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?
OS: 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!
90 West Houston
New York, New York
* 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.