Wicked good drinks | Q&8 with Boston Baijiu Bar owner Nick Lappen

Nick Lappen has built a steady following since opening Boston Baijiu Bar just under a year ago inside Backbar, where he presents curious customers with a rotating list of baijiu cocktails and tasting flights.

In this Q&8, I asked him about his first baijiu experiences, tips for home bartenders experimenting with this spirit, his favorite all-time cocktail creation and plans to return to China. Find him on Instagram here.

What were your first baijiu experiences like?

My first experience with baijiu was when I first moved to China. My boss picked me up from the airport the day I landed and took me immediately to a dinner where we drank Moutai. I enjoyed it, maybe more for the experience of drinking a new local alcohol, with new friends, in my new home than for the actual taste. It is still a fond memory and today Moutai is my favorite baijiu.

At what point did you think, hey, maybe this spirit could work in cocktails?

I don’t think there’s a spirit out there that can’t work in a cocktail. It’s about finding the right combination of flavors and technique.

I think I really started to appreciate baijiu as a cocktail ingredient more when I was bartending in Guizhou. My coworkers were teaching me a lot about baijiu and experimenting with their own baijiu cocktails and that was a really inspirational atmosphere to work in.

The ‘Queen Bitch’ cocktail with black goji berry-infused Vinn rice aroma baijiu⁣, coconut-infused Dolin white vermouth and Dolin genepy.

What was the first baijiu cocktail you made? And what challenges did you find with baijiu versus other spirits?

The first baijiu cocktail I made was a sauce aroma Baijiu Mule [a riff on the Moscow Mule] with a bit of pineapple juice added to it. Nothing too complicated, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I think baijiu is challenging to work with for two main reasons. The first is that it is usually such a bold and flavorful spirit which presents similar challenges as working with Mezcal, certain rums or Islay scotch. You can easily let the spirit overpower the other ingredients.

The second challenge is that the first instinct of many bartenders is to go too far to cover up the baijiu in their cocktail. In the States, I see a lot of “baijiu cocktails” which have less than a half ounce of baijiu and a bunch of other boozes, syrups and juices to mask the flavors of baijiu. Personally, I feel like if you’re using baijiu you should be highlighting it, or at least letting it contribute to the drink.

I suppose these are two sides of the same challenge, so the short answer is balancing baijiu in a drink is tricky.

What are the three key things newbies to baijiu should know about this spirit?

One, it’s incredibly diverse. Thirteen different styles, and the variations style to style can be like moving from soju to rhum agricole. So, if you try one style and don’t like it, don’t write off the whole spirit category. Try more.

Two, it is wild fermented. That means that the microfauna in the air at the production site play a major role in the flavors of the baijiu. Because of this, baijiu has a deep level of terroir.

I think people in the spirits world should view baijiu the same way they revere and respect single village mezcal and the small batch production of agave spirits in Mexico.

Three, baijiu is a communal bonding experience. Baijiu isn’t something you order a shot of at a loud nightclub, and traditionally it’s not something you sip alone in a leather chair while reading in your study. It’s meant to be shared with friends and family. It’s meant for celebrations.

There is a rich collection of traditions surrounding drinking baijiu and many of them are meant to bring families and friends closer together. If you have a bottle of baijiu, pour some for the people you care about and enjoy it together.

Azula Always Lies is a blue baijiu Negroni with Ming River strong aroma baijiu and Junipero gin.

You also do tasting flights. Do you notice any particular baijiu style that newcomers gravitate toward?

I think those new to baijiu surprisingly gravitate toward strong aroma baijiu. The bold tropical fruit flavors are something that has wide appeal, and many folks who love rhum agricole or Jamaican pot still rum enjoy it. I also notice that rice aroma is fairly uncontroversial, with almost everyone enjoying it while very few folks choose it as their favorite.

Given baijiu is a pretty complex category, what is one tip for home mixologists for the light-aroma, strong-aroma and sauce-aroma styles?

For light aroma, think floral and fruity. Personally I like to pair it with lychee, vanilla, elderflower, pear and apple. I also like black tea and peanuts as flavor pairings with this style.

For strong aroma, it’s bold and funky. Everyone’s first move is to pair it with pineapple in Tiki drinks, and that does work well, but it can really shine in a composed stirred cocktail as well, especially if paired with herbal flavors like green Chartreuse, mint, sage, genepy, Suze and absinthe. It’s also great with Amari like Jägermeister, Amaro di Angostura and Cynar.

For sauce aroma, it’s such a fun umami bomb. I like to use sesame seed, chocolate, honey, saffron, mushrooms, butter, corn, coffee and maple syrup in cocktails with sauce aroma. It’s usually quite expensive, so it can be tough to use as a base all on its own. Exploring split base cocktails with this style makes sense financially and from a flavor standpoint as well.

If you had to pick one baijiu cocktail you created that stands above all others, what would it be?

That’s so difficult to answer, because I’ve made so many different ones over the course of running Boston Baijiu Bar. I think I’m most fond of an Old Fashioned I made for a David Bowie themed menu called “Golden Years”, which used rice aroma baijiu, Scotch, maple syrup, fish sauce, and cacao bitters, mainly because it was such a fun challenge to balance out the fish sauce as an ingredient.

I understand you plan to return to China. How does baijiu fit into your plans?

I love working with baijiu and I’d love to continue that work when I can return to China, either by working directly with a baijiu brand or by continuing to use baijiu behind the bar. Right now I’m just looking for an employment opportunity in China which would allow me to get a work visa and return to my family.

I think the appeal of Boston Baijiu Bar is partially in the educational aspect of learning about a spirit that remains obscure in the Western world. That angle is probably less appealing to Chinese people who already know just as much and quite likely much more about baijiu than I do. So I likely won’t try to recreate Boston Baijiu Bar in China, at least not in its current iteration.

Founded in 2015, World Baijiu Day is held each August 9, with events in over 60 cities so far. Follow WBD on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And get in touch via spirit (at) worldbaijiuday.com.

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