Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E6): Derek Sandhaus on Baijiu (白酒), China’s Fiery Alcohol, 3.11.21
Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.
Season 3, Episode 5 explores the distilled spirit known as “Baijiu,” 白酒，developed by the Ming dynasty, and elevated during the Communist era to the national sensation that we see in China today. Any businessperson will tell you that nary a deal can be sealed without a flurry of baijiu shots and bleary-eyed, drunken toasts. Derek Sandhaus, author of Drunk in China and founder of a Baijiu company, shares the secrets of the world’s most fiery liquor.
Derek Sandhaus (DS) is one of the world’s leading experts on Chinese spirits, and has published several books on Chinese history and culture including Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture and Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits. In 2018 Sandhaus cofounded Ming River Sichuan Baijiu in partnership with China’s oldest continually operational distillery. He serves as Ming River’s baijiu communications director and as the editor at DrinkBaijiu.com. He lives with his wife and dog in Washington, D.C.
Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 6:
DS: Baijiu is made from three basic ingredients, sorghum, qu (wild yeast), and water. It uses three natural ingredients and no artificial additives.
When I moved to Sichuan and Chengdu, I learned that it was the center of China’s liquor industry. I taught myself more about this category of spirits…one day the ‘a-ha’ moment came when I was at a New Year‘s celebration put on by the Sichuan [Foreign Affairs Office], where vans full of foreigners get carted around from one development to another, and at lunch in the center of the table was a bottle of…high-end baijiu and none of the foreigners were touching it. It wasn’t just a good example of baijiu, it was a good liquor on its own merits. I felt that I was in on the joke, and it has been a love affair ever since.
For most of its history, baijiu was seen as a peasant’s drink and was mostly consumed by people without a lot of money- which is why they use sorghum instead of rice because it is a much cheaper crop. After the Revolution, the country was looking to create national industries around Chinese products. Because this had been the drink of the working people, the government set up distilleries [all over] so it became tied into the government and the Red Army said that during the Long March, they drank it for courage and used it to disinfect their wounds. In the 1950’s Zhou Enlai made baijiu the official drink- the Guizhou Maotai brand- served at all state functions. Then it became deeply connected with the Party and the ruling elite of the country, and that is when it became the drink of important business meetings.
DE: What role does the drink play now?
DS: There has been a pretty big transformation from that era to now. During most of the Communist era under Mao, baijiu was rationed, whereas since the 1980’s since the economy liberalized, the economy began producing many different varieties at many different price points. A lot of the ancient drinking rituals, toasting at important dinners, that was all developed when the baijiu was a lot weaker. So, nowadays anyone can afford it and it is served at every business meeting, so it has become associated with binge drinking, and it can get rowdy and can lead to behaviors that the government has tried to curb. Xi Jingping has ordered the government not to purchase any more baijiu, and average people are drinking it less due to a new focus on health.
One of the reasons that the government decided to take this measure, by the 2010s the government was spending more money on food and drink than national defense. They decided that people can buy it with their own money and drink it on their own time.
DE: When young Chinese go out, do they drink baijiu? What do they think of it?
DS: For them, the places they choose to drink like nightclubs, karaoke lounges, etc. these are the places where baijiu is not served. This is a more international scene and they serve international drinks. Whereas baijiu is more for banquets and dinners. So this has led to this issue where it is perceived as a father’s or grandfather’s drink. So many distilleries have begun creating products for younger people like with flavors added, or less ABV, to make them more like a Smirnoff Ice…
DE: Why don’t bars start pouring it more?
DS: It isn’t seen as an international drink, like tequila or rum or other world spirits. When you go to bars in New York or London or Paris, they aren’t drinking it, and when young Chinese travel, they don’t see people drinking it. So, the distilleries have to raise awareness of their products overseas so they become more validated at home.
DE: It is the world’s most consumed alcohol by volume but nearly all of it is within China’s borders. Is that changing?
DS: It is starting to change but the reasons for baijiu’s lack of availability overseas has a lot to do with the fact that the industry in China is relatively modern. There wasn’t mass production until the 1950’s and 60’s and it wasn’t until the 1980’s when they started exporting it. And it isn’t well-understood outside of China. You need to educate the public on how it is consumed, where it comes from, etc. And baijiu is a category with a dazzling array of variety…there are 12 different drinks in China called baijiu and they all taste different from one another.
And on top of that, it doesn’t receive promotion from the Chinese diaspora overseas. Immigration tends to come from the southeastern part of China and that is the one region where they don’t drink a lot of baijiu.
DE: Do you prefer your baijiu straight up or mixed?
DS: I like it the old-fashioned way: sitting at a crowded, loud table with a big bottle of baijiu in the center. That way of drinking is not intuitive to a lot of people outside of China. So we often introduce it to new people by serving it in cocktails- which is not a traditional way of serving it. In China, you never drink baijiu by itself, you pair it with other flavors like the food on the table…Alcohol in China is never meant to be served only with its own flavors. I hope people can get used to the straight up shots.
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