The birth of baijiu, part I: Still here after all these years

Still from the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234) in the dumpling steamer basket style.

“When did the Chinese start drinking baijiu?” It’s a question I’ve been asked several times recently, and one which I have been intentionally avoiding. It’s not that there isn’t an answer, it’s that there are too many answers and none is particularly conclusive. So if you want the short answer: “nobody knows.” But if you’re in for a long-winded, convoluted answer that cuts across history, alchemy and philology, continents and millennia, buckle your seatbelts and get ready for a three-part journey into the rotten underbelly of Chinese alcoholic history.

To define the parameters of this investigation, I should clarify that I’m not talking about the first Chinese alcoholic beverage, I’m talking only about baijiu, or Chinese distilled grain alcohol. What do I mean by distilled alcohol? [Note: Those of you who already understand distillation can skip to the next paragraph.] Alcohol vaporizes at a lower temperature than water, so when you take a fermented alcoholic liquid or solid and heat it, the alcohol will turn into steam before the water. If you collect the alcoholic steam, funnel it into a receptacle and cool it back into a liquid, that liquid will have a much higher alcohol content than the liquid or solid you began with. This is distilled alcohol –what we call “spirits” or “hard liquor” in the West.

So the basic technological prerequisite for baijiu is a still, the device used to heat something and collect its vapor. The earliest archeological evidence of a Chinese still dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), and is a bronze contraption that looks like a double boiler. But don’t let its simple appearance fool you, contemporary scientific experiments have concluded that the still was capable of producing a drink in the 20-26% alcohol range.

Diagram of the Eastern Han still, now housed at the Shanghai Museum.

But just because you have the technology doesn’t mean you’re using it right. Take the example of the ancient Greeks. In Meteorology (2.3), Aristotle (384-322BC) writes:

“Salt water when it turns into vapour becomes sweet, and the vapour does not form salt water when it condenses again. This I know by experiment. The same thing is true in every case of the kind: wine and all fluids that evaporate and condense back into a liquid state become water. They all are water modified by a certain admixture, the nature of which determines their flavour.”

Here we have not only of an understanding of distillation’s basic principles – at least 300 years before the first Chinese still appears, no less – but also technological know-how and evidence of wine distillation. And yet Aristotle missed what later generations would (probably by accident) discover: It gets you stinking drunk.

Some have suggested that, given their technological advancement, the ancient Chinese and the Mediterraneans must have made distilled alcohol, but the sticking point is that there’s scant evidence from either describing its manufacture. And these were two cultures that kept extensive records and weren’t shy about hitting the sauce. In the ancient world stills also had other uses, notably in the production of perfumes and cosmetics. Unless the whole world somehow forgot how distill alcohol for over a thousand years – while still continuing to drink other alcohols – this theory is dead in the water. Both hemispheres appear to have had the ability but not the will to distill alcohol.

So we’re back to square one: “When did the Chinese start making baijiu?” Find out later this week in “The birth of baijiu, part II: What’s in a name?”

For “The birth of baijiu, part II: What’s in a name?” click here.

For “The birth of baijiu, part III: The national drink?” click here.

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