Australia

The new gin? Australians developing a taste for potent Chinese spirit

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Baijiu is getting a makeover in a bid to boost its appeal to western markets.

It's the world's most consumed alcohol but Chinese grain liquor baijiu is little known in western countries. 

Typically drunk as a shot in China, baijiu means "white alcohol" and is often described by foreigners as "paint stripper" or "firewater". 

"Whenever they drink it they’ll say 'gambei', meaning 'bottoms up', to show their bravery or generosity in treating their customers or their guests," baijiu aficionado Jenny Chiu told SBS News. 

Moutai's Sydney store runs tastings.
Moutai's Sydney store runs tastings for curious customers.
SBS

Ms Chiu works for high-end baijiu distiller, Moutai, which is using its Sydney store to "reducate" Australian drinkers (the spirit's packaging is often red). 

"We have to teach them from scratch how to savour baijiu, what’s the right way of enjoying it, instead of just emptying the glass every time." 

A special Chinese New Year baijiu cocktail at Sydney's Lotus Dumpling Bar.
A special Chinese New Year baijiu cocktail at Sydney's Lotus Dumpling Bar.
SBS News
 

Gin may have enjoyed a Western resurgence in the last few years, but Baijiu accounts for more than a third of global sales of spirits, or 5.5 billion litres - more than the next biggest seller; whisky. But when President Xi Jinping's corruption crackdown wiped baijiu off state banquet tables a couple of years ago, Moutai increased its overseas allocation.

"We've definitely seen a surge of demand in Australia, not only just the Chinese community but also people who have Asia links, for example they have business dealings with Chinese people of in China," Ms Chiu said.  

'A new frontier' for bartenders

To take the edge off, distillers and adventurous bartenders are experimenting with flavour combinations. Pierrick Fayoux, from alcohol supplier Noble Spirits, represents a Hong Kong brand of baijiu made to appeal more to western palates. 

"It’s a bit more approachable, more fruity flavours," Mr Fayoux said. 

He supplies a handful of bars that are incorporating baijiu in their cocktail menu. 

"It’s a new frontier for them, it’s something that they have never played with and that has allowed them to fully express their creativity," he said. 

Pierrick Fayoux says Chinese New Year is the perfect time to try baijiu.
Pierrick Fayoux says Chinese New Year is the perfect time to try baijiu.
SBS

"We’ve definitely seen a big increase in sales in the last two years. We’ve seen other competitors entering the market so it’s really dynamic."  

'Liquorice and fruity'

At a baijiu cocktail making class at The Grasshopper Bar in Sydney, some got their first taste of Moutai. At 53 per cent alcohol, first-timers were understandably cautious. 

"It tastes kind of liquorice and fruity at the same time, it actually went down a lot smoother than I thought it would," one participant said. 

Another described it as "better than I was expecting", while one member of the class thought it would pair well with Asian food. 

Bar manager Belinda Lai said they choose an underrated spirit each year to feature in their classes and baijiu was an obvious choice this year. 

Bottles of Moutai start at $70 and can go up to thousands of dollars.
Bottles of Moutai start at $70 and can go up to thousands of dollars.
SBS

"It's one of those spirits that with the growing Asian population in Australia it's a really important spirit to cover."

She remembers her relatives drinking the strong stuff at family celebrations. 

"Now it's more sophisticated, there's different levels and grades of the actual spirit itself."

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