Ask any Westerner in China if they like drinking baijiu, and they’ll probably laugh in your face or throw up on your shoes. Although it’s the national booze of choice in China—as well as the most-consumed liqueur in the world—the spirit is more or less gag-inducing to the average Western palate.
In May, I investigated the reasons behind the Western disdain for this clear alcohol for MUNCHIES, familiarizing my nostrils with the vomit-esque scents of the many varieties of this throat-scorching liquid. Since then, I’ve concluded that baijiu has an undeserved reputation.
It’s the underdog of the spirits world.
Although sales are in decline due to a government crackdown on officials partying on the public’s dime, the drink remains the lubricant of business meetings here in China. It’s mainly downed during raucous client dinners where heavy drinking is expected. The resulting hangovers can leave negative impressions that linger much longer than the puke-like after-smell.
But in some Westerner circles in China, this hangover-induced perception is changing, largely thanks to the work of baijiu addict Derek Sandhaus, the author of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. Sandhaus holds baijiu talks and tasting sessions, converting fellow Westerners like a tanked preacher.
Derek’s intoxicating influence is spreading. Last August, Capital Spirits, the world’s first baijiu cocktail bar, opened in a grimy back alley in Beijing after some of its owners attended one of his sermons.
Most baijiu is scorchingly strong in both ABV and flavour—usually a double negative for cocktail making. This fact doesn’t initially seem like the basis of a winning business plan. But the bar has become one of the most successful new small venues in the city, attracting both locals and foreigners.
“I came to China about 15 years ago and I absolutely hated baijiu,” says co-owner Bill Isler when I join him and fellow co-owners Matthias Heger and Simon Dang in a murky corner of Capital Spirits. “I thought it was the worst, that I wouldn’t drink it again if you paid me.”
Bill’s opening gambit might not seem particularly on-message for a guy trying to sell the stuff every night, but his first tastes of baijiu were poured for him by Chinese business associates, typical to most Westerners’ first experiences. While working in the agriculture industry in northern China, Bill had no choice but to politely keep sipping during business functions.
Repeated exposure led to enlightenment.
“I kept going to business meetings and tasting different kinds of baijius,” he says. “It was then that I realised that I actually liked some of them. I wouldn’t say I got a taste for them, but an… appreciation. I learned which styles I liked and which I didn’t like.”
Baijiu comes in four main styles—rice, light, strong, and sauce—and one of the biggest misconceptions about the drink is that all varieties taste the same. “I first properly understood this when we were working out the menu,” says Simon. “Bill was like, ‘You’ve got to try them all.’ So I had 40 shots that night—that’s when I understood the different tastes and flavours.”
The trio based their menu on Derek Sandhaus’ baijiu pointers. The bar offers basic flights featuring four different baijius—one from each of the main styles—as well as cocktails made with a very light-flavoured baijiu, to avoid putting people off with overly strong tastes.
“It’s like training wheels,” says Simon, handing me the 40 Yuan (£4) Intro Flight featuring shots of Guilin Sanhua (rice style), Xinghuacun Fenjui (light style), Wuliangchun (strong style) and Moutai Prince (sauce style). “We also have a 12-shot Zodiac Flight. It’s supposed to be for a bigger party of people, but I’ve seen two guys get through it.”
“We convert people every day,” says Matthias, proudly. “And in spite of the drink’s reputation, 90 percent of people who try it here end up loving it and coming back for more,” adds Simon.
It would have been easy for the owners to buy a load of baijiu bottles, serve up single shots among their standard non-baijiu cocktails, and cash in on the spirit’s quirkiness. But their very real love of this much-maligned liquor as well as their attention to their menu’s details is what makes Capital Spirits a properly comprehensive baijiu experience.
The four owners are ecstatic about the success of their venture so far, but the person who is perhaps the most delighted of all is their inspiration, Derek Sandhaus, who now lives in the US. “He’s our biggest supporter who’s never been able to actually come here,” says Matthias.
“But he did say it was like his baby being born,” Bill says.