Justin Lane Briggs first tasted baijiu not long after moving to New York in the early 2000s. He and his roommate Chris Bogart, a childhood friend from Vermont, liked to head into Chinatown for “a grand old time,” Briggs recollects. One night, Chris returned home with a bottle of Kweichow Moutai sauce-aroma baijiu.
“I was confused by it, for sure. It was a shock to the system,” says Briggs. “I wanted to understand it. It was almost a little bit like a challenge. It was like, ‘This thing, you don’t get this. Try to figure it out’.”
Justin had always been fascinated by drinks. He recalls returning from the mall as a child and trying to deconstruct and recreate the perfect Orange Julius. As a teenager he started mixing drinks and went on to bartend his way through college in New York. He studied theater criticism and playwriting at the New School, but found his extra-curricular activities more rewarding. The farm-to-table movement had started to take off, and he had grown up in an organic farming community.
“The thing I went to school for, no one really cared. And the thing I was doing to get by people were saying, ‘Oh, you’re saying something we’re not hearing. Tell us more.’ So I just dove in.”
Putting in more time behind the bar, he began exploring lesser-known spirits and designing drinks programs around them. Now the spirits specialist for Skurnik Wines, an importer and distributor, he continues to create innovative drinks. Last year, Briggs designed a cocktail menu around Chinese flavors and spirits for Kings Co. Imperial. His drinks are well considered and balanced, drawing upon more than a decade’s experience with baijiu.
Outside of China it’s rare to meet fellow travelers on the baijiu road. It’s even rarer to meet one with strong opinions and the wherewithal to articulate them. So when we sat down together last month we had a lot to discuss, and I think you’ll agree that this conversation is well worth the read.
Drink Baijiu: Can you tell me about your first experience with baijiu?
Justin Lane Briggs: I remember my first comment being something along the lines of: bubblegum, sweaty gym socks, and parmesan—which, I think for my age and the fact that I was just getting into trying to blow my experience apart a little bit, I feel pretty good about that now.
DB: Some of those notes are right on for Moutai. I don’t know what socks taste like, but it’s a tasting note that comes up a lot.
JLB: There’s a salinity to it that I think people connect it to a lot. Salinity mixed with funk, you know?
DB: Well there’s a funk for sure.
JLB: When you put those two things together, there’s a brine in here that seems kind of sweaty. And there’s funk that makes me go to a real sweaty place. And you connect it with socks, I don’t know. But there’s also a fibrous quality.
It was a challenging experience, but a curious one.
Not long after that, we went back to Chinatown and I was buying bottles, sort of haphazardly trying to try things out. It’s one of those scenarios where part of the curiosity is that you can’t understand anything and you can’t read any labels, because I didn’t read Chinese and I couldn’t understand it, and the staff were disinterested in assisting, which is all part of this obfuscation that I think for a lot of people in this country would be off-putting, but for me was an appeal.
Like, let me try and work with this.
I wound up just occasionally buying something random, just to kind of roll the dice. I couldn’t really identify much difference very often that I can recall. Every once in a while I’d find a bottle where I could identify something specific about it. Like, this one’s got ginseng in it, and I’d be like, “Oh, I know what that means. I’m gonna buy that, and now I’ll know what that’s like.”
DB: What was the turning point? When did you feel like you started to get a handle on it?
JLB: I feel like I’d be exaggerating if I said I fully had a handle on it at this point.
A turning point was just being generally and genuinely curious and excited about Chinese culture, Chinese history, Chinese food and culinary traditions—kind of wanting to be more engaged with that. That was certainly a push. It’s something that I know everyone kind-of loves, but I think we have such a distinctly American take on it in this country that I feel I just wanted to try to understand things a little bit more than have a cursory—oh, I like this. I like pizza, I don’t really know anything about Italy.
What brought me back to it was when I was starting to get more excited about pushing myself creatively with cocktails in the late aughts and the very early 2010s, I started playing around with ingredients. I would just go to interesting liquor stores, some of which were in Chinatown, and pick up things as ingredients that I would try and experiment with.
I’d pick a bottle back up again and use just a whisper of it in a drink. It was sort of like, “Oh yeah, this is actually really interesting.” Now that my palate had grown and was willing to accept more nuance, and also more powerful flavors…
DB: Baijiu doesn’t whisper.
JLB: No, exactly. A whisper is all it took to talk real loud.
Every once in a while something really interesting would happen, usually in a tropical drink context. Most of the time it would end up being, like, “Oh, I just made that into a baijiu drink that doesn’t taste quite right.” But the challenge just kept being exciting.
The major a-ha moment was when I started to learn more about rum specifically, and to learn about longer fermentations, discovering that there was a shared process. I did read loose things about baijiu when I first started learning about it, like let me Wikipedia this. So I knew very, very basic, cursory things about it. And one of the only things that I retained was that it often had long fermentation.
When I started encountering some rums and learned that they also have very long fermentations, it was like, “There’s also some similar notes in this.” Funky rums sometimes hold hands with baijiu.
“How many people in the world drink this? How large of a culture drinks this consistently, and is acclimated to this and appreciates this?”
This was a few years ago, this a-ha moment, and I have one more. The last one was at Tales of the Cocktail, because I had been starting to get excited about baijiu a little bit, and kind of talk about how I thought it was really interesting. I also liked to bring down bottles of wild stuff for people to taste, as part of the cocktail apprentice team, like a bottle of overproof Jamaican rum that was made with dunder. Or a little bit of some funky mezcal I’d discovered. Or just some things that I thought were a little off the wall for people, and share them with people in that program.
And I brought some baijiu once. Don Lee was like, “Oh yeah, you’re into baijiu, huh?” And I was like, “Yeah!” So he made sure to snag some bottles at this notorious baijiu seminar, that I think actually [David] Wondrich was a part of, and I remember the prep team were all overwhelmed by pouring out tastes of it.
They were all wearing masks over their face to try and mask the smell. Because they were all like, “This is so intense! This is so horrible.” They kept on railing on how awful it was.
The first time someone says it, you kind of chuckle. But like the second or third time people say it, my bristles started to go up. It was like, “Come on, guys. How many people in the world drink this? How large of a culture drinks this consistently, and is acclimated to this and appreciates this?”
I started to feel almost like there was unwillingness to experiment or an unwillingness to meet the other in their place. It almost smacked of racism. And I started to think this isn’t okay.
The fact that we’re willing to go down all these other paths and experiment with crazy flavors of our own that we feel comfortable with, but when it’s something from this other place that we imply is an other rather than a culture we can share, we all balk and say it’s gross and don’t even try to teach ourselves how to encounter and engage with it.
DB: It’s not like we’re talking about sea cucumber or rat on a stick, this is grain alcohol.
JLB: Exactly. You have a framework for this on some level. And seriously, can that many Chinese people be wrong? Isn’t that the Elvis album title? “Can a Million Elvis Fans Be Wrong?” It’s like, can a million baijiu fans be wrong? If this many people are drinking it and enjoying it?
Something about that just made me feel incensed. All of these people were turning up their noses. It’s like, “Guys, we just need to accept we don’t get it. That’s not on them. That’s on us.”
It’s like the first time I tried coffee, I didn’t like it. Does that mean that coffee sucks? No. I just needed to get a framework for it.
When people blanketly said it was gross, it felt a bit like you saying that is gross. You saying that isn’t okay. That made me feel a little bit more drive in response to that.
DB: On the other hand, if you are a brandy distiller who grows up in France and is trained that this is what makes alcohol good, and you’re confronted with an alcohol that breaks all of the rules that have been drilled into you, you really have to get outside of yourself and your experience.
JLB: I can understand that, and I can be patient with the fact that I have to be patient with it. It’s challenging for people to have to try to unlearn some of what they’ve learned in one context and try to understand another context. But then again, that’s also just part of trying to understand other people is to try and reframe context outside of just your own.
DB: Do you think your passion for more peripheral, hand-made, traditional spirits like mezcals and rums informs your opinion about baijiu?
JLB: Definitely. It speaks to my proclivities from a social perspective and from a palate perspective. Totally. I’m absolutely interested in baijiu and Vietnamese rice wine and mezcal and Jamaican rum and Guyanese rum. These are all powerful flavors. They’re fascinating to me palate-wise, but there’s also social work to be done in this country, and so often in the country where they’re from too.
They’re something to champion. They’re something to stand behind.
I want to talk about issues that are facing the producers, and try to help and protect these traditions. The micro-distilling movement is trying to take back some of the larger categories, but in a very different way, in a premium way.
But a lot of the small family traditions that happen within the larger categories have been dead for a long time. And while some of these things still exist in other communities, they’re easily misunderstood and relegated to a spirit ghetto, if you will. Or also are being exploited, or are about to be exploited potentially.
These are things that need to be dealt with right now. And that’s exciting too. It just feels lucky that I also like big powerful flavors.
“Why are you pulling your punch? Why not just go with the full flavor?”
What have you noticed working with baijiu in relation to other spirits? What are your takeaways from your long journey?
JLB: Yeah, especially the Monkey. I’ll talk first about that one as a larger guide for my thinking. Maybe because you like it a lot, but also because I think it’s the best I’ve done with baijiu. I’m really proud about that.
Early on I started to realizing that the mistake that I and other bartenders I knew who were trying desperately to work with baijiu, is that we kept trying to go for that whisper approach. Why not just use a rinse of it? Just try to bring a note of baijiu to it somewhere in there, as though that would somehow be an approachable way for us to introduce it to people.
And it wasn’t. It would always throw a bit of an off-kilter quality to things, because it is such a powerful voice.
It’s kind of like having a stereo in the house next door. You try to minimize it, but you just have the dull bass pumping through, and you’re like, “This seems uncomfortable.” But if you bring the stereo in with you and let it happen at full volume, you can make that one of the stars of the show. Even if it’s the only star, at least one of the stars, then you can give it room to breathe and speak its truth a little more.
So I got to this place where I was like, “Man, I gotta stop trying to cover it up with citrus and all these other fruits. And like Chartreuse and all these other big flavors it’s up against. I gotta do a baijiu-forward stirred drink and take some of the things that are happening within the baijiu and just elevate them.
DB: My opinion has always been that if your approach to baijiu is to find a way to hide the baijiu, the simplest way is just to not use baijiu.
JLB: Right. Why are you trying baijiu in the first place?
That’s true of a lot of the big-flavored things. I know people who use high-ester Jamaican rums, who use it in a dasher bottle. And I get that: You’re kind of using it like an extract, giving a little bit of rum character to it.
But it feels like if you’re making this thing a rummy experience, why are you pulling your punch? Why not just go with the full flavor?
There are arguments for delicacy, but there’s also an argument for let me not hide behind anything. Let me be kind of brazen about it. Let me speak my truth at full volume. If this is what I’m going for, this is what I’m going for.
Since then, I have carried that mind-set. I’ve done sours or rum-based tropical-style drinks and things like that with baijiu. I’ve tried to make sure that if it’s not the main, it’s one of the two major voices. And there’s a lot of things around it that will also be powerful voices too, because they need to talk loudly enough to not be drowned out. Otherwise, why are you using them either?
Ginger works really well. Citrus works well when it’s taking a back seat. But then find me fruit tones that might exist within the spirits I’m pairing with the baijiu, or in the baijiu. And use those fruit tones to pump it up, rather than how do I incorporate herbal notes against it, or how do I incorporate something that isn’t in there, and give it this contrast that often won’t work. Because it has so much to offer on its own that even if I try doing that, it’s like trying to paint with too many colors and ending up with something brown.
DB: I’m wondering what do you think baijiu’s future looks like in New York, the US, and the non-China world. Do you think it has a place here?
JLB: I do.
DB: How do you think it finds that place faster?
JLB: That’s the hard question.
I feel like as things are becoming more egalitarian in so many things in our culture, that’s something that people are becoming more and more interested in: authenticity. Which is an awful word often, but interested in questions of tradition and questions of how are things being made and how have things been made historically. And what the things that come from a people taste like, rather than what is it when it’s been synthesized and sold to me.
I think that works in its favor. People are getting acclimated to bigger, bolder flavors too. Ten years ago you wouldn’t open a Malaysian barbeque and have a line out the door, but you do now in New York. And that’s slowly dripping into other parts of the country.
So all those things are working in its favor, but the hard part is how do we translate it? How do we help people to interpret what they’re receiving? And educate them without intimidating them?
DB: If someone said to you that they were thinking about working with baijiu, what advice would you give them?
JLB: My key piece of advice would be don’t try to cover it up. Don’t shy away from it. If you’re going to do it, do it with everything that you’ve got. Put it front and center.
If you can carry one [baijiu], try carrying three. Give it some extra love. Don’t shy away from the fact that you’re trying to talk about this thing. Don’t shy away from the fact that you’re trying to show this thing in your drinks.
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