Baijiu, China’s national spirit, is making waves in Toronto
Featuring baijiu varieties, bar recommendations and cocktail ideas for the potent, flavourful liquor
Baijiu is the most consumed liquor on the planet—though its popularity is pretty much localized to China and Taiwan, where the clear sorghum-based spirit is enjoyed neat and at room temperature. But bartenders here in Toronto are beginning to recognize its possibilities. “In China, a bottle of baijiu is always on the dinner table, but you rarely see it in Canada,” says Cleman Fung, general manager of Hong Shing Restaurant, which recently launched the city’s first baijiu-focused cocktail program.
Westerners familiar with baijiu may associate it with a throat-burning sensation and a serious hangover. Indeed, it ranges from 40 to 60 per cent ABV, but its taste profile is remarkably nuanced. Baijiu can be categorized into four types, or “aromas”: rice, light, strong and sauce. And its flavours range from floral to umami-driven.
For the Ovaltini—Hong Shing’s riff on the espresso martini—light-aroma Jiang Xiao Bai baijiu is infused with the robust flavours of Brazilian and Colombian espresso beans. The coffee-spiked booze is balanced with Ovaltine powder and chocolate milk and then clarified for a sip that’s simultaneously malty, sweet and pleasantly bitter. “A large part of Chinese culture revolves around drinks, not just food,” says Fung, who hopes that baijiu cocktails like this one can be a way to introduce the spirit to the uninitiated.
Three baijiu bottles for beginners
Jiang Xiao Bai S50
This mild baijiu is balanced and delicately sweet. Hong Shing uses a comparable bottle from the same distillery as a neutral canvas, infusing it with things like coffee beans and shiitake mushrooms. lcbo.com, $4.95
Luzhou Laojiao Erqu
This strong-aroma baijiu from one of China’s oldest and largest distilleries presents apricot and grape notes followed by a smooth, almond-tinged finish. Use it to add fruity flavour to cocktails. lcbo.com, $22.95
Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor Platinum Dragon
Don’t be fooled by its eye-popping 58 per cent ABV: this light-aroma baijiu from Taiwan is quite mellow. Its layered earthy, floral and nutty notes are ideal for spirit-forward sips. lcbo.com, $49.95
Bonus baijiu bars
Sunnys Chinese: Light-aroma Fen Chiew baijiu adds a boost of complex flavour to the Baijiu Long Island Iced Tea, a twist on the classic cocktail, made with tsaoko (black cardamom) Coke syrup.
Bitter Melon: The Lee Ho Fook gets its tangy, thirst-quenching qualities from Huadu Beijing Erguotou baijiu, pisco, lychee, lime leaf and fizzy Korean yogurt soda.