C&B Notes

Baijiu’s Broad Appeal?

The world’s most widely consumed spirit, baijiu, is largely unheard of in the West.  The manufacturers of the most popular alcoholic drink in China are trying to broaden the drink’s appeal outside of its home market, while also overcoming some generational stigmas within the country.  Tastes and preferences suggest that marketers have a tough climb, and this attempt will be interesting to follow.

That fact has baijiu-maker Luzhou Laojiao Co. eyeing the West.  The state-owned distillery in Sichuan province has joined with U.S. and European entrepreneurs in a venture called Ming River, seeking to introduce Americans and Europeans to the popular liquor, one bartender at a time.  It won’t be easy.  Usually made from fermented sorghum, a common cereal crop, baijiu is virtually unknown outside China, and its strong alcohol content — typically 50% or more — limits its appeal.  Even among China’s younger drinkers, it isn’t exactly considered hip.  “It’s always associated with drunk older men doing deals or getting wasted at Chinese banquets,” said Chang Qian, a 28-year-old Beijing resident who grew up in Chengde, in the eastern province of Hebei.  “It’s not associated with the Western concept of partying.”

Baijiu notched $103 billion in retail sales inside China last year, according to data from Euromonitor, more than double the size of the whiskey market and triple the vodka market globally.  Its sales growth has slumped in China, partly because a corruption crackdown cooled a longtime practice of business people giving expensive bottles of baijiu to government officials.  While beverages that were recently relatively unfamiliar to the U.S. palate, such as Korea’s soju and Mexico’s mescal, have recently taken off according to Euromonitor, introducing a new product category generally takes a number of players and competitors before it can enter consumer consciousness, said Jim Watson, beverage analyst at Rabobank.  “It will be a lonely road if these guys are the only ones out there,” Mr. Watson said.

* * * * *

With baijiu being somewhat of an acquired taste, Ming River’s strategy is to promote use of the alcohol in mixed drinks, tapping into the West’s cocktail culture.  Recently, Ming River chief executive William Isler busily filled glasses with four varieties of baijiu for bartenders at the Mother of Pearl bar in Manhattan’s East Village, hoping to convince them to add it as an ingredient in their cocktails.  Some of the bar staff thought it tasted like soy sauce, others like chocolate, but most were intrigued and found at least one spirit they tried agreeable.  Baijiu is usually consumed straight — and quickly — but Mr. Isler and several partners succeeded in introducing baijiu cocktails at a bar they opened in Beijing four years ago, Capital Spirits.  To those frequenting bars in China, seeing baijiu mixed into cocktails was “like if you had Chinese people in America taking hamburgers and blending them up into milkshakes,” Mr. Isler said.

Referenced In This Post