How to Use Baijiu in Cocktails, Plus Five Recipes To Try
Just a decade ago, asking about baijiu in a bar would probably have drawn confused looks. But American bars are embracing the ancient Chinese grain brandy, once considered too funky, too spicy, or otherwise difficult to work with. Today, baijiu has found its way into everything Jell-O recordings to the daiquiris.
Though known primarily as a funky spirit, baijiu is also vast and diverse, and has strayed far from its origins as a spirit served strictly neat. “Baijiu has completely turned my preconceived notions of spirits on their head, where all spirits in the same category somehow taste similar,” says Nick Lappen of Boston’s Backbar, “but that’s not the case with Baijiu.”
Making the spirit involves inoculating cooked grains like sorghum and barley with a culture of mold, yeast and bacteria called a culture q. Through a parallel fermentation process, the q simultaneously breaks down starch into sugar and converts sugar into alcohol. Every distillery has a different recipe for it q, which can give the baijiu a floral, spicy, nutty or umami flavor. Based on these characteristics is baijiu divided into four main categories by the Chinese governmentcalled “flavors”: light, rice, strong, and sauce (a description that refers to the umami flavor of soy sauce).
Until recently, consumers in China rarely considered baijiu as a cocktail ingredient. Instead, the clear liqueur, served neat, has accompanied food for thousands of years. But in the US, thanks to the scientific work of early adopters like Derek Sandhaus, whose Books helped demystify the spirit and articulate the nuances of its different flavor styles, inspiring a range of new cocktails.
Similar to the different styles of rum, baijius from different categories are not always interchangeable. For example, light-flavored baijiu is grassy and sometimes smoky, and works particularly well with herbal flavors or paired with mezcal, as demonstrated by Katie Weismann in her Season of Strangers. The bartender at Spoke Wine Bar in Somerville, Massachusetts, builds the drink around He Guo Tou, a double-distilled baijiu with a light flavor, and reflects the spirit’s earthiness by infusing it with fennel. To complement this base, Weismann reaches for a similarly smoky mezcal, while acid-adjusted watermelon juice balances the drink and gives it a refreshing quality.
Baijiu with rice flavor, on the other hand, has a mild taste, similar to vodka. Rags from Backbar (the hosts of a Baijiu popup) contrasts the spirit’s subtly sweet quality with fish sauce, five-spice bitters and mole bitters in his Golden Years, which is inspired by pork ribs with fish sauce caramel glaze, a dish he first tried in Vietnam. The drink used Wine, a domestically made Oregon rice-flavored baijiu, and adds a hint of maple syrup to cite Lappen’s New England roots. The cocktail is a testament to how rice-flavored baijiu, like vodka, can provide an easy base for more saturated flavors.
The signature flavors of the strong flavor category, on the other hand, are overripe tropical fruit and green apple on the front with a funky finish. It’s a flavor profile that’s difficult to work into cocktails, but Lappen suggests pairing it with similarly assertive ingredients. “Bold herbal flavors pair well, like green chartreuse, génépy and amaro,” he says. Comparing the style to rhum agricole, Lappen calls for a heavy-flavored version in his split-base daiquiri riff “Mr.Daq.” Ming River Baijiu is paired with equal parts unaged Jamaican rum, lightened with an expected dose of lime juice.
Because the strong-flavored baijiu also has notes of pineapple and papaya, it didn’t take long for bartenders to bring the spirit to the tiki genre. Founder of Doommesive (formerly Doom Tiki). Chokie Tom finds that baijiu “is good for making cocktails and education [about tiki’s roots]’ she says, referring to tikis History of Chinese Food Co-optation. Inspired by New York’s Chinatown, their Dan Dan Tai is a spicy take on the classic mai tai, in which Ming River is backed by rhum agricole and a five-spice infused orgeat. Similar, jeff tate Chicago’s Billy Sunday also uses heavily flavored baijiu in his tiki-style wei lei (“taste buds” in Mandarin), which layers bold flavors like floral brandy and falernum to round out the drink.
Finally sauce flavor Baijiu, such as Kweichow (Guizhou) Moutai (also rendered as Maotai), can be more difficult to work into cocktails due to its complex, delicate flavors that can be easily overwhelmed. This type of baijiu is also expensive due to its particular manufacturing process, which requires expensive raw materials and a longer aging period. Still, the distinctive spicy aftertaste of sauce-flavored baijiu has garnered a sizable following, attracting aficionados and collectors who mostly serve the spirit neat.
But when it comes to cocktails, creativity with a variety of flavors is key. As with many other backbar staples, “the variety of styles and the variety of flavors makes the difference.” [baijiu] so diverse behind the bar,” says Lappen. And whether it’s alongside the herbal, green flavors of alpine liqueurs or the tropical, spicy profile of tiki, there’s a baijiu cocktail for every drinker. “If you put the unfamiliar baijiu in a cocktail with flavors they’re familiar with,” he says, “they’re going to love it.”