You may not have heard of Baijiu, China’s best-selling spirit built on over 600 years of heritage. It is so popular in its homeland that according to Chinese drinks enthusiast Jim Boyce, 10 billion litres are consumed every year. At an estimated rate of 168,000 cubic metres per minute, ‘it would take an hour for that much Baijiu to flow over Niagara Falls,’ he says.
Pronounced ‘bye Joe’, the clear spirit often exceeds 50% alcohol. Its base is mostly led by hardy, feathery, crimson-tipped sorghum, very slowly fermented in sometimes ancient mud pits, then distilled and rested in clay jars. Most Baijius are categorised by their arguably initially startling aromas, being ‘Rice, ‘Light’, ‘Strong’ and ‘Sauce’. Rather than comparing it to gin or vodka, it is more appropriate to consider Baijiu as being as diverse and complex as single malt whisky.
Despite being a somewhat defiant cocktail ingredient, brave bartenders have worked with Baijiu to create some limber cocktails this Chinese New Year, beginning with Paul Matthew of Demon, Wise & Partners bar in the City. ‘Whilst many people’s experience of it can be quite fiery and fierce when drunk neat, there are layers of nuance that I love to play with,’ he says, ‘though the biggest hurdle is that most of our guests still haven’t heard of the category!’ At his subterranean bar at 27a Throgmorton Street, Matthew lists the Red Tiger’s Eye. ‘The name nods to the Red Tiger’s Eye gemstone that’s supposed to ground you, giving strength and motivation to help with new beginnings of the New Year,’ he says. Starring the ‘Strong’ aroma Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, sweet raspberry, Galliano and chilli liqueur, the appropriately bright red is complex and long-lived.
For a more tropical take, try Ming the Merciless at the terrazzo countertop of Nebula, 455 Hackney Road. Created by owner, Nate Brown and also starring Ming River alongside the house rum blend, pineapple juice, orgeat syrup and fresh lime, this is characterfully served in a tiki mug.
For a luxurious take, head to The Baccarat Bar at Harrods for a Baijiu cocktail served in a Harcourt glass worth £200. From the Refraction and Emotion menu, Come Together sees Fenjiu’s five-year-old Herbal Baijiu meet toasted chestnut flour cordial, mandarin, plum and pickled ginger. ‘A drink for prosperity and good fortunes’ advises its makers.
If you would want to try your hand at a Baijiu cocktail at home, Baijiu Society have produced a yuzu-infused Baijiu best served as the main ingredient in a Negroni, £38. Helpfully, an instructive video appears on their website.
And if Baijiu is not your bag, Glenfiddich have brought out a handsome Chinese New Year Limited Edition Gran Reserva 21 Year Old, £164.95.