Producers of the infamous Chinese liquor baijiu (白酒), which has been made in the same way for over 1,000 years, are once again looking to adapt their 106-proof fire water to enter Western markets, experimenting with new flavors and potential cocktails to better suit Western palates.
According to Bloomberg News, distillers want to transform the strong Chinese liquor into “the new tequila”; however we are left wondering what components would make up a baijiu slammer?
In this effort, manufacturers are lowering the proof of their baijiu (in order to meet import regulations and kill fewer bridesmaids) and are changing the flavors to mask the classic pungent taste that haunts the dreams of many an expat. Traditionally distilled from fermented sorghum, the liquor typically contains 50% to 60% alcohol by volume and has also been known to murder many an official. It’s probably a good thing that they are lowering the proof, no one wants to be nominated for this “neck nomination.”
Following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign beginning in 2012, once widespread baijiu-fueled banquets organized by public servants suddenly disappeared, reducing sales of the liquor by 13%. After the drop in revenue, the market for baijiu is now slowly recovering, last year it experienced revenue of $115 billion, but that’s still short of its previous high of $133.6 billion — when the party was still in full swing.
Currently, less than 0.1% of baijiu (the world’s most-consumed alcohol) is sold to be exported. Only 100 locations in New York are brave enough to indulge their customers. “Baijiu is not a spirit you can just pour into a martini glass and grow an appreciation for its taste immediately,” Orson Salicetti, co-founder of the Lumos bar in New York, told Bloomberg, in one of the understatements of the century.
However, producers remain optimistic that one day baijiu will have its moment in the sun. “Tequila had it, vodka had it. Why not baijiu?” asks Tony Tian, commercial director of the high-end Shujingfang brand.
Experimenting with new flavors and innovative cocktails is only the tip of the iceberg, many companies have also started to promote the anti-oxidant value of fermented sorghum. Baijiu’s moment may well be on the horizon if producers can legitimately convince people about its health benefits. Japanese producers of matcha must be worried.
On a related note, lychee and dragon fruit baijiu is definitely something Shanghaiist would like to review.
Still, this all seems like a long shot considering that many baijiu producers have been trying desperately to enter foreign markets since 2013, believing that the baijiu mohijto or martini are the way to the future. One American entrepreneur even created the very first widely-marketed baijiu in the US targeting Western consumers, byejoe.
However, thus far, room temperature shots of liquid poison have yet to grip Western taste buds. Maotai, the brand typically favored by Chinese government officials, has been trying a different tactic — setting its sights on the West, but not Western consumers; targeting wealthy Chinese travelers abroad instead.
At the very same time that baijiu producers are trying to turn their liquor into “the new tequila” overseas, the old tequila is also trying to gain a larger foothold in China.
We’ll drink to that.
By Seamus Gibson
[Images via 300 Shots at Greatness]