Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    High Spirits: The American Pondering Baijiu’s Place in the World

    To prepare Western palates, Derek Sandhaus, author of “Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture” and founder of Ming River Sichuan Baijiu, offers a detailed primer on the spirit’s past, present, and future.
    Jun 06, 2024#literature

    Editor’s note: China is one of the world’s leading producers and consumers of liquor. In turn, alcohol infuses all aspects of China’s culture, from religion and literature to business and warfare. “Drunk in China” follows Derek Sandhaus’ journey of discovery into the world’s oldest drinking culture, meeting a host of distillers, brewers, snake oil salesmen, archeologists, and ordinary drinkers along the way. He also uncovers a tradition that spans more than 9,000 years and explores how recent economic and societal developments are helping to push Chinese alcohol beyond the nation’s borders for the first time. Following is an excerpt from the book.

    The first time I drank baijiu was Thanksgiving Day, 2006. I was at a high-rise apartment in Shanghai with recently arrived English teachers and a handful of our Chinese friends celebrating the holiday for the first time, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, through the great U.S. institution of the potluck. Each of us had come with watery yellow beer or barely drinkable wine, but Avi — a smart-ass kid from Philly with conspicuously cool sneakers — brought something special. He handed me a suspicious green bottle with a red star on it. I turned it over in my hands, and a transparent liquid sloshed around inside. The label was a jumble of indecipherable characters: I could not yet read Chinese.

    “What is it?” I asked him. He could have said anything — hair tonic, rat poison, kerosene — and I would have believed him. My suspicions were not far from the mark.

    “Give it a sniff,” he told me, barely able to contain his glee.

    Let’s state the obvious: When a grown man asks you to smell something, it’s rarely done with noble intent. But this was an odor for which I was entirely unprepared. It smelled as if someone had wrung a garbage bag of soiled gym shorts into a bucket of fish sauce, stirred in an equal measure of Drano, rotten fruit, and blue cheese, and left it to marinate for a few days. It was a smell conjured from the pits of hell, the last whiff one senses before waking up in a serial killer’s rumpus room. It triggered every alarm my young brain possessed. So of course I tasted it.

    My mouth ignited. White hot flames seared every bit of tongue, lips, gums, and throat. The substance singed my esophagus and settled like a lit coal in my stomach. When I regained feeling in my face, and the acid sting subsided, all that was left was a bitter, fruity taste and the urge to consult a war crimes tribunal.

    Whatever tricks have been played on me before or since, Avi’s was surely the cruelest. But from the moment I first sipped it, I was in on the joke. I passed the bottle to the next rube and perpetuated the cycle of violence.

    “What do you call this stuff?” I said.



    I repeated, trying the word out. Bye joe!

    Baijiu — literally “white alcohol”— is the term I later learned signifies all traditional Chinese grain liquor. Chinese spirits have a clear, colorless appearance and a biting, fragrant aroma. Though they are typically distilled from sorghum, they can also be made from rice, wheat, corn, and all sorts of starchy substances. The average strength of baijiu is around 52 percent alcohol by volume, but it can be purchased in eye-watering excess of 140 proof.

    It is as ubiquitous as it is potent. Today baijiu is the world’s best-selling spirits category, and each year a greater volume of baijiu — almost 2.9 billion gallons — is sold than that of vodka and whiskey combined. A baijiu distillery, Kweichow Moutai, is currently the world’s most valuable spirits company, worth more than Diageo, which owns dozens of brands, including Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray, and Captain Morgan. According to research firm Brand Finance in 2018, four of the world’s top five spirits brands by value were baijiu producers.

    Almost all of it is consumed in China: roughly 99 percent of liquor sold there is baijiu. It is served in every Chinese restaurant and banquet hall, and no traditional festival or holiday would be complete without it. Yet most of the world’s drinkers have never heard of it. And of the small sliver that has, many regard it with suspicion, if not scorn. This is an unfamiliar phenomenon in an era when news breaks in seconds, and any gratification short of instant feels excruciating. We have never had more options, in how and where we live, in what we think, and — crucially for our purposes — in what we consume. No meal passes muster until it has been documented in mouthwatering megapixels; no cocktail is too fancy to broadcast on social media. The act of satiation is now a game of one-upmanship, always looking for the latest hot trend and the next big thing.

    It seems impossible that anything could arrive too early in this environment, but this is the curious situation in which we find ourselves with baijiu. We are convinced we can handle any culinary experience, that all the world’s cuisines can be easily and rapidly assimilated. We have grown unaccustomed to being challenged by anything. But our collective experience has failed to prepare us for the titan punch baijiu unleashes on the palate.

    That first shot of sorghum sauce is a rubber-meets-the-road moment. When the lips purse and the eyes narrow and the head recoils like a slingshot, one gets a rare glimpse at what it really looks like to know about the band before it was cool. This is real-time culture shock turned up to 100,000 volts. This is where open minds slam shut. At least that was how I felt that cold Thanksgiving night in Shanghai. If I never tasted baijiu again, it would be too soon.

    A battalion of Han Chinese adolescents in Miao minority costumes welcomed us with songs and smiles. They clapped in unison as we stepped from the bus. We had arrived at a monolithic golden cube fringed with neon accents, a sci-fi set with an unwieldy name: the Guiyang Southwest International Business City Convention Center. “Shiny shiny bling bling,” explained the bus host, who wore a smile like it was tattooed on her face.

    This lead monstrosity had been built solely for the Spirits Selection of Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. Its construction had taken just 100 days and cost roughly $45 million. Shiny shiny bling bling, indeed. The year was 2015, and I was in Guizhou. Some years before I had visited my first Chinese distillery in the remote, backwater province, kicking off what would become my journey of spiritual enlightenment. Over the course of the next three days, I would join fellow jury members to collectively sample some 1,400 spirits from 44 countries. For baijiu, this was to be a coming-out party. Chinese distillers had entered more than 500 bottles in the competition. They wanted to show that Chinese spirits could compete on a global stage. I could hardly wait.

    Though my younger self would never have believed it, I had become one of baijiu’s leading foreign advocates in the decade since that Thanksgiving party in Shanghai. And I had returned to China in this capacity. My judging panel comprised five members: an Italian, a Spaniard, a Frenchman, a Chinese, and me. None of us was perfectly fluent in the others’ languages. I served as interpreter for the technical manager of Beijing’s Red Star distillery, Ai Jinzhong. Whenever English proved untenable, we resorted to Spanish, which I then translated mentally into English and verbalized to Ai in my now-rusty Mandarin. We began by calibrating our palates with a crisp, flavorless vodka. We jotted down appraisals and passed them to our Italian captain, Bruno.

    “Perfect,” he said, looking down at the results. “We are all in a line.”

    We started with white brandies and moved on to rums before finishing with Guizhou’s celebrated baijiu. A disturbing trend had surfaced by the end of the first session, and Bruno wanted to make sure we knew it.

    “Your scores,” he said, with a look that took in both Ai and me. “They are very much in line.” From the tone of his voice and the Frenchman’s arched eyebrow, I could tell this was not a compliment. What he meant was that I was out of line with the European panelists; I had become culturally unstuck. Summing it up, he said, “What is for us a defect is for you a strength.” It was an odd, backhanded affirmation of my work — and a reminder of how much work was left to do.

    Ai, a wiry old man with a gentle face, remained oblivious to the exchange. He just smiled and waited for me to translate. I gave him the sanitized version: “You and I, we like the same drinks.”

    A smile widened across his face, and he clapped me on the shoulder. “Very good,” he said, deploying one of his few English phrases.

    That afternoon, at the ballroom of a luxury hotel that smelled of fresh paint, there was a forum on baijiu’s international development. Aside from Spirits Selection’s Belgian chair Baudouin Havaux, I was the lone foreign speaker. I told the audience that I thought baijiu’s future lay overseas, and the time to strike was now. I concluded my remarks with a rhetorical question: “Who will launch the first great international baijiu brand?” In truth, I was hoping that it would be me. A team of like-minded outsiders and I had been secretly negotiating with one of China’s oldest and most esteemed distilleries for months. With any luck we would launch a brand in the coming years.

    The mostly Chinese audience listened via simultaneous headphone translation and politely clapped when I finished. I listened with a mixture of amusement and disbelief as my co-panelists laid forth their vision for baijiu’s future. Mostly, it was a bland recitation of industry statistics and the latest government work emphasis.

    For one speaker it was simple. France had Bordeaux, he said; everyone knew they made the best wine there. China just needed to explain to the foreigners that Guizhou is the Bordeaux of China. Another man suggested that if baijiu needed a cocktail culture to succeed abroad the Guizhou provincial government could just build several hundred baijiu cocktail bars around the world. I moved a hand over my mouth to stifle laughter.

    When it was the chair’s turn to speak, Baudouin said that education was critical. No one would ever drink it if they didn’t know what it was. He noted that I had been one of the few people writing about baijiu in English, but with a caveat. “It’s not enough,” he said.

    By the final day of the tasting, our jury had settled into a pleasant rhythm. We were all leaning on one another, translating speech and flavor. The Spaniard, Javier, helped explain the intricacies of rum. Bruno and Olivier covered the brandy. Ai and I consulted on baijiu. “What do you think about the fifth glass?” one of them would ask. We would briefly confer. “Hen xiang,” we would say. How fragrant.

    Before the last ballot was submitted, we were, as Bruno might say, in a line. When the winners were announced, roughly a third of all Chinese spirits medaled, including eight winners of the prestigious double gold award. “Chinese Liquor Wins International Competition” ran the headline in state-run media the following day. This was not precisely true — liquors had been considered only in their respective categories — but it was a start.

    At the competition’s outset, the foreign judges openly derided baijiu, but now they talked about it with enthusiasm. In the security line at the airport, a Canadian beer aficionado told me he had come dreading baijiu, but after a week he was forced to concede. “Some of the baijiu I tasted were pretty damned good.”

    A few days later my colleague Bill and I met Ai in Beijing’s Qianmen area. Just a few blocks from Tiananmen Square, it had centuries earlier been the Chinese capital’s distillery row. The driver let us off on one of the city’s wide avenues, and Ai led us through a maze of narrow gray alleyways. Walking through them, I found it was impossible not to become nostalgic for a past that I knew only from books: blocks dotted with opera houses and brothels, the intersection of Chinese peasantry and Manchu aristocracy, curios and birdcages, camel trains and mule carts, dust and sand — the papered-over old Peking, of which few traces remain.

    Ai came armed with an assortment of his distillery’s baijiu, though anyone who has spent even a short time living in China well knows Red Star, the Coca-Cola of baijiu. He set before me a small glass of his baijiu and one made by his chief competitor, Niulanshan. He nodded with approval as I politely praised his brand’s relative merits. Then he poured me a shot of his export-grade blend. It had the characteristic mild floral notes of a northern baijiu but also a pleasing sweetness that reminded me of dried apricots.

    A smile spread across his face, and he lifted an upraised thumb at me. “Exactly right,” he said, turning to Bill. “His tastes are just like ours.”

    I had never been prouder. But Baudouin’s words still weighed on me. It was not enough. There was still much to do.

    Baijiu is coming for the world. Whether the world is ready for baijiu, or baijiu ready for the world, remains to be seen. But it’s coming, and sooner than you might expect.

    This is a book about Chinese alcohol. More accurately, it is a book about alcohol and China. So why does China covet baijiu so much, and the rest of the world so little? What caused the rift, and can it be surmounted? These are the principal questions this book seeks to answer. But at its core, this is a love story: between a nation and its liquor, a man and a nation, and, ultimately, a man and that nation’s liquor, with the tantalizing possibility of a polyamorous relationship between that liquor and the world.

    To understand the unlikely circumstances of my conversion from baijiu skeptic to evangelist, I must first relate what happened in the years following my arrival in China. I must also explore how spirits became a dominant feature of contemporary Chinese life, and what this tells us about China’s place in the world. It is a tale that crosses millennia and continents in pursuit of a national identity that may never have existed.

    I have aimed — so far as my skill and imperfect memory allows — to take readers on a journey round all corners of the Middle Kingdom, past and present, to show a side of Chinese life that is at once essential and overlooked.

    Sitting down for a drink is to my mind the easiest way to get to know someone. What better icebreaker exists than the casual conversation over alcohol — letting down one’s guard, revealing and uncovering idiosyncrasies a glass at a time, warming up to another as the inhibitions slip away. What better way to know a nation?

    This article is an excerpt from the book “Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture” by Derek Sandhaus, published by Guo Mai. It has been lightly edited and republished here with permission.

    Editor: Xue Ni.


    (Header image: Sandhaus poses for a photo in front of the Chinese character “jiu,” or alcohol. Courtesy of Guo Mai)