It might come as a surprise to many people that the world’s top-selling spirit is not whisky or vodka, but baijiu, China’s national alcohol that takes about one-third of the world’s total spirits sales.
Mostly consumed in China, baijiu can be intimidating to outsiders for its strong flavor and the custom of ganbei, which means gulping down shots of baijiu and often leads to massive hangovers.
A must-have for official banquets, baijiu took a big hit following the government’s anti-extravagance campaign that started in 2013. A Nielsen survey shows that the sales of baijiu fell 2.7 percent year-on-year in 2013. High-end brands like Diageo’s Shuijingfang dropped the most.
However, the industry has been recovering slowly for the last two years by switching focus to the middle-class and moving online.
At the same time, baijiu is seeking opportunities outside of China.
About 50 venues in 30 cities around the world will take part in the World Baijiu Day on Aug 9, shedding a spotlight on this distinctive Chinese alcohol. The map spans from Beijing to London, New York, Milan, and Sydney.
Jim Boyce, who launched the non-profit promotional event in Beijing in 2015, says that the goal is both to get more people to try baijiu and to try to bring it “beyond ganbei.”
Traditionally, baijiu is taken neat, and the high level of alcohol can set off most first-timers. The World Baijiu Day will feature it not only in cocktails, liqueurs, and infusions, but also in chocolates and pizzas, for pairing with tea and coffee.
There will also be flights, seminars, quizzes, and food pairings that highlight baijiu.
“Baijiu faces more competition than it did a decade ago, particularly in terms of attracting younger drinkers,” says Boyce.
“There are still opportunities in terms of reaching out to consumers with better stories and new products, including spirits with lower alcohol levels, and testing the waters of overseas sales,” he adds.
Moutai, the best-known Chinese baijiu brand, will offer “Art of Baijiu” workshops and a Moutai cocktail session in the Kweichow Moutai Showroom in Australia.
“Baijiu brands must focus on educating customers and showing them how to enjoy baijiu with food or mixed as cocktails,” says Imogen Hayes, marketing manager of Moutai Australia.
“I often explain to Westerners that in the same way they enjoy sake with Japanese food, they can also enjoy Moutai with Chinese food. And then we teach them to ganbei!’”
Moutai is now sold in 53 countries and regions including North America, Russia, Europe, Japan, Korea, and Australia.
In Australia, customers include young people who are interested in cocktails and older locals who are interested in purchasing Moutai for gifts, Hayes says.
However, it remains to be seen whether baijiu will be as popular as sake and soju.
“Much less Chinese Americans appreciate baijiu compared to their counterparts appreciating sake and soju. The high level of alcohol is also intimidating to many,” says Andrew Chiu, co-owner of Peking Tavern in Los Angeles.
For the World Baijiu Day, Peking Tavern will offer its signature baijiu cocktails that mix the spirit with novel ingredients such as hibiscus, coffee, or celery juice.
Chiu says that the light aroma category baijiu sells more because it is easier to create cocktails.
Brands like Hong-Kong Baijiu and Byejoe in the United States have been catering to this preference, offering a lower level of alcohol with Western-focused marketing.
Vinn Distillery in Portland will offer samples and cocktails based on its baijiu with 40 percent alcohol, compared with 52 to 60 of those made in China.
“The baijiu from China is stronger in alcohol than most spirits offered here and the U.S. market isn’t used to it. Lowering the ABV or creating amazing cocktails that highlights the spirit could be some possible solutions,” says Michelle Ly, daughter of the founders.
Vinn now sells in Oregon, Washington State, California, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington DC.
Aside from World Baijiu Day, events like Baijiu Cocktail Week in the UK and baijiu cocktail competitions for bartenders are also helping raise the spirit’s profile globally.
This year, seven bars and restaurants in Beijing are taking part in the event. However, it is still rare to see a baijiu cocktail on a drinks list in China, let alone other countries, says Paul Mathew, co-owner of The Hide Bar in London.
The Hide will offer free free baijiu tasters and discounted baijiu cocktails for the event.
“Our guests in London regularly ask us to explain the spirit we’re using in their drink, so awareness-raising will be an important part of market development,” he says.
“There are lots of challenging flavors in the drinks industry, from smoky whiskies and mezcal through to bittersweet amaro blends and herbal liqueurs. I see Chinese friends who taste these for the first time pulling similar faces to those I see on Westerners drinking baijiu! But when consumers discover them and understand more, they often develop a taste and end up appreciating their finer points and nuances.”