Food & Drink

Cup of Joe

Talking Baijiu with Orson Salicetti

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Here come the holidays. And with them, late nights wondering what to get all the gift-worthy people in your life.

Some sort of liquor, maybe...

Wine and whiskey are tried and true, but baijiu... baijiu’s got potential.

Also, what the heck is baijiu?

Pronounced “bye-joe,” this decidedly Chinese liquor recently hit American shores and is currently enjoying a moment in the sun. So to learn more, I sat down with Orson Salicetti at Lumos, a baijiu-centric cocktail bar in New York City. He had lots to say.

Baijiu is...
“It’s the national spirit of China. It’s made from grains and also it’s aged, so we can say that baijiu is similar to whiskey. Whiskey is aged in barrels, while baijiu is aged in ceramic jars, and for that reason, it’s clear. The reason they do this is because it doesn’t affect the color or the flavor or the aroma.”

Baijiu is very aromatic.
“It has a little bit of a mushroom aroma, like a truffle, tofu and soy. I would say it’s kind of like umami or seaweed because it’s very rich.”

It’s potent.
“Baijiu is a high-proof experience, so it’s something the West is not used to because most of the spirits in America are 40% alcohol by volume. Baijiu can have between 52% to 60% ABV.”

There are many different classifications of baijiu.
“The classifications are based on the aromas. The Chinese made these classifications like food. Rich baijiu from the north is made of sorghum. The baijiu with lighter flavors is called rice baijiu or sauce baijiu. Besides those, there are five more classifications.”

There’s a proper way to drink it.
“Traditionally, you drink it straight, with food and in small glasses. Usually, when someone is hosting, they want to pour it for you.”

Start slow.
“Don’t drink too much because, remember, it’s a high-proof experience. It’s better to go easy, especially if it’s your first or second time.”

Not everyone knows what to do with it.
“When I was in construction with the bar, I went to Tales of the Cocktail and everybody was saying, ‘This is crazy, we cannot mix it.’”

But Orson knows what to do with it.
“I feel like New York City is overdone with bars. When I started, there were six cocktail bars. Now there are over 300 in the city. I thought, ‘What is it that we can do that’s interesting?’ And when I found out about baijiu, I said, ‘How is it possible we have everything but this?’ We have three generations of Chinese in New York. When you try baijiu, I cannot make classic cocktails for you. You have to start from zero. That’s what motivated me. I like the challenge.”

Where can you get it?
“You can find basic brands like HKB at many liquor stores. It’s becoming popular, and that one is easy to drink.”

You heard the man. Go, try some baijiu. And for what to expect when you do... Well, this novice baijiu drinker was feeling it after just three mini pours of a few different cocktails. My taste buds got carried away, especially with the almond cocktail Orson whips up. It’s made with two kinds of homemade spiced almond milk, plus agave, and it tastes like something you’d want on a snowy day. The Sesame Colada was spectacular as well. I was impressed with how different each cocktail tasted and how good they were. So all in all, my first baijiu experience was a successful one. And would I drink it again? Of course. Probably this weekend.

—Bianca Monica

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