I start this blog with a confession: I don’t like baijiu. At least not yet.
For the laymen among us, baijiu is a Chinese word meaning, literally, white alcohol and, more generally, distilled grain alcohol. In English we might call it “hooch,” “rut-gut” or any of a number of well-deserved curses. The baijiu industry is diverse; baijiu is made numerous ways and with a variety of ingredients. It is widely considered China’s national drink (a la vodka to the Russians), and no business dinner, wedding or Chinese New Year celebration would be considered complete without it.
Not long after I moved to Shanghai in 2006, a colleague offered me my first taste of baijiu. What struck me was the smell – a strong, vaguely industrial odor that can hit you from several feet away. And it had a taste to match. It burned like fire when it hit my lips, and I could actually feel it wind its way down my esophagus. I have heard its taste described as a mix between blue cheese and gym shorts. More often, I’ve heard it compared to paint thinner. Make no mistake, this is a singularly repellant spirit.
Since that first attempt, I have spent most of my time in China avoiding baijiu and, when necessity dictates, drinking only as little as I can get away with. Most expats in China, whom taken as a group would rival drinkers anywhere in the world, share my distaste and see it as little more than a novelty drink to give to unsuspecting friends back home. In over five years, I have never seen a foreigner order baijiu at a bar or restaurant when other drinks are available.
The vileness of baijiu to the Western palate has the unfortunate side effect of alienating foreigners from their Chinese counterparts. Though in recent years a few of our drinks – most notably beer, whisky and grape wines – have made significant inroads with China’s (mostly male) drinkers, baijiu remains the hands down favorite. If you want to drink with the Chinese, you have to suffer baijiu . . . or learn to like it.
And this brings us to this blog’s raison d’etre – to see if a baijiu-hating outsider can cross over. I have heard (once from a friend, and a second time in an online article, which is damned near bible truth in a post-Wikipedia society) that studies have been done on baijiu’s drinkability. There is a certain taste threshold beyond which a previously offensive beverage becomes palatable. For drinks like coffee and beer, which most of us dislike at first, the number is low enough to be counted on both hands. For baijiu, the number is supposedly a whopping 300 drinks.
My mission is plain: drink 300 shots of baijiu or die trying. I’m going to cut myself a little slack by comping the first thirty, which I feel is a conservative estimate of my past baijiu drinking experience if I factor in business trips and weddings. I’ll be charting my progress with the counter on the right-hand side of this page, and will only stop if I miraculously gain a taste for the stuff before hitting the magic number. I also plan to include drink reviews of various brands, historical tidbits and other alcohol-related miscellanea.
I welcome your comments and/or moral support.
270 drinks to go. Ganbei!