Through an unmarked entrance on a quiet alleyway, a quartet of foreigners have done the unthinkable by opening (they claim) the first dedicated Baijiu Bar in the world. Baijiu, literally “white liquor”, refers to China’s best loved tipple, a clear firewater older than Buddhism with a kick like a cross camel.
“Baijiu is typically consumed with food,” explains Bill Isler, serial entrepreneur and one quarter of Capital Spirits, the name of the tiny hutong venue with adjoining distilling space. Which is perhaps why the bar has been met with some incredulity from Chinese netizens. On the other hand, explains Bill, bigwig bosses of China’s state-run baijiu companies have stopped by to see for themselves this band of outsiders promoting their brands so successfully to willing (and young) customers, away from fusty restaurants and state banquets.
One way Capital Spirits is going about this is with their “Baijiu Flights” – petite tasters of baijiu in various thematic groupings. We opted for the “Intro Flight” comprising four midrange samples starting with Gulin Sanhua, a lighter, rice-distilled tipple from Guangxi province not too dissimilar to a vodka, and working up to Moutai Prince at a throat-burning 53% a.b.v.
Since your writer has had his share of throat-stripping booze over the years, we put it to two China noobs, a pair of 20-year old Austrian girls in the capital for the first time on vacation, to describe the taste as they worked through the flight. “It’s very strong”; “I’m getting goosebumps”; “Like a schnapps”; “This one tastes like chewing gum.”; “Wow this is just… it’s just…”; and so on. It’s fair to stay the stronger varieties were a tall order for our tasters. Which leads us to…
Baijiu cocktails. These were more warmly received; the drink pictured is a Baijiu Sour, made with rice liquor, Cointreau, sour mix, orange bitters and fresh kaffir lime over ice. It was good, perhaps because any notes of baijiu were away in the background. But come on… this is beginners stuff, right? It’s time your intrepid (and increasingly tipsy) writer took things up a level.
BOOM! 1573, the boys explained, refers to the year the earthen fermenting pit was established for this brand of premium baijiu, a pit which is still in use today. What this means, in taste terms, is the drink packs a bacteria-filled flavour punch. Complex is not the word. Bloody strong is. Are. Anyway. Next please, bartender…
This plastic bottle is filled – nay, crammed – with five snakes. Yes, five. A medicinal, virility boosting tonic, Capital Spirits even has its own similar concoction in a jar-like dispenser on the side of the bar. (Honestly, we didn’t actually try this). The homemade ginseng liquor below looked more our sort of poison. Without actually containing poison / venom.
To be clear, Capital Spirits isn’t all drinking dares or bravado challenges. What you have is a cosy hutong hideaway run by folks who really do know, drink and savour Chinese liquor, and want to share it with you, the curious, open-minded drinker. It’s a friendly, comfortable joint for beard-scratching connoisseurs and fun-seekers alike. Even a quirky spot to take clients post biz meeting. Will you gain a new found appreciation for baijiu? Well, that depends on how you feel the morning after.
Capital Spirits is located at No. 3 Daju Hutong, close to the junction of Dongzhimen Nei Dajie and Dongzhimen Nan Xiaojie. Bespoke offers full itinerary design to make sure you don’t miss out on the latest hot spots, hidden gems and secret corners of the capital only we know about! To find out more, click here.
About the author: Tom O’Malley is Propaganda Secretary at Bespoke Beijing. A lifestyle journalist, guidebook author, glutton and bon vivant, Tom is a tireless crusader for fine food, hospitality and tourist experiences in China’s capital.