On the eve of Chinese New Year in Bangkok’s trendy new W District night market, German-Portuguese bar owner and whisky producer Julian Gebhard is pouring me a homemade baijiu cocktail he has just dreamed up.
First he pours 1.5 shots of Kweichow Moutai (the Jack Daniel’s of baijiu, if you will) into a canister, stretched over ice.
Then he adds 30 milliliters of lime, 20 mililiter of sugarcane, one egg white and a bitter peach topping before sprinkling bee pollen from above like powdery confetti, or manna from heaven.
Finally, he torches the thing with what looks like a small flamethrower.
Gebhard has just invented something that never existed before, anywhere: a brand new drink, the multicultural progeny of a pisco sour (Peru’s most famous cocktail) and baijiu, one of the world’s most heavily consumed liquors.
“I added the peach because it has a soft, smooth, silky aroma. Bees collect nectar from flowers so the pollen has a spring feeling to it, and Lunar New Year is just around the corner,” he said. “Rum-based cocktails work well with baijiu because they are both flavorful, complex liquors.”
While most people outside China have never heard of Moutai, or baijiu, there are signs that may soon change.
Foreigner-friendly bars in Southeast Asia are leading the charge to popularize the pungent white liquor distilled from sorghum, wheat or barley that comes with a soy-sauce-like aftertaste and ranks as China’s national tipple.
Chinese people quaffed 11 billion liters of the stuff in 2012 alone, according to International Wine & Spirit Research. Most do so in the context of a “ganbei” or the bottoms-up culture of quickly downing warm baijiu shots.
While Thais are split between liquors like Sangsom, a local rum, and Sangthip, a local whiskey, or trophy foreign drinks like Absolut and Johnny Walker, Moutai will catch on as it grows in kudos, or drops in price.
“It feels very strong. You can feel it all over your body but it smells good,” says Thai entrepreneur Nanny Vorachayapat. “I think it’s better to not mix it with anything. Just drink it neat so you can really taste it.”
Now expats like Gebhard in cities from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, are whipping up grassroots fervor for what may one day be hailed as “China’s tequila”.
The company Kweichow Moutai, based in Guizhou province, is one of the most successful baijiu producers, and has expressed a desire to internationalize the brand as domestic market growth begins to plateau.
But until it figures out the nuts and bolts of that campaign, foreign cheerleaders are taking center stage. In fact, one of the biggest global evangelists for baijiu is not Chinese but American.
Former China expat Derek Sandhaus was promoting the drink long before he wrote Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits (2014), now considered the imbibing Bible of baijiu.
“There has been slow but steady progress in baijiu’s internationalization in the years since I published my book,” he said.
“The most obvious indicator is the number of bars and restaurants overseas that have incorporated baijiu or baijiu cocktails into their bar programs.”
Another encouraging sign is that China’s larger and more prestigious distilleries have for the first time begun demonstrating a willingness to invest in products designed for international markets.
A groundswell of support for baijiu is building up at Ba Hao (No 8), a fashionable backpacker bar in a derelict-looking side street in Bangkok.
Demand for its Chinese-ingredient-infused cocktails and Moutai shots has grown organically, said Thai co-owner Bua.
“We never even put the shots on the menu. People just saw the red-and-white Moutai bottles on the shelf and wanted to try it,” she said.
“We originally bought the bottles for decoration but people kept asking about it so we set a price. Now we’re thinking about selling baijiu cocktails.”