The Baijiu Riddle: Learning to Love China's Infamous Firewater

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Baijiu at New York's Lumos, a baijiu-centric bar. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I was slumped against the neon sign of a dive bar in Bushwick, chain-smoking and hazy from cheap beer, when a beautiful woman walked up to me and wordlessly offered a glass flask with a red cap. I took a whiff and recognized the smell immediately: baijiu, the Chinese firewater whose sharp, pungent odor brings tears to your eyes.

It'd been years since I last encountered baijiu, likely at some family function, so I knocked it back out of some combination of obligation and recklessness. I thought it might taste different now that I was older and more worldly, but as the liquor set my throat ablaze the same familiar, foul reaction hit me: too much burn, too sweet, too much musk.

I grew up Chinese-American in Johnson City, Tennessee, a whistlestop in the Appalachian mountains where the closest thing to the People's Republic of China was a free sample of bourbon chicken on a tray outside Panda Express in the food court of the mall. My parents, Shanghainese immigrants who lived through the Cultural Revolution, were reticent to speak much about China at all. The mystery of our heritage meant that I clung desperately to whatever parts of Chinese culture they retained, innocuous peeks into their pre-American lives. A few precious touchstones: pleating dumplings in the winter, a red envelope on my birthday, the Chinese story books my parents read to me before bed.

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Baijiu was always more furtive in definition. The liquor is so pervasive in China that it'd be unthinkable not to have it on-hand for special occasions, like Chinese New Year or Autumn Festival, so when celebrating these occasions in our home in Tennessee, Ma and Ba might close their eyes while describing the strange elixir and smile. Xiang de se they'd say. So fragrant. So complex and deep, it reaches into your soul.

But we never had it in the house. Even now, it's tricky to find in New York, much less the American South. That it was basically nonexistent stateside only made me decide it was that much more Chinese, so Chinese that it couldn't exist elsewhere. I soaked up each reference and imagined a drink with a lunar glow: mysterious and fortifying, tasting of exotic flowers. Unattainable baijiu became a potion I could drink to help me understand the part of me that is Chinese.

I finally had the opportunity to drink baijiu when I was 12, at a banquet in Beijing during a family trip to China. I took a small sip and felt the liquor flame down my throat, setting my nasal passages and eyes on fire. The aftertaste was of hot trash. My body involuntarily tensed as if I'd just drank poison.

How was it that this baijiu, so deeply woven into my parent's warmest memories and the Chinese collective unconscious, tasted foremost of kerosene and rot?

A Chinese Love Story

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According to a report released by the International Wine & Spirits Group (PDF), baijiu production accounted for a third of all alcohol produced around the world in 2012. Consider that in China, every restaurant, every business deal, every wedding, every holiday, is stocked with the clear, fiery liquor. Americans expect sake at sushi restaurants and Jagermeister at frat parties; Chinese culture and baijiu are similarly inextricable.

Yet despite the recent boom of interest in authentic Chinese food, you can rarely buy baijiu to accompany a Chinese meal outside of China, even in big cities like New York. And despite a rising cocktail culture's fervor for all things foreign and obscure, few Americans have even heard of baijiu, the most popular spirit in the world.

There is a terrifically informative book on baijiu called The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, by Derek Sandhaus, that explores the history and production of baijiu in vivid and lively detail. Sandhaus traces the invention of baijiu back a thousand years, when either traders from the MIddle East or invaders from Mongolia introduced the concept of distillation to the mainland.*

* An alternative introduction: In an attempt to reinvigorate baijiu's fanbase, Maotai, a luxury baijiu brand, has released "a 43-part TV series about a legendary Qing Dynasty gunfighter-turned-winemaker who founded the baijiu industry."

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The resulting liquor's high alcohol content—typically between 80 and 120 proof—and relatively low production costs made it the drink of the peasantry, and it quickly spread throughout China. The recipe and base grains changed from province to province, taking forms vast and varied, from fiery and funky Maotai to sweet-as-ice-wine Chu Yeh Ching. Thus the term 'baijiu,' which literally translates to 'white liquor,' became more of a catch-all category for Chinese spirits than a specific spirit itself.

Baijiu became so diverse that in 1959, the Chinese Communist Party endeavored to standardize national liquor production. One remnant of this program was a classification system that is still in use today. Baijiu is identified by smell into four main categories: nong xiang (strong scent), qing xiang (light scent), jiang xiang (sauce scent), and mi xiang (rice scent). Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of China, was so taken with Kweichou Maotai, a sauce scent-style baijiu, that it was named China's National Liquor, requisite at state dinners. Due to limited production and popularity with the Party, Kweichou Maotai can now fetch hundreds of dollars a bottle.

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There are a few requirements that unite all of these spirits while also differentiating them from Western booze, chiefly that baijiu is produced in a process known as solid-state fermentation, requiring what is known as qu: bricks of damp, compressed grain that incubate the sorts of airborne microscopic creatures that ferment carbohydrates into sugars and sugars into alcohol. (In Western alcohol production, these two processes are accomplished in distinct steps rather than at once.)

To make baijiu, distillers first add water and a host of grains specific to the Middle Kingdom: sorghum in the north and rice in the south, but also other regional starches such as wheat, millet, and glutinous rice. The mix is then left to ferment in mud pits or clay jars, often underground. What results is huangjiu, Chinese wine akin to sake that is then distilled and aged for anywhere from six months to several years. Baijiu production is a laborious process—it's all done by hand—and each of the more than 10,000 distilleries across China hold tightly to their production secrets.

Dialing Down the Fire

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Baijiu's signature, as I learned as young child, is fire. 12-year-old me likely drank Erguotou, a very common and very cheap qing xiang baijiu. It's hot enough to make you clutch your chest, setting your mouth, throat, and nasal passages aflame before leaving you with its lingering taste: the sweet funk of fermentation.

I asked Sandhaus if he had any insight as to why I couldn't appreciate what 1.3 billion drinkers could. He told me that it might be baijiu's high proof that I was responding to, rather than the taste itself. "A lot of people say it's too fiery; what they are actually reacting to is the ethanol, not the taste of the baijiu. Ethanol in high strength can be quite astringent."

In 2013, Xi Jinping withdrew party patronage of baijiu in an attempt to "restore party discipline," and without government support, baijiu manufacturers have begun to look overseas up to make up for the shortage of demand. Meanwhile, Western-facing companies are in an arms race to overcome whatever it is—the high proof, the taste, the general unfamiliarity—that keeps baijiu from integrating into Western mass-market. Companies like HKB, Byejoe, and Baojing have attempted to produce baijiu specifically for Westerners, meaning that they are, quite literally, watering the liquor down. Bringing baijiu down to a proof similar to vodka—around 40%—extinguishes the fire. These liquors don't burn; the mouthfeel is more vodka than moonshine. Instead, the baijiu's lurking sweetness and musk develop slowly as you drink.

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Diluting baijiu seems like a decent way of introducing novices to the class of spirits, but I couldn't help but wonder if such marketing was watering down more than just the spirit's alcohol percentage. I was made wary, for instance, of the company Byejoe's branding. The logo features an illustration of an Asian woman's face, eyes heavily lined, and markets itself in language that recalls the rhythm of communist-era propaganda: "Artfully distilled in the East using the finest red sorghum, and skillfully refined in the West using revolutionary patented technology." I told a fellow Shanghainese-American about it and she remarked that the name "sounds like something a Shanghai whore would say to a G.I. in the 1930s. Bye-joe...more like baijiu for bairen (white people)."

I, too, balked at the name, but Sandhaus encouraged me to think of it in another way.

"Frankly, not a lot of people speak Chinese, so changing the names helps a lot. Wuliangye, Erguotou, Maotai. Ask them to remember those names for five minutes," Sandhaus said. "Not remembering the names of the product you're trying to buy is a problem."

"The first step," he continued, "is getting people to be able to pronounce the name." It's a fair argument—perhaps I was being too much of a curmudgeon, too fixated on baijiu as a beacon of Chinese authenticity.

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"I just don't think people will drink baijiu in America the same way they do in China," When I asked him what he thought the best strategy might be to introduce it to Americans, he offered, "Just hand it over to people and see."

Maybe authenticity is, actually, beside the point for Chinese spirits' Western expansion. After all, baijiu was never defined by some rigid form; its identity has always depended on organic evolution and the diverse drinking habits of millions of people across more than 3,000 miles. Why should it be any different as it leaves China for Western shore and laowai like me?

Building a Baijiu Bar Culture

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There's a bar that just opened in New York called Lumos. You have to ask the bouncer if it's the right place since there's no sign on the basement-level, heavy black door. I'd heard whispers of baijiu cocktails for a while and was curious about who might be so bold as to hawk baijiu in Soho, one of the trendiest neighborhoods in New York. The subterranean entrance opens up to a long, skinny hallway lit dimly by hanging exposed Edison bulbs. The bar on the left is stocked with several dozen types of baijiu.

"Every baijiu we could buy from the distributor," Qifan Li, the bar owner, tells me. She moved from the peninsula city of Dalian to California seven years ago and previously worked as an interior designer and an event planner. She told me the first time she drank baijiu was a year ago, when she had the idea to open the bar. I was puzzled; didn't everyone in China drink baijiu?

"That's the problem," she said. "It's for older generations, not for younger people in bars and clubs. They like to follow Western trends." Western trends that appeal to young Chinese include speakeasies, clubs, Macallan Scotch, and gin. But not much baijiu.

She feared that young Chinese had forgotten their history. "I want to bring it back, prove to people that baijiu can be trendy, too." She wanted to start the bar in America because the Chinese always want to follow Western brands. Eventually, once the bar is successful, she hopes to open another location on the West Coast, and her ultimate goal is to open back in China.

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The Sesame Colada at Lumos.

Li believes that in order for baijiu to succeed, it must be modernized in a way that still keeps the spirit's identity intact. As a result, Lumos specializes in baijiu cocktails that endeavor to highlight and balance baijiu's flavors rather than mask them—a fresh way to teach new drinkers the flavors of the liquor. Li and her business partner Orson Salicetti spent a year developing the recipes.

Salicetti, the bar manager, guided me through a few cocktails: A gin and tonic and a martini, but all made with baijiu instead of gin or vodka. I admit, I wasn't particularly drawn to the spare cocktails—they tasted too much like baijiu for my novice palate—but I was impressed by their unapologetic boldness. On the other hand, a clever take on the pina colada, a Sesame Colada—a combination of tahini, caramelized pineapple juice, and mangosteen juice, topped daintily with black sesame seeds—held the right balance of sweet and savory and offered baijiu's musk as a balance to what might otherwise be too tropical and cloying.

Still, my favorite part was sipping baijiu straight out of delicate porcelain cups. We tried Maotai, a traditional luxury baijiu, and HKB, a refined, Westernized baijiu, and Salicetti encouraged me to take small sips to let the spirits gently wash over my tongue. Previously I'd only ever had baijiu via the gangbei method: taking shots. By sipping the baijiu instead, I was able to distinguish between the layers of flavor, enjoying the fire as steady heat rather than alarming burn.

I was also surprised to learn how well baijiu took to infusion. Salicetti poured me baijiu infused with cilantro, apricot, Sichuan peppercorns, and cinnamon-spiced dates. Salicetti poured, we sipped, I asked questions, he digressed. We gilded time.

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Salicetti originally developed the infusions by asking Li to reflect on her childhood memories. "He asked me to remember the things I loved to eat as a child," she explained. They worked with those flavors to create the bar menu. "Ultimately, this is a project about my childhood," Li admitted.

My baijiu investigations sprang from the same premise, but Li was taking the opposite approach. While I was desperate to extract something about my family history from baijiu, Li was impressing her own history onto it.

My father told me once that when he was a child, baijiu was sipped among friends as an intimate offering. I asked Qifan if that sounded familiar.

"That is how our families used to drink baijiu," she told me, "but maybe we'll drink baijiu differently." My heart skipped a beat when she included me in the 'we.'

It's hard to admit, but maybe all I really want out of baijiu is to feel included.

Bringing Baijiu Home

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"You have to be ready to drink," Ba told me when I came home for a week in June. I'd been keeping him abreast of my reporting for this story, yet he was still determined to guide me through the history of baijiu and the proper way to drink it.

My father is equal parts bon vivant and academic savant. He can sweetly and thoroughly expound on the history and merits of Scotch while drinking you cleanly under the table. He has, unsurprisingly, a special expertise in baijiu, and in the past 10 years or so has amassed a very impressive collection, around 30 bottles bought here and there when he can find it in specialty shops.

It was about 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday when he showed me to the dining room table, which was covered in a red tablecloth and stacked with at least 15 types of baijiu.

We began with a custom bottle from my childhood, my grandmother's blend of Yangmei baijiu, Chinese strawberries, and rock sugar. It was sweet and easy, like summertime.

Then we got to business.

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"With baijiu, you don't shoot anything," Ba explained.

The shots I'd seen as a child weren't the correct way to drink Chinese liquor, he told me. As was, in his view, drinking baijiu during a meal. These were all absurd modern practices created by the Communist Party. Never mind baijiu cocktails.

"First you smell, and then you sip," he said. "It's not like being in college, where you take shots just to get drunk. You sit and drink with your friends, you talk."

He poured a glass of Red Star Erguotou, then a glass of nicer Erguotou and Luzhou Laojiao. They were arranged to sting most to least. Erguotou literally tastes like rubbing alcohol, but I did my part and swirled each booze in its tiny cup and smelled, held them on my tongue. Luzhou Laojiao came as a relief. Their fire was more pleasant—not offensive in the way Erguotou was—and they gave way to sort of dry, crisp sweetness.

"That's the benefit of baijiu made from rice," Ba said. "It's clean." We continued down the line.

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One bottle I loved immediately was called Chu Yeh Ching, a baijiu infused with medicinal herbs and bamboo, lending it a pale green hue. It's sweet, almost creamy, with absolutely no fire or musk. It's about 45% alcohol, which isn't terribly high in terms of proof, but dangerous in the same way, say, Smirnoff Ice is to a teenager, or something completely drinkable is to a woman who has been downing firewater since nine in the morning. My dad poured me two full mugs, which is where things started to get hazy.

By the time we got to the Maotai, I'd had a nap, a few cups of coffee, and I'd paced around the backyard for a while. Dad poured us glasses. We smelled and sipped.

"I still don't like it," I said, anticipating Ba's disapproval.

"Eh, I never understood Maotai very much, either," he replied. I was shocked. Maotai was The Luxury Baijiu, it wasn't even supposed to be an question whether or not someone, particularly, an old school Chinese man, liked it.

"People who like Maotai know nothing," Ba went on. "And you know, us Shanghainese, we don't like the fire so much, that's why we stick to the rice baijiu."

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I shared with him what Sandhaus had told me about dialing down the proof to make baijiu accessible to Westerners. "Oh yes," he said, "I have some of the liquor made by Your People," by which he meant, despite having included me among the Shanghainese a moment earlier, Americans.

"What do you think?"

I told him it didn't taste like much, and he nodded approvingly.

"It's missing the point. We Chinese drink baijiu for the smell of the alcohol, the xiang, that flavor that hits your nose. This—this is just vodka."

I began to ask him to clarify what he meant, to point out that he'd just contradicted himself, and also to ask, more blatantly, how he thought I should regard baijiu as a Shanghainese-Chinese-American, but instead I stared at the wall for a long time.

As the edges of the room melted away, it occurred to me that I was asking the wrong questions. Like my father after a few rounds, baijiu is less compelling for any one definition than for its boundless variability. Treating it as a secret codex to my family history, to any sense of my Chinese identity, meant chasing a ghost.

A hundred people will tell you a hundred things about baijiu. And here is what remains: filling your glass over and over, chatting with your bartender, or your friends, or your Ba about how each tastes. It's not a potion or cipher at all. It's a koan. The closer one examines it, the more it escapes definition.