A bar designed to raise Beijing's spirits

United States - China's traditional rice liquor isn't to everybody's taste, but the owners of a new bar in Beijing are hoping to get customers to see it in a new light.

The first time I tried baijiu, it was definitely not love at first shot. I tried mixing it with Coke, but even that didn't dull the liquor's unique taste. Unique is a polite way of describing it. Others have compared the taste to bathroom cleaner or cheap perfume.

But, given the assignment of writing about Beijing's first bar dedicated to baijiu (and the world's first, the owners claim), I vowed to keep an open mind about the white spirit, at least for one night.

Capital Spirits opened in August, and is located in a quiet hutong near Guijie, or Ghost Street. The bar doesn't open until 8 pm because the people who run it have day jobs.

I get there a little before 9, and sit down at the bar next to a tall jar of snake-infused baijiu (more on that later). I ask the bartender, Matthias Heger, to recommend a drink, and he suggests a Baijiu Sour - a concoction consisting of bitters, sour mix and a light rice baijiu. For someone who is not a fan, it's a good reintroduction to the spirit.

And that, says Simon Dang, co-owner of the bar, is what Capital Spirits is trying to do: let people experience baijiu in a new light. Many visitors to China try baijiu for the first time at a banquet or dinner, and are often encouraged to drink glass after glass.

Dang, 44, of San Diego, California, says he first tried baijiu in 2002, when he moved to China to study the language. "I didn't really like baijiu until (we opened) this bar," says Dang, who also handles public relations for Capital Spirits.

After sampling the different varieties of baijiu - the bar offers more than 40 different kinds - Dang says he gained an appreciation for the drink. "We convert over 90 per cent of the people who come here," he says.

"The whole thing is about removing the mental hurdles and opening up people's minds."

"And hopefully their wallets," jokes William Isler, 33, of Florida, another of the bar's co-owners and the man behind many of its drink recipes.

When Isler told friends that he was starting a baijiu bar, many people "thought it was crazy", he says. "We were prepared to lose money for the first few months."

He says the reception has been "incredibly positive", among both Chinese and foreigners. "It turns out the Chinese crowd also likes the presentation."

For people new to baijiu, Capital Spirits offers "flights", a sampler of four different kinds of the liquor. Each is served in 10-milliliter shot glasses. I try the intro flight. "Find one you like and then go from there," Isler says.

As I sip away, several people walk into the bar, and one of them stops to take a closer look at the snake-infused baijiu. "Want to try it?" Heger, the bartender, asks.

"I'm scared of snakes," the man says.

"Don't worry. They're not going to come out," Heger says.

The man shakes his head. "No, not today," he says.

Most of Capitals Spirits' customers are men, but drinks such as the baijiu sour have helped introduce some women to the liquor. "I actually quite like it," says Anna Pipilis, 27, of Greece. "It has a very distinguished, weird taste."

Pipilis, an architect, designed the bar, and says that when she started remodeling the 100-year-old building, everything "looked very fake". She liked the roof, and began tearing down the extra layers of plaster that had been added over the years to expose the building's original structure.

Most of the furniture in the bar is low to the ground, just like the small tables and chairs that are popular in the hutong. Pipilis says she wanted to create a homey, warm atmosphere.

By now, I'm feeling warm, but it's not because of the atmosphere. With a flight of baijiu behind me, I decide it's time to try the snake liquor. Isler tells me that the drink is known to enhance virility.

"Do you believe that?" I ask.

Isler laughs, and I reluctantly take the shot. It goes down easier than I had envisioned, and perhaps it's because I expected it taste like formaldehyde, or worse yet, five rotting snakes. It has a mineral aftertaste, and though I wouldn't recommend it, it's far from the worst liquor I've ever tried.

I can't even say that I would recommend any of the baijiu I tried. They're not bad; I just think I'm more of a bourbon/whiskey man. But Capital Spirits' presentation of the Chinese liquor at least has me thinking about it in a different light, which is exactly the intention of the bar's owners.

If you go:

Address: Capital Spirits Da Ju Hutong No 3, Beijing
Tel: +86 10 6409 3319
Hours: 8 pm-1 am daily. Closed on Monday.
Website: capitalspiritsbj.com

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