"The first time I drank baijiu it went down smoothly. I've been drinking it for 30 years now," said Yan Zhidong, a consultant at the Shenzhen baijiu distillery in Shanghai's suburban Fengxian district when I visited the place last year. "Farmers drink it here to rid themselves of colds, and soldiers drank it before going into battle. You can drink it when you've fallen out of love, for when someone gets married...any time, any place."
If you live in the west, chances are that you have not heard of baijiu—there isn't even a word in the English language it directly translates to. According to International Wine & Spirit Research, it accounts for more than a third of all spirits consumed worldwide. Even though there has been a decline in sales due to a government crackdown on officials' boozy banqueting, according to the China Alcoholic Drinks Association, the baijiu industry made $81 billion last year. But it sounds pretty great, right? The statistics back up Yan's on-message enthusiasm, at least.
For most westerners living in China (such as myself) baijiu is up there with sparking up a chat about the cons of communism with your boss in terms of 'no nos'. Those who have tasted it usually do so at the behest of local colleagues at dinners, as opposed to slamming shots of the stuff at bars or clubs. The stinky beverage is considered (almost exclusively) a meal-time drink.
It's the smell that usually hits you first. Often it's a sickly-sweet nostril-rush that reminds oneself of industrial cleaning fluid the moment you open it, as though a school janitor has showed up to pour you a drink with his cleaning supplies. Then, the scent settles into a more subtle vomit-esque note with a hint of paraffin. And it burns. With the spirit usually around 50-60 ABV, drinking baijiu feels like lighting a dynamite stick fuse as it fizzes down your throat.
Washington DC-based author, Derek Sandhaus, loves baijiu, and has made a name for himself as pretty much the only westerner to ever go on record saying this. Author of the book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, Sandhaus intially loathed the drink. But when he was introduced to higher quality versions after moving to Chengdu, his horror gradually turned into mere obsession.
"With baijiu, a lot of which smells like paint thinner of industrial solvent, people smell that and say, 'Oh my god, it must be really unsafe, what am I putting inside of me?'" he says. "But the answer is that it's run of the mill grain liqueur. The fears are unfounded."
Sandhaus believes that westerners' seemingly default hatred of baijiu is more to do with the way it's consumed rather than it just being gross. "Most westerners don't take their hard liqueur with a meal," he says. "In the Chinese context you only drink it during a meal, and usually at least an entire bottle for a table. For most foreign people drinking that much that quickly is unpleasant. It's going to feel like a chore."
Vance Yang, head barman at top-notch Shanghai cocktail bar Yuan, is one of the few barmen in the city to serve baijiu cocktails. He agrees with Sandhaus' belief that it's nurture rather than nature making baijiu-sipping westerners here regularly retch.
"It's a meal drink, with shots," he says. "Chinese never drink baijiu in a club. It needs to go with food—it's just the culture. And the Chinese will never say stop. If you are awake at a Chinese table, you keep drinking until you fall over or you finish the drink. That's Chinese style. You have a hangover the next day, so once you have a hangover you have a phobia. It's about over-consumption."
Keen to investigate whether baijiu could be enjoyed by a westerner in a non-meal environment, and spurred by having an excuse to drink large amounts of spirits at home alone in the name of work, I bought some mid-level baijiu bottles from my local supermarket. Derek had recommended Laobai Fenjiu by the Xinghuacun distillery and Touqu by Luzhou Laojiao, both costing about $30 each.
The Laobai Fenjiu, with its urn-like bottle setting an early negative tone for my drinking session, is supposedly the oldest baijiu on the market with the distillery claiming it has been sold for 1,500 years. At 53 percent ABV and from the 'light aroma' baijiu category, it singes the throat, but it tastes almost fruity with a hint of pine. I enjoy the intensity of the burning—surely knocking back any spirit neat is supposed to give you more of a whack than a nice sip of peach schnapps or whatnot, right?
Next up the Touqu, which is from the 'strong aroma' category (as well as 'strong' and 'light' there are 'soy' and 'rice' baijiu aroma categories too), is fittingly a more nose-pummelling affair. The sensation of drinking it is similarly tonsil-toasting yet the taste is hugely fruity. But then on settling, the creeping aroma starts swirling until I smell that awful, familiar stench I perceive when I know someone's puked somewhere in the apartment the night before, but I'm not quite sure where.
A vomit aroma is a big downer on a solo work-based drinking session, let alone one in an actual bar with friends. A few nights earlier at Yuan, Vance had admitted that he kept some of his baijiu bottles in his bar freezer, with the cold quelling the stench when he pours.
Also at Yuan I'd tried a shot of Red Star: The most common baijiu in China, readily available at around $3 for a small bottle. With the taste much harsher than the smooth mid-rangers I tried, I wondered if the ubiquity of such tramp-friendly baijiu was another reason westerners get put off the spirit in general.
"I did wonder, How can hundreds of millions of people drink this every day but not a single westerner I've met said they loved it?" said Derek, echoing my thoughts on the overall issue. "But back in 2011 I was exposed to a really great baijiu that cost about $200 a bottle. It had the same flavors I had rejected before, but they were really well balanced. It wasn't too sweet or spicy, it was a pleasant balance and the lightbulb popped on. It wasn't that any one of these elements shouldn't have been there, they just needed to be better done.
"It was very smooth. You can't overstate how important that is. Over time, between around shot 65 and 70, I thought it was really great."
And there's our answer: Baijiu isn't really disgusting to all westerners, we just need to drink 65-70 shots of it and indulge in a $200-a-bottle version to appreciate it. Best of luck, everyone.