Baijiu: Dark Matter

“We have seen an uplift in demand in baijiu over the past couple of years,” says Lucy Mitchell, marketing director of SeeWoo. “It is mainly Chinese customers, residents but also Chinese officials demanding it from hotels and bars. Now we have started to see a trend in the mainstream.” 

The big question is whether baijiu – a strong (40-60% abv) pungent, and particular spirit – is appealing to western palates. “It’s a strong and complicated, traditional product that’s very distant from anything in the west,” says Wondrich. “Its production differs fundamentally. Even the most pungent spirits, for instance tequila, are nowhere near baijiu. It ranges from dirty socks to fruit to flowers – you can get that fungal sherry taste and a rancio flavour. I did a tasting of baijiu once and most of them were of high quality – there were more As than Fs. I have managed to acquire a taste for it – there are good ones out there – but it’s not my favourite spirit.”

Packing such a punch, this is not a white spirit that mixes well – something recognised by Diageo’s Hamilton, who says its is more suited to a traditional, small-sized shot. Wondrich too has his doubts: “I do not think it works well in cocktails – it’s too pungent. Although I have tried putting two dashes in a Manhattan.” 

So could baijiu ever come out of the dark and into the international spotlight? “It’s a hard sell – it would take a lot of outreach from the Chinese,” says Wondrich. “Baijiu is a very particular spirit but stranger things have happened. It’s like blue cheese and who would think to eat that?”