to savory. It has an incredibly high alcohol content that can run between 80 and 120 proof, but often hovers between 40 and 60 proof.
"It's not something you can consume every day," Shawn Chen, beverage director at RedFarm, says.
Wildly popular in China, baijiu is typically taken as a shot, but as the spirit makes its way into American bars, it's finding a whole new expression. Chen credits Hong Kong Baijiu, which entered the U.S. market in March 2015, as the turning point for baijiu in the States.
At 48 percent proof, HKB, as it's called, is significantly lower and also sweeter than most baijiu.
"Normally, it doesn't taste so softened and balanced," Chen says. "As a bartender myself, I can definitely see that this product is going to go beyond."
The alcohol content and sweeter taste make it good for mixing into cocktails, which is one way American bartenders are introducing the liquor to new drinkers. Chen makes a cocktail called Marco Polo, which consists of cherry tomato, basil, herbs, fresh lemon, rice vinegar, one ounce of baijiu and a little bit of dry sake.
Orson Salicetti, bartender and co-owner of Lumos, a baijiu bar that opened in New York City last year with the intention of educating people on the spirit, serves a wide range of cocktails. Salicetti's not only seen an uptick in customers coming in to ask questions and try the stuff, but he's also noticed more restaurants and bars selling it, too. New York's Fung Tu serves a drink with HKB, yellow Chartreuse and bitters. This year's Lucky Rice Festival will also offer two baijiu cocktails.
Cocktails might not be the traditional way to consume baijiu, but American drinkers and bartenders alike are embracing this new format.
"Bartenders tend to love funky ingredients," Chen says. "They like them for shooters or in-your-face kind of things, and baijiu is certainly in your face. And they also like it because it's a challenge, and bartenders like experimenting."
Could this Chinese spirit become the U.S.'s hot, new spirit? Move over mescal. Baijiu's on deck.
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