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If you can handle the burn, 11 spirits that are high-proof and potent
It’s not your imagination: Your drink may actually be getting stronger.
While 80-proof spirits have become pretty standard, some brands are kicking up the heat and going to 100-proof and above. These potent bottlings aren’t just a show of force but are also prized by top bartenders like Liquor.com advisory board member Dushan Zaric, since they have more flavor and stand up better in cocktails. (You can read Zaric’s whole argument here.)
So check out our list of high-octane spirits, which are all at least 100-proof and will add a little extra oomph to your drinks. Cheers!
In 1988, Frederick Booker Noe II, grandson of the legendary Jim Beam, created this bottling, one of the first small-batch bourbons. The complex whiskey is aged for up to eight years and bottled straight from the barrel. Uncut and unfiltered, it packs a serious punch, with a proof ranging from 121 to 127.
Perry’s Tot Navy-Strength Gin
Perry’s Tot, which was created by Liquor.com advisory board member Allen Katz, is in the fashion of British navy-strength gin. (The liquor on warships had to be at least 114-proof, because gunpowder won’t ignite if weaker liquor than that spills on it.) The name is in keeping with the nautical theme: Commodore Matthew C. Perry served in the US Navy from the War of 1812 through the late 1850s, and "tot" was the measurement of alcohol formerly given to British sailors each day.
Click here to find more high-proof spirits.
This story was originally published at Fire Water: 11 High-Proof Spirits. For more stories like this join Liquor.com and drink better. Plus, for a limited time get How to Cocktail in 2013, a cocktail recipe book — free! Join now.
Dulce Vida is an Austin-based company that makes a full line of 100 percent organic tequilas bottled at 100-proof. The highland-grown agave is bright and floral, providing the blanco expression with a lemony, minty nose with hints of green olive and grassiness on the palate. It’s spicy, but the complex character jumps out of the bottle when mixed into classic tequila cocktails.
Dulce Vida’s extra-añejo release starts with a brilliant amber color in the bottle, and smells of sweet vanilla, nuts, apples and baking spices. It's warm on the tongue, but when that heat dissipates, the tequila concludes with a pleasantly dry finish.
Low-Proof Cocktails Are the Buzziest Way to Keep the Party Going
The modern cocktail renaissance has resurrected scores of techniques, recipes, and ingredients. Rye, bourbon, and amari, not to mention Flips and Daiquiris, have made recent comebacks in cutting-edge cocktail bars nationwide.
One of the most popular throwbacks is low-ABV, or low-alcohol-by-volume, drinks. If you’ve had an Aperol Spritz, or seen your friends Instagramming theirs, then you’ve already skimmed the surface of what low-ABV cocktails bring to the table.
Popular in European cities for centuries, low-ABV drinks are now booming across the United States, inspiring unique cocktails and several product launches. American-made amari, liqueurs, and other low-proof spirits are joining their Old World forebears in bartenders’ back bars, and wellness-minded consumers seek ways to join the party without overindulging.
Low-proof drinking is all the buzz because it appeals to a new generation of educated drinkers who are curious about new ways to imbibe. It allows us to moderate our own consumption, try new flavors and mixtures, and, most importantly, save room for whatever’s next.
“Low-ABV drinks are, typically, cocktails that have their main ingredients as a sake, vermouth, sherry, and other fortified or aperitif wine variants,” Miguel Salehi, bartender at The Beehive in San Francisco, says. “This low-ABV category will have alcohol contents that will fall within the 15 to 20 percent range. (Most spirits start at 40 percent alcohol and move upwards).”
Less alcoholic ingredients give bartenders new drink formats to play around with, such as now-ubiquitous spritzes, and new ways to think about flavors and balanced cocktails for their patrons. In America’s rapidly evolving cocktail culture, innovation is key.
“What we’ve seen recently is a huge demand for cocktail programs in restaurants,” Salehi says. Historically, many bartenders and chefs have struggled to pair boozy cocktails with food, worrying that the flavors and strength of mixed drinks can quickly overpower dishes.
“This is where low-ABV drinks can really come in handy,” he says. “You can start the meal with a nice vermouth Highball or Americano variation to go with the salad. Having some charcuterie? Try a Bamboo! Having dessert? Pair it with a Sherry Cobbler! Low-ABV drinks allow cocktails to become a viable option with food.”
Several new spirits, particularly amari, bitter aperitivi, and liqueurs, have launched to speak to consumers’ growing interest in low-ABV cocktails. Take the award-winning liqueur Italicus. Made with Italian bergamot and other floral botanicals, it is a subtle yet flavorful modifier. It won best new spirit at the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards the year it launched.
“There are so many awesome ingredients out there to play with,” Haley Forest, the national brand ambassador for Italicus in the U.S., says, listing sherry, amari, and bitters among bartenders’ favorite low-ABV, high-flavor options. Fortified wines like vermouth and sherry are becoming increasingly popular on cocktail menus around the country as well, thanks to their robust flavors and drinkability.
Lo-fi Aperitifs is a California-based brand that has both dry and sweet vermouths, along with a wine-based gentian amaro. The brand actively embraces its role in cocktails, publishing more than 30 original recipes on its site. In July 2018, it hosted an industry brunch with low-proof cocktails at the annual Tales of the Cocktail convention.
Regal Rogue, an Australian vermouth brand, is set to launch in November 2018 in the U.S. Meanwhile, American craft distilleries such as Tattersall Distilling and Ransom Spirits are releasing their own expressions of amari and fortified wines, respectively.
Many other aperitif, amari, and fortified wine brands have launched in the past two to three years. William Grant & Sons, a major international spirit company, debuted a sweet vermouth infused with cascara, the discarded fruit of the coffee berry, named Discarded, in summer 2018. Last summer also saw the debut of an aromatic aperitif, Rosa 22, from Riboli Family Wine Estates, creator of America’s No. 1 imported Italian wine, Stella Rosa. Crafted in Italy’s Piedmont region, Rosa 22 is a light, bitter orange aperitif somewhat reminiscent of Aperol.
There is also a general affinity toward health-mindedness that has been influential in the embrace of low-ABV cocktails.
“As more and more guests begin to focus on their health, I think it is only natural for people to embrace moderation,” says Erick Castro, an industry jack-of-all-trades who owns multiple bars, most notably the award-winning Polite Provisions in San Diego. He is also the host of the “Bartender at Large” podcast. “It seems that many folks want to enjoy a properly made cocktail for the sake of flavor and ceremony, while minimizing the buzz so they can have fun for longer,” he says.
“I think it is a combination of people being health conscious and people focusing on the drinks themselves rather that just getting drunk,” Forest, brand ambassador for Italicus, says. “Low-ABV drinks allow for a lengthier drinking session without the boozy side effects.”
Low-ABV cocktails often use fortified wines and aperitifs as their base. That doesn’t necessarily mean that spirits fall by the wayside instead, higher-proof alcohols become modifiers, taking the back seat to their less spirituous counterparts. This ensures that low-ABV ingredients have a solid backbone to build on so they aren’t drowned out but other ingredients in the mix. It presents an exciting challenge for bartenders.
Kathleen Amtower, bartender at Vol. 39 in Chicago, created her own take on the low-ABV Sherry Cobbler that uses oloroso sherry as the base with Santa Teresa 1796 rum as the supporting spirit. It is balanced with rhubarb shrub, Angostura bitters, and a muddled strawberry over crushed ice, and is garnished with cracked black cardamom and fresh basil — a perfect cocktail to pair with dessert.
The rise of low-proof cocktails aligns with the needs of modern consumers looking for something a bit healthier and more sophisticated. As American cocktail culture continues to evolve, many of us are looking for something thoughtful and contemplative to sip, not just a booze delivery vehicle. It’s a time-tested idea.
“We’re calling this a trend but in reality, it’s been around for a long time,” Salehi says. “Aperitivos have always been a huge part of European culture and maybe we’re just now catching up to this way of enjoying a few drinks with friends, while taking things a little slower.”
We Asked 12 Bartenders: What’s the Best New Bourbon That’s Earned a Spot on Your Bar?
Americans have proven that no hardship can keep them from their beloved native spirit, bourbon. As VinePair reported last September, sales of off-premise bourbon reached $1.34 billion in revenue only eight months into 2020 — a staggering 30 percent increase from the previous year.
And the bourbon industry isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. To help highlight new releases worth a splurge, VinePair asked experts for the bourbons that have recently earned a place on their bars and in their hearts. Keep reading for some newly released treasures, plus a few classics that should be on every bourbon connoisseur’s radar.
The Best New Bourbons Recommended by Bartenders
- Spirit Works Bourbon
- Pinhook High Proof Bohemian Bourbon
- Ezra Brooks 99 Proof
- Belle Meade Bourbon
- Jeptha Creed Straight 4-Grain Bourbon
- Angel’s Envy Cellar Collection
- Larceny Barrel Strength
- Booker’s Bourbon
- W.L. Weller 12 Year
- Kings County Distillery’s Peated Bourbon
- Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Bardstown Fusion Series #4
Keep reading for details about all of the recommended drinks!
“Spirit Works Bourbon. Spirit Works is here in Sebastopol at The Barlow. They are local, source quality ingredients, it’s made by wonderful people, and it tastes great. We use it in Dealer’s Choice cocktails like an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or Whiskey Sour to show off the quality and flavor. It can be enjoyed neat or with a little ice as well.” —Sam Levy, Fern Bar at The Barlow, Sebastopol, Calif.
“Pinhook High Proof Bohemian Bourbon is a great new overproof Kentucky bourbon that isn’t crazy expensive. The whiskey has a lot of pleasant citrus notes on the nose and a sweet caramel finish on the palate. Because of the high ABV, it comes through really well in cocktails and makes a great Whiskey Sour.” —Tom Garvin, Beverage Director, Tribeca’s Kitchen, NYC
“I enjoy using higher-proof bourbon for mixing in stirred cocktails. The Ezra Brooks 99 plays well with various ingredients while still allowing the bold flavors of the bourbon to play center stage. The spicy rye bourbon mash bill and charcoal filtration give it a bit more depth and a slight smokiness that I enjoy in making an Old Fashioned.” —Justin Wilson, Director of Outlets, SAAM Lounge in SLS Brickell, Miami
“I love Belle Meade it’s an old brand that has recently made a resurgence. They really took the time to source a good whiskey that matches their storied history. Their Cask Strength Bourbon has a little heat and a good mouthfeel. Drink it neat.” —Marc Figueiras, Bartender, Dullboy, Jersey City, N.J.
“I really like Jeptha Creed Straight 4-Grain Bourbon, a very tasty high-proof bourbon with a lot of character and flavor. Their story is also awesome. Female master distiller Joyce Nethery and her husband Bruce [manage] the farm where they grow their heirloom corn.” —Luis Hernandez, Owner, Cocktail Illustrators Consulting, Brooklyn
“Sadly, we don’t have any new bourbons on our back bar. However, the new Angel’s Envy Cellar Collection [finished in] tawny port wine barrels is definitely something I would love to get my hands on.” —David Roth, Beverage Director, KOJO, Sarasota, Fla.
“The newest bourbon to earn a spot on my back bar would have to be Larceny Barrel Strength. A beautiful wheated bourbon from Heaven Hill hitting over 120-proof and aged between 6 and 8 years, this is definitely a pleasant sipping whiskey. I like my bourbon strong and delicious, and this hits all the notes nice butterscotch and caramel with just a bit of spice and heat so you know you’re drinking a barrel-strength bourbon.” —Dimitrios Zahariadis, Beverage Director, Viron Rondo Osteria, Cheshire, Conn.
“While not necessarily new, Booker’s Bourbon has made the difference for some bars I managed and bartended at along my career.” —Pedro Fernandez, Head Bartender, Amali, NYC
“W.L. Weller 12 Year: I love wheated bourbons in general — when done properly — and this is one of the classics. It’s creamy [and] sweet, with toffee and burnt cream.” —Vince Miezejewski, Bartender, The Archer, Jersey City, N.J.
“The best new bourbon to join our back bar is Kings County Distillery’s Peated Bourbon. Its lightly smoky flavor adds depth to classic cocktails (or poured neat) without overpowering them like a Scotch might. Plus, the old medicine bottle aesthetic shows off their history as the oldest distillery in New York with such a vintage charm.” —Brenna Gay, Bartender, Bradford House, Oklahoma City
“Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey: A blend of corn, rye, and malted barley make for a complex sip. Plenty of notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and walnut. The standout smoothness comes from the unique process the barrels undergo, being left out in the elements before charring takes place.” —Gary Wallach, Food & Beverage Director, Arlo SoHo, NYC
Everclear is a brand of neutral grain spirit that is 190 proof—that basically means that it’s insanely strong.
Due to its crazily high alcohol content, the product has become iconic in pop culture, often having a notorious reputation.
Like most high ABV spirits, It’s typically used to make homemade liqueurs, such as limoncello and even bitters such as angostura bitters.
Some people even adopt it in cooking, using its high concentration of alcohol as a solvent to better extract flavours from certain ingredients.
Don’t try too hard to analyse the taste of it because, by the time you do, you’ll probably need a tongue transplant.
The Baijiu Riddle: Learning to Love China's Infamous Firewater
I was slumped against the neon sign of a dive bar in Bushwick, chain-smoking and hazy from cheap beer, when a beautiful woman walked up to me and wordlessly offered a glass flask with a red cap. I took a whiff and recognized the smell immediately: baijiu, the Chinese firewater whose sharp, pungent odor brings tears to your eyes.
It'd been years since I last encountered baijiu, likely at some family function, so I knocked it back out of some combination of obligation and recklessness. I thought it might taste different now that I was older and more worldly, but as the liquor set my throat ablaze the same familiar, foul reaction hit me: too much burn, too sweet, too much musk.
I grew up Chinese-American in Johnson City, Tennessee, a whistlestop in the Appalachian mountains where the closest thing to the People's Republic of China was a free sample of bourbon chicken on a tray outside Panda Express in the food court of the mall. My parents, Shanghainese immigrants who lived through the Cultural Revolution, were reticent to speak much about China at all. The mystery of our heritage meant that I clung desperately to whatever parts of Chinese culture they retained, innocuous peeks into their pre-American lives. A few precious touchstones: pleating dumplings in the winter, a red envelope on my birthday, the Chinese story books my parents read to me before bed.
Baijiu was always more furtive in definition. The liquor is so pervasive in China that it'd be unthinkable not to have it on-hand for special occasions, like Chinese New Year or Autumn Festival, so when celebrating these occasions in our home in Tennessee, Ma and Ba might close their eyes while describing the strange elixir and smile. Xiang de se they'd say. So fragrant. So complex and deep, it reaches into your soul.
But we never had it in the house. Even now, it's tricky to find in New York, much less the American South. That it was basically nonexistent stateside only made me decide it was that much more Chinese, so Chinese that it couldn't exist elsewhere. I soaked up each reference and imagined a drink with a lunar glow: mysterious and fortifying, tasting of exotic flowers. Unattainable baijiu became a potion I could drink to help me understand the part of me that is Chinese.
I finally had the opportunity to drink baijiu when I was 12, at a banquet in Beijing during a family trip to China. I took a small sip and felt the liquor flame down my throat, setting my nasal passages and eyes on fire. The aftertaste was of hot trash. My body involuntarily tensed as if I'd just drank poison.
How was it that this baijiu, so deeply woven into my parent's warmest memories and the Chinese collective unconscious, tasted foremost of kerosene and rot?
A Chinese Love Story
According to a report released by the International Wine & Spirits Group (PDF), baijiu production accounted for a third of all alcohol produced around the world in 2012. Consider that in China, every restaurant, every business deal, every wedding, every holiday, is stocked with the clear, fiery liquor. Americans expect sake at sushi restaurants and Jagermeister at frat parties Chinese culture and baijiu are similarly inextricable.
Yet despite the recent boom of interest in authentic Chinese food, you can rarely buy baijiu to accompany a Chinese meal outside of China, even in big cities like New York. And despite a rising cocktail culture's fervor for all things foreign and obscure, few Americans have even heard of baijiu, the most popular spirit in the world.
There is a terrifically informative book on baijiu called The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, by Derek Sandhaus, that explores the history and production of baijiu in vivid and lively detail. Sandhaus traces the invention of baijiu back a thousand years, when either traders from the MIddle East or invaders from Mongolia introduced the concept of distillation to the mainland.*
An alternative introduction: In an attempt to reinvigorate baijiu's fanbase, Maotai, a luxury baijiu brand, has released "a 43-part TV series about a legendary Qing Dynasty gunfighter-turned-winemaker who founded the baijiu industry."
The resulting liquor's high alcohol content—typically between 80 and 120 proof—and relatively low production costs made it the drink of the peasantry, and it quickly spread throughout China. The recipe and base grains changed from province to province, taking forms vast and varied, from fiery and funky Maotai to sweet-as-ice-wine Chu Yeh Ching. Thus the term 'baijiu,' which literally translates to 'white liquor,' became more of a catch-all category for Chinese spirits than a specific spirit itself.
Baijiu became so diverse that in 1959, the Chinese Communist Party endeavored to standardize national liquor production. One remnant of this program was a classification system that is still in use today. Baijiu is identified by smell into four main categories: nong xiang (strong scent), qing xiang (light scent), jiang xiang (sauce scent), and mi xiang (rice scent). Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of China, was so taken with Kweichou Maotai, a sauce scent-style baijiu, that it was named China's National Liquor, requisite at state dinners. Due to limited production and popularity with the Party, Kweichou Maotai can now fetch hundreds of dollars a bottle.
There are a few requirements that unite all of these spirits while also differentiating them from Western booze, chiefly that baijiu is produced in a process known as solid-state fermentation, requiring what is known as qu: bricks of damp, compressed grain that incubate the sorts of airborne microscopic creatures that ferment carbohydrates into sugars and sugars into alcohol. (In Western alcohol production, these two processes are accomplished in distinct steps rather than at once.)
To make baijiu, distillers first add water and a host of grains specific to the Middle Kingdom: sorghum in the north and rice in the south, but also other regional starches such as wheat, millet, and glutinous rice. The mix is then left to ferment in mud pits or clay jars, often underground. What results is huangjiu, Chinese wine akin to sake that is then distilled and aged for anywhere from six months to several years. Baijiu production is a laborious process—it's all done by hand—and each of the more than 10,000 distilleries across China hold tightly to their production secrets.
Dialing Down the Fire
Baijiu's signature, as I learned as young child, is fire. 12-year-old me likely drank Erguotou, a very common and very cheap qing xiang baijiu. It's hot enough to make you clutch your chest, setting your mouth, throat, and nasal passages aflame before leaving you with its lingering taste: the sweet funk of fermentation.
I asked Sandhaus if he had any insight as to why I couldn't appreciate what 1.3 billion drinkers could. He told me that it might be baijiu's high proof that I was responding to, rather than the taste itself. "A lot of people say it's too fiery what they are actually reacting to is the ethanol, not the taste of the baijiu. Ethanol in high strength can be quite astringent."
In 2013, Xi Jinping withdrew party patronage of baijiu in an attempt to "restore party discipline," and without government support, baijiu manufacturers have begun to look overseas up to make up for the shortage of demand. Meanwhile, Western-facing companies are in an arms race to overcome whatever it is—the high proof, the taste, the general unfamiliarity—that keeps baijiu from integrating into Western mass-market. Companies like HKB, Byejoe, and Baojing have attempted to produce baijiu specifically for Westerners, meaning that they are, quite literally, watering the liquor down. Bringing baijiu down to a proof similar to vodka—around 40%—extinguishes the fire. These liquors don't burn the mouthfeel is more vodka than moonshine. Instead, the baijiu's lurking sweetness and musk develop slowly as you drink.
Diluting baijiu seems like a decent way of introducing novices to the class of spirits, but I couldn't help but wonder if such marketing was watering down more than just the spirit's alcohol percentage. I was made wary, for instance, of the company Byejoe's branding. The logo features an illustration of an Asian woman's face, eyes heavily lined, and markets itself in language that recalls the rhythm of communist-era propaganda: "Artfully distilled in the East using the finest red sorghum, and skillfully refined in the West using revolutionary patented technology." I told a fellow Shanghainese-American about it and she remarked that the name "sounds like something a Shanghai whore would say to a G.I. in the 1930s. Bye-joe. more like baijiu for bairen (white people)."
I, too, balked at the name, but Sandhaus encouraged me to think of it in another way.
"Frankly, not a lot of people speak Chinese, so changing the names helps a lot. Wuliangye, Erguotou, Maotai. Ask them to remember those names for five minutes," Sandhaus said. "Not remembering the names of the product you're trying to buy is a problem."
"The first step," he continued, "is getting people to be able to pronounce the name." It's a fair argument—perhaps I was being too much of a curmudgeon, too fixated on baijiu as a beacon of Chinese authenticity.
"I just don't think people will drink baijiu in America the same way they do in China," When I asked him what he thought the best strategy might be to introduce it to Americans, he offered, "Just hand it over to people and see."
Maybe authenticity is, actually, beside the point for Chinese spirits' Western expansion. After all, baijiu was never defined by some rigid form its identity has always depended on organic evolution and the diverse drinking habits of millions of people across more than 3,000 miles. Why should it be any different as it leaves China for Western shore and laowai like me?
Building a Baijiu Bar Culture
There's a bar that just opened in New York called Lumos. You have to ask the bouncer if it's the right place since there's no sign on the basement-level, heavy black door. I'd heard whispers of baijiu cocktails for a while and was curious about who might be so bold as to hawk baijiu in Soho, one of the trendiest neighborhoods in New York. The subterranean entrance opens up to a long, skinny hallway lit dimly by hanging exposed Edison bulbs. The bar on the left is stocked with several dozen types of baijiu.
"Every baijiu we could buy from the distributor," Qifan Li, the bar owner, tells me. She moved from the peninsula city of Dalian to California seven years ago and previously worked as an interior designer and an event planner. She told me the first time she drank baijiu was a year ago, when she had the idea to open the bar. I was puzzled didn't everyone in China drink baijiu?
"That's the problem," she said. "It's for older generations, not for younger people in bars and clubs. They like to follow Western trends." Western trends that appeal to young Chinese include speakeasies, clubs, Macallan Scotch, and gin. But not much baijiu.
She feared that young Chinese had forgotten their history. "I want to bring it back, prove to people that baijiu can be trendy, too." She wanted to start the bar in America because the Chinese always want to follow Western brands. Eventually, once the bar is successful, she hopes to open another location on the West Coast, and her ultimate goal is to open back in China.
Li believes that in order for baijiu to succeed, it must be modernized in a way that still keeps the spirit's identity intact. As a result, Lumos specializes in baijiu cocktails that endeavor to highlight and balance baijiu's flavors rather than mask them—a fresh way to teach new drinkers the flavors of the liquor. Li and her business partner Orson Salicetti spent a year developing the recipes.
Salicetti, the bar manager, guided me through a few cocktails: A gin and tonic and a martini, but all made with baijiu instead of gin or vodka. I admit, I wasn't particularly drawn to the spare cocktails—they tasted too much like baijiu for my novice palate—but I was impressed by their unapologetic boldness. On the other hand, a clever take on the pina colada, a Sesame Colada—a combination of tahini, caramelized pineapple juice, and mangosteen juice, topped daintily with black sesame seeds—held the right balance of sweet and savory and offered baijiu's musk as a balance to what might otherwise be too tropical and cloying.
Still, my favorite part was sipping baijiu straight out of delicate porcelain cups. We tried Maotai, a traditional luxury baijiu, and HKB, a refined, Westernized baijiu, and Salicetti encouraged me to take small sips to let the spirits gently wash over my tongue. Previously I'd only ever had baijiu via the gangbei method: taking shots. By sipping the baijiu instead, I was able to distinguish between the layers of flavor, enjoying the fire as steady heat rather than alarming burn.
I was also surprised to learn how well baijiu took to infusion. Salicetti poured me baijiu infused with cilantro, apricot, Sichuan peppercorns, and cinnamon-spiced dates. Salicetti poured, we sipped, I asked questions, he digressed. We gilded time.
Salicetti originally developed the infusions by asking Li to reflect on her childhood memories. "He asked me to remember the things I loved to eat as a child," she explained. They worked with those flavors to create the bar menu. "Ultimately, this is a project about my childhood," Li admitted.
My baijiu investigations sprang from the same premise, but Li was taking the opposite approach. While I was desperate to extract something about my family history from baijiu, Li was impressing her own history onto it.
My father told me once that when he was a child, baijiu was sipped among friends as an intimate offering. I asked Qifan if that sounded familiar.
"That is how our families used to drink baijiu," she told me, "but maybe we'll drink baijiu differently." My heart skipped a beat when she included me in the 'we.'
It's hard to admit, but maybe all I really want out of baijiu is to feel included.
Bringing Baijiu Home
"You have to be ready to drink," Ba told me when I came home for a week in June. I'd been keeping him abreast of my reporting for this story, yet he was still determined to guide me through the history of baijiu and the proper way to drink it.
My father is equal parts bon vivant and academic savant. He can sweetly and thoroughly expound on the history and merits of Scotch while drinking you cleanly under the table. He has, unsurprisingly, a special expertise in baijiu, and in the past 10 years or so has amassed a very impressive collection, around 30 bottles bought here and there when he can find it in specialty shops.
It was about 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday when he showed me to the dining room table, which was covered in a red tablecloth and stacked with at least 15 types of baijiu.
We began with a custom bottle from my childhood, my grandmother's blend of Yangmei baijiu, Chinese strawberries, and rock sugar. It was sweet and easy, like summertime.
"With baijiu, you don't shoot anything," Ba explained.
The shots I'd seen as a child weren't the correct way to drink Chinese liquor, he told me. As was, in his view, drinking baijiu during a meal. These were all absurd modern practices created by the Communist Party. Never mind baijiu cocktails.
"First you smell, and then you sip," he said. "It's not like being in college, where you take shots just to get drunk. You sit and drink with your friends, you talk."
He poured a glass of Red Star Erguotou, then a glass of nicer Erguotou and Luzhou Laojiao. They were arranged to sting most to least. Erguotou literally tastes like rubbing alcohol, but I did my part and swirled each booze in its tiny cup and smelled, held them on my tongue. Luzhou Laojiao came as a relief. Their fire was more pleasant—not offensive in the way Erguotou was—and they gave way to sort of dry, crisp sweetness.
"That's the benefit of baijiu made from rice," Ba said. "It's clean." We continued down the line.
One bottle I loved immediately was called Chu Yeh Ching, a baijiu infused with medicinal herbs and bamboo, lending it a pale green hue. It's sweet, almost creamy, with absolutely no fire or musk. It's about 45% alcohol, which isn't terribly high in terms of proof, but dangerous in the same way, say, Smirnoff Ice is to a teenager, or something completely drinkable is to a woman who has been downing firewater since nine in the morning. My dad poured me two full mugs, which is where things started to get hazy.
By the time we got to the Maotai, I'd had a nap, a few cups of coffee, and I'd paced around the backyard for a while. Dad poured us glasses. We smelled and sipped.
"I still don't like it," I said, anticipating Ba's disapproval.
"Eh, I never understood Maotai very much, either," he replied. I was shocked. Maotai was The Luxury Baijiu, it wasn't even supposed to be an question whether or not someone, particularly, an old school Chinese man, liked it.
"People who like Maotai know nothing," Ba went on. "And you know, us Shanghainese, we don't like the fire so much, that's why we stick to the rice baijiu."
I shared with him what Sandhaus had told me about dialing down the proof to make baijiu accessible to Westerners. "Oh yes," he said, "I have some of the liquor made by Your People," by which he meant, despite having included me among the Shanghainese a moment earlier, Americans.
I told him it didn't taste like much, and he nodded approvingly.
"It's missing the point. We Chinese drink baijiu for the smell of the alcohol, the xiang, that flavor that hits your nose. This—this is just vodka."
I began to ask him to clarify what he meant, to point out that he'd just contradicted himself, and also to ask, more blatantly, how he thought I should regard baijiu as a Shanghainese-Chinese-American, but instead I stared at the wall for a long time.
As the edges of the room melted away, it occurred to me that I was asking the wrong questions. Like my father after a few rounds, baijiu is less compelling for any one definition than for its boundless variability. Treating it as a secret codex to my family history, to any sense of my Chinese identity, meant chasing a ghost.
A hundred people will tell you a hundred things about baijiu. And here is what remains: filling your glass over and over, chatting with your bartender, or your friends, or your Ba about how each tastes. It's not a potion or cipher at all. It's a koan. The closer one examines it, the more it escapes definition.
11 Nonalcoholic Spirits to Try for Dry January and Beyond
Whether you're doing Dry January or are just looking to curb your booze intake, nonalcoholic spirits can help keep the art of the nightcap alive without hindering 2021 intentions. Resolutions can be limiting, but the top of the year is a great time to set new goals into motion—and fewer hangovers, better sleep, and a clearer head can only aid the process. With buzzy terms like “mindful drinking” and “sober curious” on the rise, even those who don't struggle with addiction are reimagining their bar carts to better align with their wellness rituals—and brands are concocting innovative, zero-proof spirits for next-level mocktails.
Gone are the days when virgin drinks meant sugar-packed Shirley Temples (sorry, Grandma), and too-sweet syrups and sodas are being replaced with botanical tinctures to help calm the mind, energize the body, and keep the dinner table lively—without the icky aftermath associated with liquor. Ahead, you'll find the best nonalcoholic spirits to replace your nightly Negroni, Monday margarita, or weekend mimosa—and they might just earn a permanent spot on your bar cart, whether you're going sober for the month or the long haul.
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Sous Vide Peach Moonshine Recipe
This peach moonshine recipe is super simple, is ready in as little as 2 hours and tastes like a liquid peach crisp meets a college party.
I am able to get this homemade moonshine ready to serve thanks to using sous vide infusion. This technique gets alcohols infused in less time. Hours instead of weeks! Be sure to try sous vide vanilla extract, cucumber infused gin, homemade limoncello and lilac infused alcohol&hellip. all make with sous vide. Be sure to check out my complete collection of sous vide recipes.
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1. Sugar + Water = Simple Syrup
Try It: Daiquiri
“Simple syrup is just equal parts sugar and water,” says Yardley. “We use it instead of dry sugar because it dissolves into the drink faster.” Simple syrup can be made by shaking or heating to dissolve the sugar, and provides the sweet note in many cocktails. A classic daiquiri is a bartender favorite for its simple adherence to the bedrock formula. Plus you can imagine yourself somewhere other than your living room couch. Get our Classic Daiquiri recipe .
It takes a little longer to make, but sugar plus lemon peels is another golden ingredient for all your drinks.
The High-Proof Smarts of Lila's Low-Proof Cocktail Menu
Many of Lila's beverages possess aggressive botanical profiles—complex stews of bitter, sweet and herbal.
You don't need high-proof liquors to fix a memorable cocktail. Need proof? Sit down for a sip during happy hour at Lila, the vegetable-focused downtown Sarasota restaurant run by chefs Ryan Boeve and Arthur Lopes.
The restaurant has a license to sell beer and wine, but not liquor, which is defined generally in Florida statutes as any distilled alcoholic beverage. But the rules are flexible enough to allow eateries like Lila to offer low-proof aperitifs, vermouths and liqueurs. Just because those beverages are low in alcohol content doesn't mean they're light in flavor. Far from it. Many of the lesser-known beverages that take up space on Lila's drinks menu possess aggressive botanical profiles—complex stews of bitter, sweet and herbal.
Boeve, tasked with developing Lila's cocktails, says the restaurant isn't doing anything new. It's just updating the centuries-old aperitif tradition of European cuisines, particularly those of France and Italy, where meals would often begin with a simple drink, like vermouth on ice. "The bitterness in there opens up your palate," Boeve explains.
Lila's creations aren't just straightforward pours, though. Boeve uses existing recipes as a guide to come up with his own blends, mixing and tasting to find what works. A typical Negroni is made from gin, vermouth and Campari. Lila can’t serve gin, so he uses Cappelletti, a Campari-like wine aperitif manufactured in northeast Italy, Cocchi Rosa, a wine aperitif from northwest Italy, and France's sweet red Dolin vermouth. Mixed with a smoked sugar cube, the drink may lack the whoa-Nelly assertiveness of a classic Negroni, but it has an intricate blend of flavors all its own.
Boeve's spritz is a riff on the classic Venetian mix, with the traditional Prosecco and soda, but Cappelletti swapped in for Campari. "An American in Paris" is a traditional 50-50 mix of the French aperitifs Byrrh and Bonal, seasoned with grated orange. And the menu even includes one zero-proof cocktail, built around Seedlip Garden 108, a distilled but non-alcoholic drink with a gin-reminiscent nose.
The drinks rhyme with Lila's commitment to flavorful food that's also healthy (or at least less unhealthy), as well as the restaurant's pluck and creativity. They make for an excellent kickoff to a long meal here, but also work as an accompaniment to a quick happy hour nosh. No liquor? At Lila, that's no problem.