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 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.
But what the hell do I know? The Lucky Rice Festival just named Salicetti bartender of the year—felicitaciones, 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 of 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.