Baijiu requires an open mind and patience to develop an appreciation for its more unique flavors. For those of us not raised in China, it is usually an acquired taste. Whether it takes three shots or three hundred, I cannot say, but I have long suspected that a sharper palate would be quicker to detect that which so long eluded my dull instrument.
If you could just get some good baijiu in the same room as some experienced tasters—bartenders, distillers, alcoholics and so forth—it might be love at first sip. The problem is that for some reason alcohol experts are rarely present at the kind of sweaty hot-pot joint where I conduct most of my baijiu trials. So the theory has remained untested … until now.
Every year the fine city of New Orleans hosts an event called Tales of the Cocktail. It is basically a week of nonstop eating and drinking dressed up as an alcohol educational event, but it’s also is a great opportunity for likeminded drinkers to connect. This year I was lucky enough receive an invitation to speak at a sold-out seminar entitled “Baijiu Demystified” alongside cocktail luminary David Wondrich and Yuan Liu of CNS Imports, America’s largest baijiu importer. I also participated in a number of public and private baijiu tastings throughout the week. We were only sampling two of the big four categories, strong and sauce aromas, but had some of the best China has to offer: Kweichow Moutai, Luzhou Laojiao, Jiannanchun and Shui Jing Fang.
But let’s cut to the chase: What was the response? It was epic. The Tales tasters reacted with such overwhelming enthusiasm* that even I was taken aback.
When I asked my first guinea pig for his thoughts on baijiu, he responded, “Totally positive.” He said that he had been a longtime Tales veteran and wanted to experience something new this year. “It was a great taste.”
“Extremely unique,” said a New Orleanean at a public tasting a couple of days later. “It has a flavor profile I’ve never tasted before.” He went on to say that he plans to start prowling the Asian supermarkets around town for his next bottle.
“It was delicious. Very complex. I liked the citrusy tropical fruit tastes in it and the peppery-ness as well,” said another woman, also from New Orleans, of a Luzhou Laojiao. She noted that Kweichow Moutai, however, was her favorite.
At a private tasting, a bartender from Tennessee said that the baijiu packed a lot of heat, but was perfectly balanced. “I want to make so many different things with this and experiment so many different ways on the cocktail side, because there are so many new unique flavors for the American palate,” he told me. “I could make so many amazing, beautiful, complex things, but then you could just do the simplest thing and it would bring it to a next level.” His sentiments were echoed by other bartenders throughout the week.
But it wasn’t just the bartenders who were excited. Several liquor distributors said that they couldn’t wait to bring baijiu into their markets. One American craft distiller even approached me after the seminar and told me he was ready to try his hand at making baijiu.
The general consensus was that baijiu may not be for everyone, yet it still has tremendous potential in America. It could be used to create an endless variety of new cocktails, or as a twist on established classics. Baijiu flights (like those now offered by Capital Spirits in Beijing) would be a great way to introduce baijiu to new audiences, as would creative baijiu food pairings. In fact, people seemed almost as excited about introducing Americans to baijiu as the drinks themselves.
This bodes very well indeed for baijiu’s future overseas. Baijiu ran the gauntlet of discerning palates in New Orleans, and emerged stronger than ever. Keep your eyes peeled, it may be coming sooner than you think.
*This is not to suggest that baijiu was entirely without detractors at Tales. I saw one girl in at the seminar who puckered her face up after each shot and looked around nervously with that “Are you tasting this!?!?” look on her face. Another reporter wrote a most uncharitable account of a baijiu dinner, and (mis)quoted me rather liberally. That said, the unimpressed were clearly in the minority.