Baijiu. Delicious Delicacy or Rubbing Alcohol?

A huge part of discovering a new country is getting acquainted with its culture. And usually one of the most fun parts of that is to taste all the local brews. In China, the most distinct (or should that be distilled?) local alcohol is definitely Baijiu (Chinese: 白酒; pinyin: báijiǔ). Bái means white, jiǔ is the word for alcohol or liquor and while I’ve heard many locals translate Baijiu as ‘white wine’, with its alcohol content of usually ranging between 40% and 60%, it has little in common with the Western understanding of wine. Rather, its taste and mouth-feel is often likened to vodka, korn or rubbing alcohol – depending on who you ask. In honor of this week’s second annual World Baijiu Day (with events around the world from August 1st to August 9th, 2016), we will try to give you an overview of China’s memorable national drink.

Baijiu is a clear spirit that can be distilled from several different kinds of grains: sorghum (which is the most common base for baijiu across China), sticky rice if it is a baijiu variety from the South, wheat, barley, millet or coax seeds for those from the North. The mash is fermented with the help of a starter culture called jiuqu usually made of wheat.

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Baijiu-making has a history of more than 5000 years and is traditionally served at room temperature. The bottles baijiu is sold in range from cheap plastic containers (reminiscent of gallon bottles for milk or orange juice in the US) at little more than what you pay for drinking water to elaborately tooled ceramic bottles that can go for up to thousands of dollars. In many rural areas, baijiu is still sold by the pound (rather than per ml) from traditional clay pots that stand sentinel outside the local mom-and-pop-shop.

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There are several different classifications of baijiu according to fragrance – strong fragrance, light fragrance, rice fragrance, sauce fragrance, phoenix fragrance and mixed fragrance. This might come as a surprise to many foreigners, who mainly just classify baijiu into the categories “horribly-strong”, “can-be-used-as-paint-thinner” and “good-for-killing-cockroaches”. But, much as (sometimes self-styled) wine connoisseurs in the Western hemisphere, Chinese baijiu buffs lovingly describe the baijiu categories with adjectives such as sweet, unctuous, mellow, light, aromatic, etc. Interesting for the uninitiated is the phoenix fragrance (haven’t you always wondered what a phoenix could possibly taste like?!), which is supposedly of a fruity taste with earthy undertones and an expanding finish. Very strange to a Western palate is the sauce fragrance baijiu, which allegedly resembles the taste of fermented bean paste or soy sauce. This is the fragrance that most often has laowais draw comparisons to rubbing alcohol and paint-thinner. Then there are baijius of a mixed fragrance, which is the result of a blend of two or more different baijius. Mixing the different fragrances apparently makes for even more mouth-confounding taste experiences.

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There are thousands of different baijiu brands across China. In addition, there are countless home-brewed varieties distilled all over the country. Some of the most well-known brands of unflavored baijiu are Erguotou (二锅头, èrguōtóu the blue-collar version of prime baijiu consumption in China’s Northeast, as it is very cheap and readily available) and Wuliangye (五粮液, wǔliángyè), which is made from five grains – wuliangye literally means five grain drink – in Southern China’s Sichuan province. A popular flavored baijiu variety is Moutai (茅台, máotái), which is often served at state dinners with foreign dignitaries. Henry Kissinger, one of the VIPs drinking it on his visit to China, purportedly told Deng Xiaoping “if we drink enough Moutai, we can solve anything”. Among the big selection of every store in Shenyang, you will find a bottle of baijiu offered by a local brewery called Laolongkou (老龙口,lǎolóngkǒu). The literal translation of the name is Old Dragon’s Mouth, but in spite of the rather unpleasant associations this name evokes, the Chinese attribute  a very nice and smooth flavor to this baijiu.

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World Baijiu Day is an initiative by Beijing-based restaurateur and entrepreneur Jim Boyce in 2015. He wanted to go “beyond ganbei” and introduce people in- and outside of China all the possibilities baijiu has to offer with venues offering baijiu-based cocktails, baijiu-infused pizza, ice cream and beer. If you would like to check out the excitement, go to Beijing for a long weekend. Or try some baijiu at home (with some friends, drinking by yourself is just sad) or in a Shenyang watering hole to mingle with some locals.

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Let us know in the comments below what your experience has been trying baijiu and of course share this article with your (not yet) baijiu-drinking friends. Also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or WeChat at LandingEastShenyang, or enter your email address below to never miss updates of the blog in the future.

Written by Julie Marx.

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