Will baijiu kill you?

Bai-curious George

Question: “Will baijiu kill you?”

Let me start by saying I know that this question drives most of my web traffic. By starting this blog I became a de facto guinea pig for everyone who’s wanted to journey into the dark heart of Chinese spirits but been too afraid. I accept that and recognize that many of you, like NASCAR spectators, are just waiting for the wheels to fall off and for my quest to culminate in a baijiu inferno, feigning concern only after the initial excitement abates. Don’t deny it, you sadists.

But back to the point: Will baijiu kill you? That is to say, does drinking baijiu pose a threat to one’s health and wellbeing? As your test subject, I have consumed almost 300 shots of baijiu in the past half year, 160 of which were consumed over a period of about a month. Liver function tests were taken immediately before and immediately after this last, dare I say impressive, bender. We’ll get to those results later. (Skip to the bottom if you must know whether I’ve irreparably damaged my liver and consigned myself to an early grave ­– a blessing really after what limited function I’ve been left with – or read on and help restore what little dignity you’ve left me.)

Setting aside all of the ancillary dangers associated with drinking – drunk driving, bar fights, kebabs, karaoke, etc. – and focusing solely on the baijiu itself, I believe that this question needs to be examined from three angles: toxicity, product safety and method of consumption. Each aspect could easily comprise its own post, but I know you’re impatient to learn the horrible truth, so I’ll try not to ramble on too much.

Consideration 1: Toxicity

The Western lore pointing to baijiu’s toxicity goes back over a hundred years. In 1895 Dr. John Dudgeon, writing in Peking, points to a byproduct of fermentation, fusel oils, as the principal cause of Westerner’s distaste for baijiu, noting that:

“It exhales a powerful and peculiarly suffocating odour, and leaves a burning taste.”

Sounds familiar doesn’t it, baijiu drinkers? On its effects, he says:

“It is this substance which causes flushing of the face, mounting into their heads, burning sensation in the stomach which it disorders, causing vertigo and next day a feeling like one threatened with immediate illness … although they are not really drunk. These effects manifest themselves before the stage of intoxication is reached, showing that the action of fusil oil [sic] on the nervous system is more rapid than that of alcohol.”

What Dr. Dudgeon is getting at here is that the fusel oil’s toxins hit you before the ethanol (what we commonly refer to as alcohol) gets you drunk and wrecks your body the next day. High concentrations of fusel oils can be avoided by ending the distillation process shortly after all of the ethanol is collected, he writes, but Chinese distillers continue the process beyond what is advisable in order to increase the yield and potency of their baijiu.

So what are fusel oils and should you be scared of them? Fusel oils – a term derived from a German word meaning “hooch” or “rot-gut” – are a collection of nasty-tasting alcohols created during the fermentation of grains and certain vegetables. Fusel oils vaporize at a higher temperature than ethanol, and thus appear in greatest concentration at the end of the distillation process. One component of fusel oil, amyl alcohol, has several industrial applications and is used in the creation of explosives, lacquers and hydraulic fluid, among others. Some of the first impressions foreigners have of baijiu’s taste may thus be grounded in reality. Knowing the above, every ounce of my being wants to say that this is something you shouldn’t put in your body.

Let’s not rush to judgment; we have embarked on rational inquiry, have we not? The Chinese stills traditionally used in baijiu manufacture are not, from what I know of the process, well suited to sorting out fusels from ethanol, but this might not be a problem. Many alcoholic beverages, from beer to whiskey and many in between, contain and derive some of their taste from fusel oils. How the fusel levels compare between Western and Chinese spirits, I know not nor do I have the scientific know-how to figure out on my own. I leave that question for other baijiu crusaders.

Though many, like Dr. Dudgeon, have long suspected fusels enhance hangovers, this theory was put to the test in a 2006 study on fusel oils and mouse hangovers, with which I’m sure you’re all familiar. The study produced results that flew in the face of the conventional fusel wisdom: Fusel oils can actually alleviate hangover symptoms.*

I’m forced to conclude that regardless of baijiu’s relative fusel oil level, it is not particularly bad for you, or at least not any worse than other forms of self-inflicted liver poisoning.

Consideration 2: Product safety

But how do we know what we’re drinking is actually baijiu?

In China we eat poison, drink poison and breathe poison. To add insult to injury, we can’t even trust our baijiu. Counterfeit baijiu, particularly high-end baijiu, is sold all over the place. This is a real concern because we just don’t know which potentially deadly substances we’re putting in our bodies. Ideally counterfeit baijiu is comparable but less expensive baijiu dressed up in bogus packaging. But it could be antifreeze or embalming fluid in a Wuliangye bottle. Who knows?

There are a couple of easy solutions to this. The first is to simply find a reliable, lesser-known or less expensive baijiu. Counterfeiters target high-end brands, so those in the mid- and low-ranges are generally safer. But if you absolutely must drink overpriced top-shelf baijiu there are certain ways to ensure that you’re drinking the real thing, like buying it at a duty-free store or an officially licensed sales outlet (I’ll explain this last one later if anyone is curious).

Assuming that we’re drinking the real stuff, how certain can we be that it’s being prepared in a sterile environment? Short of actually sitting next to the factory workers every step of the process, there’s not much you can do on this front. Making baijiu is a necessarily dirty business: much of it is fermented in large mud piles and/or earthen pits. When I visited Maotai and Guilin Sanhua both had relatively hygienic-looking factories, and some of the smaller companies work out of dingy old buildings, but that doesn’t mean that the smaller companies aren’t taking steps to keep their products safe or that the bigger companies’ products are necessarily cleaner. As with Chinese restaurants and stomach problems, appearances can be deceiving and there’s no formula for picking a winner.

All I can say is that I don’t personally know of any health issues that have been associated with traditional Chinese distillation practices. We can also take solace in the fact everything we drink is distilled, which should remove bacteria and other contaminants.

Consideration 3: Consumption method

This seems to be where people get into the most trouble. In China there is tremendous social and professional pressure to drink to excess. The wheels of holiday meals, business dinners and official banquets are all greased with baijiu. Toasts are made often and freely. Refusal to accept and return a toast can be seen as a sign of disrespect. Many businesspeople therefore feel, with good reason, that binge drinking is essential to one’s professional success. This has created a unique situation in which China is one of the only countries in the world where excessive alcohol consumption tends to increase with age.

Binge drinking in itself is dangerous, but a sizable portion of the Chinese population is at an elevated risk. As many as 50% of Chinese lack alcohol dehydrohenase 2, or ALDH2, an enzyme that aids the livers’ ability to metabolize alcohol. While imbibing, lack of the enzyme can cause a temporary build up in toxins that turns the drinker’s face bright red and often induces nausea, headaches and an elevated heart rate. More serious still, over time the enzyme deficiency can seriously damage a drinker’s liver and increases his or her chances of contracting esophageal cancer. Tragically, in a society where one’s jiuliang 酒量 (alcohol tolerance) is a professional qualification, the national drinking culture has resulted in a number of alcohol poisoning deaths among professionals and public officials.

Though I’m hardly a poster child for abstinence, I feel compelled on this particular point to say always, always, always stop drinking if you find yourself caught up in a ganbei-crazy situation in which you’re starting to feel uncomfortable. Better to leave a bad impression than to leave on a stretcher.

Anecdotal evidence

So that’s what I’ve learned about the health risks of baijiu from outside sources, but what about my own experience? Over the past several months, and this past month in particular, I’ve consumed what I think can be fairly described as a whole lotta baijiu and I’d like to believe that my sacrifice was not in vain.

In regards to toxicity, I can anecdotally confirm the surprising findings of the mouse hangover experiment ­– I have rarely had hangovers on nights when I drink nothing but water and baijiu, and neither my travel companion nor I had a single hangover on our trip around China until we hit huangjiu country in east China. I did have a couple of awful hangovers up north, but these were largely related to failure to rehydrate before bed.

In fact, my hangover quotient seems much higher when drinking beer and cheap mixed drinks at local Chinese bars, and I’m guessing this is directly related to the second consideration outlined above: counterfeit alcohol. Since starting my experiment, the only time I’ve ever vomited while drinking baijiu was while consuming fake Maotai, and I don’t boot without a fight.

And as for binge drinking? I can report that this is still very much the norm throughout China. So be on your guard and keep a lot of water handy when a businessman or government official invites you to dinner.

The lab results

During my month-long trip, I consumed approximately 160 shots of baijiu, many liters of huangjiu, one bottle of red wine and more craptastic Chinese lager than I care to recall. As mentioned, I went to the doctor right before I set out on my trip and immediately after I returned. Two days after the follow-up test I received the results.

It turns out that there was no statistically significant change in my body chemistry. In every category that was tested, my results were either about the same as before or, more puzzling, slightly better. That’s right, not only did the baijiu pass through my liver with ease, but it may have actually made me healthier.**

When my doctor asked me just how much baijiu I had consumed on my trip, my response was greeted by a barely audible gasp. “One hundred and sixty shots of baijiu?” she repeated. Correct. She told me that, regardless of my encouraging lab results, it would probably be advisable to slow down for a while.

And that’s my advice to you: Enjoy your baijiu but don’t overdo it. The danger associated with baijiu, so far as I can tell, seems to be almost entirely imagined. To the uninitiated, it smells and tastes like death, so the longstanding assumption has been that it must be deadly. It isn’t. Constantly drinking alcohol to excess, baijiu or otherwise, is where the real danger lies. That, and drinking Drano that’s been labeled Guojiao 1573. So be safe, be careful and find a brand you trust.

*Can you believe that someone actually got paid to get mice drunk? I like to imagine the hungover mice in this experiment as dark sunglasses-wearing mice without the energy to run on their wheels, trying without success to muster the willpower to get off their sawdust chips and drink from the water nozzle.

**Disclaimer: I must point out that the results may be attributable to a change in activity level, diet or other factors. I am also unsure whether these results would be consistent if the test-period’s level of drinking were sustained over a longer period. All I can report is that, for what it’s worth, the tests showed no decline in liver function. 

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2 Responses to Will baijiu kill you?

  1. Pingback: Today’s China Readings May 15, 2012 | Sinocism

  2. Pingback: Baijiu: the Misunderstood Drink of China | The China Culture Corner

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