Why you should care

Searching for an adventuresome new drink? This is it.

Beer and wine would top anyone’s list of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverages. Spirits could include vodka, whisky or rum. Hardly anyone would guess what could easily head the list of the world’s most widely consumed: Chinese baijiu.

The national drink is crudely translated as “white alcohol.” A lot of it is more like white lightening. Imbibing is sort of a right-of-passage for foreigners in China. Richard Nixon famously toasted Maotai — the best-known baijiu — with China’s leader Mao Zedong.

The Communist Party even has an official state baijiu that’s served at all government dinners, including visits from foreign dignitaries.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Chinese began to reinvent the ancient drink as a shi shi bar cocktail, upending over 5,000 years of tradition.

Baijiu comes from distilled sorghum or glutinous rice, and has been enjoyed across China’s society, from farmers in the most remote provinces to top government officials in Beijing, though they hardly drink the same brands. Baijiu’s a must-have lubricant for business deals and almost any celebration. The Communist Party even has an official state baijiu that’s served at all government dinners, including visits from foreign dignitaries.

Factory worker grabbing bottle of baijiu off a production line. Blurry factory workers in the background.

Workers package China Kweichow Moutai Distillery Co. baijiu liquor, Guizhou Province, China.

Source Getty

Yet there’s one thing in common: Despite the brands, tastes and strengths (40–65 percent alcohol), the Chinese drink it with a meal. No one would think to find it in a bar or choose it for a casual evening tipple.

Until now.

An increasing number of bars in Beijing now offer baijiu-based cocktails on the menu. The most adventurous of these, Mao Mao Chong, is hidden away down one of Beijing’s last surviving traditional alleyways, Banchang Hutong.

The bar attracts a mix of trendy Chinese youths and foreign ex-pats. Yet it hardly looks like a trendsetter until you mention the word baijiu. Upon informing the bartender Gezi (“Pigeon” in Chinese) of my wish to try a baijiu cocktail, the establishment kicks into life.

The combo of ginger, lime and spice are more often found on the dinner table than in a glass, but work harmoniously with the baijiu.

While telling me about cocktails on the menu, she rushes around the bar checking her baijiu stocks, including a personal bottle from her handbag, in the hope of creating the next unique concoction.

She selects a dusty, forgotten bottle from the corner of the bar, which she explains has been infused with Sichuan peppers, and gets to work, exploring the bar and the kitchen for inspiration. When the drink arrives in a tumbler heavily laden with ice and sliced lime, Gezi’s excitement turns to anticipation.

The numbing sensation provided by the Sichuan peppers soon gives way to a taste that just feels, well, Asian. The combination of ginger, lime and Sichuan spice are more often found on the dinner table than in a glass, but work harmoniously with the baijiu.

Gezi tells me the Hutong hangout’s most famous concoction, the Jing Fling, had recently been removed from the menu. “The Jing Fling had become a cocktail that groups of patrons would challenge each other to drink. Our goal was to create a baijiu-based drink that people would enjoy and appreciate.” Drinking contests didn’t fit the bill.

Pigeon Cocktail

4 tablespoons Sichuan peppers

750-milliliter bottle of baijiu

1 shot Thai lime juice

2 shots ginger beer

1 teaspoon palm sugar

Add the Sichuan peppers to the bottle of baijiu at least two days prior to use. Add 1 shot of the pepper-infused baijiu and the Thai lime juice to a cocktail mixer and shake well. Top up with ginger beer and stir in 1 teaspoon of palm sugar. Serve with a generous amount of ice and two lime slices.

The taste of baijiu doesn’t naturally go with mixers, so the bartenders at Mao Mao Chong often infuse the spirit with fruits and spices, such as in the China Sling (the local take on the Singapore Sling). “We use a baijiu combined with a mix of berries to create a more gin-like flavor,” Gezi explained.

Although trying the drink neat with a meal is an experience in itself, these cocktails offer a different introduction to the unrivalled, eye-watering kick baijiu offers, disguised in an arrangement of unconventionally delicious flavors.

Ben Halder is a Beijing-based writer.

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