Baijiu Cocktails from Peking Tavern
Peking Tavern serves unique cocktails with a special kick: baijiu, a Chinese grain alcohol, which might be the world's most consumed spirit thanks to China's huge population.
Andrew Wong and Andrew Chiu were architects before they became restaurateurs, and they carefully chose an "underground" location and decor that fit their theme. Their Tavern is tucked away in a spacious Downtown L.A. basement with Chinese-influenced design complemented by exposed brick and mirrors. The large communal tables and dimly-lit booths are perfect for their baijiu drinks and the local craft beers. You can also snack on Beijing Street Food like scallion pancakes, noodles, and dumplings.
By George Ko and Riki Robinson
Photos and Video by George Ko
Andrew Wong: Hi my name is Andrew Wong.
Andrew Chiu: And I’m Andrew Chiu.
AW: This is Peking Tavern, and we’re here to talk about baijiu.
GR: Can you give us a history of baijiu? Why is baijiu so important to drinking culture in Asia?
AC: Baijiu (白酒) has been around China for literally a couple of thousand years. It’s mainly produced in the province of Sichuan and Guizhou, although many other provinces also produce it today. It’s been the staple drink for many occasions, from lunch, to dinner, to wedding celebrations, to business meetings, and diplomacy. It’s an integral part of Chinese dining.
AW: People refer to baijiu as the number one consumed alcohol in the world, mainly because that’s what people drink in China. It is very pungent; it’s very strong. Typically it ranges from 100 to 120 proof which is 50-60% alcohol. When the Chinese first made it, they made it in large vats that were buried in the ground. It’s not something that is colored though by oak, like bourbon. It’s still a whiskey, because it’s fermented grain, but it hasn’t been oaked so it doesn’t take on a color, hence it gets the name “baijiu” which means “white liquor.” It’s clear. It’s strong. It’s pungent, and it’s perfect for cocktails— we think.
GR: What was your first experience with baijiu?
AC: We had our first experience together back in the early 1990s, back when we used to practice architecture and design in Asia. Andrew Wong had an office in Hong Kong and I had an office in Beijing. We often hung out together in Beijing. That’s when we got our first taste together, because it was so prevalent: it was everywhere. You go to lunch, people are having baijiu. You go to dinner, people are having baijiu.
AW: Around the early 1990s, before China really opened up, we had an office there. It was during a transitional period and that was the local drink. People weren’t drinking wine or beer. They had beer but it wasn’t across all cultures and territories. They only had it in a few regions. Baijiu is basically everywhere. Maotai (the premium baijiu) was all over the place. We gravitated to drinking it and learning how to drink it, how to appreciate it, and subsequently getting very drunk.
GR: What is Chinese drinking culture like?
AC: The way they drink is very much a process. If you go to China, baijiu is consumed in tiny little glasses because it’s so strong. Normally, when people first start at the beginning of a meal, everybody is very polite. You start with a little sip. You don’t really say “Gan bei” (乾杯- bottoms up). You say, “Let’s have a sip.” We touch cups, take a little sip, then you start eating. Then, as the meal goes on, everybody starts to get a little buzzed, the bonding occurs, and that’s when somebody eventually says, “Here’s a toast! To friendship! Gan bei!” And everybody says “Yeah, let’s gan bei!” It goes in stages like that. The next person after a few more bites of food says, “You know, I really enjoy this. You’re a brother now! We’re great friends! We’re gonna do business!” So then another round. Then later on, anybody can walk over to you and say, “Let’s have a cup!”
AW: When you say “Gan bei!” you have to finish it.
AC: When you say “Gan bei!” that’s serious. That’s “Bottom’s up!” So normally, people don’t jump to “Gan bei!” so quickly with baijiu. You need to let the situation develop a little bit. There’s some politeness and a lot of conversation first before the “Gan bei!”
GR: Can you show us some bottles of baijiu and talk about the brands?
AC: It’s important to know that baijiu actually has several different categories and they’re roughly categorized based on how they smell and taste. For example, there’s the light aroma category which is normally more affordable. A brand like Red Star is the cheapest. Basically, it’s not too complex of an aroma: you basically smell alcohol. The alcohol content is very high just like all of them. Then you have the mild aroma category, which would be something like the Wu Liang Ye that has more fruity notes. Then you have the really strong category, such as Shui Jing Fan. The strongest would be Maotai, which has the most unique aroma. Not many brands are comparable to the aroma of Maotai and the taste. That’s why it’s so coveted in China. The aging process is a lot more complex too.
GR: There’s a huge counterfeit Maotai industry in China. If somebody is visiting, how can they tell if they drink the real deal? Do you have any advice?
AC: If you’re in China and you’re drinking Maotai, you better be having it in a nice place. Don’t go to the little mom and pop places and expect to have this. Don’t buy it from what they call the xiao mai bu (小賣部), the little street vendors. If you’re going to buy something legitimate, you go to a legitimate store.
AW: To some degree, it’s hard to replicate the aromatics Maotai has. If you really know Maotai well, and you drink a lot of it, it has very distinctive aromatics.
GR: Can you show us some cocktails?
AW: I’ll show you our favorite which is the Wong Chiu Punch.
GR: Did you create the recipe?
AW: No, we hired a mixologist to come up with the first program of cocktails. Later on, as we’ve been in business, we’ve developed one ourselves. So the first one, we hired a mixologist to come up with a program of baijiu cocktails. Her name is Carrie Ha. She’s a tiny Korean woman and she makes amazing drinks! She’s very fierce at making drinks.
Today I’m going to use the Er Gou Tou. It’s called “Beijing Baijiu.” That’s the first ingredient we put in. Then, we use fresh lemon juice and some simple syrup. Then, we add a hibiscus liqueur.
AC: Made in Downtown L.A.!
AW: Locally made! You give that a nice shake and garnish with a lemon, and that is the Wong Chiu Punch. '
The second drink I’m going to make is made with celery juice. Over time we discovered that celery accompanies baijiu very well. We came up with this drink that incorporated fresh celery juice. I’m going to use the same baijiu again, the “Beijing Baijiu,” and I’m adding fresh lemon juice again, then some simple syrup, then, the fresh celery juice that we juice every day. You give it a solid shaking. That is what we call the Liquid Jade. Garnish with a sprig of celery.
GR: Are these your two most ordered drinks?
AW: The Liquid Jade is definitely very popular because it’s on the Happy Hour menu. A lot of people that have come here and had the Wong Chiu Punch before, they like it, and order it again.
GR: Can we talk more about the One Inch Punch?
AC: We had an opportunity to make a drink out of a new brand of baijiu called “HKB,” which is Hong Kong Baijiu. It was actually created by an Italian guy. So, we thought, “Okay, what should we do?” At first we created a shot drink, with the cup. We thought it would be nice to call it the “One Inch Punch” because a shot glass is only about an inch tall. We made it with a Hong Kong baijiu, where Bruce Lee is originally from. We thought everything worked. People actually really liked the shot, so we developed it into a cocktail called the One Inch Punch.
GR: Can we talk about the design of the bar? How long did it take to assemble the bar?
AC: The bar itself I don’t remember. We built it along with everything else. The whole construction project was about nine months. There was nothing here: no kitchen, no restroom, no plumbing. It was a very large space.
AW: Originally, when we came up with the concept, we were thinking of a stylized version of Chinatown. We wanted it to be modern, simple, but we wanted it to have this feel of Chinatown. We thought that was the appropriate way to present our baijiu cocktails. When we first found the space, we knew it would work. There was enough ceiling height so you wouldn’t feel claustrophobic when you came into the basement. It started off with good bones, and we had to design in the kitchen, the beer fridge, and the extra long bar. We knew that was really part of the experience of coming to a Chinese restaurant. We wanted the drinks and the bar to be part of that experience. Also, there are so many gastropubs now, but none of them are with Chinese food. I think we’re the first to do a Chinese gastropub and to introduce hand-made dumplings in a bar experience. We feel like we’re the first to do baijiu cocktails as well. A lot of firsts here! Not the first to do Chinatown, but to do the stylized version of Chinatown.
GR: What’s the inspiration for the food program?
AW: The food concept is what we refer to as “Beijing Street Food circa 1994,” which is the time we were in Beijing. It was a very tumultuous time. It was a transitional time and the city was changing from a Communist economy to more of a free-market influence. They started to relax a lot of rules, and you saw a huge change in the way street food was being presented. Prior to 1994, there really wasn’t a lot of diversity, let’s say, because there wasn’t the inflow of ingredients. After 1994, they were able to get ingredients that they hadn’t seen in generations. We were there in Beijing on the streets eating the type of food we serve, which is dumplings and noodles, and drinking a lot of baijiu. Our food concept is just from a period of time that we experience. Prior to that, the street food scene was very one dimensional. It was literally just flour and soy sauce. After that, they had a lot of food that was deeply rooted in the culture. As time went on, and they had the Olympics and that also made changes. That’s why we say it’s Beijing Street Food 1994.
GR: What have you prepared today?
AC: What we have here is what they call pai huang gua (拍黄瓜) Basically, it’s Persian cucumbers chopped up, tossed with white vinegar, some salt, garlic, and Wood Ear mushrooms. It’s a very simple dish, very homey and street-style. Great for any season. These are two of our dumplings. This Sichuan fish dumpling. We created it to emulate some of the dishes we had in China before, including shui zhu yu (水煮魚- Sichuan boiled fish). It’s also got a little bit of hong you chao shou (紅油抄手 - Sichuanese chili wontons) sauce at the bottom. It’s amazing, it actually won us an award on the Travel Channel Show. This is our effort to take what was very popular along the streets of Beijing, which is lamb skewers that the Uighurs used to make. We were able to incorporate the taste of the lamb into the dumplings. We pan-fry it, and serve it on our house blackpepper sauce. It’s really good, packed with hot juice.
GR: Do you see the influences of your baijiu cocktails going back to China?
AW: I think the cocktailization of alcohol is primarily in the West— in the U.S. and Europe. That's where cocktails are consumed. But in China, there’s not that kind of following for cocktails. They’d rather drink it straight up. I don’t imagine it taking off. I ask myself, “Did tequila cocktails take off in Mexico?” That would be the same analogy. There may be some influence going back, but they’re probably still going to consume baijiu the way they’ve been consuming it for years, which is in a small cup straight up. The one thing we did, which is an improvement, is that we discovered that when you shake the baijiu in ice, it smooths it out. It adds water and it takes some of the pungency. It’s less of that burning alcohol. We discovered that by making cocktails and shots with it. When we serve a shot of baijiu, what we do is we’ll shake it and chill it down to get the temperature down. Then we often chase that with fresh celery juice. Maybe that will make it back to China? Who knows.