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Makers of China's 'Firewater' Baijiu Fight to Make a Splash in U.S.

The makers of China's national liquor and world's most-consumed hard liquor, baijiu, are fighting to make it a fixture in U.S. bars.
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BEIJING — Its nickname is "firewater" and, to the uninitiated, that's exactly what it tastes like. Now, the makers of China's national liquor and world's most-consumed hard liquor, baijiu, are fighting to make it a fixture in U.S. bars.

"The global market is very important," said Chen Shijun, the deputy director of the Niulanshan baijiu factory outside Beijing.

While he admits that it takes a little time for foreigners to accept "the baijiu taste," Chen’s company already makes a version of the liquor tailored specifically for the U.S. market.

"The taste is different with our other products. It's more close to mixed wine, to Western wines," he said, noting that it also had a higher alcohol content than most of its other lines.

Its makers are luring U.S. drinkers with events such as World Baijiu Day, aimed at "celebrating the planet's most popular spirit." There are thousands of baiju distilleries throughout China and no reliable statistics on the international trade, but all indications are the drink is creating a buzz in the U.S.

And earlier this year, New York City got a dedicated baijiu bar, Lumos in Manhattan’s Soho district.

Image: Baijiu that comes with dead snakes suspended in the serving jar
One of the more unusual versions of baijiu comes with dead snakes suspended in the serving jar.NBC News

The bar’s co-owner Orson Salicetti said he got into the drink when friends brought back bottles after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"My first impression of it was very overwhelming," Salicetti said. "This was like discovering a whole new world."

The bar has introduced baijiu's strong flavors it its clientele by "balancing" the taste in cocktails, he said.

"Baijiu’s flavor is different from any other spirit. It's a powerful fragrance and that is good," he said. "The advantages of baijiu to me are the sweet, mature fruits, nutty and sherry flavors — you need to respect these notes and play with them."

Related: China Cracks Down on Enhanced 'Baiju' Booze in Viagra-Alcohol Scare

Salicetti said the drink usually provokes a strong reaction from trendy New Yorkers.

"If you are drinking it for the first time, usually people say [the taste is] surprising," he said.

Baiju is most commonly made from the grain sorghum — although other grains can also be used or mixed in — which is left to ferment for a few weeks before being distilled, cooled and bottled. As a result, the flavor varies widely.

"It gave me the worst hangover of my life"

In China, baijiu is traditionally drunk at a banquet or meal related to a business meeting. This sort of consumption is known as "baijiu culture" in China.

It is normally served in small glasses with guests around the table toasting each other’s health with cries of "Ganbei!" — meaning "empty glass" — before downing the measure.

Some Westerners have struggled to adapt to the fact that it is considered impolite to refuse to drink when served.

And struggle is precisely what Boca Raton, Florida, bartender David Putney did after first trying the liquor.

"It gave me the worst hangover of my life," he said. "“And a baijiu hangover as most people will tell you is a unique kind of category because the smell of the baijiu is so potent that when you wake up the next morning, it's coming out of your pores."

Putney vowed that he'd never try it again, and later described it as "one of the worst experiences of my life."

The 25-year-old's experience can't be unique — the drink has a high alcohol content of between 40 and 60 percent and carries a potent and distinctive flavor.

But eventually Putney learned to appreciate it and is now the manager of Capital Sprits, a baijiu-dedicated bar in Beijing.

Image: Florida bartender David Putney pours baijiu intro a traditional glass
Florida bartender David Putney pours baijiu intro a traditional glass. Makers of baijiu are fighting to make it a fixture in U.S. bars.NBC News

But while it is gaining popularity in the U.S., baijiu culture may be in danger at home.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012 ordered a ban of alcohol at military banquets, in an attempt to fight corruption, and declared that upmarket liquors could no longer be served at official dinners.

It's also losing favor among China's young people, many of whom regard it as an unfashionable drink enjoyed by older people.

So it's a good thing for baijiu producers that the drink is gaining traction in the U.S.

"People in the U.S. are very focused on culinary experiences and baijiu opens up a whole new taste opportunity," said Salicetti, Lumos' co-owner. "So that's why I say 'surprising' … in a good way."