Baijiu cocktails are rare. They do exist, and, as baijiu becomes more well known in the West, more cocktails will appear, but, for now, we experiment and we try things. The Swatch House Sour, near as we can tell, is a 2017 creation of noted New York bartender, Justin Lane Briggs. It’s also one of the oldest baijiu cocktails we could find.
OK, there are likely more baijiu cocktails that are older, but not by much. Only recently discovered with interest and enthusiasm in North America, baijiu is a uniquely delicious spirit best sipped neat. In a cocktail, however, it’s a tough nut to crack. It works for sure, and you can use it as a base spirit in a cocktail like any other spirit, but you can tell that, in most cases, that it really doesn’t want to be there. Most likely this is because we’re still learning how to treat it, but sometimes it finds a place it likes and shines. The Swatch House Sour is one of those places, likely because the baijiu is held to just one ounce, and there’s alot of other things going on that tame the Chinese liquor's attitude, if not aroma.
Baijiu is polarizing. Westerners who taste baijiu for the first time universally have strong opinions about it. Some take to it immediately, and others are a bit put off by both flavor and nose. It does, indeed, make an impression on the nose, but it’s only off putting in the way the nose of a strong whiskey is off putting to those who don’t enjoy whiskey. The baijiu is just stronger, in a very unique way, and when you pour a glass, they’ll know about it in the next room, but, powerful as it may be, it’s not unpleasant. In fact, it's quite appealing when you find you enjoy the taste, which kinda reminds us of aquavit without the caraway. It’s dry, complex, and herbal with a lingering finish that makes it what it is, a perfect social drink, and best savored in moderation.
Matching ingredients with baijiu isn’t that hard, it just takes some creativity and a rethinking of quantity. In a Swatch House Sour you’ll find lots of other stuff used more liberally than normal, with just a little bit of baijiu. This is good. It means you can enjoy a cocktail and the bottle of baijiu will last that much longer! Which is also good, because you’ll want to enjoy this delicacy in as many ways as you can, including neat.
Making the drink requires some preparation. We’ll need some Sichuan peppercorn tincture. We’ve covered making bitters elsewhere, and tinctures are how we do it. When making bitters, we first make tinctures of all the ingredients, then mix the tinctures in varying quantities to make the bitters. For the Swatch House Sour, we only need a tincture, which is made by immersing some Sichuan peppercorns in some high proof alcohol. Take a pint jar, add enough Sichuan peppercorns to cover the bottom, and a little more, then fill with alcohol. We use everclear, but you could use 100 proof vodka, or 151 rum, or even a barrel strength bourbon. Whatever you use, the higher the ABV, the quicker the tincture will be ready, but, the higher the ABV, the more you’ll have to dilute the tincture when you use it.
With everclear, the tincture should be ready in about a week to ten days. Store it in a cool, dark place, and shake it once or twice a day. You’ll know it’s done when the smell of Sichuan peppercorns is stronger than the smell of alcohol. Not very descriptive, but over the course of the week you’ll notice the tincture smelling more of the Sichuan peppercorns, and less of alcohol. When you’re ready to use it, strain off the Sichuan peppercorns and pour the tincture into a dark colored bottle, then store at room temperature. In a dark bottle, protected from any light, it will last, as far as we're concerned, forever. We recommend amber colored glass bottles because the amber color best blocks any light. We also recommend bottles with dropper tops, and adding water, or simple syrup to the finished tincture to reduce the ABV. Cutting the ABV isn’t necessary if you used 100 proof vodka, but can result in a less harsh product if you used everclear. We mix one part filtered water with three parts everclear based tincture.
With the tincture in hand, we can make a cocktail. The Swatch House Sour is fairly straight forward, it’s a sour, so juice and sweetener are in order. The juice is lemon, but for sweet we’re using respectable quantities of apricot liqueur, and Peychaud’s Aperitivo. Briggs specifies using either Contratto Aperitif, or Aperol, but we’re just that fond of Peychaud’s, which tastes alot like Aperol mostly. Of course, our baijiu comes from Vinn, the only producer of baijiu in Portland, and the rosemary garnish is absolutely necessary because of the overwhelming nose of the cocktail. As a plus, the sweet, familiar aroma of the rosemary compliments, not covers, so the resulting drink is as much a pleasure on the nose at it is on the palate, so don’t be scared of the baijiu. It works just fine in the right cocktail, and shares with great pleasure among friends. Ganbei!
Shake with ice and serve up. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.
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