It’s hard to find a drink that’s more of an acquired taste than baijiu
. Often compared to paint thinner, for many the Chinese distilled spirit is more of a challenge to be endured at company banquets than a taste experience to be savoured. So it would appear that Capital Spirits, the hutong bar which aims to introduce the much-maligned spirit to a wider audience, is fighting an uphill battle.
According to co-owner Bill Isler, it’s a battle than can be won. The biggest impediment to the general public, especially expatriates, isn’t the drink’s taste, says Isler; baijiu has a marketing problem.
‘Baijiu producers come in all the time and ask how we’re getting foreigners to drink it,’ says Isler. ‘Its just a comfortable environment.’ Indeed, contrary to your average baijiu drinking experience, Capital Spirits offers a rustic, elegantly lit space decorated with a smattering of well-chosen antiques.
Just as much thought has been put into the menu, which focuses on baijiu flights. An ‘Intro Flight’ (40RMB), our first of the night, is comprised of ‘one representative from each of the four major baijiu styles’, those being rice, light, strong and sauce (a little similar in taste to soy sauce and with a distinctive aroma). Isler offers vivid explanations of how each style is produced but cleverly reserves his take on the flavour profile until after our first tentative sips, so as to not influence our opinions.
Without any encouragement from the bar staff, we go on to order a flight of the ‘strong’ variety (50RMB). We would never have expected to go for such a bold choice, but our spirits were high after such a successful introduction. It didn’t disappoint, with each variety playing off the style’s characteristic fruity taste. Also much better than it sounds is the bar’s own potent distillation of Yanjing beer, which is currently being offered on the house. Still not convinced? Ease into it with the impressive range of baijiu cocktails (around 50RMB).
If you can set aside your preconceptions long enough to get in the front door, Capital Spirits will change the way you think about what is now the most widely produced spirit in the world. Now that’s a capital idea.
By Jared Cline