Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"This bottle alone costs approximately $600 retail," explained mixer Allie Kim as she handed over a bottle of Maotai. This imported Chinese spirit is "a weird oxymoron," said Kim. "It's the only socialist luxury spirit in the world." The Chinese government has given it out as a diplomatic gift, while newscaster Dan Rather famously once said it was like drinking "liquid razor blades." Oh, and that $600 bottle? It's only got 375 millliters of the stuff inside it. A 1980 vintage bottle of the spirit sold for over $1.3 million last year. At newly opened River North Chinese spot Lao 18, they've incorporated it (in very small doses) into their cocktail program.
How do you begin to mix with such a distinctive spirit? "I had to taste it first and really think about it. It has a bit of a soy sauce aftertaste, and it comes off as having a chrysanthemum-honey flavor," described Kim. Maotai (also sometimes spelled Moutai) is distilled from sorghum, and comes in varieties with between 35% and 53% alcohol. Kim is mixing with the 53% version.
"I needed some kind of base spirit, because I'm not going to use three ounces of this and call it a $50 drink—no one is going to buy it, unless they're truly frivolous," Kim explains. She chose Buffalo Trace, because she thought the sweetness of the bourbon would play well with the honey notes in the Maotai. Lao 18's owner Tony Hu, famous for his many spice-laden Chinese restaurants in Chicago including Lao Hunan, Lao Szechuan and Lao Beijing, wanted Szechuan peppercorns incorporated into the cocktail.
After a lot of playing around, the final cocktail came together—a mix of Buffalo Trace, muddled blackberries and crushed black and Szechuan peppercorns, poured over crushed ice and topped with the Maotai. At $25, it's appropriate that the cocktail is called "The Prosperous Life." It's not on the menu, but if you ask, they'll know what you're talking about. There's also a $16 version without the Mao Tai float.
According to Kim, Maotai is traditionally taken as a shot. "It's not actually a spirit that you're supposed to sip," she explained. "You want to get the heat, so they tend to shoot it." There's some talk of selling it by the bottle to VIP guests, but for right now, you'll have to try a Prosperous Life if you want a taste.
The Prosperous Life isn't the only cocktail on Lao 18's menu. When Kim was figuring out what to put on the list, she thought about the flavors that the chef was incorporating into the Chinese dishes in the restaurant. Her cocktails include ingredients like chrysanthemum liqueur, jasmine liqueur, yuzu, shiso leaf, and sriracha simple syrup. Pop over to the slideshow for a look at some of the drinks »