Drinks consultant Paul Mathew got up close and personal with baijiu during a stint in Beijing a few years ago. Mathew, who also co-owns London bars The Hide, The Arbritrager and Demon, Wise & Partners, included work with Diageo and its baijiu brand Shuijingfang among his projects — see his “baijiu basics” here and his recipe for a baijiu grapefruit sour here. He talks about some of his experiences with China’s national spirit.
When did you first try baijiu?
2004. I was working for a conservation charity looking at Magnolia trees in Yunnan and we had dinner with some local forestry officials. I remember the baijiu tasted strongly of burnt plastic, and imagined that it must have been distilled over burning tires. Despite trying to uphold British drinking traditions, I clearly didn’t consume enough of it as I ended up in a local hospital with food poisoning the following day…
When did you first begin to appreciate baijiu?
We moved to Beijing in 2009. I’d just finished various spirits and wine qualifications in London and was running bars, so I approached baijiu with the enthusiasm of a bartender discovering a whole new family of spirits!
There were techniques similar to agricole rum production, flavours reminiscent of tequila and grappa, clay pot ageing that was new to me, and a whole new classification system for spirits based on their fragrance. Whilst the flavours were initially quite new to me, it was great to taste things analytically and that helped to pull out the styles that I enjoyed more, and to pair them with things in cocktails.
I still find some of the flavours challenging, but it’s easier to appreciate the sweet, floral and fruity characteristics now without the surprise that first time baijiu drinkers face!
What are your favorite baijius?
Having lived in Beijing for four and a half years I have a soft spot for Red Star and it’s pretty easy to mix, but hardly the most exciting baijiu out there.
I’ve done a bit of work with Shuijingfang so it’s one of the brands I’m more familiar with and I enjoy drinking that whenever it’s offered.
I also find the mi xiang “rice fragrance” baijius pretty approachable as a style.
But generally speaking, I just like trying new things — there are so many and my knowledge of baijiu is still in its infancy.