This post is part of the Food Writer’s Diary blog.
I first had baijiu when I was a student in China in the late 1980s. It was the worst thing I'd ever drunk.
Its awfulness is hard to describe. It tasted like something was rotting in it, but it was hard to say what — damp mushrooms gone horribly wrong, maybe, or cooked carrots left out in the open for a week or so, or like people with horrible athlete's foot had been soaking their feet in it.
But I was 21 years old, barely out of my White Russian-drinking phase. Scotch was as adventurous as I'd gotten at that point. I even thought Campari was noxious.
I know I was young, but still, when a few experts on spirits started tweeting about it in recent months, I was more disgusted than intrigued, and even a little disappointed. I wondered if these people were actually paying attention to what they were tasting, or just thinking about the marketing potential of what is the most drunk spirit on earth.
It's not that impressive for something to be the most-consumed of anything if it’s popular in China. China has 1.3 billion people. Just because a lot of them like it doesn’t mean it will take off elsewhere. Sea slugs are a delicacy in China, and they like to eat huge chunks of fat and desserts made out of beans.
But hey, many Americans like aged, coagulated mammary gland secretions, also known as cheese, so who are we to judge? I'm just saying that one person’s beloved food or drink is another person’s garbage.
But talk of baijiu (pronounced, more or less, like "Bye Joe" — it means "white alcohol") is in the air. Here in New York, the Waldorf-Astoria, now under Chinese ownership, is about to open a modern Chinese restaurant called La Chine, and I hear they’ve been exploring some baijiu options. I've also heard of bartenders in the San Francisco Bay Area making some cocktails out of the stuff.
Orson Salicetti has grander plans with Lumos NYC, a bar he opened in April on Houston Street in New York, in the city’s NoHo neighborhood. He says it’s the western world’s first baijiu bar, and I have no reason to doubt him.
Salicetti’s a pro. He’s opened dozens of bars around the world and was head bartender at Apotheke, which perhaps not coincidentally is located in Chinatown.
Salicetti said he was first introduced to baijiu by friends who brought it home from the Beijing Olympics, and was intrigued by its uniqueness.
When the space of the former Zinc Bar became available, he tried to bid for it, but there was a richer competitor for the space: architect, interior designer and Chinese-American Qifan Li. Rather than get in a bidding war, Salicetti befriended her. He said she wanted to open a bar but hadn’t thought much about what kind of bar. Salicetti convinced her that the time was right for Americans to start drinking baijiu, and Lumos NYC was born.
The name was Li's idea. Salicetti told me it’s Latin for an enchanted light, but the Internet tells me it’s an incantation from Harry Potter to light the tip of a magic wand.
Either way, the meaning’s the same, and reflects some of the abstract artwork leading from the front bar to the back lounge, where musicians play on the weekends.
Salicetti offers some baijiu shots, ranging from $12 for HKB, a new baijiu Salicetti said was developed by a French baijiu aficionado to suit the taste of westerners, to $32 for Mao Tai, a renowned premium brand. Less upscale but traditional varieties are $16-$23.
Mostly he sells baijiu cocktails, though, including the Goji, pictured here, which is made of baijiu that Salicetti infused with goji berries and mixed with mezcal, grapefruit, lime, agave syrup and orange bitters, along with a dusting of Aleppo pepper on top.
It's a good drink, in my opinion — well balanced and with a pronounced baijiu flavor, which it turns out isn’t actually a bad thing.
Salicetti walked me through a little baijiu tasting, starting with a relatively inexpensive one, then moving me on to the Mao Tai and then finishing with the HKB.
Now that I'm a grown-up, I can say that I don’t hate the stuff. It’s weird, with umami-like aromas (I know umami’s a taste, not an aroma, but work with me here), of Parmesan cheese and, yes, maybe some feet. But it’s complex and worth spending some time with, particularly the Mao Tai, which had an extraordinarily long and evolving finish, with sautéed mushroom flavors dissolving into flowers and on to what seemed like fermented black beans, maybe, and then to other things I didn't recognize. Writing about it now, I think maybe there were hints of durian, a Southeast Asian fruit loved by a few and hated by many (sweet sulfur is the closest I can get to describing durian, but in a way that tastes good).
A long road ahead
Lumos NYC's prices aren’t low. The cocktails are all $15, and I already told you about the price of shots. You can also get a tasting of three half-ounce pours for $24.
Salicetti has also made a hundred or so infused baijius, but he only has a dozen on the menu. “Otherwise people can’t decide,” he said.
They include apricot and cherry, basil, dill-pepper and Szechuan pepper.
I had thought baijiu was made with rice, but actually, according to Salicetti, it’s made primarily with sorghum, sometimes with soy, rice or wheat in it as well. It’s fermented and then aged in porcelain jars to develop those flavors that I once thought were noxious but now think are worthy of more study.
There’s no ready market for baijiu or cocktails made from it in New York City at the moment. Old Chinese-Americans aren’t going to come to his subterranean hipster bar to do $16 shots (and they wouldn’t go near the $12 HBK), and young Chinese-Americans drink the same spirits as other young Americans.
Salicetti said that those youngsters do drink baijiu during Chinese holidays, however, so he went with Li to the Chinatown in Queens to shop for ingredients that are used in holiday preparations, such as beans and almonds that are made into milks and will give Chinese-American drinkers sense-memories of their childhood.
So his Dirty Martini is made with Chinese pickle brine and smoked, salted plum. That’s a premium cocktail that sells for $38.
His most popular drink among his Chinese guests is made with two different kinds of almond milk, mangosteen and white sesame paste, along with agave and caramelized pineapple. To me it tasted like, well, not much other than baijiu, but it did have a viscous quality that kind of reminded me of bird's nest soup.
Although Lumos NYC is pricey, Salicetti said it would be even more so if his drinks weren’t being subsidized with good pricing from his baijiu suppliers. They see the potential for the American market and they want to help, Salicetti told me.
I think they have a long road ahead of them, but weirder things have happened in the beverage world.