With $50 billion in sales in 2014 alone, baijiu sits atop whiskey, vodka, tequila, and all other forms of liquor as the singularly most popular booze in the world. Of course, you’ve probably never heard of this ancient, sorghum-based, 100-plus-proof elixir, because the vast majority of the imbibing goes down in China, where a billion or so folks regularly toast their friends, family, and colleagues with tiny shots of the stuff on what must be quite common special occasions.
But after 5,000 years of keeping the drink to themselves, the Chinese are starting to shower their traditions upon willing and curious Americans. The result is that intricately designed, rather pricey bottles of baijiu are now showing up in trendsetting U.S. liquor stores and brave bars. That’s where creative mixologists — including Chris Burmeister at the Good Bar inside Goleta’s Goodland Hotel — are experimenting with the incredibly unique flavors, a pungent whirl of sharp, licorice-like herbs, ripe tropical fruits, and ester-y elements.
It’s hard to pigeonhole a typical baijiu flavor because, like wine and beer, there are myriad interpretations. “The world of baijiu is vast,” explained Manny Burnichon, a French-born, Palm Beach–residing luxury liquor veteran who started his own company called Private Cask Imports to bring the drink stateside. “It’s a set of flavors you’ve never experienced before.” Each city and village boasts its own secret recipe for baijiu (pronounced “bye-joe”), yet they all use sorghum as the lead ingredient (along with wheat, rice, and other grains) and employ a yeast-like fungi called qu (pronounced “tchu”) that both turns the grain’s starch to sugar and ferments it in the same magical step. It’s then steam-distilled and stored in head-high ceramic vessels for anywhere from two to 80 years.
Late last year, Burnichon — whose last liquor success story was introducing Asian-American markets to top-tier cognacs — toured me through a few bottles of baijiu, from the entry level $30 bottle to the $150-plus versions (for 375 ml no less) by Moutai, which have been served to Richard Nixon and Barack Obama on their Beijing visits. We toasted each other on each three-quarter-ounce shot, trying to clink the rims of our specially sized glasses lower than each other to show respectful deference, as is done in China. “You constantly toast people there,” said Burnichon, whose goal with his partner company, CNS Imports, is to import the tradition along with the liquid. “It gets a little intense after a while.”
Though intriguingly distinct and generally pleasant — a number of people who tried Moutai at my house over the holidays were surprised to like the bizarre taste — I’m not yet sure that “it will be all over the place” by 2024 as Burnichon predicts. But it’s certainly opening up a new range of cocktails, as revealed by the Good Bar’s Imperial Sour, in which Burmeister mixes blends of baijiu with yellow chartreuse, honey, lemon, and pineapple juices, orange bitters, and egg whites. If Santa Barbarans prove curious enough, there may be flights of baijiu on restaurant menus in years to come.