"Phew! That's no joke." A half-ounce shot of Baijiu will have even the most veteran imbibers puckering up (and maybe wheezing a bit, if we're being honest).
It's a subtle shock to the system, this ancient Chinese spirit. Kwei Fei owners Tina and David Schuttenberg have teamed up with Bottles to import Baijiu — they're the only restaurant in the area to serve it, and will hold that title throughout the summer.
High proof across the board, Baijiu (pronounced "by Joe") is a white liquor typically distilled from fermented sorghum with a starter base 'qu' (pronounced "chew") comprised of wheat, yeast, and mold. The Baijiu flavors fall into four categories: light, rice, strong, and sauce. "From what I've read, stay away from the sauce," says David.
Kwei Fei will serve two types of Baijiu: Beijing Ergoutou
which is on the 'light' side and Xifeng Jiu
— 1956, which is on the 'strong' side. They'll sell half ounce pours for $3-$5; traditionally, Baijiu shots are taken throughout an hours-long dinner. "It's not like tequila where you get two ounces a pour and get sloppy," says David. "It’s civil ... to a point."
When we visit for a taste test, chef opts out, saying that on an empty stomach before noon, the spirit will get him 'lit.' After two half-ounce pours and a lot of coffee, we can attest — Baijiu is best consumed with plenty of dumplings to sop it up.
So what does it taste like?
It goes down like your first vodka shot, with some rubbing alcohol on the nose and a smooth, nutty/ grape-y flavor on the back end. Give it a few seconds for the grappa-like flavor to take over.
"We wanted to get this in, it fit with what we were doing, trying to familiarize ourselves with Chinese culture in general," says Tina. And it seems only right to serve spicy, traditional Sichuan food alongside a liquor whose history dates back thousands of years. The oldest distillery of the liquor is located in the Sichuan province, says David.
"It's a convivial type drink," he says. "In China it’s just done as shots throughout a meal; it’s considered rude to turn one down. Businessmen bring in foreigners and will put a ringer at the table who will drink all night long."
Baijiu will be a highlight of the restaurant's new happy hour, which launches Tues. May 14. It will run Tues.-Thurs. from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Specials include Sichuan peel-and-eat shrimp and cumin lamb plus Baijiu and Sapporo for $7, draft craft beer and a shot for $9, house wine for $6, and Sapporo bottles for $5.
The Schuttenbergs stress: don't worry about not loving the first, or second, or even third shot of the potent stuff.
After visiting a liquor store in the Plano, Texas area that specialized in Asian spirits, the Schuttenbergs brought home two bottles of Baijiu from the Sichuan province.
"We were so disappointed," laughs David. "We said 'oh my god,' no way, not gonna happen, we were so bummed out." But, lo and behold — "I kept drinking it, and now I like it."
Ruta Smith file photo
Throw back Baijiu here with a large group for a fun time
They ended up choosing the Beijing Ergoutou and Xifeng Jiu — 1956 to serve in the restaurant because of their "less aggressive flavor profiles." Though, Tina says, the flavor profile of the latter may conjure up phrases like "it's eating a tennis ball and Dimetapp and cleaning a bathroom." For David, "it smells like grape Bubblicious, with a light viscosity, and the finish is almost barnyard-y."
"It's hard to learn everything...there's still so much more to do," David says of educating himself about the storied spirit. "It's overwhelming, but a ton of fun." Tina says they have a lot of customers who have lived in China or travel there consistently, and they're excited to see it, to bring their friends in to experience it. "It's really fun to have people explore and subscribe to it," she says. "You're in here so you've already subscribed to the environment which is rowdy, and the food, which is spicy. It's one more ask of them, and they seem to be willing to do it."