The Year of the Monkey dawns on Feb. 8 so this seems like a good time to talk about baijiu, the world’s number one spirit by volume.
Never heard of it, you say?
Well, that’s about to change if baijiu producers have anything to say about it.
First a primer:
Baijiu, pronounced bye-joh, is sorghum-based, though it also can contain wheat, rice and corn. The name covers a pretty good sized family of products, kind of the way whiskey covers everything from high-octane peat bombs to postively syrupy corn whiskies. There are variations, but generally baijiu is fermented in solid, not liquid state, inside in-ground pits. It’s then steam distilled in goose-neck stills, aged in huge terra cotta vessels and then blended.
Unlike Western distilleries which usually run with a tight crew, making baijiu is labor-intensive. The saying is it takes an army to make baijiu.
It generally is bottled at around 100 or 120 proof (well above the typical 80 proof for vodka, gin, etc.) and is classed by aroma, such as “light,” “rice,” “strong” and “sauce.”
The taste — well, the taste is a little different. Some typical descriptors are blue cheese, mushrooms, soy sauce, fermented feet.
The push right now is to try to tame baijiu’s fire power by mixing it up in cocktails that respect and work with its distinctive flavor profiles. This is not the most imaginative drink but I think it makes a mean Bloody Mary. There’s a bar in New York, Lumos, that specializes in baijiu cocktails and probably a few dozen more places have started experimenting with the spirit.
Traditionally, baijiu is supposed to be drunk straight in small glasses, shot-style. Honestly, this is a pretty terrible idea. But if you are adventurous and like to try different things, I do recommend trying it in gentle sips with water to alternate. It definitely is supposed to be room temperature but I will not judge if you add a little ice.
Here are notes on a couple of baijius I tried.
Kweichow Moutai, this is the leading brand and recognizable by its distinctive packaging of a white bottle with a red and gold label. It’s what Chinese leaders used to toast Nixon’s historic visit to China. The way you drink baijiu is to pour it and leave the glass on the table while the aroma curls its way up to your nose. Do not, repeat not, stick your nose in the glass. In this case, you get a pungent soy sauce smell that invades the room. Not bad, just powerful. Now take a sip. A small sip. Here is my official tasting note on that first swallow: YEEOWZA! Eyes watering. Tonsils on fire. … Let’s do it again! Basically, it was a kick. To me baijiu is like a crazy peated scotch like Octomore. by Bruichladdich. It’s not the drink you reach for on the reg. And I would never, ever want to get drunk on it. But for something a bit different when you’re in the mood to scorch that esophagus, gan bei!
HKB Baijiu, this is a kinder, gentler baijiu developed specifically for the overseas market and with cocktails in mind. It’s 84 proof, more or less like a regular spirit, and sets the palate aflutter rather than aflame. Smells fruity with strong notes of melon, soy sauce is there but in the background. Take a sip and you start out with the tropical fruit — cantaloupe, and pineapple this time — laced with lemon juice then move on to something much more savory, almost curry-flavored, before finishing up with intense fruit. Took me a while to place it but then I remembered going to Chinese restaurants as a kid and having ice cream with canned lychee for dessert.
Other reliable brands: Wu Liang Ye, known for its floral notes, and Shui Jing Fang. If you want a baijiu made in America check out the Vinn distillery in Portland.
Here’s a baijiu cocktail recipe from Orson Salicetti, cofounder of Lumos:
- 6 seedless green grapes
- 3/4 ounce of HKB
3/4 ounce of a mix lime / lemon juice (50% lime juice + 50% lemon juice)
3/4 ounce of elderflower liqueur (Pür Likör Blossom or St Germain)
- 1 ounce Bombay Sapphire East
1/4 ounce of agave syrup
A few drops of Hibiscus Elixir (for a few days, infuse hibiscus flowers in 50% HKB and 50% water, sweetened with agave syrup to your own taste), plus one more seedless green grape for garnish.
Muddle the grapes in a glass, and then add of other ingredients except the Hibiscus Elixir. Stir, and then add crushed ice. Top with a few drops of Hibiscus Elixir, and garnish with one more grape.
What will the Year of the Monkey bring us? Well, mischief, naturally, and supposedly we’ll be stirred out of the warm and comfy cocoons many of us snuggled into for 2015’s Year of the Sheep. I do not know if this means I will quit wearing yoga-pants-that-don’t-go-to-yoga 24/7, but I will keep you posted.
P.S. Updated this post when my resident Sinologist pointed out the “fortune” character on my red envelopes on my first photo was upside down. I assume I’m simply doomed for 2016 and that’s all there is to it.