When I knocked back a swig of baijiu — a partnered creation by Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen and Striped Pig Distillery and released on Chinese New Year — I got emotional. Not because I was feeling particularly happy or sad. I’d heard that the liquor was to the Chinese what sake is to Japan, so I took a modest sake-appropriate taste. I regretted it instantly. My eyes started running, my face and ears turned bright red, and I had to suppress a coughing fit. I tried to sit at the bar looking dignified and composed, even as my taste buds were seemingly evaporating and my synapses burned on all cylinders. I had to look cool because, really, who wants to look like they can’t hold their liquor? It’s like trying a cigarette with the older kids under the bleachers—you don’t want to be the dweeb that starts coughing uncontrollably.
Lesson here: baijiu is NOT sake. It’s the most consumed liquor in the world and one of the oldest, having been made in China for over 5,000 years, but you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s really hard to find in the US.
Mythically, the first baijiu was a happy accident made from cooked sorghum seeds that were left inside a hollow tree stump. The seeds were in winter storage and by spring had fermented into the first baijiu. Also called shaojiu or sorghum wine (lesson number two: it does NOT taste like wine), baijiu is made from grains and is a strong distilled spirit, generally between 40 and 65 percent ABV. It long ago became the Drink of the People because it was easy and cheap to make and it didn’t take a whole lot to get you shit-housed.
Though the liquor is classically made from sorghum and rice and aged in terra-cotta barrels, Striped Pig co-owner and head distiller Johnny Pieper used corn grown in Bowman, S.C. and rice flour that Lee Lee’s specially imports from China to create his version. He made several strengths ranging from 80 to 135 proof for an initial taste test, and it was decided by a group of masochists that the 120 version tasted the best.
Though the odor of most baijiu is often a challenge for many non-Chinese drinkers — it’s been described as everything from stinky cheese to gasoline — Pieper’s version has clean, floral, rice-y bouquet kind of like, well, like sake. I took a second taste, and it still burned like hell, but not as bad. By the third sip, I was tasting the pleasant idiosyncrasies of the liquor and thinking about how much cheerier the world suddenly seemed.
Karalee Fallert, co-owner of Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen, wanted to pair Chinese food specifically with baijiu. “I love cohesive and unique dining experiences, she says. “It’s generally consumed straight but we did not want to limit our customers with a singular experience, so we added a few fun baijiu cocktails.” Be on the lookout for those to roll out this week as well, but get there soon as you may miss the opportunity to try baijiu. For right now, Lee Lee’s is sticking to this one small batch.
“We’d love to keep the creative process going but we want to get feedback from our customers on this go around before heading back to the stills,” says Fallert.
Near-death experience aside, I’ve decided that this will not be my last baijiu served neat. The Chinese usually drink it straight, and so shall I. But I will drink it with the fear and respect that it deserves. My advice to newbies is to taste baijiu in teeny sips at the beginning until your palate gets used to the alcohol and the flavor of the spirit can come through. And don’t mock it and or look it in the eye. If you do, it will find you. And it will destroy you.
I left the restaurant just as a massive, celebratory Chinese dragon was preparing to parade among diners who were enjoying a special holiday menu. Even though the chilly wind and rain were a slap of harsh contrast from the warm glow of the little red-walled eatery, I was buoyed by baijiu, so it didn’t seem so bad.
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