The Baijiu Boom
More bars across the country are serving China’s favorite drink
Bars looking to inject something new into their beverage lineup may want to consider a drink that’s as old as the hills — and then some.
Baijiu, the national drink of China, but little known beyond its borders, is starting to make a name for itself in the United States. It’s mostly in Chinese establishments so far, though can be seen elsewhere, such as the Park Hyatt Hotel and Bagatelle restaurant in New York City, and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar in Orlando.
Peking Tavern has been serving baijiu to its bar and restaurant patrons since it opened in Los Angeles in October 2013.
“Our concept is about bringing an authentic Chinese experience to mainstream America,” says Andrew Chiu, co-owner of the gastropub, along with Andrew Wong. “We’re bringing back very traditional ways of making northern Chinese food and bringing the drinks in, too.”
Baijiu — pronounced “by jo” — is a grain alcohol made predominantly from distilled sorghum, though rice and other grains like wheat and millet are sometimes used, and it has a very high (typically between 40% and 60%) alcohol by volume. In Chinese “bai” means “clear and “ju” means alcohol.
The Chinese drink baijiu from tiny cups and sip it through dinner, and have been consuming it for some 5,000 years. A report from the International Wine & Spirits group states that in 2012, baijiu production accounted for a third of all alcohol produced around the world.
There are five main categories of baijiu (strong, light, sauce (i.e., soy), rice and mixed) and the drink can have a savory flavor like soy sauce, be more fruity (closer to pineapple), or be floral.
Peking Tavern serves baijiu as a shot and in cocktails, though sells much more in the latter. It has four baijiu cocktails and five to seven types of baijiu.
“We knew we wanted to have it but we knew it didn’t fit the normal American palate,” says Wong. “So we figured we had to experiment and come up with baijiu cocktails. We hired a Korean mixologist because she understands Asian flavors and we came up with four cocktails that take advantage of the flavors of baijiu.”
The cocktails all use the well baijiu — unless otherwise requested — although HKB (Hong Kong Baijiu) is used for the One Inch Punch. HKB, says Chiu, “is a lower proof baijiu that's at a right price point yet retains the flavor and aroma of baijiu. We wanted to create a cocktail that's very approachable and fun.”
Chiu and Wong enjoy the versatility of baijiu and say it goes with most things. They don’t feel bitters pair well with it though “because the baijiu flavors are already so strong,” Wong says, “and we don’t try to mask the flavors.” Vanilla, lemon and lime also go well with it, and a surprising find was that celery juice is a great complement. The duo uses that pairing in the Liquid Jade cocktail and there’s also a baijiu shot with a celery juice chaser.
Foodwise, says Chiu, baijiu goes with strong tasting food and spicy food.
It’s also best cold. “We’ve discovered if you shake it and chill it down it takes the pungent nose and the bite out of it, and people will enjoy it more as a shot,” Wong adds. “It’s also a little smoother because the alcohol gets diluted a bit.”
Most customers haven’t heard of baijiu before they come to Peking Tavern but staff encourage customers that are curious about it to start with the cocktails. Many order the Liquid Jade because it's on the happy hour menu and is also the best-selling baijiu cocktail.
But overall, the baijiu cocktails are, as a group, the second favorite cocktail after the old fashioned. They cost $6 to $12.
Peking Tavern’s baijiu costs are about even on the well baijiu with other well drinks, but the back shelf versions are typically more expensive than other back shelf beverages, says Chiu.
Peking Tavern’s Peking Coffee
- 1 oz. Red Star baijiu
- 1 oz. horchata liqueur
- 1 oz. coffee liqueur
- Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice cubes.
- Shake well.
- Pour contents, without ice, into the glass.
- Sprinkle with ground cinnamon powder and garnish with a cinnamon stick.