Self-confessed convert raises the bar for baijiu

William Isler's first encounter with the white spirit was nearly his last. Then he discovered its finer points and decided to spread the word

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 November, 2014, 7:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 November, 2014, 7:00am

Baijiu, the "white liquor" always served at Chinese business banquets, is familiar to foreigners but few of them like its fiery taste.

William Isler, an American who has a day job with a beef cattle project in China, said he had a bad experience by being forced to drink shot after shot. However, his interest in and appreciation of baijiu have grown since that painful experience, and he says if he can change his mind, other Westerners can, too.

Capital Spirits - located in Daju Hutong, an old alley in Beijing's Dongcheng district - opened in early August claiming to be the first bar in the capital to specialise in baijiu. Isler and two co-founders - Simon Dang and Matthias Heger - say that by serving it in a Western-style bar in a comfortable setting, changing baijiu's image ought to be a cinch. Isler sat down for a chat with the South China Morning Post recently.

When did you first taste baijiu and what was your impression ?

I hated it. I thought it tasted awful. That was in 2000 when I was a student at Tsinghua University. I met a Chinese gentleman at an outdoor BBQ restaurant who was drinking Red Star Erguotou (a famous Chinese white liquor with an alcohol content of 56 per cent), and he poured me a shot. I thought it was the worst thing I had ever drunk. It wasn't just because of the high alcohol content, as I have no problem drinking whisky that's 50 or 60 per cent alcohol. I just didn't like the taste and said: 'I don't want to touch such a thing again'. And I didn't until I got involved in an agricultural project in Hebei and Inner Mongolia a few years ago. I was exposed to baijiu quite often, and slowly acquired a taste.

What inspired you to open a bar that features baijiu?

The real inspiration for doing this actually came from the book about baijiu by Derek Sandhaus, who's an American. Matthias and I attended a talk given by him at a book week in March, and I found out there's a lot of interest in baijiu among foreigners.

In my day job I spend a lot of time in Inner Mongolia, where I have to drink a lot of baijiu at business banquets. I didn't like it at first, and I thought very few foreigners had any interest in or appreciation of it. Like me, many foreigners have had bad experiences with baijiu because they were forced to drink it a lot at banquets. But at the talk, I discovered that many people were curious about it, even if they didn't love it.

Simon was the first one to come up with an idea to open a bar after finding a nice location in a hutong near Gui Jie [a famous food street in Beijing]. In the meantime, Matthias, who has experience in distilling and refining, wanted to have a place to showcase a German vodka called Westkorn that he developed. With my own experience in the bar industry, we came together to open this bar to make this Chinese liquor accessible to foreigners.

What is the idea behind mixing a drinks menu with several baijiu-based cocktails?

The main thing we are trying to do with the cocktails is to make baijiu accessible to foreigners. It's an easy starting point, but it's not our goal to make all Chinese people drink baijiu cocktails.

The main problem we have here with foreigners drinking baijiu is that they have similar bad experiences to what I had ... Most of them tried it and hated it, too. Once we get them in here, we want them to realise that they can drink it and enjoy it.

We want foreigners to try and not be too scared at the beginning. If they think the cocktails are fine, we will encourage them to move on and try a flight of different brands

What are the difficulties in designing a baijiu cocktail?

We make cocktails using only rice aroma or light aroma baijiu. We don't use strong aroma and sauce aroma baijiu, as they usually don't mix well with cocktails. When you use the stronger taste baijiu, it overpowers the whole cocktail. Even if you use just a little bit, the whole thing will just taste like that. The idea in a cocktail is balance. So it doesn't really work if one ingredient is too strong. Our Baijiu Sour, which is made with light rice-based liquor, is my favourite.

What has been the reaction from local customers and is it different to the foreigners? Everybody is very curious, but what they're curious about is very different. The foreigners are curious about the actual drinks, while Chinese customers are curious about us and why we are doing this. For foreigners, right now it's more out of curiosity, but I think that will change over time. In fact, we've started to see a change, as we're getting some customers coming back again.

Maybe the first time they were just curious and started with the cocktails, or even the beers, and then we persuaded them to try the intro flight - four small shots of baijiu, each one from the major baijiu styles (rice, light, strong and sauce aromas). We start them off with the rice-based one, and most of them actually like it. Then they move on to try the next ones until they get to the strong aroma one. The real challenge is overcoming the mental block.

As a foreigner, is it more difficult to promote baijiu as China's national drink?

It's actually much easier than I had expected. I had thought it would be very hard, and it hasn't been. The setting where we are serving is one reason. We decorated with antique wood, using wooden chairs and tables with muted light. We've made it a safe, easy place where foreigners are not scared but feel comfortable.

I think the thing that deters them from trying it is the dinner experience, where they were forced to drink a large amount. But we don't do that; you can have as much as you really want. We are presenting what we think is the most accessible way. We also want to have fun in a place where people can hang out.