‘What goes down…’ or the Luzhou ‘Maotai’ tasting

On Friday, December 9, 2011, four brave souls convened at a restaurant in Chengdu for the first of what will become regular baijiu tastings.

The idea was to drink baijiu the way it was intended: with a good meal. It’s said that Chinese food, particularly the spicy food of southwest China’s baijiu belt, brings out the best in baijiu. Whereas drinking potent hard liquor straight up is generally avoided at meal times in the West (with some notable exceptions in northern Europe), baijiu is as a rule consumed with food. Heavy drinking does take place at other venues in China, most often at clubs and karaoke bars, but Chinese firewater is usually shunned in favor of beer, cognac and whiskey (often mixed with tea). As a matter of protocol, baijiu should be consumed at room temperature or warmer out of comically tiny stemmed shot glasses.

There were two guests of honor that evening. The first was a mid-range bottle of Luzhou Laojiao 泸州老窖, a well-regarded Sichuanese baijiu named for the old cellars (laojiao) in which its sorghum mash is fermented. The second bottle was another sorghum-based baijiu, Maotai Yinbing 茅台迎宾, a variety of the infamous state-owned Guizhou Maotai baijius that are so popular with Party cadres. Luzhou is considered a strong-fragrance baijiu, whereas Maotai is considered a sauce-fragrance baijiu (more on the fragrance classification system in another post), and both were around the 110-130 proof range.

Our first order of business was the sniff test. Maotai took it in a unanimous decision. The aroma was fruity and smelled a bit like soy. Luzhou, on the other hand, had that overwhelming industrial punch I’ve come to expect out of baijiu.

Next up was the taste test. In a surprise decision, Luzhou won the first round of shots 3-1. The second round also went to Luzhou, this time in a unanimous decision.

“That’s just nasty,” said Tony (along for the ride again) of the Maotai. And it was. The Luzhou burned all the way down, but its taste was crisp and complex, with a pleasing aftertaste. The Maotai tasted like having a rotten banana take a shit in my mouth.

But the plot thickens. Tony had actually tried Maotai before in Guizhou and enjoyed it. This was not the same drink he had tried. According to the word on the street (not to be scoffed at in China), as much as 80-90% of Maotai baijius are counterfeit. We had no choice but to decide that our conspicuously inexpensive bottle was a fraud and set it to one side.

The rest of the meal was a slow but steady descent. Much food and baijiu was consumed, conversation became more animated, and toasts and drinking challenges were made and met. The quality of the Luzhou seemed to vacillate, getting better and worse in alternating shots, but we continued the feast until we killed the bottle and the restaurant did everything in their power to make us leave short of actually booting us to the street.

But there would be booting. When we left, we all felt remarkably coherent for having downed about 12 shots apiece. I even felt pretty good the next morning until I saw what I’d done to my bathtub in the middle of the night.

256 shots to go.

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