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Bonding with Baijiu

by Liza B. Zimmerman

He was like a kid in a candy shop. The first thing Orson Salicetti did when he decided to open a Baijiu bar in New York was head to Chinatown to play with candy. He views drinks as nostalgic flavors for guests and hence wanted to link them to their childhood memories.

His own early years were spent in Venezuela, so Chinese candy and nostalgic tastes were a whole new ballgame. Given that he’s a man who opened a handful of Tiki bars in Russia, no challenge is insurmountable.

However Baijiu—which is generally made from sorghum and can also be produced from barley, millet and wheat—and can pose big flavor hurdle for American palate. It’s got a strong fetid taste mid-palate—no kidding—that is hard to learn to love. As much as we have stepped up to our earthy Rhône wines and learned to cope with layers of “band-aidy brett” in Oregon Pinots I believe the American drinking public is ready to play with Baijiu.

Reinventing the Spirit

Orson admits that it took him a good six months to fall for this unusual distillate. He has also done a copious amount of research to stay true to Chinese flavors while making the drink more accessible to Westerners.

   

When he wasn’t eating candy in Chinatown, he was sorting through the number of milks that the Chinese drink on a regular basis: everything from rice to mung bean and almond. He started making them at home, now thankfully for his neighbors he now does it at the bar on Houston Street in the West Village .

Blends of those milks have become the base for a handful of sweetly intoxicating drinks which would make great alcoholic popsicles. The sesame colada has baijiu, white sesame paste and caramelized pineapple with a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top. It is addictive after the first sip.

Since most Baijiu is aged in ceramic containers, Orson has given it a new twist by curing oak barrels with Benedictine and vermouth. It’s an ode to the Scotch and Bourbon drinker and gives the spirit an added level of depth and complexity.

Looking Beyond China

Baijiu is reputed to have fueled the Red Army for years. Some, as of yet unconfirmed, reports say the government even once spent more on it than the military. However it has mostly been consumed at home in and in big banquet halls both here and in China. It is also at the heart of lively Chinese drinking competitions that more often seal more deals and toast weddings than deliver a great cocktail experience.

Baijiu has languished on the shelf in small liquor stores in Chinatowns across the U.S and was in great need of an ambassador to represent its virtues and show its mixibility. Orson was clearly up to the task as he opened Caracas, one of the first rum bars in Brooklyn, and worked at New York’s Apotheke.

He is also doing infusions with crazy flavor combinations. I would gladly take a shot of that cilantro and black pepper in my Bloody Mary any day. I also adored the super spicy Szechwan Pepper infusion: it has a slow and long burn, like many of the best Asian dishes. These drinks are served in individual glasses or can be ordered in elegant long, slim 9-ounce bottles to share.

The host is reluctant to list all the ingredients in each drink on the menu. I suspect he likes to change it up and loves explaining the background of the drinks to guests. He says he rarely gets walk-ins, as the bar is down a steep, unmarked staircase with a big bouncer at the front. When he does he initiate newcomers, he is happy to welcome them into a long, dark 1920s Shanghai-inspired bar and talk about candy and milk he wishes he had as a kid in Venezuela.

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