Q&8 | Ashley Mac talks baijiu cocktails at Baltimore’s NiHao restaurant

Ashley Mac is bar manager at Chinese restaurant NiHao, which has a strong focus on baijiu cocktails. In this Q&8, Mac discusses her first baijiu experiences, strategies for using different baijiu styles in cocktails, consumer reactions and NiHao’s plans to celebrate World Baijiu Day in Baltimore. Check out NiHao here on Facebook and here on Instagram.

What was your first taste of baijiu? Did you imagine making cocktails with this spirit?

My first taste of baijiu was of Guotai Legend. The owner of NiHao hired me to run the bar program at her new restaurant and she wanted a baijiu-centered cocktail program.

I had heard of baijiu before, but didn’t know much more than that. And I knew I was going to put it into a cocktail, but wasn’t sure how after that first taste.

Baijiu! What’s your one-sentence explanation of baijiu to newcomers at the bar?

With a category as large and complex as the different styles of whiskeys, this ancient Chinese spirit made with sorghum and wheat is the number one selling spirit in the world.

You stock over two dozen baijiu at NiHao. Where did you source all those bottles?

We go our liquor license in October 2020. Ming River was the only baijiu I could get through a major distributor so it was our first. No complaints–Ming River cocktails and samples on our tasting flights continue to be among our most popular.

Shortly after that, I obtained a relationship with Young Won Trading, our area’s Asian spirits distributor, and the list went to two baijiu, to seven, to thirteen, and continues to grow!

Do newcomers to baijiu tend toward a particular style? What is their typical reaction?

Honestly, I don’t see a trend. It seems that out of the gate a lot of people are drawn toward rice aroma baijiu, because it tends to be more familiar than the others. But I have guests tell me all the time which they preferred best and it changes from person to person!

Most people immediately say “interesting” upon tasting baijiu and some are politely trying to say it is not for them. But most people are very intrigued by it–and are often willing to try more, either in our tasting flights or in a cocktail.

I did notice NiHao lists tasting flights. Are there any themes?

We don’t really have themes for our flights. We offer up to four quarter-ounce samples at a time. Guests get to choose from a menu that lists aroma styles, abv [alcohol level] and tasting notes.

We recommend the tasting flights with food due to baijiu having a notoriously high abv and also because that is how people traditionally tasted it!

Baijiu styles vary widely and require different approaches for cocktails. Strong aroma baijiu is the biggest category out there–what kind of flavors do you find works there?

Tiki drinks are what always come to mind when I taste strong aroma baijiu. But strong aroma baijiu can really work anywhere. We’ve done apple cider and pumpkin drinks, savory drinks, stirred and boozy ones.

One of our current bartenders, Stephen Lynch, has made a walnut-infused Ming River cocktail that he is currently perfecting for our fall cocktail menu that I absolutely love!

Let’s talk a specific cocktail: Yumi Tao. That has a lot going on! Georgia peach rooibos-infused baijiu. Chili liqueur. Corn milk. More. What’s the inspiration behind that cocktail and how long did it take to fine-tune the recipe?

Ah, the Yumi Tao! We like to keep Guotai Legend sauce aroma baijiu on our menu at all times. It’s the favorite of NiHao wonder Lydia Chang and a favorite of the house, too.

I had made a Manhattan variation using Guotai but it read too “fall” for our summer menu. At the time, my husband, Greg Mergerner, who is also a bartender, was playing around with peach rooibos-infused Guoai, so I asked him if I could take his idea!

I did some research about popular summer drinks in China and came across a recipe for corn milk. I made corn milk with a little oat milk mixed in, grabbed the mellow corn whiskey off the back bar, and the Yumi Tao was born!

What are you guys planning to do for World Baijiu Day?

NiHao is starting a baijiu-focused visiting bartender series, where once a month, a guest bartender will create perfectly curated baijiu cocktails to pair with Nihao’s kitchen’s offerings.

We’ve decided to prepare for the series in the best way we know how–celebrating World Baijiu Day. On Wednesday, August 10, we will offer a baijiu class. Attendees will enjoy a unique baijiu welcome cocktail and a coursed meal, while I teach the baijiu basics–with baijiu samples included!

Tickets are $80 per person and include a welcome cocktail, six menu items and the baijiu samples. The attendees are welcome from 5:30 PM, with the class starting promptly at 5:45 PM. (For more info and to RSVP, see poster below.)

Stay tuned for the guest bartender series that will kick off our Mid-Autumn celebrations: Nick Lappen of Boston Baijiu Bar will team up with our friends at Ming River to explore the Mid-Autumn festival, including NiHao cuisine and, of course, baijiu!

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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