The Striped Pig baijiu debuting tonight at Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen is very easy to drink, which is either wonderful or regrettable, depending on your relationship to baijiu.
Baijiu is the most consumed spirit on earth, and it’s lately emerged as a trendlet in New York City, where a very brave man last year opened the nation’s only baijiu-focused bar. If Americans know baijiu at all, it’s usually as a dangerously strong drink that tastes like turned cheese. Even baijiu devotees would say they’re not wrong.
But for millennia, Chinese drinkers have enjoyed finding nuances in the clear liquor, which is usually made from sorghum. At a staff meeting last summer, Lee Lee’s operating partner Karalee Fallert suggested it could be an excellent complement to the Westside restaurant’s menu.
“I did a lot of research,” says general manager Mae Jordan, who’s never tried baijiu. She determined it would be impossible for Lee Lee’s to buy baijiu from a distributor, so the restaurant partnered with Striped Pig on the project.
Striped Pig co-owner Johnny Pieper has never tasted baijiu either. But following Jordan’s lead, he jumped online and decided the spirit was probably similar to shochu, a distilled Japanese spirit variously made from buckwheat, sweet potatoes or barley. He used rice and corn for his 120 proof beverage.
While baijiu is a massive category – “baijiu is just a catchall term for all Chinese spirits, with as much variation as whiskey and rum,” a Beijing cocktail bar owner recently told the New York Times – it’s broken down by fragrance. For classification purposes, there are four primary fragrances, including “sauce fragrance,” which gives some idea of the spirit’s distance from the western liquor cabinet.
Pieper says he didn’t aim for any particular fragrance style.
“All you can do is get a clean ferment,” he says. “Your raw materials are going to determine what it tastes like.”
For most of the spirits that Striped Pig produces, that’s true. But baijiu gains its signature funk and earthy burn partly through qu, the brick of molds, yeasts and bacteria needed for solid-state fermentation, and months or years spent resting underground in clay jars or mud pits. Pieper’s spirit -- distilled in two different steps, per Western style -- started fermenting in December.
So what Pieper has made is closer to unaged corn whiskey than baijiu. But the upshot is it tastes nice and familiar, and will likely pair well with the citrus juice he envisions filling out a cocktail. Consider it a gentle introduction to a category that’s just starting to pick up speed stateside.
Lee Lee’s has three bottles of baijiu for pouring; it’s not listed on the menu, but customers just have to ask. Currently, there are no plans to retail the spirit, but Pieper says he hasn’t ruled out the possibility.
To celebrate Chinese New Year, in addition to rolling out the Striped Pig baijiu, Lee Lee’s tonight is offering a special a la carte menu featuring pinecone fish; long life noodles and fried dumplings. For more information, visit leeleeshotkitchen.com, or call 843-822-5337.