Though little known outside of China, baijiu is the world's most consumed spirit by volume. Travelogues have not been kind to the liquor (political journal Foreign Policy's Asia editor Isaac Stone Fish recently slammed it in a piece called "One billion drinkers can be wrong"), and many reviewers have relegated it to an acquired taste niche. Author Derek Sandhaus (Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits) has become a baijiu ambassador, shedding light on the spirit and detailing his increased appreciation for it. He speaks at a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail.
Tales of the Cocktail is a showcase where many liquor companies try to get products in the hands and on the palates of bartenders. Here are some of the spirits completing for attention this year. Visit the website (www.talesofthecocktail.com) for tickets to events.
Baijiu is not a single, defined spirit so much as a category of clear liquors made from sorghum, rice and sometimes wheat at proofs ranging from 60 to 120. There are both high- and low-quality brands, but it's an overwhelming favorite across China and has a special place in traditional gift giving at state and business functions. Whether exports catch on elsewhere remains to be seen, but Diageo, the world's largest distiller, has invested in the category. Sandhaus, drinks writer David Wondrich and Yuan Liu of CNS Imports lead a discussion of baijiu, and there's a tasting of premium brands including Moutai, Shui Jing Fang, Jian Nan Chun and others at a seminar at 1 p.m. Thursday. Baijiu is not yet sold in Louisiana.
Brandy doesn't need an introduction, but there are many varieties of distilled wine that compete for shelf-space in bars. Pisco, a traditional brandy made in areas of Peru and Chile, and cognac share the spotlight in a seminar ("Aspiring to be Heroes," 10 a.m. Friday). Fruit brandies used to be common cocktail components and are making a comeback. Traditional central European fruit brandies — kirschwasser, aka kirsch, Marillenbrand (Austrian apricot brandy) and himbeergeist, a type of German schnapps — are the subject of the seminar "The Art of Eau de Vie" (10:30 a.m. Friday). Calvados, the French apple brandy often paired with or used in desserts, gets a solo show "Calvados Unpeeled" (3:30 p.m. Friday).
In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray plays a film star hired by Japanese liquor giant Suntory (which purchased Jim Beam earlier this year) to lend Rat Pack-appeal to an advertisement for its whiskey. But it's not all about imports or images. Whiskey has been produced in Japan since the 1870s, and Japanese whiskies have won top honors in recent international competitions. Suntory-rival Nikka Whiskey presents a seminar (1 p.m. Saturday) about the variety of Japanese whiskies exported to the U.S.