Baijiu book out soon in paperback

Now in glorious paper

Now in glorious paper!

Good news, America and UK-based readers: The paperback version of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits is coming soon to bookstores near you.

Last year the Penguin Random House China did the world a great service by publishing my guide to Chinese hooch, the first of its kind in the English language. Within its pages is all the information one would require to understand to differentiate types of baijiu—tastes, categories, production methods, regional characteristics, etc—and an in-depth overview of major brands and distilleries. Make no mistake, this is the blueprint for putting together a bitchin’ Chinese liquor cabinet and annoying your friends with pointless baijiu trivia. What’s more it’s sleek, glossy and small enough to slip into your back pocket. There was only one hitch, if you were based outside of China you could only purchase the electronic version, which is also wonderful (everyone should buy at least ten copies of both versions) but perhaps less appealing to a tree-killing luddite like me.

Now Amazon informs me that we have a release date: November 1, 2015. And at $16.95 (£11.43 in the UK) it’s a steal. Pre-order your own Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits today, and I will personally sign each copy.*

Did I mention that Christmas and Hanukkah are just around the corner?

*Signing contingent on us both being in the same room and at least one of us possessing a pen.

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Baijiu Takes Manhattan: World Baijiu Day at Lumos

The stars aligned last month, placing me in New York City on August 8 or, as it’s more commonly known, World Baijiu Day.

One doesn’t get to celebrate the first World Baijiu Day often, so I wanted to start this night off right. We hit up Yunnan Kitchen for what I hoped would be decently authentic southwest Chinese fair. I was a little leery when I walked in and saw an ambience that was way more New York hipster than down-home Kunming, but the food was off the charts. Goat mapo doufu, pomelo salad, mala chicken wings. I was transported to heaven, or at least Shangri-La. No baijiu on the cocktail menu, but my Yunnan Horse—a kind of Moscow mule flavored with osmanthus was damned tasty (guihua 桂花 is the best hua, in case there was any confusion). If you live in New York and haven’t checked this place out yet, do so immediately.

Then it was on to the main event: Lumos. Tucked away below a hat shop in SoHo, one could easily walk by without noticing it. Yet this would be a grave error. I am of course predisposed to like any American bar with enough chutzpah to go full baijiu, but I will try to present my impression with clear eyes.


The Sesame Colada

The baijiu cocktail list was extensive, and everything I tasted was made with care and creativity. Working primarily with strong-aroma baijiu is an uphill battle for any bartender. It’s the most popular baijiu in China, but it has a powerful punch and can easily overpower other ingredients. Mixing it is like trying to paint a portrait with a sandblaster. But Orson Salicetti has nobly accepted the challenge. Some cocktails I tasted were more successful than others. I enjoyed his signature Sesame Colada cocktail, but the Almond cocktail stole the show. It achieved a wonderful balance between the sweet and savory, and I would love to have another at first opportunity. Perhaps Orson will be kind enough to share the recipe with us one day?

My only knock on the cocktail list is that I would have liked a bit more variety in the baijius used as a base to better highlight the category’s diversity. It’s possible that there was more than was readily apparent, but the menu did not indicate which baijiu was used in which cocktail. I also thought the non-baijiu cocktail portion of the menu could be expanded a bit. Not for me, mind you, but for the uninitiated who have to work their way up to the complex flavors of a hard-hitting baijiu.

Almond Cocktail

Almond Cocktail

But what the hell do I know? The Lucky Rice Festival just named Salicetti bartender of the yearfelicitaciones, Orson!—so I’m nitpicking here.

What intrigued me most about Lumos was its homemade infusions. This blog has only skimmed the surface on this topic, but in China traditional infusions (paojiu 泡酒) are widely preferred to cocktails when it comes to baijiu. The Chinese generate an endless combination of flavors by macerating spices, herbs, fruits and even animals into the base alcohol. Infusions play up baijiu’s natural strengths while softening some of its funkier edges, and Lumos has wisely made them a key component of the experience. Every 15 minutes or so while I was there, Orson or his brother would set another shot of infused baijiu in front 20150809-DSC_0010of me—cilantro, pepper, etc.—and it seemed like they just kept getting better and better. I could have sipped them all night.

So there you have it. The finest baijiu techniques of the East and the West all converging in a slick (literally) underground bar in Manhattan. What’s not to like? I look forward to my next visit.

That was my World Baijiu Day in a nutshell (almond in this case). A perfect way to cure the China homesick-blues and get put some zip back into my flavor-deprived Argentine mouth. Looking forward to next year’s festivities.

First and third photos courtesy of Wild Bill Isler.

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August 2015: A month to remember, Porteño edition

Argentina baijiu

“Top-shelf” baijiu in Buenos Aires’ Barrio Chino. At the time this was taken the peso was about 10 to the dollar. In China the same bottles both sell for under $20. Translation: not happening.

I don’t blog about baijiu much these days. Since releasing my baijiu book I’m kind of working against technological trends, doing most of my stuff in printed media or, worse still, human-to-human interaction. Look for my forthcoming work to be released papyrus and smoke signals.In all honesty a big part of my infrequent posting has to do with the fact that I currently live in Argentina, which despite being home to a good many Chinese people has yet to advance far beyond the chop suey stage of Eastern culinary development.

In case you are unfamiliar with the chart of Chinese gustatory evolution, it looks something like this:

white rice»chop suey»General Tso’s chicken»lazi ji»???»chicken feet and duck tongues»gelatinous sea creatures and fermented shit in dusty brown jars

Maybe baijiu is the missing link, who knows?

Anyway, if I want to drink baijiu in Buenos Aires, I can only afford (see picture above) buy that green bottle of Hongxing Erguotou. That stuff is everywhere. They ought to add it to the death and taxes list. Sure, it’s the best damned liquor on the market for less than $5 a bottle, but that’s an awfully low bar. If I want to find a friend with whom to drink it, I don’t get many takers (and I promised my wife that I wouldn’t force her to drink more baijiu a while ago).

So I’m kind of living in this weird baijiu-free zone. I still write about it when the spirit moves me—pun not intended, but I kind of love it—but most of my baijiu output is on the business end these days (more about that on a later day). Rarely do I feel that old compulsion to sit down and slap out a blog post.

All that changed last month. In August I embarked on a whirlwind trip that took me to four continents in the span of a few weeks. I was in New York and Vancouver, Guizhou and Beijing, and I have returned with a newfound appreciation for Chinese white lightening.

My palate has been reawakened, my baijiu-brain reinvigorated. When I think about China, I start smelling the syrupy pineapple hum of a Sichuanese strong-aroma baijiu. When I sleep at night, flying Moutai fairies dance around in my head. More important still, I have learned a few things I’m very excited to pass along, dear readers.

So where to begin? Well, we’ve covered Buenos Aires, so next post we’ll be talking about the Big Apple, where I visited Lumos, America’s first full-service baijiu bar, and celebrated the first ever World Baijiu Day.

Giddy up.

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Talking World Baijiu Day with Jim Boyce

Jim Boyce

The inaugural World Baijiu Day is just two days away! I hope you’ve made your plans, if not go here and find the nearest event to you.* In honor of this momentous occasion, I asked Mr. World Baijiu Day, Jim Boyce, just how all of this came about.

DS: Why World Baijiu Day and why now?

JB: Because I was bored and this was an intriguing project. Trade people regularly say baiju doesn’t get enough global attention, so this should be one way to put a small spotlight on this spirit. I’ve also witnessed local grape wine go from being widely dismissed by most people to gaining some respectability over the past decade and I figured something like World Baijiu Day might help baijiu on its own path to wider visibility and acceptance. Finally, I thought it would be fun to work with bars and restaurants on creative ideas, whether for cocktails or infusions or food pairings or even the deep-fried baijiu we tested here in Beijing, and learn more about this spirit myself. Our informal theme is “beyond ganbei”, which means activities which go beyond simply opening bottles and pouring shots, and it’s nice to see that it’s resonated with so many people.

DS: How receptive have you found people to be to the idea?

JB: Not surprisingly, there has been a wide range of reactions. Quite a few people in China shake their heads in disbelief or confusion that I am organizing this, while friends abroad are generally intrigued, seeing baijiu as some exotic liquor they should try. There are, of course, exceptions. One of the best results has been the number of acquaintances here in Beijing I’ve found who are interested in baijiu. The reactions of trade people have been equally mixed. Some baijiu producers have been very helpful while others have been incredibly slow to react, if they do so at all. And it’s interesting that some of the most enthusiastic people in the bar and restaurant business are those with little or no baijiu focus but who like the idea of coming up with something fun for this event. So, it’s been a pretty big mix of reactions.

DS: Who has the most interesting event planned for WBD?

JB: It’s hard to pick one. I like what two of the earliest venues to sign up are doing: Peking Tavern in Los Angeles will feature the winner of its recent baijiu cocktail contest, along with hand-pulled noodles and ping pong, while The Golden Monkey in Melbourne will use its range of cold-brewed teas to make a baijiu iced tea. It’s also fun to see the guys at Houston-based ByeJoe organizing tastings in five cities as well as lots of creative marketing materials. And here in China, we will have everything from ginseng-infused baijiu with chocolate at DoubleTree by Hilton in Guangzhou to baijiu cocktail and food pairings at Shen in Shanghai.

But if I had to narrow it down, I think I’d go local and say it’s a tie between the “qu brew” craft beer being made by Jing-A Taproom and the deep-fried baijiu at Windy City Ballroom in Beijing. I think even someone who has an aversion to baijiu would be curious about how both of those taste.

DS: How can baijiu win back China’s scarred expat masses?

JB: One imbiber at a time. I’ve been writing about Chinese grape wine for a long time and slowly seen attitudes change. Hardly anyone was interested in what China had to offer ten years ago but now we see a steady flow of writers, consultants, academics, winemakers and consumers eager to try local wines. It’s no longer rare for someone to have been on a wine tour of Ningxia or Hebei or Shandong. In fact, it seems as though you aren’t up-to-date on world trends now if you haven’t tried some of the wines from China’s smaller and better producers. I think baijiu needs to go through some of those same steps. The recent WSET baijiu master class in London could help. If baijiu eventually becomes part of the curriculum, it will be considered a need-to-know spirit for many people in the trade.

I’m also a fan of introducing people to baijiu via cocktails, infusions and foods—pretty much anything that is an alternative to an endless stream of room-temperature high-proof shots that results in a wicked hangover and an aversion to this spirit. I’m not against the occasional ganbei session, I just don’t think it’s the best way to get people to appreciate the history and the diversity of baijiu. And I’m a fan of comparative tastings, too, of lining up different brands and styles and trying them, something anyone can do at home. Even if someone is not a fan of baijiu, he or she can at least find that they prefer Brand A to Brand B and Brand C, and that’s a key step in appreciating this category of spirits.

So there you have it, straight from the lips of Mr. WBD hisself. Happy Baijiu Day to one and all. Ganbei!

*I will be slamming cocktails at Lumos for World Baijiu Day. If you’re in NYC stop by and say hi.

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World Baijiu Day

Ladies and gentlemen, mark your calendars. August 8, 2015. A day that shall live in infamy. After years in the shadows baijiu is having an international coming out party on a grand scale: It’s time for World Baijiu Day.

World Baijiu Day is the brainchild of Beijing-based drinks writer Jim Boyce. You remember Jim, he was with me in the trenches during the great baijiu blitz of ’13 , and we talked sorghum sauce in Beijing last year at the Bookworm International Literary Festival. We once even crossed paths in Buenos Aires…


Anyway, about six months ago Jim tells me that he is planning to organize a World Baijiu Day for the auspicious date of the eighth day of the eighth month (eight is lucky in Chinese, in case you’re context blind). I told him I thought it was wildly ambitious, impractical and borderline insane—everything I love about baijiu.

So Jim went off, made a killer website and started reaching out to all the baijiu lovers scattered across the globe. He has been keeping us up-to-date on the latest happenings and cocktail trends. He has got people making baijiu gummies, baijiu beer and even deep fried baijiu. And all that on top of his other work as a prolific wine writer. For someone spends as much time as Boyce does around alcohol, he is way too productive. (Nudge, nudge. Knock it off, you’re making the rest of us look bad.)

And now, two weeks out from the big day, he’s already got about 20 events scheduled in more than 15 cities spread across three continents. As for me, I’ll be throwing back a few baijiu cocktails at Lumos in New York City.

Where will you be on World Baijiu Day? For a full list of events click here.

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