Welcome to Baijiu Cocktail Week 2016!
Every Chinese New Year, for one week, the ‘white spirit’ takes over London to test London’s bartenders with a spirit the city isn’t that familiar with – and this beginning of the Year of the Monkey isn’t different.
From the 5th to 14th of Feb 2016: 9 venues across London, 9 different cocktails, 5 of which will be reviewed in this post. The Hoodooist and friends hit the road to tour the town for Baijiu deliciousness.
Firstly, Baijiu is an intriguing spirit, never quite becoming a permanent fixture in the London bar scene – something drinks giant Diageo is trying to change – with their signature Sichuan province ‘strong aroma’ Shui Jing Fang Baijiu. Made with sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn, it ain’t called ‘strong aroma’ for nothing. Neat, the scent can be detected from a mile away, a flowery aromatic with hints of rice, it tastes surprisingly different, but surprisingly similar.
Been called everything from ‘flowery’, ‘apricot’ to ‘burnt rice’ and ‘with a Maris otter barley length’, it is definitely an acquired taste. But the length and aftertaste’s similarities to scotch is undeniable. This is a smoky spirit for the harder-livered amongst us. A burnt, spicy start, with a long finish, Chinese proverbs state that it takes 300 shots to really appreciate Baijiu. The Hoodooist must admit, it’s acquired, but one he can see himself acquiring.
The perk of Baijiu Cocktail Week is seeing how various bars attempt to work with this strong, fickle spirit. Most of the cocktails this week do their best to mask the bitter-burnt flavours of the baijiu to focus on the flowery sweetness of the spirit.
Our first stop is at Demon, Wise, and Partners, in City. The 600th Monkey mixes Baijiu with Admiral Rodney rum, house Falernum, and the DWP shrub, made with honey vinegar, peanuts and vanilla pepper.
In typical DWP style, the cocktail is particularly dry and strong. Beginning with the burnt Baijiu flavour, the cocktail becomes very light with hints of vanilla, then a sudden hard punch of coffee. The finish seems to have hints of pepper, tropical fruit, and peanuts, finally with a long dry tingle. You really want to take your time with this drink, taking a big gulp will burn. The Hoodooist certainly enjoyed this drink, but it is one for specialised taste for the dry and bitter.
The newly opened 68 & Boston gave us the Pixiu: Shui Jing Fang baijiu with Liquor 43, dark crème de cacao, Bob’s Chocolate Bitters, and strangely: Mount Gay Black Barrel rum. A salted caramel rim and chocolate pieces to garnish.
A beautifully presented cocktail – it looks gorgeous – the Pixiu makes the mistake of attempting to mask the Baijiu’s flavour instead of complementing or encouraging it. By going into the direction of chocolate sweetness, the Baijiu wars against the flavour of the cocktail.
Not going for citrus leaves a powerful clanging aroma of rum and baijiu on the nose, with a smooth caramel mouthfeel. The initial caramel from the rim is followed the by the cocktail’s noisy, infuriating mix of sweet, herbal, bitter, over-sugared, baccano of conflicting flavours. This unfortunate drink tastes like licking a bedsore. Ointment and all.
Feeling personally victimised by this drink, this is the Regina George of cocktails.
Next door, Bo Drake was crazy busy on a Friday. Their Dragon’s Claw was one of the more unique: Baijiu, agave nectar, elderflower, lemon and lime, hopped grapefruit bitters and lime zest – garnished with candied hibiscus and grapefruit slice.
The drink could best be described as mellowing the baijiu enough to drink it, while appreciating the entire range of flavours it presents when drunk neat – which is what made it unique through the day where other bars attempted to mask aspects of the drinks to suit the cocktail. The nectar and hopped grapefruit bitters contributed to a silkier mouthfeel. Surprisingly, one tasted the bitters more strongly than the elderflower (Thankfully, I think).
A great way to really get into Baijiu without throwing back a shot of it.
The dim sum chain, Ping Pong, presents us with the Dizzy Monkey: Baijiu is mixed with Monkey Shoulder whisky, Hedonist cognac, triple sec, lemon juice, home-made spiced vanilla syrup, and shock inducing Electric Daisy flower rim.
This is one complicated cocktail. A friend and I had two completely different opinions on the drink, they loved the intense, very intense, citrus of the cocktail along with the powerful earthiness of the Baijiu – the Hoodooist however, could not comprehend the bizarre mix of flavours. This cocktail is targeting directly major citrus fans, the same way that the Demon, Wise, and Partners’ cocktail particularly targeted fans of dry, bitter cocktails.
The shocking tingle of the garnish was major fun though!
Our final stop on the Baijiu Cocktail Week crawl is the Hide Bar, Bermondsey. Now, this was probably the best of the cocktails we’ve tried so far.
The Darling Monkey Nutter mixes Baijiu with a South African Chenin Blanc and monkey nut shrub made with peanuts, PX Sherry, and lemon thyme. A strange combo for sure, the nose is distinctly the burnt rice of the Baijiu, and towards the end slightly nutty and citrus. Upon the first sip, immediately you get the earthy flavour from the Baijiu, followed by a powerful citrus from the lemon thyme, the slight fruitiness of the wine, and finally a long, sweet, nutty finish.
This light, silky cocktail gets smokier as time goes on. With wonderful service from Emanuele and Francesco, the slightly sweet and earthy cocktail is definitely a treat you must enjoy this week.
Get thyself an Uber.
Baijiu Cocktail Week is certainly one of the more enticing events of the London drinks scene, and it’s always good to see a spirit break through in London. Though an acquired taste neat, it probably is best drunk that way between courses of a tradition Chinese meal, since it’s use in cocktails is incredibly challenging.
However, the various bars did show how different aspects of the complex spirit can be highlighted with the right ingredients. Bo Drake showed us a palatable way for newbies to enjoy the entire spectrum of the spirit’s complexity. The Hide presented a soft, silky cocktail emphasising Baijiu’s sweeter flavours; whereas the Ping Pong had the burnt-bitter flavour balanced and softened with its citrus and herbal cousins.
Certainly a complex drink that demands further study in the London drink scene, I wish you all a fantastic Baijiu Cocktail Week and Happy Lunar New Year!
Baijiu Cocktail Week 2016, London
5th – 14th February