Most of America hasn’t heard of baijiu. We don’t really drink the deeply traditional, super popular Chinese liquor here—and certainly not with the same gusto.
In 2017, 10.8 billion (with a B) liters of baijiu were sold globally, nearly all of which were consumed in China. Still, America abstains only partly due to the beverage’s relative scarcity.
Prior to speaking with Alec Fotsch of Ganbei Baijiu—a Minneapolis-based, China-produced liquor start-up—a friend and I stumbled upon a small, surprise menu of traditional baijiu at a restaurant near the University of Minnesota campus.
When staff informed us that only the cheapest option was available, your author thought, “What could possibly go wrong?”
We were presented with uncouth pours of Er Guo Tuo, aka the Budweiser of baijiu. While I’d describe it as having notes of “hot fire” and “we’ve made a terrible mistake,” natethegreat of baijiureview.com proves more eloquent in recounting his experience with the spirit. He writes, “Finishes like clearing out a 747 tank.”
A quick Google revealed that particular baijiu hovers somewhere between 50 and 60 percent alcohol.
“Traditional baijiu can almost be offensive to a palate that’s grown up in America,” says Fotsch. Despite its international popularity, baijiu has a special way of generating good-natured chuckles, stories, and the occasional warning. “It’s really funky for a spirit.”
Unlike Er Guo Tuo, this new baijiu by Ganbei—co-founded by Andrew Hoogerwerf, Kockyo Xiong, and Fotsch—aims to maximize enjoyment and minimize suffering, while remaining faithful to traditional production methods, which predate the Ming Dynasty.
At its most basic, all baijiu is clear grain alcohol made from sorghum—plus a little rice, corn, and wheat—created through solid-state fermentation (usually in an earthen pit), then aged in clay and stainless steel casks for a period of time comparable to American whiskeys.
Ganbei works with distiller Hetao to craft theirs using this same ancient method in Inner Mongolia. It ages for three years before a master blender (kind of like a baijiu sommelier) tailors Ganbei’s baijiu for the American palate.
Fotsch says they didn’t task their blender with pushing the boundaries of baijiu; rather, she “tamed it out” so new palates can appreciate the spirit.
“It’s actually traditionally, normal Chinese baijiu that are blended, and then brought down to 42 percent [ABV]—whereas most Chinese baijiu, the average is 55 percent,” he says. “It’s just not something that’s approachable in any way, especially to someone who didn’t grow up in China.”
When sipped neat as intended, Ganbei is enjoyable, even as its flavors are wild and hard to place. Sorting out what Ganbei tastes like is akin to staring at a color you’ve never seen before. It’s a mesmerising task, but not easy.
Imagine if a bag of Tropical Starburst were to over-ripen, then mix in a little wet hay, plus a pinch of mild flowers—except the delivery vehicle for these aromas is a high-proof spirit like aguardiente with a splash of arak. Fotsch says they “worked to bring forward some of the sort of floral, stone fruit notes” in the blending process.
Similarly challenging are international laws for importing alcohol from Inner Mongolia to Minnesota. The teensy start-up manages to navigate these waters by working with the Seward neighborhood’s most laid-back cocktailers.
“Technically, as the U.S. government is concerned, [Ganbei] is produced by Lawless Distilling Company, and because of that, it’s available at their bar; but it is made at Hetao, imported to Lawless, and sold from there,” explains Fotsch, with a dry laugh.
“It’s got some proof so it works really well as an ingredient,” says Louie LaFleur, manager of Bittercube’s cocktail consulting (the folks behind Lawless’s bar program). Though bonding Ganbei over was purely a revenue thing (not about changing American palates), having a baijiu permanently on their back bar allows the team to flex, challenging themselves to push the envelope while constantly upping their cocktail game thanks to Ganbei’s incredibly complex flavor profile. Their menu regularly features a drink with the spirit.
“We have cocktails with a full two ounces and some with a quarter-ounce, but no matter what—it’s always there,” says Lafleur, with warmth in his voice. “It’s just so tropical!”
Beyond the newness factor, what makes bringing this currently niche-market beverage to Minnesota a worthy endeavor for Ganbei—especially at the low price point of $40 per bottle?
“We wanted to build some bridges between two countries who’ve been straying apart. We had a bunch of big heady ideas that were, like, geopolitical,” says Fotsch. “We really want to just foster some understanding and appreciation [that] what the Chinese government does is not what the people in China do, largely. And the same is true with places like Iran.”
To bring this mission to life, Ganbei is partnering with six local bars (Hai Hai, JUN Szechuan, Lat14 Asian Eatery, Nightingale, the Chatterbox Pub, and Rainbow Chinese) to create cocktails incorporating their baijiu now through the Lantern Festival (February 4). Each location’s drink is unique, and acts as an invitation to appreciate the spirit’s flavor without diving in full-on. The metro-wide cocktail series aims to celebrate a huge, worldwide holiday season while uniting disparate cultural elements beneath an approachably human (cocktail) umbrella. Sealing the deal are red envelopes accompanying each baijiu cocktail, provided by Ganbei—stuffed with the potential to win a baijiu service set for four in place of the traditional money, and information about Lunar New Year.
Rainbow’s “Rat King” gimlet—named for the year that’s just begun according to Chinese zodiac—is a wonder. Made with Ganbei’s baijiu, gin, ginger lime syrup, orange bitters, kaffir lime, and kumquat, the cocktail is bright and refreshing, served up in a hue of green we often forget exists during these midwinter blahs. It’s also puzzlingly round in the mouth and feels like it shouldn’t fit in a single martini glass.
If every American began their baijiu journey with a Rat King instead instead of Er Guo Tuo, the domestic liquor industry might not know what hit it. And if we’re being darkly realistic, the forecast for world peace is looking pretty bleak—but the chances of getting the world tipsy together? Now there’s a thought.
If we came together for a stiff drink—messy though that may get—it would behoove us to understand how to approach baijiu. Should that happen, prepare to raise a glass and say... ganbei.
Yes, our local baijiu company has, all this time, just been waiting to “cheers” everyone, everywhere.
2739 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis