Any regular at Backbar in Somerville’s Union Square has probably noticed a tiny closet while waiting in line to get in. This former storage space has gone through a makeover: Featuring a proper bar counter, a wall full of whimsical-looking bottles, vintage Kung Fu movie posters illuminated by string lights, and traditional Chinese tchotchkes, this closet has become Greater Boston’s first dedicated baijiu (pronounced “bye-Joe”) bar, hosting tastings every Thursday night.
Behind the counter is Nick Lappen, the bartender who gave the closet a new life. With an ever-changing list of three to five baijiu cocktails and a flight of different styles of baijiu, he hopes his passion for this ancient liquor will encourage more people to drink it.
In short, baijiu (literally “white alcohol”) is the umbrella term for traditional Chinese grain-based liquor that has a clear, colorless appearance and a biting, fragrant aroma, notes Derek Sandhaus in his book Drunk in China, the first English-language book about the history and cultural significance of this spirit. Baijiu can be distilled from all sorts of grains: rice, wheat, corn, and most prominently in modern times, sorghum.
Despite its prevalence worldwide, the liquor hasn’t received much recognition in the U.S. yet, but it can be found at a few Chinese restaurants in the Boston area. At Sumiao Hunan Kitchen in Kendall Square, for example, you can order four different styles of baijiu, as well as baijiu cocktails.
This is all thanks to owner Sumiao Chen, who comes from a family of baijiu enthusiasts. “When I was little, my grandma would dip a chopstick in baijiu and let me lick the tip of it to get a taste,” Chen remembers joyfully. “She definitely wasn’t concerned about drinking age.”
Chen wants to bring the liquor she fondly enjoys to the customers at her restaurant. “Before Sumiao opened, we hired a consultant to help us incorporate baijiu in our cocktail program,” she says.
In the past, a negative perception of the spirit, stemming from the harsh bite of cheap baijiu brands widely available at convenience stores across China, had deterred some of the few American consumers familiar with it. However, even more Americans were simply hesitant to sample a foreign spirit they’d never heard of.
“Baijiu is known for being high proof, averaging 52 percent alcohol by volume, with some brands going as high as 140 proof,” Sandhaus says. “It has very different smells and flavors that you don’t associate with other international spirits. Therefore, it’s not immediately easy for anyone to drink without an education.”
But bartenders like Lappen are committed to giving baijiu a shot. “Americans typically consume hard liquor through cocktails, so I figured that I’d ease my guests into the baijiu flight with a selection of baijiu cocktails I created,” he says.
The nuances of baijiu flavor notes aren’t quite like any other liquors that Lappen had worked with before — so building cocktails centered around baijiu requires creativity.
“Ideas sometimes come from food I’ve eaten,” Lappen says. “I really like the Vietnamese fish sauce and caramel combo in food, so I created a cocktail that has fish sauce and maple syrup, a nod to my New England roots.”
Lappen also draws inspiration from music. “There’s a Chinese hip-hop artist named Miss Vava who sang about how she wants her family to go from drinking sorghum baijiu, which is considered a working-class drink, to drinking Hennessy, a status symbol in China. So I thought to myself, why not both?”
Some of Lappen’s rotating baijiu cocktails have become so popular that customers press him to bring them back. “I keep on getting direct messages from them asking me about a particular cocktail they really liked. So I’m thinking about doing a pop-up featuring the greatest hits of all time.”
However, as the pop-up came about, so did obstacles. “Baijiu is traditionally drunk during meals,” Lappen says. “I wanted to pair my tasting with food, but I don’t know how to prepare any authentic dishes from the baijiu-producing regions.” To solve this issue, Lappen decided to seek out Chinese snacks at Asian grocery stores. “For instance, I pair the Guizhou sauce-aroma baijiu with pickled mustard greens, as the region is known for pickled vegetables.”
For Lappen, it’s not just about enthusiasm for the liquor — the project feels personal. After seeing the backlash against Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic, Lappen felt hopeless at first. “My son is Asian American, and my girlfriend is Asian. Seeing people who look like them being attacked was really messed up. But there wasn’t much you could do as a bartender to stop something as big as racism. Then I saw there are industry people doing fundraisers, and I thought I could do it, too,” he says.
“I’ve raised $2,000 so far for Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which has done tremendous work for the immigrant communities providing adult English lessons, affordable childcare, and more.”
The best way to get in touch with Boston Baijiu Bar is through Instagram; watch the account for announcements of open reservations and other updates. One can also book through Tock. There are three seatings available every Thursday night, with the earliest session starting at 5 p.m and latest starting at 9 p.m. Each seating is limited to six people.