Baijiu is the ubiquitous Chinese spirit tossed back in quick shots at various functions all over China, from weddings to business meetings. While more people in China seem to do the same with red wine these days, the Chinese spirit remains the liquor of choice in the country with 10.8 billion litres sold in 2017.
A sign at the supposed entrance read “WE HAVE A SECRET ENTRANCE DOOR IN THE BACK, Call XXXXXXXXXXX and someone will come out and let you in!”. We followed the instructions and someone arrived shortly to let us through the creaky wooden door. He told us to keep our voices low as he guided us through the dim inner courtyard with the light on his phone, “in case the neighbours complain”.
We followed him into a restored shop house where the centrepiece is a small six-seater bar counter in front of a wall of colourful odd-shaped bottles. The rest of the room was modestly decorated with some period furniture to evoke old Beijing.
David, the baijiu sommelier, is originally from Florida. He arrived in China in 2013 straight out of college to manage his cousin’s ranch in rural China. He then took on various jobs including working for a spirits distributor in China and bartending before becoming a master spirit distiller.
David was quick to introduce us to the spirit and its social prominence in China. Mostly drank by men in China, baijiu has a unique status in Chinese culture, punctuating various milestones in life. However, it was not something that was served in bars. According to him, Capital Spirits was the first dedicated baijiu bar in the world to serve it by the glass.
Fortunately I took some notes at the start before the liquor muddied my mind. Bai jiu can be made from any grain. The Chinese use ‘jiu chu’ which is inoculated with fungus, yeast, and more, resulting in sacrificature and fermentation at the same time. David likened the production process to be closer to the manufacture of cheese than other alcohol – not that the final product tastes anything like fermented dairy. “Bai jiu”, we learned, is the umbrella term used to describe alcohol made in this fashion.
We went for a introductory “flight” of baijiu to sample different categories of the spirit, which is typically classified based on the aroma.
We eased into our journey with a baijiu made from rice, fermented for just one week, and was reminiscent of sake. Next was a “light” baijiu made from sorghum and aged in unglazed clay which, contradictory to its category name, has a high alcohol level of over 50%.
We progressed to a stiff “strong” baijiu made with wheat and sorghum and left underground in a pit for two months. This is also known as “Lu aroma”, named after a distillery in Suzhou that supposedly created it. Apparently, the fruity baijiu has such a strong scent that one could smell it throughout the village if a bottle of Luzhou Laojiao was broken!
Our brief “intro flight” concluded with the infamous Mao Tai Prince, which falls into the “sauce” category, for it has a savoury aroma like the umami in soy sauce. This was fermented for nine to 12 months underground in a stone brick cask. A popular baijiu during the Chinese civil war, Mao Tai Prince was associated with status as well as used to clean wounds in desperate situations!
As we were sipping on this unusual baijiu, David pointed to an archival photo on the red-brick wall behind us. It was a picture of Richard Nixon being served some Mao Tai at a Chinese state banquet. This was during a crucial trip to improve strained Sino-American ties, which apparently worked out well.
A bottle of Mao Tai Prince used to cost 5,000 RMB (US$723) and it was the popular corporate “gift”. However the price dropped drastically to less than 1,000 RMB when China’s anti-corruption drive was implemented.
We also tried some cocktails made with baijiu which were pleasantly good. I also like the tongue-in-cheek descriptions in the cocktail menu.
Sadly, Capital Spirits closed its doors last month. But it looks like it will be re-opening somewhere soon in summer. Fingers crossed!