An American discovering the world of Chinese liquor

Recipe: Baijiu Barbecue Sauce

by bb

Another baijiu enthusiast on Twitter linked this story the other day, about a Carls Jr. restaurant in Shanghai that has a burger with baijiu BBQ sauce on the menu. Naturally I wanted to try it, but a trip to Shanghai wasn’t in the cards.

So I figured I’d make my own baijiu BBQ sauce. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t find any recipes for such a thing online, but there are plenty of recipes for bourbon BBQ sauce. Sounded like a good starting point–bourbon and baijiu can both bring smokiness and sweetness, even if bourbon doesn’t ever smell like a horse barn.

With some trepidation, I started with this recipe, substituting baijiu (I used gujing shao, since I happened to have some around) for the bourbon. Also left out the onion powder, because I can’t stand onions. I made a half batch, in case it came out a total disaster. It was pretty stinky in the pan…

…but it actually came out delicious. The baijiu is present as a flavor, but it doesn’t clash with the other flavors–it actually blends nicely with the smoke and sweetness of the rest of the sauce. Even my wife liked it, and she doesn’t like baijiu. It was good on turkey burgers, and next I have to try it on sweet potato fries, which I’m sure will turn out delicious as well.


Taste: Gujing Shao Liquor

by bb

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Horsiness: 3 horses (out of 5)

Burn: 4 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: Unknown, but probably somewhere in New York City–it was a gift from a friend.

Tasting notes:

I could smell this one before I even opened the bottle. It’s strong-smelling, but I only gave it 3 horses because it’s not a particularly horsy smell. More of a blue cheese smell, with a little bit of grapefruit.

It’s seriously fiery, too, almost to the point where it overwhelms the other flavors. I should probably try it with soda water to let the other flavors come out a little. But tasting it straight up, like I always do: There’s a touch of sweetness on the front, right before the burn hits, and something dark on the back end, maybe a little stone fruit or chocolate. Hard to tell past the burn.

Recommended? Well, if you like them fiery.


Taste: ??? Kao Liang Liquor

by bb

Horsiness: 1 horse (out of 5)

Burn: 5 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: Union Street Wine and Spirits in Flushing, Queens

Tasting notes:

From what I’ve been able to tell online (Wikipedia article, among other sources), Kao Liang is a category of liquors, not a brand name. Indeed, I suspect that the Phoenix Gao Liang Chiew is part of the same category, and that “Gao” and “Kao” are different transliterations of the same word. (Anyone who knows Chinese, please correct me on this.) But this bottle has no brand name on it in English, and the website address it provides is for the importer, not the manufacturer, so for now it’s just “??? Kao Liang Liquor”.

The smell is not horsey at all–it actually smells alcoholy, like vodka or rubbing alcohol.

The burn is intense, as I guess you’d expect based on the smell. It threatens to overpower any other flavors, but there’s a deep sweet note, with a hint of…I don’t know, maybe bamboo? It’s not terribly complex. No aftertaste aside from a slight lingering burn.

This one will probably mix well, because it doesn’t have a clash of flavors going on inside it, but it isn’t anything much to drink on its own.


Taste: “Phoenix Brand” Gao Liang Chiew

by bb

Aroma: Light

Horsiness: 1 horse (out of 5)

Burn: 4 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: Union Street Wine and Spirits in Flushing, Queens

Tasting notes:

First taste in ages, I know. It’s gotten tough for me to find new baijius that are available in the US but that I haven’t already tasted. But a recent trip to Flushing led me to a store with a bunch of them. I brought two bottles home, and now know of another place to find new ones.

Anyway, on to the Phoenix. It has a very mild smell–smells like alcohol, but little beyond that.

The taste is also…well, mild isn’t quite the right word, since it has a substantial burn, but uncomplicated. Some citrus, maybe a touch of peach or similar, but that’s about it. Lacks the complexity of the baijius that I really like.

I can’t recommend this one. It’s perfectly drinkable, but I don’t really see the point of it. If you’re looking for a simple, beginner-level baijiu, I think ByeJoe or Red Star would be better, and if you’re looking for one with a more complex flavor this is definitely not that.


Taste: Shui Jing Fang “Wellbay”

by bb

Aroma: Strong

Horsiness: 3 horses (out of 5)

Burn: 4 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: Unknown, but it looks like it’s distributed in the US by Diageo so it should be findable. More information here.

Tasting notes:

First off, this is the most beautiful baijiu package I’ve ever seen. It came in a beautiful box with a wooden base–the rest of the package was bolted to the base with wooden bolts. The base had a beautiful ceramic coaster in it, too. The bottle itself is decorated with scenes from Chengdu, where it is made.

The smell starts with a sweet plum, but is swiftly followed by burning, signaling right away that this is a strong aroma baijiu.

It’s a very strong-tasting one, too. It’s very tart, with an almost immediate smoke–I’ve had baijius before with smoky aftertastes, but this one comes on much sooner. And it lingers and tingles in the mouth for a long time.

This is a nice, flavorful baijiu, very much not for beginners.


Taste: Byejoe dragon fire

by bb

Aroma: Sweet

Horsiness: 1 horse (out of 5)

Burn: 1 flame (out of 5)

Bought at: You can find places to buy it at byejoe.com

Tasting notes:

(Disclaimer: I tasted byejoe red and byejoe dragon fire at an open bar event that they sponsored.)

This is byejoe’s entry into the flavored spirits world. I understand that it’s selling better than byejoe red, and having tasted it, I’m not surprised. Not because it’s better, but because the “baijiu-ness” of it is muted by the added flavors, making a liquor that’s probably more accessible to the American palate.

To be honest, I don’t know what dragon fruit tastes like, so I don’t know how much that added to the flavor profile. For me, the predominant flavor was one of lychee, with a bit of hot chili. It’s a little sweet, but not sickly sweet like some of the flavored vodkas are, or even as sweet as some other baijius I could name.

The smell, similarly, is primarily lychee–I couldn’t pick out the horsiness that I expect from a baijiu.

This is a tasty spicy lychee liquor. It’s not terribly baijiu-y, but it’s good on its own merits.


Taste: Michiutou

by bb

Aroma: Light

Horsiness: 1 horse (out of 5)

Burn: 2 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: Gum Wing Lee Luquors, (Chinatown, San Francisco)

Tasting notes:

This is Taiwanese, and only 35% alcohol, so I don’t know if it’s technically a baijiu. Perhaps not, since the label only says it’s made from rice, and baijiu is usually predominantly sorghum. Nonetheless, it’s a Chinese liquor, so I’ll go ahead and write it up.

The smell has none of the baijiu horse barn in it. It smells faintly smoky, like an Islay scotch (but less so). It doesn’t have a lot of complexity to its flavor. Maybe because I was expecting a baijiu, but I was disappointed with the taste of this one. It tastes watery, with a very light mouthfeel. The only significant flavor is the smoke, which comes back in the aftertaste.

There’s a little bit of a burn, enough to be pleasant without being overwhelming.

I imagine this would mix well–it would add a nice bit of smoke to a cocktail–but it’s not too interesting to drink on its own.


Taste: Byejoe Red

by bb

Aroma: Light

Horsiness: 2 horses (out of 5)

Burn: 2 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: You can find places to buy it at byejoe.com

Tasting notes:

(Disclaimer: I tasted byejoe Red and byejoe Dragon Fire at an open bar event that they sponsored.)

I’ve been talking with the byejoe people on Twitter for a while now. They’re trying to bring baijiu to the US by making a baijiu that’s more suited to the American palate. I was both intrigued and skeptical. I’m all about bringing baijiu to the US–that’s what this blog is here for. But I was concerned that in the process of making a baijiu that was more suited to the American palate, they’d lose what makes baijiu great, that it would end up more like vodka. (Vodka in Russia is delicious. Vodkas in the US are totally flavorless.)

I needn’t have worried. My first sniff of byejoe Red confirmed that it’s still very much a baijiu. It doesn’t have a ton of horsiness, but there was enough to give me confidence that it wasn’t going to taste like vodka.

It’s tasty on the tongue. Not super-complex, but there are some interesting flavors there, including notes of mint and chocolate.

There’s some burn on the back end. It’s only 40% alcohol, in keeping with American liquors, but they preserved a bit of fire.

This is a nice entry-level baijiu. It won’t replace Wulangye for me, but it’s not trying to. It’s accessible, and has enough of the complexity of baijiu that it will hopefully encourage people to discover the world of Chinese liquor. And it works well in cocktails.


Taste: Imperial Lotus White

by bb

Aroma: Sweet

Horsiness: 1 horse (out of 5)

Burn: 3 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: Gum Wing Lee Luquors, (Chinatown, San Francisco)

Tasting notes:

This is a very different baijiu from the other ones I’ve tasted. The one hit I was able to find about it on Google says that it’s infused with 20 medicinal herbs, which helps explain it. It doesn’t really taste like baijiu at all, honestly.

The smell is sweet, and a little smoky–a bit like smelling a bottle of barbecue sauce.

The taste is incredibly sweet, and very herbal and floral. I don’t know if there’s actual lotus in there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were. There’s a lingering medicinal taste to it, and a fair amount of burn that only really pops up at the end. The smokiness I found in the smell is absent from the taste–I think the sweetness overwhelms it.

Bottles like this are part of the reason I do this blog. If you walked into a store, without any knowledge of the category, you wouldn’t have any way of distinguishing this from, say, the Red Star, and the English-language Internet would be of no help. But they’re utterly different. I hope that this blog helps other people choose between the varieties.


Taste: Wuliang Chun Jiu

by bb

Aroma: I’m guessing Strong

Horsiness: 3 horses (out of 5)

Burn: 5 flames (out of 5)

Bought at: Truong Thanh Liquors, (Chinatown, Boston)

Tasting notes:

This is a stinky one. Don’t let the three horse rating mislead you–it’s not a particularly horsey smell, but it’s a strong smell. Smells sour, and maybe faintly rotten.

The initial taste is where the horsiness really hits. Also sour apple, and a truly intense burn. At 50% alcohol, it’s not the strongest baijiu I’ve tasted, but it’s one of the burniest.

The aftertaste is sharp, sour, and continues to burn.

I bought this because I loved an earlier Wuliangye (it’s still my favorite baijiu…if only it weren’t so expensive!), and this was a cheaper product from the same company. Well, I guess it’s cheaper for a reason. It has some of the complexity of the other bottle, but it’s harsher, and the flavors don’t work as well together, if that makes any sense.

As an interesting side note, I was looking online to see if there was any pre-existing information about this baijiu, and found a restaurant in New Jersey that has baijiu on the menu! At hugely marked-up prices, but still, I’ve never before seen that in a US restaurant.


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