Drinking báijiǔ (白酒) always brings us back to our first illicit taste of hard alcohol – a shock to the system, going down fiery and leaving a shudder-inducing aftertaste on the tongue. And just as many first-time drinkers are left wondering where exactly the attraction lies, the same thing is true for baijiu – at least, until the aftereffects start to kick in. In fact, even the Chinese believe that one needs to drink 300 shots over time in order to truly understand the appeal of baijiu.
Baijiu, which translates literally as “white alcohol,” is a clear spirit made predominately from sorghum, although glutinous rice, maize or other grains can also be utilized in various proportions. Baijius vary greatly in both fragrance and flavor but generally fall into four main categories – light aroma, rice aroma, sauce aroma and strong aroma – that are produced in different regions of the country. The most famous and traditional sauce-aroma baijius – such as Moutai, China’s most famous brand of the spirit – come from the province of Guizhou.
Sauce aroma and strong aroma baijius are both fermented with yeast in pits, which over time make for more complex, funky brews. It isn’t soy sauce related, though the same character for sauce in Chinese is used for both. Rice aroma baijiu uses rice and glutinous rice instead of sorghum, making it more comparable to Korean soju or Japanese shochu. During tasting its aroma definitely comes off as milder, without as much of the layered harshness (think nail polish) of strong and sauce aroma baijius. Light aroma, made in the north and the easiest to produce, also has the cheapest brands – Erguotou (二锅头) is absolutely ubiquitous around China in small bottles that cost less than a dollar. The good types of light aroma are described by the Chengdu-based writer Derek Sandhaus, who maintains the informative all-things-baijiu website 300 Shots to Greatness, as having “….a mellow somewhat piney taste.”
The allure of baijiu remains mystifying to most foreigners, perhaps in large part due to the spirit’s high alcohol content, which generally falls in the 45-55% ABV range. Indeed, during the colonial era, the harsh drink drew equally harsh criticism from new drinkers and maintained a poor reputation. As the Scottish physician Dr. John Dudgeon noted in 1895, “It exhales a powerful and peculiarly suffocating odour, and leaves a burning taste.” In a warning to American troops during WWII, a Chinese phrase book stated that baijiu is “quite good as a disinfectant when nothing else can be obtained.” Indeed, not the highest praise.
Nonetheless, baijiu is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture: The spirit is offered at nearly every social event – from wedding receptions and banquet dinners to karaoke bars and more – and Chinese drinkers throw back shots of it with abandon. To meet the demand, each year approximately four billion gallons of baijiu are distilled, a market that was worth roughly $41 billion in 2012. An estimated 30-50% of the top brands’ supply is purchased with public funds for boozy lunches and dinners at all levels of government.
Newly appointed President Xi Jinping is promoting serious CCP-wide austerity measures, however – legislation that is trickling down into the baijiu budget for local officials. But limiting spending by squelching officials’ consumption may be even harder than President Xi realizes, as baijiu has a special place in the hearts and bellies of the party. In Communist lore, it is said that Moutai pulled double duty and was used to clean soldiers’ wounds during the Long March as Communist troops evaded Nationalist forces.
So how does one build up a baijiu tolerance to match a local CCP official? Baijiu blogger Sandhaus recommends buying midrange bottles priced around RMB 200 in order to avoid the throat-melting, low-end swill and avoiding counterfeits of the better-known brands. Another option is to go for one of the local brands bought up or started by global liquor conglomerates over the last few years, such as Diageo’s Shui Jing Fang or Pernod Ricard’s Tianchengxiang.
According to Sandhaus, the reason behind baijiu’s lack of mainstream international appeal is fairly straightforward. Chinese consumers drink baijiu neat during meals and important business functions, while non-Chinese may be more used to drinking cocktails, which generally incorporate foreign liquors as just one element. Only Diageo has worked hard to promote its high-end baijiu outside of China, but “its high price almost guarantees that the only customers will be Chinese business travelers and overseas Chinese,” says Sandhaus.
Baijiu appreciation amongst non-Chinese may be only in its infancy, yet as more outsiders participate in traditional Chinese cultural events and business dealings, exposure to the drink is widening. Thanks to the current trend of focusing on local ingredients at Shanghai bars and restaurants, the liquor is starting to show up in mixed drinks, with some promising results. We recommend sampling the drink at one of our recommended venues, rather than heading out to the nearest liquor store for a bottle. Trust us: easing into your first 300 shots is worth every watered-down sip.
The former French Concession location has a multitude of bars, but none that focus both on Chinese décor and local ingredients for a cosmopolitan audience. Opened in early 2013, Yuan fills that niche, putting off a cool retro China vibe for local and foreign customers. With iPad menus, the bar epitomizes the new-money China, but the deep red hues and Chinese symbology are done in good taste. Try the “Zombie,” the best attempt we’ve sampled of a drink incorporating (some would say disguising) baijiu into a multi-ingredient cocktail. For the brave, baijiu is also available (off-menu) by the shot for 20 RMB.
[Editor's note: Le Sheng is currently closed and looking for a new space.] Prolific Shanghai restaurateur David Laris’s modern Shanghainese restaurant, Le Sheng, is also in the former French Concession. It attracts a high-class crowd lapping up the restaurant’s delicate but delicious portions and contemporary décor. In addition to the bottles of baijiu ranging from RMB 1,998 to RMB 4,358 (for 26-year aged Gujing Gong), the mini bottles of infused baijiu are a must-try, and are only RMB 180. Availability varies by season, but the flavor combos, including peach with chrysanthemum, lemon and chamomile, or plum with hibiscus, help transform the fiery burn into a more palatable light and fruity warmth.