The most consumed spirit on planet earth is not the one in your glass.
Or even one that you have heard of. I can say this with a decent level of confidence, since although Baijiu (“Bye-Joe”) represents over 1/3 of global spirit sales each year, most sales are domestic to its native China.
In 2015 the narrative is finally beginning to change. 21st century consumers in pursuit of the new, unique and authentic are blowing new wind into the flagging sails of China’s national spirit. In 2015, we are witnessing Baijiu’s fiery star ascend.
The fact that Baijiu has found a following overseas still surprises me. I do not deny a tinge of pride when reflecting on how this token of Chinese culture has found itself out of the Sinosphere and into occidental drinking culture. Why shouldn’t China be known for something other than one party rule, censorship and stock market volatility? We are constantly reminded of the successes of cultural cross fertilisation when we find a greater variety of groceries in our supermarkets, our language enriched by foreign words and of course slivers of kimchee in our tacos. And yet, and yet…the idea of a Baijiu Masterclass rather made my lip curl.
London is receptive and daring in its acceptance of foreign food and drink culture, but two hours of Baijiu consumption felt to me like pushing the limits of the city’s friendly curiosity. Those of you who have tried Baijiu before will know that there are few who actually drink it for pleasure. Who in their right mind would sign up for this?
…Somebody like me obviously, doomed by a bad curiosity habit to volunteer for the irrational. Nevertheless, hands on research is my calling card, and I was curious to see what would unfold over the course of an amicable, alcoholic evening.
But before I go into further detail, some housekeeping is in order – in which I explain about China’s most loved, most hated, national drink.
*A particularly auspicious date in Chinese culture. In Mandarin, “eight” is pronounced “ba”, which sounds like “fa”, the verb “TO GET RICH”. So in a crude way, more eights is always better.
What is Baijiu?
Baijiu to China is what Sake is to Japan. Both are generally clear in colour and utilise molds in the brewing process…but the similarity stops there. The key differences being that Baijiu is distilled, and that the main ingredient is sorghum, which historically was a cheap grain considered too poor for human consumption. A happy medium between eating this appallingly fibrous grain and throwing it away was, of course, to turn it into alcohol. Herbs, berries, Chinese Medicine and beans are all sometimes used to enhance the final flavour. You could consider vodka as a Western equivalent, but whereas vodka smells neutral, the esters in Baijiu result in a spirit that is far more richly fragranced. Baijiu is categorised according to five major ‘fragrance’ categories, but many brands share the unmistakable aroma of peardrop sweets.
How alcoholic is Baijiu?
You know those Chinese restaurant menus where the original meaning has been crippled in the process of being translated into English? The translation of Baijiu is a classic example of “Lost in Translation”.
Baijiu literally translates to “white wine”, but those who mistakenly try it with this expectation are likely in for a shock. Baijiu contains alcohol just like wine, but “Alcoholic” doesn’t quite capture the liquid fire sensation of drinking it.
It weighs in at an average ABV of 50-55%…and people are also about 50-55% less sensible in consuming it. Apparently the thought of taming its fiery hot strength never occurred to anyone in the first couple thousand years of Chinese history.
How do you drink Baijiu?
To toast in Chinese is to “Gan Bei (干杯)”, or “Bottoms Up”!
This command is always taken literally, and in the spirit of true equality it is applied to every drinker at the table, no matter what they are drinking. No deviation, no hesitation and certainly no dilution. If you think that allowances might be made for something as strong as Baijiu, you’d be rational but perfectly wrong. Shot after shot after shot after shot is the rhythm of a typical evening of drinking.
This is why when you ask people what Baijiu tastes like, their eyes might glaze over and they may begin to shake.
“It tastes like being punched down the throat by a comet…”
Part of the Baijiu Revival has involved introducing new ways to drink it, like actually drinking it for example. The logic is that by sipping slowly, drinkers are allowed time to appreciate the flavour imparted by the raw ingredients, rather than be immediately KO’ed by the ethanol. And once you get past the initial alcohol shock, it is undeniable that there’s something very unique about this spirit. The taste depends on which of the five fragrance categories the drink belongs to, but each mouthful always contains multiple layers of taste.
More popular in the West is the practice of taming Baijiu’s essence into a cocktail, giving a lick of sugar with the spice.
When do you drink Baijiu?
Baijiu is the fuel of Chinese social occasions – so the answer is all of the time.
We drink it in times of happiness – weddings, corporate profit announcements, battle victories, but also in times of sadness. Classical Chinese poets have written about it, wars won, loves lost over it. History has been made over it – The most famous brand of Baijiu, Guizhou Mao Tai*, was immortalised when Mao and Nixon toasted to a new era of Sino-American relations in 1972. When Deng Xiaoping visited the US in 1979, Henry Kissinger is said to have remarked, “if we drink enough Mao Tai we can solve anything”. I think the Baijiu had got to him by then.
Suffice it to say that Baijiu is more than just a spirit, but rather a part of the national psyche.
*Romanisation = Kweichow Moutai. What the hell.
Why is the world taking an interest?
Baijiu makers are setting their sights abroad.
The reason being that Baijiu, like Sake, is suffering in its home country. In 2014, sales for certain brands declined by 80%. But why?
- Competition: Baijiu used to have a pseudo-monopoly on the Chinese alcohol market. With the arrival of foreign beverages, consumers were suddenly confronted with greater choice. The average Chinese youth is too preoccupied with aspirational substitutes like beer, grape wine and whiskey to have time for Baijiu. For younger drinkers, these Western substitutes are also a lot easier on the palate
- Crackdown: following the anti-extravagance measures imposed by President Xi, Baijiu sales have collapsed. Once the largest customer of the Baijiu industry, government officials have dramatically cut down on Baijiu gift giving and curbed the frequency of state banquets, rich enough to kill a Roman, which would always be awash with the spirit. With sales no longer guaranteed, the premium prices at which high end brands retailed were no longer supportable.
- Overseas demand: Chinese expats create a demand for Baijiu overseas, a result of the inextinguishable human craving for the food and drink of home
Is there a solution?
The confluence of factors described above has catalysed Baijiu’s old guard to rethink their strategy. To cater to domestic tastes, producers are creating mid-range offerings which confer the prestige of a heritage brand for mass market affordability. Secondly, to capture new pockets of demand, Baijiu makers are bringing their drinks to foreign markets. Still, trying to locate a retail bottle of Baijiu in the UK is tougher than finding a needle in a haystack, and as long as this remains the case it’s fair to say that there is still more to be done.
In this context, Baijiu Masterclasses can only be a positive force. Despite what I said earlier, I do believe that a proper introduction and education is essential for Baijiu. Done properly, Masterclasses will teach us to ignore some of the preconceptions about how it should be consumed (lots, fast), and allow us to look deeper into the flavour, history and culture – ensuring that a new drinker’s first kiss with Baijiu will be that much more meaningful and sweet.
Led by Paul Mathew, this tasting was the first of its kind. Paul has an impressive portfolio, being co-owner of The Hide Bar in Bermondsey, The Arbitrager and also Demon and Wise & Partners. His brush in with Baijiu happened during his four years in China, where he consulted with Diageo on its baijiu brand, Shuijingfang.
Within the safe walls of the Wine, Spirits and Education Trust, sixteen brave and curious guests came face to face with China’s national spirit.
We covered the history and production, before putting theory to practice by tasting different fragrance categories under careful supervision.
Paul had managed to find representation from almost each of the five main categories of Baijiu, which made for scientifically rigorous degustation. I always like to know there’s a bit of method to the madness in which I engage.
The five fragrance categories are as follows:
Most interesting of all was the way Western spirits were thrown in for comparison and contrast. We tried things like unaged Agricole Rhum, unaged Scottish grain spirit and white armignac. I’m not a connoisseur of spirits, but it was immediately evident that not one was as fragrant as Baijiu.
But let’s be honest, it was the reactions that I enjoyed the most. These brave souls, who – except for the Wu Liang Ye Baijiu sales rep present – could only be applauded for their bravery and pitied for their innocence. It was clear that the taste of Baijiu was not palatable to everyone, eliciting some acerbic remarks and tortured groans during tasting. But as with all things, your fondness for something is often tied up in the experiences you associate with it, the time and place it occupies in your memory. This is something that all drinkers will understand, and which is certainly true of my feelings for Baijiu.
Quote of the evening came from one of the more seasoned drinkers, a Chinese gentlemen working in London. When asked if the Baijiu brought back memories of China, he stoically admitted, “If you over consume, you have no memories.”
For the grand finale, we trooped next door to Paul’s Hide Bar to see what some deft cocktail mixing would do to Baijiu’s ferocious bite. I was sadly called away before the fun began, but I managed to obtain photos of the confective cocktails that were shaken and stirred (below, and earlier in the article):
As I travelled home on the DLR that night, exuding a cloud of peardroppy ester perfume, I felt glad.
I felt thankful for all the brave spirits out there, like Paul, who are willing to try new things and to socialise their discoveries. There are many for whom drinks like Baijiu will never wash, but also a fair few for whom the very process of discovery will be pleasure enough.
To get your dose of firewater, head on down to Bermondsey for some Baijiu cocktails at The Hide Bar, or venture down to Chinatown if you dare.
And if you do just one thing, then add this to your calendar: Baijiu Cocktail Week 2016!