When veteran bartender Ashley Mac landed a job heading up the bar program at D.C. restaurateur Peter Chang’s new Baltimore establishment NiHao, she had zero grasp of what the gig would entail. “[Chang’s daughter] Lydia asked me to develop a program centered around this spirit called baijiu. But I was like, ‘what is baijiu?’” Mac says.
Despite not knowing much about the spirit, Mac took on the challenge out of curiosity: She was drawn to baijiu’s fragrant aroma and complex flavor after the first sip, which contained “floral” notes, “tropical fruits,” and “caramel” — somehow all at once. Her interest in baijiu only continued to grow. “Baijiu is the kind of spirit that the more I learned about it and its history, the more fascinated I became,” she recalls.
Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe) is a category of alcohol that includes all grain-based distilled Chinese liquor. It’s known for being high-proof, averaging 50-plus percent alcohol by volume, and in some cases approaching 80 percent ABV, which has earned it the nickname “fire water,” alluding to its flammability. Its styles are characterized by their “aromas” and each style varies drastically; four major aroma styles (strong, sauce, rice, and light) have emerged as the leading categories of baijiu across China, with the brands Moutai, Luzhou Laojiao, and Wuliangye garnering the most national acclaim. Traditionally, it’s served in a small, third-ounce shot glass that looks like a miniature goblet.
“What distinguishes baijiu from their Western counterparts is the use of solid rather than liquid fermentation,” explains Derek Sandhaus, a D.C.-based historian who dedicated two books to baijiu. This process requires qū (曲/麴 pronounced “chew”), a fermentation agent used in Chinese alcohol production for several thousand years. Qū, starting off as a clump of grains, is made through a complicated process and becomes the agent that simultaneously converts starches into sugars and sugars into alcohols. “In short,” Sandhaus says, “Western grain alcohols are usually fermented in a liquid form using cultured yeast, whereas Chinese grain alcohols are fermented in a solid state using wild yeast and other microorganisms.”
Today, baijiu is the most-sold spirit in the world, according to a 2021 report from valuation consultancy Brand Finance. Its major producers — led by Kweichow Moutai — dominate the chart of the globe’s most lucrative liquor brands; by comparison, Jack Daniel’s, America’s highest-valued spirits producer, comes in at sixth place. But despite its popularity among China’s consumers, awareness of baijiu in the U.S. had been sparse and ephemeral. Lumos, the first dedicated baijiu bar in New York, quietly vanished from the public eye after a few years.
Before Lumos opened in 2016, even most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. didn’t serve baijiu. “There were 46,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. before the pandemic but most of them are takeout businesses with thin margins and no seating so it was hard to justify acquiring liquor licenses to serve alcohol,” says Lucas Sin, chef and co-founder of Junzi Kitchen in New York and a 2019 Eater Young Gun. But now, a growing number of bar managers and bartenders are taking a fresh look at baijiu, adapting it to their audiences with flights, cocktails, and experimentation, such as lychee and jujube date infusions.
Restaurants highlighting Chinese regional cuisines — such as Sichuan, Cantonese, and Hunanese – have taken note of the prominent and often ritualized social role of baijiu consumption with meals in these areas. By offering baijiu flights, they mirror the way in which baijiu is traditionally served in China (straight and at room temperature) while also exposing customers to a variety of styles.
“Sichuan is home to many famous strong-aroma baijiu, so it’s fitting to go with the food we serve,” says Travis Post of Plenty of Clouds, a Seattle restaurant specializing in Sichuan and Yunnan cuisines. “We usually start with three baijiu on a flight served on a board with explanations for each style.”
James Kyle, who co-runs cafeteria-style restaurant Danwei Canting in Portland, Oregon, also offers the major aroma styles in both single-serving glasses and flights. “Traveling around China, I was amazed by the wide range of baijiu styles — and their fragrance and mouthfeel that are all different,” Kyle says. Not only does Danwei Canting showcase the various styles of baijiu from China, but the restaurant also makes sure to include Vinn, a domestic baijiu from a small-scale family producer in Oregon. “We exclusively offer Vinn in our baijiu cocktails — it’s a rice-aroma baijiu, which is light and floral, making it easily rendered in cocktails.”
High-end bars and even non-Chinese restaurants are starting to see baijiu as a spirit worthy of their drinks menus. Darrell Loo, the bar manager at Waldo Thai in Kansas City, Missouri, was familiar with the spirit from growing up in Malaysia in a Malaysian Chinese family and studying in Taiwan, but he was at first hesitant about introducing it to his American customers. His experience working at a whiskey bar changed his mind. “I realized that baijiu is similar to whiskey in terms of its variety and the styles and how hugely different they can be,” he says. Loo now hosts tastings for his picky, bourbon-loving customers.
Patrick Smith, the bar manager of recently reopened Manhatta in New York, took note when he sipped on the baijiu cocktails at Capital Spirits, a Beijing hutong widely recognized as one of the first successful baijiu bars. Now, he’s working on launching a full baijiu menu at the Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant. “We want to start with four to six varieties representing the major styles, as well as traditional serveware,” Smith says. To Smith, featuring baijiu on the menu makes business sense, as people go to bars and restaurants to try things that they don’t have the time, tools, or knowledge to make for themselves at home. “This means things like complex amaro, unique gins, and lesser-known categories to Americans such as sherry, cachaca, or eau-de-vie. I think baijiu belongs in that mix,” Smith says.
Some restaurateurs also believe that baijiu has a great potential in cocktails — not only due to its unique flavors, but also as a means to introduce Americans, who often consume liquor in mixed drinks, to this previously unfamiliar spirit. Sarah Thompson and Henji Cheung, the couple behind Queen’s English, a Washington, D.C., restaurant serving classic Cantonese dishes, see baijiu as an inseparable part of the culture they seek to represent. After adding it to the restaurant’s menu, customers increasingly expressed interest in baijiu, so Thompson brought on Tracy Eustaquio, who expanded the bar program at Queen’s English to center around the liquor.
“From selling mostly beer and wine, we now sell six types of baijiu by the ounce for guests to sample various styles,” Eustaquio says. But she also expanded the cocktail program to seamlessly work different styles of baijiu into the classics. “I use baijiu as a modifier, not a base spirit, so I took inspiration from existing cocktails — analyzing the flavor profiles and making sure baijiu would fit in.” As the name “baijiu” pertains to a diverse category of liquors, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to including baijiu into mixed drinks. Eustaquio incorporates Moutai, a sauce-aroma baijiu with notes of chocolate, caramel, and coffee into a Manhattan, while Ming River baijiu, a fruity, strong-aroma style, subs in for tequila in a margarita.
Like Eustaquio, Post of Seattle’s Plenty of Clouds has also opted to modify familiar cocktails to highlight the flavors of baijiu. “One of our top-selling cocktails is called Ernest Goes East, which is drawn from the classic Hemingway Daiquiri. We use a strong aroma baijiu in this cocktail. We like its complexity and ability to stand up to citrus,” Post says.
But some bartenders have eschewed using baijiu in familiar cocktails in favor of altering the flavors through experimentation, opting to let baijiu take the starring role in innovative drinks that capture both the cocktail-savvy and baijiu-curious crowds. After initially feeling stuck with her baijiu experiments, Mac of NiHao in Baltimore decided to infuse baijiu with dates. “I learned about Chinese jujube dates, which are sweet with a slightly tart aftertaste. I infused a sauce-aroma baijiu with those dates and made a drink called Inch of Gold, which was a layered cocktail with jujube-infused baijiu — I still think that’s the best cocktail I’ve ever made.”
At Kwei Fei in South Carolina, bar manager Aneel de Albuquerque also infuses baijiu with various ingredients he sources locally. This technique, which introduces the complexity of baijiu in light, refreshing drinks, has been particularly popular with the Charleston crowd, who are relatively new to the mouth-numbingly hot Sichuan cuisine in which Kwei Fei specializes. “Fruit-infused light-aroma baijiu in a fruit punch tends to do quite well,” de Albuquerque says. “We also hosted events to educate bartenders and enthusiasts in South Carolina about the spirit.”
Sin, who grew up familiar with baijiu, is thrilled to see it finding its place in American restaurants, whether toasted in tiny shot glasses or mixed in cocktails. “While I think there’s something to be said about preserving the traditional Chinese ritual and method for consuming baijiu with food,” Sin says, “I’m also a fan of creative applications of the spirit in contexts beyond what would strictly be ‘traditional’ by chefs and bartenders.”
With the scene as crowded as it is, bar creatives are rushing to pick up the next trend, and baijiu’s unique flavors can help. “It’s just like painting a landscape and finding a new color to put on your palette,” as Smith puts it.
“We are always looking for new spirits to play with,’’ says Nick Lappen, bartender at Backbar in Somerville, Massachusetts, and host of Boston Baijiu Bar, a popular pop-up that consistently has a waitlist. “Baijiu has interesting flavor notes — with the right education, people can really appreciate it.”
Even in China, where baijiu has long been the national alcohol of choice, young creatives are appealing to a new generation by applying modern technology and techniques to give this ancient drink a facelift. Such efforts include a dedicated baijiu cocktail bar named Bar SanYou in Guangzhou, where owner Bastien Ciocca and his team are elevating infusion experiments to a new level. Using a rotovap, baijiu and gin are infused with herbs and botanicals in a low-pressure environment, which decreases their boiling point and allows for the extraction of unusually fresh and delicate flavors.
The bar aims to captivate members of a young crowd that typically “don’t drink and don’t like baijiu” — seeing it as unexciting and old-fashioned next to liquor like cognac and bourbon. So far, SanYou’s efforts to rejuvenate the popularity of China’s national drink among local youth have been successful, as a second location of SanYou has opened in nearby Shenzhen.
And as bartenders take increasing interest in the spirit, baijiu companies are taking note. Ming River Baijiu, which is made in a centuries-old distillery in Sichuan, is one of the most widely distributed baijiu brands in the U.S. since its launch in 2018. Lappen, who’s built Ming River into his cocktail repertoire, credits its bar service-friendly bottleneck, eye-catching graphic design, and intentionally underproofed ABV for easy mixing as factors in Ming River Baijiu’s success. With Ming River laying the stepping stones for other centuries-old baijiu producers to follow, we’ll likely see more brands modernize and adapt, and more cocktails created with a touch of this fragrant, sometimes earthy and funky fire water.
Valerie Li Stack is a food writer and editor whose work has appeared in Cook’s Illustrated, America’s Test Kitchen, USA Today, Reviewed, and more.