The birth of baijiu, part III: The national drink?

This is the final installment in a three-part series exploring the question: “When did the Chinese first start drinking baijiu?” In part one we learned that the Chinese first had the technology to distill alcohol during the Han Dynasty (25-200AD). In part two we learned that this technology was probably not used to make baijiu until sometime in the Song or Yuan dynasties (960-1368). Today we will explore the reasons baijiu appeared at that time, and where it came from.

Mankind’s love affair with alcohol predates recorded history. The first alcohols were almost certainly consumed by accident, when some early human or proto-human consumed something that had been sitting out too long and naturally fermented.* The proto-brew gave proto-man a pleasant feeling and, we imagine, made him feel more attractive to proto-women and more likely to start ill-advised conflicts with other proto-men. The important thing is that he wanted more, and to get more he needed to collect more plants. Some have suggested that this desire to get drunk was the birth of agriculture and, by extension, civilization; that cider was the original forbidden fruit.

The creation of alcohol was at once natural and spontaneous, so it was “invented” independently by various cultures in all corners of the globe. Its techniques were established first by trial and error, and then refined when cultures collided. Baijiu – unnatural in every since of the word – is manmade. Spirits like baijiu require science, technology and, if not an understanding of the process of distillation, the faith that drinking the distillate will get you drunker without killing you. (On second thought, this last requirement may be optional.)

Given the technological sophistication required to make spirits, it seems less likely that spirits would have been invented in several different places at once. What’s more, we know from the last installment that baijiu first appeared during the Song or Yuan periods, a time when China had extensive land and sea trade routes that allowed for cross-cultural exchange.

So if we eliminate the independent conception theory, we are left with two obvious possibilities: Spirits were invented in China or spirits were invented somewhere else.

Theory 1: China invented everything

We’ve all heard this so many times that it’s almost presumed. China was composing elegant Tang poetry, navigating by compass and using moveable type while Europeans were busy lighting their own farts and cudgeling heathens in the name of Christ’s love. The relative technological advancement of the Chinese makes them the clear favorites in the liquor arms race.

In theory, Chinese inventing spirits is plausible. Though by no means certain, archaeological evidence indicates that China invented the still a few hundred years after the Greeks, but then skipped the Dark Ages that set the West back a thousand or so years. One supporting argument is that an early name early name for baijiu was gaoliangjiu 高粱酒 (sorghum wine), and sorghum liquor is only consumed in East Asia.** We also know from the last installment that the Chinese were also using another word that would later mean spirits (shaojiu 烧酒) by  the 8th century, which would put them among the world’s earliest drinkers of spirits (Europeans didn’t have access to spirits until at least the 12th century).

Unfortunately, the evidence strongly suggests that it wasn’t until at least the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that baijiu was first widely consumed in China, which makes it a wash between East and West. So what are we missing? Islam, of course.

Theory 2: Out of Arabia

Yes, that’s right. One of the most delicious of historical ironies is that while the Europeans were asleep at the wheels of progress, the Muslims – who aren’t even supposed to drink alcohol – may have invented hard liquor.

Jabir, godfather of the modern hangover 

It began with the work of Jabir Ibn Hayyan (712-815), an Islamic renaissance man working out of Iraq who dabbled in philosophy, science and alchemy, and is now considered the father of chemistry.*** Familiar with ancient Greek distillation research, Jabir invented the modern alembic still and used it in experiments with wine. Though Jabir claimed that, aside from scientific inquiry, alcoholic vapor had little practical use, his secret may have gotten out. One of his 8th century contemporaries, the poet Abu Nuwas wrote of a wine “the color of rainwater but as hot inside the ribs as a firebrand.”

Picking up where Jabir left off was Persian physician Mohammed Ibn Zakariya Al Razi (865-925), who wrote extensively on distillation. He coined the term “al-koh’l (mascara) of wine” to describe the substance produced when wine was distilled, because stills had primarily been used in the production of cosmetics and perfumes up to that point. Thus al-koh’l or alcohol became slang for the essence, or spirit, isolated from a substance during distillation.

The Normans sacked then Arab Sicily in the 11th century, winning for Christendom the Medical School of Syracuse’s great still. Over the next two centuries the works of Jabir and Al Razi were translated into Latin. Initially Europeans used spirits for medical purposes, as had been done in the Middle East, but by the 15th century casual European drinkers had access to gebrant Wein (“burnt wine” or brandy).

Meanwhile back in the Middle Kingdom, local distillation technology seems to have shot ahead at approximately the same time that Muslims began playing a key role in Song Dynasty trade. Chinese stills were being used in medicine, cosmetics and perfume during that time, just as they were in the Middle East.

What’s more, there is another word for spirits in China that only appears during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), when the Mongols ruled over China and the Middle East: aliji. This word has no standard characterization in Chinese, and is seen written in various sources as 阿剌吉, 轧赖机, 阿里乞, 阿里乞 or 哈剌基, indicating it to be a word of foreign origin. Because this word appeared during the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, it has long been assumed that it was a Mongolian word. But another explanation may exist: aliji sounds an awful lot like a Chinese transliteration of the Arabic spirit arak and related drinks like Turkey’s raki (sometimes ariki), Balkan rakia or the Southeast Asian spirit arrack

Now all this could be just one incredibly large coincidence, but I’d put the odds of spirits with extremely similar names popping up all over Eurasian trade routes at around the same time by dumb luck at about a billion to one. What’s indicated is a single point of origin and since the first definitive evidence of Chinese spirits appears during the Yuan Dynasty – which postdates Middle Eastern, and possibly European, spirits – it’s case closed.


So what does this mean for baijiu’s status as China’s national drink? Last week I told a Chinese baijiu producer that I believed that baijiu originated in the Middle East, and he looked at me as if I had just pissed in his prized patch of petunias. But I don’t think the news is really all that grim for patriotic Chinese baijiu lovers.

The idea of distilled alcohol, and perhaps even some Middle Eastern spirits, may have come to China a thousand or so years ago, but these advances were quickly swallowed by the hulking mass of Chinese culture. China had been making alcohol their own way for a thousand years, and those techniques didn’t change much with the advent of distillation. The Chinese don’t drink no sissy Anise-flavored arrak – they funked it up with some sorghum. They didn’t water it down like raki – 110 proof or nothing. And no sipping, ganbei damn it! Much like the mayonnaise slathered salad, the whiskey with green tea, and Stephon Marbury the Chinese took something from a distant land and made it their own.

And I think we can all drink to that.

*Incidentally, the “holy shit, I can’t believe that didn’t kill me” method is also the probable origin of several Cantonese dishes.

**Some parts of Africa drink beer brewed from sorghum, but baijiu and other East Asian spinoffs are the only sorghum spirits of which I’ve heard.

***Fun fact: Jabir – whose name is Latinized “Geber” – wrote in a nearly indecipherable symbolic code from which we get the word “gibberish”.

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