Exotic spirits from around the world are becoming popular with consumers in the U.S. Spirits like cachaça from Brazil and mezcal from Mexico have been making their mark in the U.S. as drinkers view them as trendy, exotic options. This interest in global alcohol and ethnic cuisine, in general, has opened up some space within the industry for the growth of other, lesser-known international spirits.
The latest spirit to join this craze is baijiu, a highly potent, sorghum-based white spirit from China. Traditionally between 50% and 60% ABV, baijiu has existed in China for thousands of years and is commonly taken as a shot. Baijiu is one of the leading spirit categories in Asia, but until recently it has been difficult to find on U.S. shelves.
In 2013, Diageo acquired popular Chinese baijiu brand Shui Jing Fang with hopes of expanding availability of the spirit in the U.S. Similarly, Houston-based Byejoe Spirits USA began importing baijiu to America that same year. Unlike traditional baijiu, Byejoe baijiu is about 40% ABV, similar to the ABV of vodka. The company also offers flavored baijiu, which is aimed at making it easier for Americans to get used to the spirit’s unique flavor as well as to incorporate it into cocktails.
Often compared to moonshine, baijiu has a lot of potential for use in specialty cocktails. This is very much the case at Los Angeles’ Peking Tavern, a Beijing-inspired gastropub specializing in baijiu-based cocktails. This venue isn’t the only one shining a light on baijiu—New York City is expecting the opening of Lumos, a baijiu-dedicated bar, this month.
We are also seeing the growth of pisco, a traditional South American brandy, on adult beverage menus. According to Technomic MenuMonitor data, pisco listings have grown by 6.3% on menus in the latest year-over-year period. Dating back to the 19th century, the spirit is produced primarily in Peru and Chile, with most expressions made from 100% Muscat grapes. The spicy-sweet flavor of most pisco comes from briefly aging the spirit in clay jars. Pisco is highlighted, primarily in pisco sour cocktails, on adult beverage menus at many Peruvian restaurants. This cocktail, often identified as the national drink of Chile and Peru, features pisco, citrus juice, simple syrup and an egg white.
In addition to picking up steam on South American menus, pisco is emerging on adult beverage menus at more mainstream American concepts. McCormick & Schmick’s and Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery already menu their own versions of the pisco sour. This mixable spirit has the potential to gain traction on menus, eventually leading to unique interpretations that go beyond traditional pisco sours.
Initially, we will see independent restaurants and bars take the lead in bringing attention to these emerging, globally sourced spirits. Many of the venues spotlighting international spirits are ethnic concepts, appealing to consumers who appreciate authenticity. Non-ethnic concept operators who are considering incorporating these lesser-known spirits into their menus may want to mix cocktails that pair a global spirit with familiar ingredients and flavors.