The Panamanian Connection Pt 3: Judgment of Paris

Palais du Trocadero

Those of you who have followed this blog since its inception are familiar with my particular interest (read: borderline neurotic fixation) in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which took place in San Francisco in 1915. According to Chinese distillers, it was a moment that catapulted baijiu to international stardom and shook the very foundations of Western civilization. According to everyone else, “Huh?”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with my extensive writing on the subject, you can read the original piece here, and an amusing follow-up concerning Luzhou Laojiao and some dubious packaging here. Go ahead, read them. I can wait.

Finished? Good, now on to the matter at hand.

In the two years or so since I first wrote about the dubious myth of baijiu’s 1915 North American triumph, I have come across very little evidence that either corroborates or refutes the claims made by Chinese distillers. I have encountered dozens of additional distilleries that claim to have also won medals, and even seen a few of the supposed medals (real or fake, I’m not certain) firsthand.

And then I came across something wholly unexpected: An account of baijiu at an earlier world’s fair.

So to better get an understanding of what actually might have happened in San Francisco in 1915, when American palates were first confronted with the mysteries of eastern spirits, we must look back even further to Paris in 1878. This was the scene of the Exposition Universelle, Paris’ third world’s fair.

It was at the Exposition Universelle that the Statue of Liberty’s head was first unveiled. It was at this event that Victor Hugo spoke out on the need of creating an international copyright law to protect writers, and the Braille system was universally adopted to include the blind among the world’s readers. It was also the event in which the world was introduced to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone as well as to the megaphone, phonograph and the arc lamp – precursor to the modern light bulb. Not all proceedings were as enlightened. The Exposition contained a human zoo, a “negro village” with four hundred inhabitants. This same colonial-era condescension colored the judging panel’s attitude toward the Chinese and their baijiu.

George Augustus Sala, whose irreverent style made him one of the Victorian Era’s most popular British writers, relates the scene, saying, “the flavour of the Celestial ‘schnick’ was found by the experts to be so atrocious that, after making various wry faces and undergoing fearful qualms, they were about to pass Chinese spirits by altogether.” At this point someone was struck by a “happy thought,” that if their tastes were not attuned to baijiu, they could find someone more receptive and judge the drinks’ merits by proxy. What they needed was a Chinese person, and in this instance it appears that any Chinese would do: They settled upon someone with whom they could only communicate via “pantomimic gestures” and set about awarding medals as follows:

[W]hen a sample of spirits was submitted to a Celestial, and he made, while imbibing it, a hideous grimace, the sample was classed as ‘zero.’ If, on the other hand, the Chinaman’s countenance assumed a dubious expression, the spirit was allowed the benefit of the doubt, and was voted worthy of ‘Honourable Mention,’ which, I may parenthetically remark, a disappointed French exhibitor lately defined to me as a distinction just a little worse than having your ears boxed, and just a little better than being kicked downstairs. When, however, the eyes of the heathen Chinee [sic] glistened, and he licked his lips, the samshu was at once set down for a Bronze Medal; and finally, if he broke out in exclamations of delight, and passed his hand approvingly over the region of the stomach, a Silver Medal was accorded to the fortunate liqueur.

A gold medal, it seems, was not a possibility within this rubric.

It would be nice to think that the Panama-Pacific Exposition was less dismissive of China, but remember that it was held in a country where the prevailing law of the land had for many years forcibly prohibited Chinese immigration. We can conclude little more than that the fair took place and some Chinese presenters returned home with medals awarded by people who had little or no understanding of Asian spirits.

Until evidence appears to the contrary, it would seem that the story of Chinese alcohol’s international conquest in 1915 is still, to borrow an expression from the era, a bunch of hooey.

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Capital Spirits: A Virtual Primer

Capital_Spirits_Baijiu_2

It is unusual to review for a bar that one has never visited, but I am so excited about Bill Isler and Simon Dang’s recently opened Capital Spirits, that I just can’t help myself. It is the world’s first full-service baijiu bar and, as such, I have put together a little introduction to help assist you in your first, second or twentieth visit.

What it is…

Just what it sounds like: a bar with a killer selection of baijiu. You don’t have to just order the baijiu—they have other stuff—but you should. And what better place to learn about baijiu? It’s sleek, comfortable and more importantly you won’t have a team of ornery Chinese businessmen trying to force it down your throat. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but a more relaxed setting will no doubt appeal to most baijiu novices.

What to drink…

Baijiu, naturally. But there are so many options: You can order by the brand, in a cocktail (more on these in a future post) or choose from one of six signature baijiu flights.

Unless you are a seasoned baijiu drinker, I recommend starting with the Intro Flight, which features a mid-range baijiu from each of the four major baijiu flavor categories: strong, light, sauce and rice aroma. This will leave you in a good place to compare the basic flavor profiles of most baijius.

Once you have dispensed with the intro flight, you should pick your favorite category and do a second flight specific to that category. The best part is that you can do the Intro plus any of those flights for under RMB100 (~US$16) total. That’s a really small price to pay to walk into a bar knowing nothing about baijiu and to leave with knowing your preferred category and brands.

Capital_Spirits_Intro_Flight_3

Capital Spirits’ Intro Flight

Those of you with deeper pockets who are ready to step it up a notch will be interested in the Deluxe Flight, featuring four top-shelf offerings: Kweichow Moutai’s Feitian, Yanghe’s Mengzhilan, Jiannanchun and Wuliangye. Yes, the flight costs RMB180 (~$30), but that’s less than half the price of a bottle of the cheapest baijiu on the list. It’s a great opportunity to the baijius previously out of reach for most casual consumers.

If you’re ready to truly enter the dragon, I’ve taken the liberty of designing an off-the-menu flight for baijiu blackbelts. This is a flight of baijiu outliers that should fit-in nicely in your shot glass. It includes: Lao Guilin, Xifeng Jiu, Dongjiu Guomi and Hengshui Laobaigan. It starts light and mellow with a crowd-pleasing sticky-rice baijiu, increases in complexity through the next two pit fermented baijius and culminates in a palate scorching 67%, smoke-out-your-ears shot of Laobaiganrrrrr. Just tell them you want the Sandhaus flight (reasonably priced at RMB60) and good luck.

And for the most adventurous among you, no trip to Capital Spirits is complete without a shot of Cantonese snake baijiu. Impress your friends, heal your rheumatism and savor every slithery sip. If you can get past the obvious outward grossness, and don’t mind picking a scale or two from your teeth, it’s actually quite good. No bullshit.

What not to drink…

Beer, wine or any of the other drinks you can get at any other bar anywhere in the world. I’ll judge you, Bill told me he would judge you, your friends will judge you too. This is not to suggest that you should only order baijiu when you visit Capital Spirits, but just be sure not to leave without at least trying one new variety.

For those of you determined not to try the baijiu (I know you’re out there, maybe not reading this blog, but I know you’re out there), a couple of suggestions. Try some Tibetan Barley Beer or a nice glass of the YJ-45, a white whiskey distilled on site from Yanjing Beer. At least you’ll still be trying something out of the ordinary in either case.

 

Who should go…

Capital_Spirits_Snake_Infusion

Snake baijiu … delicious.

Everyone. Co-founder Bill Isler tells me that thus far the crowd has been a nice international mix of customers. Locals tend to order more by the glass than the flights and, curiously, female patrons prefer the snake wine.

Among those baijiu haters who have visited Capital Spirits thus far, Bill claims to have achieved a greater than 50% conversion ratio, by which he means “no longer hating baijiu, saying it was better than they remembered, eager to explore more in future etc.” He is careful to note that this does not mean that baijiu has suddenly become their favorite drink, but neither is it mine. I love baijiu, but I just love whiskey more.

 

Thankfully, one is not required to abandon all of the other favorite drinks in order to appreciate baijiu. The more options the better, I always say, and Beijing’s bar scene just got a lot more intriguing with the opening of Capital Spirits.

So stop by, enjoy it and ganbei. Or sip. It’s up to you.

 

Capital Spirits

#3 Daju Hutong (Just west of Dongzhimen Nanxiaojie)

 大菊胡同3号(东直门南小街西侧)

For more info, please visit the Capital Spirits’ website.

 

All images courtesy of Capital Spirits.

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Baijiu in the Bayou

Derek and Yuan, getting creepy with baijiu in New Orleans.

Baijiu requires an open mind and patience to develop an appreciation for its more unique flavors. For those of us not raised in China, it is usually an acquired taste. Whether it takes three shots or three hundred, I cannot say, but I have long suspected that a sharper palate would be quicker to detect that which so long eluded my dull instrument.

If you could just get some good baijiu in the same room as some experienced tasters—bartenders, distillers, alcoholics and so forth—it might be love at first sip. The problem is that for some reason alcohol experts are rarely present at the kind of sweaty hot-pot joint where I conduct most of my baijiu trials. So the theory has remained untested … until now.

Every year the fine city of New Orleans hosts an event called Tales of the Cocktail. It is basically a week of nonstop eating and drinking dressed up as an alcohol educational event, but it’s also is a great opportunity for likeminded drinkers to connect. This year I was lucky enough receive an invitation to speak at a sold-out seminar entitled “Baijiu Demystified” alongside cocktail luminary David Wondrich and Yuan Liu of CNS Imports, America’s largest baijiu importer. I also participated in a number of public and private baijiu tastings throughout the week. We were only sampling two of the big four categories, strong and sauce aromas, but had some of the best China has to offer: Kweichow Moutai, Luzhou Laojiao, Jiannanchun and Shui Jing Fang.

But let’s cut to the chase: What was the response? It was epic. The Tales tasters reacted with such overwhelming enthusiasm* that even I was taken aback.

When I asked my first guinea pig for his thoughts on baijiu, he responded, “Totally positive.” He said that he had been a longtime Tales veteran and wanted to experience something new this year. “It was a great taste.”

“Extremely unique,” said a New Orleanean at a public tasting a couple of days later. “It has a flavor profile I’ve never tasted before.” He went on to say that he plans to start prowling the Asian supermarkets around town for his next bottle.

“It was delicious. Very complex. I liked the citrusy tropical fruit tastes in it and the peppery-ness as well,” said another woman, also from New Orleans, of a Luzhou Laojiao. She noted that Kweichow Moutai, however, was her favorite.

At a private tasting, a bartender from Tennessee said that the baijiu packed a lot of heat, but was perfectly balanced. “I want to make so many different things with this and experiment so many different ways on the cocktail side, because there are so many new unique flavors for the American palate,” he told me. “I could make so many amazing, beautiful, complex things, but then you could just do the simplest thing and it would bring it to a next level.” His sentiments were echoed by other bartenders throughout the week.

But it wasn’t just the bartenders who were excited. Several liquor distributors said that they couldn’t wait to bring baijiu into their markets. One American craft distiller even approached me after the seminar and told me he was ready to try his hand at making baijiu.

The general consensus was that baijiu may not be for everyone, yet it still has tremendous potential in America. It could be used to create an endless variety of new cocktails, or as a twist on established classics. Baijiu flights (like those now offered by Capital Spirits in Beijing) would be a great way to introduce baijiu to new audiences, as would creative baijiu food pairings. In fact, people seemed almost as excited about introducing Americans to baijiu as the drinks themselves.

This bodes very well indeed for baijiu’s future overseas. Baijiu ran the gauntlet of discerning palates in New Orleans, and emerged stronger than ever. Keep your eyes peeled, it may be coming sooner than you think.

 

*This is not to suggest that baijiu was entirely without detractors at Tales. I saw one girl in at the seminar who puckered her face up after each shot and looked around nervously with that “Are you tasting this!?!?” look on her face. Another reporter wrote a most uncharitable account of a baijiu dinner. That said, the unimpressed were clearly in the minority.

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A Journey to Moutai with Punch

Moutai Distllery Exterior

In the early days of my baijiu research, I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to visit the Kweichow Moutai distillery in the remote hinterlands of western Guizhou. It was an incredible experience—crazy, drunken and unforgettable—but what really stuck with me was how inextricably tied their baijiu is to the unique terrain of the region. Thus, I am happy to share with my readers a piece I wrote for the excellent online drinks magazine, Punch, on the importance of terroir in baijiu production. Excerpt below.

The liquor that made the Maotai township famous is produced in long, squat buildings near the banks of the Chishui River. Inside, they feel like something more akin to a coalmine than a distillery—a dark flurry of steam and earth, heat and frenetic energy. Teams of barefoot men rush about with wheelbarrows full of sorghum, others stand ready with rakes and shovels. A thick haze of vapor rises from the stills and piles of fermenting sorghum, clouding the room. Elsewhere steel cranes drop the grains into deep, stone-lined pits.

It is a labor-intensive process that involves multiple fermentation-distillation cycles over the course of a year. Fermentation pits require constant tending, and more than a hundred aged spirits go into the finished baijiu. A whiskey distillery can comfortably operate with a handful of employees, but baijiu requires an army.

Click here to read the full story on Punch.

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Debating baijiu

cup of jiu

I met Isaac Stone Fish several years ago at a bookshop in Beijing. We had a brief but friendly conversation and I have since followed his journalistic career with enthusiasm. When he reached out to me a couple months ago, upon the publication of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, I was delighted to accept his invitation to discuss Chinese liquor.

We met at a microbrewery in Washington, DC. He ordered a wine. I tried not to read anything into that at the time. We met again in Chinatown a month later, this time with a baijiu importer, where we tried a handful of uninspired baijiu cocktails at an even sadder restaurant called Wok and Roll. We discussed baijiu a bit, but mostly we shared old war stories about the Middle Kingdom, as veteran expats inevitably end up doing. The evening came to an abrupt but poetic end when I accidentally shattered a full bottle of baijiu and the smell left us no choice but to evacuate the building. In the cab ride afterward, I told Fish that if he really wanted to gain an appreciation for baijiu, we should meet again to sample a few of my favorite bottles.

Life intervened, I moved to another country (again) and I forgot to give him that tasting. But all in all, I remember the meetings as cordial. It was thus with a tinge of disappointment that I read Fish’s article for Foreign Policy, “A Million Chinese Can Be Wrong: China’s most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here’s why you shouldn’t drink it.” And I would be remiss not to mention the URL, which ended “baijiu_america_china_vomit_alcohol.”

The knives were out. Foreign Policy stormed into the baijiu debate like the deranged lovechild of Carrie Nation and Lord Palmerston. And FP, good sports that they are, gave me the chance to pen a response. The results, I think were a back and forth that neatly sums up the pro- and anti-baijiu positions.

Considering the way this blog started, I can’t help but find some slight amusement that I now find myself one of baijiu’s most vocal defenders. But life’s funny like that.

Find the full exchange below. Read and enjoy:

A Million Chinese Can Be Wrong,” by Isaac Stone Fish

In Defense of Baijiu” by me

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