Time for another confession: When I first came to China I worked as an (gasp) English teacher. This meant two things: I needed to drink a lot and I was too broke to do it well. It thus seemed a godsend when I received an invitation to attend a New Year’s Eve party offering all-you-can-drink cocktails for next to nothing.
If it seemed too good to be true, that’s because it was. The cocktails were standard Western fare, but the base alcohol had been swapped out for cheap baijiu. The result was nothing short of barf-worthy, as many poor teachers no doubt learned the hard way. I’ve tried to avoid baijiu blends since. The cocktail, that finest of American inventions, can be many things but it should never be hard to drink.
Luckily, we have some high-quality people on the job. Beijing-based bartender and drinks aficionado Paul Mathew runs the drinks blog Blood & Sand (not to be confused with this Blood & Sand), which contains one of the most comprehensive English-language baijiu overviews on the web, and a wonderful selection of cocktail recipes. Since arriving in China, Mathew has bravely ventured into the uncharted territory of the baijiu cocktail.
“Baijiu is traditionally the partner of food rather than an aperitif,” Mathew recently explained to me, “so [drinking it] straight is more appropriate.” Baijiu is used to draw out the flavors in spicy foods, and vice versa, and that same principle should apply to using it in a mixed drink. “For me the challenges of using baijiu in cocktails are to bring out the flavors and make them appealing to a wider audience, not hide them away with other strong flavors.” Rather than fighting baijiu’s natural fruitiness, Paul’s approach is to draw out and heighten the citrusy flavor. For example, both baijiu cocktail recipes listed on his website use grapefruit and lime to accentuate the spirit’s intrinsic taste.
Last night I called together a group of friends in Chengdu to try one of Paul’s cocktails, Hair of the Tiger. The recipe calls for pink grapefruit juice and sugar syrup, both in short supply in China’s wild west, so I was forced to substitute pink grapefruit “juice drink” in their place. The called-for dash of bitters” was omitted entirely. Modifications not withstanding, the cocktail turned a cheap, borderline-undrinkable baijiu into a refreshing quaff.
Beijing bar patrons have also responded well to such concoctions, but the sticking point seems to be the baggage most drinkers bring to the table. “Westerners tend to steer away from baijiu and Chinese customers prefer to drink it neat,” said Mathew. “I made a sour plum and baijiu cocktail for the (Chinese and Western) directors of a restaurant company once and they were all pleasantly surprised at the flavors and complexity. The challenge is selling people on the idea.”
So I’m raising Mathew’s standard to see if I can’t get a convert or two with Hair of the Tiger. The drink was named in honor of the Year of the Tiger (2009-2010). And though the Rabbit Year seems to have been snubbed, my hope is that your experimentation and feedback will convince Mathew to slap together a Year of the Dragon cocktail. The following drink uses the cheapest of the cheap baijius, Erguotou 二锅头, as its base, so it should fall well within everyone’s price range … even English teachers’.
Hair of the Tiger
25ml Erguotou baijiu (a high a.b.v straight shochu would approximate in Europe/US if baijiu is unavailable)
30ml fresh pink grapefruit juice
15ml Triple Sec
5ml simple sugar syrup
5ml fresh lime juice
dash of citrus bitters
Shake hard and single strain into a coupette glass, add another spray of citrus bitters to the surface of the drink. The baijiu has an interesting earthiness that follows the citrus, making for a reasonably bitter, but interesting aperitif.
223 shots to go.