Baijiu is the world’s most popular spirit, but most Canadians have never heard of it. A clutch of local industry players are hoping to change that.
Sherry Jiang was only four or five years old when she had her first taste of baijiu. It was in her hometown of Dalian, in northeastern China, where she grew up. Over dinner, Jiang’s parents often drank small portions of the spirit, served neat at room temperature, and allowed the curious Jiang to have a small sip. “I could remember that it burned,” Jiang recalls.
It wasn’t until Jiang started working as a doctor, in her twenties, that she drank baijiu again while out for dinner with friends and coworkers. “Before you start the meal, you’d have three shots — bottoms up!” says Jiang. She admits that she didn’t really enjoy the taste of baijiu back then. It was simply a social dinnertime tradition she engaged in. But as Jiang got older and tasted more varieties — especially those that were more complex, she grew fond of baijiu, learning more about her favourite brands and varieties.
After immigrating to British Columbia in 2012, when Jiang was 45, she found that the baijiu selections in Canada were limited — and expensive. At the same time, Jiang had to leave behind her career in medicine and was working in security at a container port in B.C. “It wasn’t my goal to be a security guard for the rest of my life,” she explains. “I started thinking, ‘what can I do?’” Based on her own experiences struggling to find baijiu in Vancouver, Jiang decided to start her own baijiu microdistillery, Dragon Mist, which she launched in 2014.
Jiang’s baijiu is made from wheat, but the spirit can be made with a variety of grains, most famously, sorghum — a cereal grain commonly grown in Asia. “You can use wheat, barley, rice, sorghum, corn,” Jiang explains, adding that distillers usually mix different quantities of grains to create different flavours.
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Similar to the production of whisky, the grains are cooked in water and cooled, then a brick of yeast-like culture called qu is added to the mix, initiating a four- to six-week fermentation process. After that, the liquid is distilled and aged before bottling. Traditionally, baijiu is aged in clay pots, but Jiang ages hers in stainless steel at room temperature for three years. The end result is a clear, smooth, neutral spirit with a hint of sweetness and a very strong kick, thanks to its 56 per cent ABV (baijiu typically ranges from 40 to 60 per cent ABV).
While Jiang’s initial intent in starting a baijiu distillery was to sell it to the Canadian market, ironically, she still exports most of her baijiu to China. There, demand for the spirit is astronomical. In 2018, more baijiu was consumed in China than the amount of whisky, vodka and rum consumed globally, according to the International Wines and Spirits Record, making it the most-consumed spirit in the world.
But local demand for baijiu is changing. Sales at the LCBO increased by a whopping 70 per cent in the past year. Their selection is increasing too: In September 2023, 51 baijiu products were available at the LCBO, compared to 38 products available in September 2022.
Asian restaurants are also playing their part in introducing baijiu to local audiences. When Colin Li took over the reins of his parents’ Chinese restaurant, Hong Shing, in 2017, the 26-year-old started thinking about how he could modernize the eatery and attract a younger clientele. He’s since put some of those plans in motion with merch collections and themed dinners.
Next, Li put his focus on rethinking Hong Shing’s beverage offerings. “Drinks were never a thing we really approached,” Li says of his family’s restaurant. He thought back to annual trips he’d take to visit family in Guangzhou, China, and how prevalent baijiu was over a meal, especially during large celebrations and holidays. “Every time we came back from China, we always brought back bottles of baijiu,” Li recalls.
Over the pandemic, Li had noticed more baijiu appearing on the shelves of the LCBO. That got Li thinking about starting a cocktail program at Hong Shing with the white alcohol as the star ingredient. He worked alongside general manager Cleman Fung and bartenders Vincent Chan and Michael Ranger to create a menu of eight cocktails inspired by Asian ingredients, each playing off the distinct flavours and qualities of the baijiu in them.
Li says that baijiu is categorized by four main aromas: strong (known for its tropical fruit-like qualities), sauce (the most famous — and expensive — variety, which is umami-forward and tastes of soy and sesame), light (think herbaceous and grassy) and rice (light, floral, aromatic).
For Hong Shing’s Pina Co Baijiu, the restaurant developed a twist on the piña colada. “We wanted to accentuate the pineapple flavours of strong aroma baijiu, so we mixed it with coconut rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice, then clarified it through a milk wash,” Li explains. Another option is the Ovaltini, which uses coffee bean-infused light aroma baijiu with rum, Ovaltine (a malt milk beverage) and another milk wash to clarify. “Ovaltine is something I grew up with,” Li explains. “Our menu plays on nostalgia.”
Hong Shing’s baijiu-centric cocktail menu launched in August 2023, joining a handful of modern bars and restaurants in downtown Toronto with a focus on the spirit. At Sunnys Chinese, their on-tap cocktail is the Baijiu Long Island Iced Tea; off-menu, they also offer baijiu shots and flights served neat. Big Trouble, an Asian-themed bar and nightlife spot in Chinatown, puts their own spin on the colourless liquor through house-mixed bottles that mellow out the spirit with add-ons like oolong tea and mangosteen nectar.
When Bitter Melon, a contemporary Asian eatery at Spadina and College, opened its doors in November 2022, co-owner Andre Au knew that he wanted baijiu to be a part of its beverage offerings.
“Baijiu is not really known in the West at the moment,” explains Au. “We wanted to introduce it to Canada.” Bitter Melon offers a baijiu selection in one-ounce shots, ranging in price from from around $8 to $50 — the latter for a variety that’s been aged for 50 years. Baijiu is also a prominent ingredient in Bitter Melon’s cocktail program; bar manager Daniel Desir gets to experiment with a range of different applications for the spirit. “It adds a nice funky undertone to certain cocktails,” Desir explains. “Putting half an ounce of baijiu into a drink, you can tell immediately that it really brightens it up a lot more. It adds layers of complexity.” Desir has also served the spirit to customers with a single ice cube. “Sometimes people will have it with a few drops of water inside to open it up, just like a bourbon or scotch,” he says.
Desir, who has worked as a bartender in Toronto since 2016, has noticed a recent uptick of interest in baijiu since trying his first shot of the Chinese spirit a year and a half ago. “Back then, not a lot of people were working with baijiu,” he says. “I had never really seen it in cocktails at that time.”
Au believes the current burgeoning popularity of baijiu can be attributed to changing attitudes around cultural cuisines. “I feel like Chinese food in particular was lagging behind some other East Asian cuisines in terms of innovation,” he says. “I don’t know why that is. But in the past five to 10 years, it’s really come on strong. I think that movement extends to Chinese spirits as well.”
Li sees his new baijiu-focused bar as a way to showcase Asian drinking traditions in a new way. “We want to celebrate our culture,” Li says. Going big on baijiu was a deliberate decision for him, and one that he views as risky. “If our bar made margaritas, people would know about it. But people don’t know about baijiu.”
On top of that, many who are familiar with baijiu, like people that drank it over family dinners, or who tried it when visiting China, struggle to shake off their negative early memories of the powerful burning spirit (and the hangovers that likely ensued). “If people have heard about it, they had bad experiences,” Li says. It’s not unlike a teenager’s first encounters with tequila — often a cheap variety consumed in excess. But Li hopes that his restaurant’s baijiu cocktails could be an easier way to welcome those hesitant to try it again, or those trying it for the first time.
Like with tequila, Li also sees a future where baijiu becomes a staple ingredient at restaurants and bars across Toronto. “How do we normalize it?” Li asks. “I think it’s a very good product and I’d love to see it in other types of restaurants, not just Chinese restaurants. That’s what I love about Toronto. It’s such a melting pot of cultures.