A race to the bottom of the bottle

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!

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17 Responses to A race to the bottom of the bottle

  1. Jason S. says:

    Glad to hear Sichuan is inspirational at the least. I gotta say, I’m in full support of the endeavor and I’m looking forward to future posts.
    My experience with baijiu goes back to my first few years in China when I was living in Nanjing. My main circle of friends was a pretty eclectic bunch of guys (and the occasional girl) from Spain, Argentina, and all three countries in North America. We all had different reasons for being in China (studying, business, family – the usual), but we also shared a mutual desire to get to know China and Chinese people, learn Chinese, and share our experiences doing what we were doing. What was born of out of that was what would become known as (jokingly at first…and then very seriously) ‘The Baijiu Gentlemen’s Club’. Essentially, we’d take turns reserving a 包厢, or a private room at a decent (and new. no repeats. at least not at first) restaurant, and being responsible for finding and providing a bottle of a baijiu we hadn’t tried yet. Then we’d order, eat, drink, and discuss uproariously. Well, it went on to become a tradition and there was a ‘baijiu dinner’ every Sunday in Nanjing for close to two years. Good stuff. It was a lot of fun, and I do have to say that after a while, I really did start to like baijiu. There’s definitely variety and I started to have a discernable preference. (I’m all about the more syrup-y brands – especially with spicy food) That being said though, I’m way out of practice. It’s been too long!
    Anyway, excuse the massive comment, but this is a definitely a blog I can get behind! I’m even feeling inspired to go out and try the 高粱 (what they call baijiu) here in Taiwan. Looking forward to seeing how it goes. Don’t kill yourself and cheers. (with a tiny glass an exhale to boot)

  2. Swiss James says:

    May the Lord have mercy on your soul.

  3. Brendan says:

    When I lived in Harbin — a hard-drinking city even by the elevated standards of Chinese expatria — habitual voluntary baijiu consumption was considered a 100% certain indicator of late-stage alcoholism among foreigners. My gringo friends and I would raise our heads unsteadily from our glasses of budget vodka and coke (安特, short for 安徽特别, Anhui province’s finest corn vodka, available for 18 kuai a bottle down by the train station), look over at the baijiu drinkers, and shudder.

    However! There are those who will insist that the reason I can feel my gorge rise at the mere whiff of baijiu’s sickly ester hum is that I’ve only ever had the cheapo erguotou. (Cheapo? Qipo? 漆迫?) Higher-end baijiu is much more palatable, I am assured, and my limited experience would seem to bear this out — I once had a thimbleful of official banquet-grade 五粮液 that might have been pleasant by thimble #4 or so, with notes of anisette mixed in with the general engine-degreaser bouquet.

    Looking forward to following the blog, at any rate. Better you than me!

  4. Eric says:

    Having a reversal due to too much baijiu will most certainly have a harmful effect on your mission and should be avoided at all cost.

  5. FM says:

    A quixotic, yet noble pursuit, and I wish you the best of luck. Having done the baiju circuit at various government, business and colleague functions for the past year, I shudder when I ponder your journey. But it also sounds like masochistic fun. I will say that I have tried just about all varieties and quality levels, from rusty oil barrel swill to Wu Liang Ye to Moutai. And it all freaking tastes the same: shitty. The only thing worse than shots of baiju going down are when they come back up later.

  6. Matt says:

    Stop while you’re ahead.

  7. Fran says:

    There is nothing quite so toxic as the smell of your lovers day after the night baijiu skin reek in the morning, I imagine and bit like napalm in the morning.

    • Derek says:

      I know exactly what you mean, Fran. After my last baijiu tasting with a buddy in Kunming we left the apartment for a meal and came back to realize the apartment reeked of all the baijiu we had been sweating out in the morning. Yuck.

  8. artbb says:

    “In over five years, I have never seen a foreigner order baijiu at a bar or restaurant when other drinks are available.”

    How strange, consider me your first then. I know many 外国人 who love it. I took to it immediately and very much prefer it to either vodka or whiskey. Like you said most dinners in China involve a bottle (or several) or baijiu and then finish off with beer once people start to get a little too far gone. I find the baijiu high to be quite pleasant. It’s difficult to describe these things but it seems warmer and lacks the crashing afterward that comes from tequila and other brown liquors. Any trip to China involves bringing back as many bottles of baijiu as allowed. I wish it was more readily available in the US. Maotai prices here seem to raise every month that I go to the one store that carries baijiu. Last visit had it for $150 per 375ml bottle. At least Lu Zhou Lao Jiao is still somewhat reasonably priced and that is what I have been buying lately for stateside consumption. I should be back in China in a few months and won’t have to ration it anymore. I certainly don’t think you’ll need 300 shots to start to like it, that is if you are a drinker of other alcohols and enjoy getting drunk! Nice blog and good read. Thanks!!

    • Derek says:

      Glad to hear that there might be some light at the end of this tunnel. I had some decent Lu Zhou Lao Jiao earlier this week (will have to go back to the store to pinpoint the exact variety), and curious to know which kind you’ve been drinking. I’ll make a point to give it a shot in future “tastings”.

  9. wl says:

    jiayou ! you’ll probably need lots of it. I’ve tried a baijiu from linfen, shanxi that was pretty drinkable and smooth. was surprised it didn’t taste like paint thinner. unfortunately I can’t remember the brand… though I’m sure you might just come across it at some point in one of your 268 ganbei’s.

    • Derek says:

      I’ve heard good things about Fenjiu from Shanxi, perhaps it was the one you tried. It’s on my list of baijius to try for future tasting. Thanks for the encouragement.

  10. Andrew G says:

    In the middle of a Shanghai night out a few years ago, I jokingly bought a 7-kuai bottle of Erguotou at a convenience store and had a few swigs. I actually remember thinking: “Hey, that’s not bad!” and then wondering what I had become.

    But Fran’s post took me back to one evening when a lady friend returned to my apartment after a baijiu-fueled banquet, just reeking of the stuff. That… was not sexy.

  11. I have the same problem occasionally but I usually just force myself through it and revise later Great luck

  12. Werner says:

    baijiu has a track record as my most consistently vomited-on alcohol. nasty stuff.

  13. Pingback: The Baijiu Bender : The Last Word On Nothing

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