A New Empire of Baijiu?
Can China’s misunderstood national spirit level up at home—and then go global?
Earlier this year, I made the 14-hour flight from New York to Beijing for the first time and figured it was time to revisit my acquaintance with baijiu (roughly pronounced “bye-joe”), China’s traditional national spirit and the most-consumed liquor on the planet. I’d previously encountered this libation, which usually begins life as sorghum fermented in a mud pit, in 2013, at a spirits tasting of Asian curiosities with too many bottles and too few translators. Like many baijiu neophytes, I came away thinking that the brightly colored, fancifully shaped bottles showed best when sealed shut with their distilled contents safely inside.
Five years is an epoch in epicurean trends, and baijiu has made halting progress stateside in that time. A few years back, the first baijiu bar in the U.S. opened in downtown Manhattan, then reopened in a new space this past April as the more ambitious Lumos Kitchen. A handful of distilleries and importers have been trialing new bottlings with English-language labels in North America, including ByeJoe, Dragon Mist, Confucius Wisdom, Vinn Distillery and Ming River.
In today’s climate, intrepid imbibers seek out barrel-aged grappa, gluten-free soju and Oaxacan mezcal ice cream. So Simon Dang, cofounder of Ming River baijiu, a new brand targeted at an international market, told me he felt the moment is right for his brand of floral-herbal-umami tipple. “I think now so many consumers are kind of looking for more unusual flavors, and so are bartenders,” he said.