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Employees at a Luckin Coffee shop in Beijing prepare baijiu-flavoured lattes, part of a collaboration with Chinese liquor brand Kweichow Moutai.JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images

At first glance, the Chinese spirit baijiu resembles two other Asian grain alcohols better known in the West: sake and soju. Any naif confidently slugging back a shot quickly learns the difference, however. Whereas the Japanese and Korean drinks have an average alcohol content of around 15 per cent to 25 per cent, baijiu’s is closer to 50. It burns all the way down.

Beverage companies and mixologists have long tried to win over foreign consumers to baijiu – pitching the “Chinese tequila” as an ingredient in cocktails that mostly mask its gasoline-like flavour. But despite a decade of grand promises, the liquor has never really broken through. Even in China, where baijiu remains the country’s most popular spirit, it is generally drunk as it has been for centuries – straight, in small glasses and accompanied by spicy food.

So it was with considerable skepticism many greeted an announcement by China’s Luckin Coffee that it was partnering with Kweichow Moutai, the country’s most famous baijiu brand, to offer a drink infused with the liquor. Moutai in particular seemed a strange choice: Whereas some types of baijiu are basically tasteless (apart from the burning), sorghum-based moutai is known for its savoury, soy-sauce-like flavour. It’s also one of the strongest baijiu varieties around, at 53-per-cent alcohol by volume, while Luckin said its coffees would contain only 0.5 per cent, the same as many non-alcoholic beers.

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Baijiu lattes like the one at top are a new way to enjoy a Chinese spirit typically found in bars like this one in Beijing.JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images; Thomas Peter/Reuters

There’s a fine line in offering a product so bizarre it’s simply off-putting, and one that people have to try for themselves. Luckin appears to have threaded that needle: On the first day its moutai-infused coffee became available this week, the company sold more than 5.42 million servings. Many customers queued for hours, or had to try several stores as they quickly sold out. Online, people shared videos of themselves trying it and photos of packaging emblazoned in Kweichow Moutai’s iconic red and white branding.

The drink is a success, even though few purchasers seemed to actually enjoy it. Some were disappointed it didn’t have a more pronounced flavour of moutai, while others strongly disliked the savoury aftertaste. One journalist described it as a “watered-down latte with a very faint hint of baijiu.”

Sharon Wu, a 26-year-old accountant from Kaifeng, a city in Henan province, said the flavour reminded her of the breath of an old man who has drunk multiple glasses of baijiu and insists on leaning in too close to talk.

Ms. Wu, who doesn’t usually drink baijiu, told The Globe and Mail she had been intrigued by the weird mash-up nature of the campaign.

“I bought it mainly because coffee to me is something Western, but moutai is a Chinese specialty. Such a combination is quite interesting, and I wanted to share a photo of it on WeChat,” she said. “The fact that moutai is so expensive but this drink only costs 19 yuan ($3.50) will attract the attention of some of the people who worship that brand.

“Of course, it would be nice if it was better,” Ms. Wu added. “I won’t be consuming this product again.”

Founded in 2017, in a matter of years Luckin Coffee surpassed foreign rivals Starbucks and Costa to become China’s most popular coffee brand, owing to a sophisticated mobile app and flashy promotions carefully targeted at Chinese consumers. That success came crashing down in 2020 when it emerged Luckin had misreported financial data, and the company fell into bankruptcy. It recovered last year and its sales have boomed again, expanding to more than 10,000 stores in the first half of 2023, and reporting revenue of more than US$855-million.

The success of the moutai promotion underlines Luckin’s return to market dominance in China, but also comes at a good time for Kweichow Moutai, Jim Boyce, a Beijing-based beverage analyst, wrote this week.

Kweichow is worth around $438-billion, making it one of China’s most valuable companies. It has long been the liquor of choice for the elite and government officials, and is often served at state visits, including to Richard Nixon on his historic first trip to China. But while the company has weathered anti-corruption campaigns and economic turmoil, there has been growing fear among executives that younger Chinese consumers do not have the same taste for baijiu as their parents and grandparents.

“This concern is real,” Mr. Boyce said. “I have heard it everywhere.”

As with a similar ice-cream promotion it ran last year, Kweichow’s partnership with Luckin enables it to soften its stuffy brand image and reach consumers who might never otherwise try its ultraexpensive liquor, and maybe get them thinking about what the real thing tastes like – even if they thought the coffee was disgusting.

With a report from Alexandra Li

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