Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Baijiu getting its moment as makers mix it up

The fiery Chinese grain liquor called baijiu has been distilled and quaffed in the homeland pretty much the same way for a millennium. Yet as these brands expand overseas, spirits companies are wondering: How would it taste with 7-Up?


Guanyu said...

Baijiu getting its moment as makers mix it up

11 October 2016

The fiery Chinese grain liquor called baijiu has been distilled and quaffed in the homeland pretty much the same way for a millennium. Yet as these brands expand overseas, spirits companies are wondering: How would it taste with 7-Up?

Makers of the 106-proof alcohol that's popular at wedding receptions and government banquets are coping with a steep revenue drop after President Xi Jinping ordered public servants to cut their expense tabs. Sales declined 13 per cent, and store prices plunged by half.

With less than 1 per cent of baijiu consumed abroad, Chinese distillers now want to transform the liquor into "the new tequila" for Americans and Europeans. So they're diluting its stomach-burning potency, hiring mixologists to experiment with ginseng and tropical fruits, and promoting the concoctions at bars in New York, London, Sydney - even at Walt Disney World. "Tequila had it, vodka had it. Why not baijiu? We want to see baijiu have its moment in the world," said Tony Tian, commercial director of Diageo's China White Spirits unit, which includes the high-end Shuijingfang brand.

Venerable brands like Shuijingfang, less-expensive offerings such as Beijing Red Star Co and startups such as ByeJoe and HKB are searching for the right ingredients that will do for baijiu what the margarita did for tequila. They're trying grapefruit juice, Angostura bitters and brown sugar to mask a pungency considered on par with the durian fruit popular in South-east Asia.

They're also lowering the liquor's alcohol content to make it more akin to the 80-proof spirits favoured by Westerners, infusing bottles with flavourings and promoting the antioxidant powers of the main ingredient sorghum. The makers have nothing to lose and everything to gain, since exports made up just 0.1 per cent of baijiu sales last year, according to statistics from London-based International Wine and Spirit Research.

"Baijiu is not a spirit you can just pour into a martini glass and grow an appreciation for its taste immediately," said Orson Salicetti, co-founder of the Lumos bar in New York that serves about 40 different brands. "The trick to appreciating baijiu is embracing its unfamiliar flavour in cocktails."

Varieties of baijiu, or "white liquor," are made from sorghum, rice, wheat or corn, and can contain as much as 53 per cent alcohol by volume. About 5.5 billion litres were sold last year, according to London-based Euromonitor International.

Industry revenue last year was 766 billion yuan (S$157 billion), compared with a peak of 882 billion yuan in 2012, when government officials were propping up demand and prices for top-shelf brands like Shuijingfang and Kweichow Moutai by gifting bottles or throwing boozy banquets. President Xi's edict ended that party.

Baijiu traditionally is imbibed in extra-small shot glasses during big, celebratory meals. At least in China.

At nightspots abroad, Diageo advises bartenders to mix Shuijingfang, the brand it bought in 2011, with 7-Up to make it more palatable to non-Chinese. The world's largest distiller, based in London, also created a recipe - similar to an Old Fashioned - it will promote in 50 Hong Kong bars by year's end.

Shuijingfang has produced baijiu in Chengdu, south-west China, for 600 years. The distillery smells like strong blue cheese as grains ferment in rectangular pits. Workers follow enduring instructions dictating the direction in which grains are spread and the tempo with which the water is stirred.

After fermentation, baijiu is poured into urns that can sit for 35 years. A master blender mixes liquid from several urns before it's poured into an iconic Shuijingfang bottle - a bottom-heavy, intricately etched glass meant to be the centerpiece of a banquet table.

Guanyu said...

Other old-school distillers like Beijing Red Star, which traces its lineage to 1680, are trying to keep pace with new varieties. It's introducing Nuwa, which has 42 per cent alcohol and comes in a grooved bottle for easy handling by harried bartenders.

And just like other industries, an adherence to tradition can create gaps where innovation germinates. Startups are developing cheaper, less-potent products with names like HKB and Byejoe, and using slick advertisements targeting 20-somethings.

HKB founder Charles Lanthier, who lived in Shanghai for four years while working in the finance industry, sources his baijiu from China and re-distills it in Italy. Backers of HKB, or Hong-Kong Baijiu, include the French investment fund Weber Investissements. About 100 locations in New York use it in cocktails, he said."You can bring the heritage, but you also need to adapt to a certain consumption mode," Mr Lanthier said. "Tequila in the US is not drunk the same way it was drunk in Mexico 20 years ago."

Matt Trusch, whose dragon fruit- and lychee-infused baijiu is served at two Disney World bars in Florida, started Byejoe after living in Shanghai for 12 years. Backers include former NBA star Yao Ming's investment team, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper, and Trusch said the company is profitable after four years. "What we've done that the baijiu companies didn't manage to do is create a product for the young consumer," Mr Trusch said. "There's a demand in the market that's not filled." WP