Some say the popular Chinese spirit smells like dirty socks, but you should try it anyway. Here’s where.
When you taste baijiu, the world’s best-selling liquor, you’ll likely have a strong reaction upon that first sip. I’ve never met anyone who felt indifferent.
At its best, baijiu converts praise its aroma, in awe that something that looks like water can have such complex fermented and musky notes.
At its worst, patrons who wince at a whiff believe it smells like soiled socks.
Want to see funny facial expressions? Hit the bar at Lionhead on Capitol Hill and watch a baijiu virgin take a sip.
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A grain spirit often made with sorghum, baijiu is popular in China. Its coming-out party in the states came two years ago in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail, the world’s biggest booze fest. Let’s just say no critic declared it the next bourbon.
Like fernet or durian, it’s an acquired taste.
At the hip Sichuan-inspired restaurant Lionhead, bar manager Veronika Groth is a baijiu proponent, expounding that this pungent booze isn’t for some frat-boy bar dare but a serious spirit fit for contemplative drinking.
Behind her 12-seat bar, baijiu shares equal shelf space with high-end whiskey and gin. Next month, there will be a baijiu-and-tonic drink list and a happy hour featuring the spirit.
To make it palatable for the mainstream, Groth concocted an easy-drinking cocktail called Jade Pagoda. To accentuate baijiu’s savory notes, she added celery syrup. To mask its pungency, she dropped tropical velvet falernum along with lemon juice and a green apple slice, and topped it with soda.
But that’s cheating. If you’re a baijiu first-timer, you should drink it like the Chinese, a half ounce at a time.
Start with something light and sweet to ease into it. Groth suggests the Wu Chia Pi Chiew, a sorghum distilled with barley. It tastes like ginseng, roots and damp bark, sweet enough to go down easily, like an Eastern version of Italian amaro.
For something more complex, try the Luzhou Laojiao, with its toasty grain and ripe pineapple profile.
Groth suggested Mianzhu Daqu as the last tasting because “that flavor will linger with you for hours.”
It smells like stinky tofu and has the barnyard funk you get from dry European ciders. It’s earthy on the palate with a hit of caramelized durian. Not bad, but if you can’t stand the mild baijiu, this will feel like a punch in the gut.
When patrons order baijiu, Groth likes to watch their reactions. “Some wince. A lot get quizzical looks. They’re trying to get their heads around it. A lot of people don’t know what to make of it.”
Lionhead, 618 Broadway E., Seattle, will offer happy hour beginning April 3, Sunday-Thursday, 5-6 p.m. and again 9-10 p.m., with a $10 combo of a baijiu shot, beer and a bao bun, among other snacks (206-922-3326 or lionheadseattle.com).