The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu covers a lot of turf, including a 25-room hotel, guest houses, two restaurants, a gallery and ceramics workshop, and an orchard with farmers’ markets — all at the foot of the Great Wall of China. It also makes five liqueurs using baijiu.
Jim Spear, partner in the project, has been, er, spearheading the infusions for a few years now and says that local ingredients are used as much as possible.
I met Spear at East Hotel in Beijing on Wednesday night, where he explained the history behind the liqueurs and gave me a set of five to try: apricot, hawthorn, five spice, coffee and Limoncello. I shared those a few hours later with a half-dozen alcohol trade people at D Lounge and tried them again last night. Each liqueur includes erguotou and water, sugar and a flavoring agent. A few notes:
Apricot (35 percent): This one is an “old gold” color and has an aroma that includes apricot (no shocker) and touches of dry grass and alcohol, although it seemed more vodka than erguotou to my nose. This one is sweet, with medium viscosity, and has a lingering spicy finish.
Hawthorn (35 percent): A tawny color, this liqueur smelled a bit like an oxidized wine and of wild berries. It seems drier than the apricot liqueur, but perhaps some sweetness is being cut by that tart hawthorn. It’s also less spicy and has a light berry aftertaste.
Limoncello (35 percent). This one is yellow-green and has a light but vibrant lemon smell. Pleasant. It is drier than I expected based on the smell and has a mild citrus-y body and lingering finish.
Coffee (20 percent): This has the color of typical drip coffee, with a mild freshly roasted bean smell and a touch of alcohol. It is sweet, a bit like one of those 3-in-1 Nescafe coffees, but better. It has a milk coffee finish and might work for as a local alternative to Bailey’s in your morning coffee.
Five Spice (30 percent): This yellow-brown liqueur has a pungent five-spice smell with a kind of menthol-black licorice edge. It is leaner and drier than the other four and has an enduring tingly finish dominated by the five-spice, with a bit of Sichuan peppercorn coming out.
Those notes are from last night, when I tried the liqueurs using a huge red wine glass, a 28-ouncer from Schott Zweisel. When I tried them a night earlier at D Lounge, we used snifters and I found the apricot had a more sweet-and-sourish aroma, the hawthorn had more berry intensity, and the other three liqueurs were pretty much the same. (There are many factors that can affect your experience of an alcohol, including glassware, serving temperature and exposure to air, and it is fun to experiment.)
What struck us at D Lounge was how the baijiu was minimized. If you find baijiu too intense, including those with alcohol levels nearing 60 percent, you might want to give these liqueurs a try as they weigh in at 20 percent to 35 percent. You can find them at Capital Spirits or The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu. I’ll update if any other bars or restaurants in Beijing, or elsewhere, add these liqueurs to their lineup.
By the way, bartender Paul Hsu made a pleasant cocktail using the apricot baijiu liqueur, gin, Brandy and lemon juice. I have a feeling that he can also do some magic with straight baijiu.