Introducing Lumos: An Interview with Orson Salicetti

Orson-Qifan

Lumos founders Orson Salicetti and Qifan Li

 

New York has a baijiu bar. I repeat: New York has a baijiu bar.

Last year we witnessed the opening of the world’s first baijiu-themed bar, Capital Spirits in Beijing. But that was in China, which was logical and, to be frank, long overdue. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Lumos: Not only is it the first baijiu bar in New York City, it is the first in the United States and quite possibly anywhere outside of China.*

To commemorate Lumos’ upcoming opening on May 18, I spoke with bartender and co-founder Orson Salicetti. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Orson moved to New York from Europe in 2000, and has since established himself as an accomplished bartender. In 2008 Apothéke named him head bartender, for which he was declared a “Mixology Rising Star” the following year. He later began a spirits consultancy, developing bar programs in New York around the world. Earlier this spring he and partner Qifan Li announced that they were opening Lumos, a bar devoted to Chinese spirits.

DS: How did you get into Chinese spirits?

OS: The first time I tried baijiu was after the summer of 2008. Some friends of mine from New York had gone to the Olympic Games and brought back a few bottles that we tried together and my first impression of it was very overwhelming. It’s a high proof spirit with a strong flavor and aroma.

DS: What’s the vision behind Lumos?

OS: Most of the bars that I have developed have unique and different concepts, because I am constantly research and anticipating the next trendy thing. Qifan and I met through a friend and after some time talking we decided to take this idea of developing a place dedicated to the drinks of her ancestors. Lumos bar specializes in baijiu and presenting it in a modern way that shows Chinese history and culture via baijiu.

The vision behind [Lumos] is passion for spirits, to do something unique and special, using baijiu as it has never been used before to make delicious cocktails.

DS: Baijiu has a notorious reputation for being difficult to mix. What are the challenges for a bartender when working with baijiu?

OS: Baijiu is a high-proof spirit so that is the first challenge. You need to be familiar and comfortable with the aroma and taste to balance it in a cocktail without sacrificing them.

Baijiu’s flavor is different from any other spirit. It’s a powerful fragrance and that is good. The advantages of baijiu to me are the sweet, rotting fruit and nutty sherry—you need to respect these notes and play with them. Again, it’s about balance.

DS: What would you consider to be your signature baijiu cocktail?

Lumos CocktailOS: One of my favorite creations with baijiu is a sesame colada. Made with caramelized pineapple, cooked for about 3 to 4 hours. White Chinese sesame paste, mangosteen, agave nectar and of course baijiu. It is garnished with toast black sesame seeds.

DS: Will you also sell baijiu by the shot or bottle? How many different types of baijiu will you have?

OS: We will sell it by the shots, small signature Lumos bottles and in cocktails.

I believe [that] we are close to 40 brands now and I am still adding more to the list. These are some of the brands I already have: Wuliangye and Wuliang Chun Jiu; Luzhou Laojiao and Luzhou Laojiao Zisha; Jiannanchun; Xifengjiu; Jianzhuang; HKB; Shui Jing Fang; and more.

DS: What do you think the biggest challenge is in terms of getting New Yorkers to accept baijiu?

OS: As with any new trend we have to exercise patience while building interest and educating the customer, to understand the product and fascinate people with it. It took time for people to like pisco, mezcal, cachaça that were not popular years ago in the West and are now strong in the cocktail scene.

DS: What do you think will be the key to ensuring baijiu’s success in the United States?

OS: Keep drinking it and educating people on it!

Fine advice, Mr. Salicetti. Fine advice indeed. Lumos opens to the general public on May 18. Put it on your summer to-do list.Lumos Logo

Lumos

90 West Houston

New York, New York

(626) 409-8696

* This is not intended as a jab at the handful of pioneering bars and restaurants across the country that feature baijiu cocktails. I hear good things about LA’s Peking Tavern, to name but one example. The difference here is in focus and scope.

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A visit to Yanghe

The problem with talking about baijiu is that every time someone asks you to define it, you invariably end up having to get more detailed than you would like. This is as true when speaking to casual drinkers as it is to bartenders and whiskey distillers. Too many times to count, I have watched as my unwitting enabler’s eyes glaze over at descriptions of yeast cultures and solid-state fermentation. Baijiu is just too different: There are almost no readily available points of reference. Everything about the production process remains oddly abstract and conceptual.

To bring the conversation back down to earth visual aids are useful (I always bring a slideshow when I speak to an audience about baijiu). Visiting a distillery to see how baijiu is made firsthand is even better, but for most people that’s not a realistic option. So rejoice, baijiu enthusiasts, one of your fellow readers, Ms. Amy Coghlan of China International Duty Free, has taken it upon herself to take you on a guided tour through one of China’s premier distilleries: Yanghe 洋河 in Suqian, Jiangsu Province. (She was kind enough to upload this video production video to YouTube just for 300 Shots readers, so be sure to thank her in the comments below!)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the cliche goes, then a Youtube video is worth 24 thousand low-resolution words per second. Enjoy.

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Cocktail: Ming the Merciless

MingThis is a recipe I have been meaning to share for a while, and the Chinese New Year seems a good a reason as any to share it.

I first had this tasty cocktail down at the Root Squared Bar in New Orleans last summer at an event organized by the fine folks of Baijiu America. There are a couple of things that I love about this one. First it uses strong-aroma baijiu as its base,* and I’m always impressed when a bartender can pull that off, but what really sets this aside is the innovative use of Sichuan peppercorns in the Demerara syrup.

Like many great wines, baijiu is intended to be compliment food and, more specifically, the cuisine of the region that distilled. So to drink a Sichuanese baijiu (strong aromas generally hail from the province) in a cocktail made with the most distinctive ingredient in Sichuanese cooking is at once obvious and ingenious.

Happy Goat Year, xin nian kuai le and the rest of it.

 

Ming the Merciless

Created by Max Messier at Root Squared, New Orleans

-1½ oz. Strong-aroma baijiu (Max used Mianzhu Daqu by Jiannanchun)

-½ oz. Sichuan Peppercorn Demerara syrup (see recipe below)

-¾ oz. lime juice

-Soda water

-Fresh lime slices

Pour all liquid ingredients into an iced cocktail shaker. Shake well and top with soda water in a Collins glass. Add fresh lime slices for garnish.

 

Sichuan Peppercorn Demerara

-1 cup water

-2 cups Demerara (raw) sugar

-¼ cup of Sichuan Peppercorns, smoked in a pan for 2-3 min. on high heat

Add sugar and water to pot. Bring to boil and add Sichuan peppercorns. Return to boil and turn off heat. Cover and steep for 30 mins. Strain, bottle and refrigerate for 4 weeks.

 

 

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Third Year’s a Charm

image via Chinasmack

image via Chinasmack

What a year. For me, for baijiu, for the world.

In 2014 I hit the ground running with my new book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. Some people thought was a great holiday gift in 2014, but it should read just as well in 2015. The paperback version of the book should be available in the US—fingers crossed—sometime soon (it’s already available in mainland China and Hong Kong). If you want to be among the first to snag a copy, please send me note and I’ll keep you posted.

Last year you could hear me on a Sinica podcast, see me on WSJ and read my writing in Foreign Policy and Punch. I was spreading the Gospel of Jiu across the world, from China to New Orleans, and to my new home in Buenos Aires. More thrilling still, I got shout outs in Playboy and Vice, and was named Time Out Beijing’s Mr. April. Things were heating up on the blog, too, where I wrote about black-market “cooking wine,” drinking swine and baijiu cocktails galore.

In the US, my friends at CNS Imports were bringing China’s best baijiu to Americans one shot at a time. Then there are all those newfangled American baijiu companies making waves, most conspicuously Byejoe. If Americans starts slugging back the Guizhou Grappa, there might just be peace in our times.

Meanwhile in the Middle Kingdom, President Xi’s campaign to stomp all the joy out of the PRC marches ever forward. A Moutai boss got stung (but really, who isn’t getting stung these days) and baijiu sales dipped as the government continues to experiment without alcohol.

Yet not all was so gloomy under the perma-smog. Jack Daniels has gotten in bed with Wuliangye, which should result either in exciting developments on the international liquor market or the end of all life as we know it (possibly both). Beijing got its very first, totally awesome baijiu bar. And Chinese social media is abuzz with a new competitive baijiu binge-drinking game. Anybody want to bet me a bottle of Moutai that this will end with a fatality and/or a government crackdown (possibly both)? Anybody?

Thanks to all of you for making last year the site’s busiest in terms of readership and traffic. I remain ever grateful for your support and hope that we’ll be seeing more of each other in 2015.

Happy New Year!

Posts of Greatness 2014

Fan Favorites

  1. Announcing: Baijiu the Book 
  2. Baijiu of the Month: Shui Jing Fang Forest Green 
  3. “Baijiu the Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits” Out Now

Derek Recommends

  1. The Panamanian Connection Pt. 3: Judgment of Paris
  2. Sinica: We Will Make You Learn to Love Baijiu 
  3. Cooking Wine
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Cocktail: Baijiu Sour

baijiu sour

Simon Dang of Capital Spirits 

As we ease into the holiday season, I wanted to share a cocktail recipe from the good people at Beijing’s Capital Spirits. This recipe is credited to owner Bill Isler and inspired by Fubar and 300 Shots friend Jim Boyce. It is a nice rice-baijiu concoction that should keep you warm this winter. Enjoy. 

Sour 2Ingredients

3 ounces Guilin Sanhua baijiu

1 ounce Cointreau

1 teaspoon Sunquick (concentrated sweet lemon juice)

Juice of 1 small kaffir lime

2 dashes orange bitters

Directions

Shake with ice and pour into a lowball glass with lime halves. 

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