We asked Vancouver bartenders to achieve the unachievable: make a cocktail with China's notorious liquor.
What’s the most consumed, by volume, spirit in the world? Go ahead…guess
You’d be forgiven for not getting that. Baijiu, China’s national shot, hasn’t made much headway in the West. You see, cocktails are key to getting a new spirit accepted in North America—think what the margarita did for tequila—and Baijiu comes with the unfortunate status of being “unmixable.”
The problem for western palates is how pungent the drink is. Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather even went so far as to say it tasted like “liquid razor blades.” But that’s kind of the point: Baijiu distillers aim for fragrance and harshness in their spirits. In China, a powerful aroma of caramelization and soy sauce is prized—as is an ABV higher than 50 percent (!)—which doesn’t easily translate to a cocktail base.
Even though she produces Baijiu in B.C., Sherry Jiang—owner of Surrey’s Dragon Mist, which makes Baijiu using local ingredients—has never tried it in a cocktail. “People in China wouldn’t think to do that,” she says. Her Baijiu is forceful with sweet and sour aromas, and some earthiness on the palate. To my taste it’s surprisingly smooth for 56% ABV. But it’s 56% ABV, so really, it isn’t smooth at all.
If Baijiu ever wants to have its “tequila moment” in North America, it’ll have to find its way onto cocktail lists. But can such a pungent spirit make for a decent cocktail? We decided to put some of Vancouver’s best bartenders to the test. With a bottle of Dragon Mist Baijiu in hand, we found out what the city’s best booze minds could come up with.
The Dragon Fist
Amber Bruce, bar manager at Keefer Bar, was surprised by Dragon Mist. She’s familiar with a lot of Chinese Baijius and by those standards, Dragon Mist is a pretty mellow spirit. Still, she picked up some wild, funky notes: “It’s got some of those cheesy, almost rubber flavours we tend to praise in Mezcal, but might see as a flaw with a spirit like Baijiu— we don’t have the same established respect for,” she says.
Bruce came up with a drink loosely based on the Mai Tai. Her drink keeps Baijiu’s punch, but puts it into a tight, fruity and refreshing package.
Ingredients 1½ oz Dragon Mist Baijiu ¼ oz yellow chartreuse ½ oz orgeat syrup 1 oz lemon juice 2 dashes of absinthe
- Combine, shake and pour over crushed ice.
- Garnish with a grated aromatic spice. Bruce used red cardamom—available all over Chinatown—for its spicy and smoky aromas, but she says nutmeg, or even some grated salt-cured egg yolk, would work.
Kristi-Leigh Akister of Gastown’s Pidgin thinks Dragon Mist has the richness and complexity of a darker spirit; she decided to showcase its strength and versatility in a bright and boozy julep.
Ingredients 1½ oz Dragon Mist Baijiu ⅔ oz clove syrup* 8-10 mint leaves 2 dashes Ms. Better Bitters’ Mt. Fuji Bitters
- Cradle mint leaves in your palm and softly clap your hands together to bruise the leaves and release more of their fragrance.
- Combine mint, baijiu, bitters and clove syrup in a julep glass and swirl gently.
- Add crushed ice and garnish with a mint sprig.
- As Akister says, “step out into the sunshine and enjoy.”
*To make the clove syrup, combine equal parts sugar and water in pot, bring to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in three tablespoons of cloves and let steep until cool. Strain and keep refrigerated in an airtight container.
The Baijiu Kaiju
Doug Stephen of the Merchant’s Workshop decided to make a monster of a cocktail. His Baijiu Kaiju plays with some Pacific-Rim flavours for an intense, layered drink, which jumps from refreshing to powerful and back again between sips. The Baijiu definitely plays the bass note in this drink, but using it as a boozy foundation was part of the plan: “Baijiu doesn’t need to be as scary of an ingredient as people think,” says Stephen.
Bar Spoon of Islay scotch (McClellands Islay is a good, budget-friendly option) 1 oz Dragon Mist Baijiu ½ oz Pierre Ferrand dry curacao ⅙ oz green chartreuse 1 oz lime juice ½ oz gunpowder green tea syrup* 2 dashes Apothecary smokey pear bitters
- Rinse glass with Islay scotch.
- Combine remaining ingredients in a shaker with ice.
- Shake and serve; garnish with lime wheel.
*For the gunpowder green tea syrup, combine roughly equal parts sugar and water, bring to a boil and add one teaspoon of gunpowder green tea. Let steep until cool, strain and refrigerate.