Bastien Ciocca is co-founder with Andrew Ho of Hope & Sesame, which counts two bars of that name in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The company’s brands include baijiu-centric SanYou bars in both cities as well as Charlie’s, The August and more, including loads of consulting gigs. I asked Ciocca about Sanyou, including the newly opened Shenzhen branch, his favorite baijiu cocktails, why drinks made with this spirit aren’t more popular in China, and more.
Sanyou Shenzhen is open! What’s the difference between the Guangzhou SanYou and the one in Shenzhen?
We created both SanYou with a different idea and goal in mind.
While SanYou Guangzhou is focusing entirely on modern baijiu cocktails, showcasing all 12 aroma styles in different drinks, SanYou Shenzhen aims to bring light to the wider range of spirits made in China. Baijiu, of course, plays an important role but so do emerging whiskeys and gins as well as locally made olive wine, dry huangjiu, osmanthus rice wines and Chinese wines.
What’s the first baijiu cocktail you created? And what lessons did it teach you?
One of the very first cocktails we made was 泸州老豆 Lu’s Daddy, a milk punch-style cocktail made with strong aroma baijiu, white chocolate, figs, mango skin, amaretto and bitter orange.
We wanted to maintain the flavors of baijiu while finding complementing flavors and adding complex layers. This was really encouraging and we saw a lot of possibilities ahead of us.
SanYou’s cocktails explore far beyond major baijiu styles like sauce, strong and light. What’s a lesser-known style you find intriguing and why?
Extra strong aroma baijiu is fantastic in cocktails, due to its complexity and punchy flavors. Xi Feng is also a great baijiu to play with herbal ingredients, dried orchard fruits and ginger.
But the most fun to us was sesame aroma baijiu: it does killer baijiu sours with its nutty aftertaste!
A major topic with baijiu cocktails is how to highlight rather than mask the taste. How to do that with, say, a strong aroma baijiu like Wuliangye?
The approach is the same with other strong spirits in cocktails. It’s not always necessary to use a single spirit. You can use two or more spirits, with baijiu playing more a role of modifier than main spirit. It will bring a lot to the drink without overpowering the overall recipe.
Even though we see more baijiu cocktails in China, they are still fairly rare in this country despite it being the home of this spirit. Why is that?
It has to do with following cocktail trends that originate in other countries and with how baijiu brands create education programs for bartenders. We aim to push forward interest in baijiu cocktails, using the unique platform we created with Hope & Sesame to make them more common within China and also reaching further to the global bar scene.
You’ve also visited quite a few baijiu distilleries in China. What was your last trip like?
The last one was pretty cool, a tiny distillery in Shunde we visited with the SanYou team. It’s a family business that makes rice aroma baijiu and the owner showed us around. It’s one of the last distilleries there, many have closed over the past years. Their spirit is really cheap but pretty tasty.
If you had to pick one Sanyou cocktail that has been a crowd pleaser over the years, which one?
Strangely, the Moli-Tini, a martini interpretation that uses fresh jasmine flowers (moli hua), elderflower, Fenjiu and gin that is redistilled together. It was not expected to be popular and yet it’s our top seller, both at the bar and as a takeaway cocktail sold online.
Finally, there are now two Sanyou but, given the name, a third feels like destiny. What are the top prospects for San-Ge Sanyou?
Things have been pretty hard to predict recently with the [COVID] health situation. We want to focus first on both SanYou, to refine and develop new creative cocktails. We do have a lot of requests but we will wait until early next year to start thinking where a third SanYou would make the most sense. An overseas version would be great to promote baijiu to a more international crowd. Let’s see!