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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Byejoe Westerby


What's all this, then? The drink in the photo comes to me by way of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, of which I am an honorary member, and a fortuitous bottle of Byejoe Red, and a marriage to an Italian woman sensible about culinary matters. I'll bet it looks unlike any drink you've had to-date. Well, that's what I'm here for, in part. Perhaps in large part.

I may recall for you how Jerry Westerby, the de facto hero of Le Carre's The Honorable Schoolboy, ditches his insane Italian wife at the beginning of that chronicle; I may recall for you how like Westerby è sua donna I too live on the wrong side of a hill.  But let's take it one step at a time...

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Byejoe is a recent addition to the American spirits cornucopia, distributed by the usual evil agents in Texas. It is a western version and phonetic spelling of the world's best selling spirit, baijiu, about which you know next to nothing beyond what I'm about to tell you.

Baijiu in its Asian state presents a problem to the American palette. Americans like their stronger spirits to complement almost nothing at all, although a steak and a martini do make for a good rubric, but the Chinese and other Asians mostly take baijiu with their sauce-driven savory cuisine. Baijiu is also made from sorghum, a grain not celebrated in America, as it produces a foggy taste that I would describe as "musty" though many have been even less kind.

I first had genuine baijiu (and for what it's worth, I do consider Byejoe genuine baijiu as well) about fifteen years ago, at a wedding between two Chinese Americans (who both, magnificently, had the same last name) in Monterey Park. It struck me as a good complement to the fish cheeks and onion bread and hundreds of other items at the dinner, but even then I was wondering how it might make an American cocktail if called upon.

A bottle of the stuff arrived mirable dictu about a week ago and I sliced it open immediately on arrival. Further informed by fifteen years of mixology, and having prepped myself with a reading list of Byejoe cocktails, I couldn't wait to begin experimenting.

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Ah, here were challenges. Some new recipes, bent to the not overly fussy but anxious to be immediately gratified American taste, were sweet; and Byejoe itself comes unmolested but also comes in a stripe with infused lychee and pomegranate too.  Those two fruits coming together approximate the taste of strawberries, so the brand itself is also thinking that this might give them an extra wading pool entry into the American market.

I didn't see a need for the infused version, but I'm glad to have it. I felt the Byejoe infusion (called Dragon) may mix well with lime for those who are unembarrassed to drink a strawberry margarita, but really, the stand-alone Dragon is enough sweetness in a glass to abide any of my own cravings. (For fun, a Southerner might like to try it mixed with Southern Comfort to make a Dragon Frappe).

But I was more taken by my bottle of unadulterated Red. I tried lemon with it, which was an acceptable mixer but still left the leafy must musty. Ultimately, thinking about how natural baijiu complements Chinese cuisine, which is barely sweet when it is sweet but mostly savory and especially saucy, I abandoned citrus entirely and moved to those American hors d'oeuvres that can double as garnish.  My broader thought was that food should be on hand for the Red; the Dragon drinks well enough alone, or as a prelude.

The best that worked for me was a marinated artichoke heart from a jar; oil and vinegar and spices making it dirty. That made for a drink I looked forward to coming home to, even on the wrong side of the hill. Call it the Westerby after the soldierly hero of The Honorable Schoolboy; he is certainly a man who knows pickled artichokes from his ill-starred Italian tryst. Simply drop one into your drink--and the drink doesn't even need to be chilled--with a spoon rather than a fork, so you can include some of the pickling juice too; that's the way Westerby would do it I'm sure.

Byejoe will also work superbly as a complement to blue cheese, and one of those blue-cheese stuffed olives would make a wonderful mess of a Byejoe cocktail too.

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