Lumos (90 West Houston Street; 646-692-9866) checks all the marks on the modern speakeasy list: Interesting cocktail program, brick walls, dim lighting, nondescript subterranean entrance and a backroom featuring burlesque shows. The bar has an Asian bent, with a concept inspired by 1920’s Shanghai, but it’s the spirit the place serves that sets it apart— Lumos is the first NYC bar to focus on baijiu, an ancient celebratory Chinese liquor.
Chances are you’ve never tried anything like it before, but baijiu is the biggest selling spirit in the world. It’s made from grains, mostly sorghum with some rice, that are steamed and fermented (with the help of yeast and fungi) before aging in ceramic vessels stored in holes in the ground, some for six to nine years. High end variations are prized like fine Scotch or bourbon, some of which are tucked away for as long as 20 or 30 years.
It’s tricky to pin down the flavor profile because there are numerous categories, classified by fragrance. Starting with soft or rice (which tastes like it sounds, with gentle rice notes and even a hint of pear in some versions), moving up to strong (with interesting umami flavors like seaweed), culminating with sauce (a heady, slightly nutty drink with a long aftertaste).
Because baijiu doesn’t easily fit into Western flavor descriptors or profiles, lead bartender Orson Salicetti had to go completely off-script when developing the cocktail list. He first tried the spirit in 2009 and he says he immediately knew he wanted to do something with it.
Two years ago, he kicked his experimentation into high-gear, working with focus groups to figure out what worked and what didn’t. As a result, Lumos has a a seasonal menu with more than 100 different drinks (out of which 18 are available right now). “We couldn’t reinvent classics,” says Salicetti. “Baijiu’s characteristics are too dominating for traditional proportions. We make things by taste-training our staff to become familiar with the spirit.”
That list includes drinks like “Falling South”, inspired by the Chinese sweet pumpkin porridge that’s popular throughout the winter. It blends pumpkin puree, agave nectar, five-year aged rum, HKB Baijiu (a strong type that’s being aggressively marketed in the West), and Lumos’s spice elixir, a combination of bay leaf, allspice, cinnamon, and clove reduction steeped in the spirit. It’s like a thick, boozy pumpkin smoothie.
Otoño, (autumn in Spanish), mixes American fall flavors; fig infused HKB Baijiu, apple cider, Lumos’s spice bitters, lemon juice, Benedictine, and cherry Heering served over crushed ice in a tall glass. Make sure to try the Goji — goji berry-infused Baijiu mixed with mezcal, pink grapefruit, lime, agave, ad orange bitters, which tastes like a smoky, more complex riff on a paloma. House specialty cocktails are $15 each and boutique cocktails with higher end liquors are $38 to $68.
Baijiu is generally 40 to 60 percent A.B.V, significantly stronger than most East Asian spirits (Japanese shochu is 25 percent, Korean soju 20 to 40 percent). To soak it up, Lumos offers a short list of Asian-inspired tapas. Open Face ($12) is a sandwich topped with Chinese-spiced sauteed steak, peppers, onions and melted gouda. “Mitten” crab cake sliders ($12) come with a pickle and Shanghai spice sauce. The Lion Head pork meatballs ($12) are the best — they’re richly scented with a blend similar to five-spice, wrapped in Chinese cabbage, and served in house-made bread. Each dish comes with spiced potatoes on the side.