Now that I’m over the 300 shot hump, I’ve decided to turn my attention to helping the curious, the masochistic and the curiously masochistic get the wheels rolling on their own baijiu journeys. Through my travels and travails we have learned two important things about baijiu:
- It won’t kill you;
- It doesn’t take very long to start gaining a taste for the stuff (note that my first positive encounter with baijiu happened about 75 shots in).
As a reformed baijiu-hater I, like many converts before me, feel the compulsive need to bring everyone over to my side. With something that’s been dragged through mud as much as baijiu has, I know got my work cut out for me, but we’ve already established that I like a challenge.
Let’s start with an examination of the problem: Outside of Asia, baijiu is a foreign spirit in every sense of the word. Usually weighing in at 48-60% alcohol by volume, it’s much stronger than what most are accustomed to. Whiskey, by comparison, rarely exceeds the mid-40s. What’s more, it’s traditionally served straight up without any mixer. It’s made primarily with sorghum, a grain whose taste is unknown to much of the world. Some baijiu is made from rice, but even this tends to be stronger than its cousins shochu and soju, and certainly much more powerful than the undistilled saké. That said, unfamiliar international spirits have emerged from obscurity before – vodka, tequila and, more recently, pisco all come to mind.
In my view, the larger problem relates to understanding. There are literally thousands of different kinds of baijiu on the market. Some is good and some is bad, but outside of those written in Chinese there are precious few resources explaining how to make this distinction. As a result, most non-Chinese generally have a negative first impression of the drink.
You know the story. A foreigner walks into a Chinese grocery store wanting to try baijiu for the first time. On the shelf there are fifty different bottles in various shapes and sizes with nothing but scary Chinese-characters written on the side. The recently arrived now-illiterate foreigner has nothing to guide her (yeah, I just blew your mind) but price. Some of the bottles cost RMB1,200 (about US$200), others cost RMB5 (US$0.8). Easy choice. She doesn’t even know if she likes the stuff, and has never spent more than $50 on a bottle of alcohol in her life. She buys the cheapest stuff on the rack and, predictably, it sucks. A potential baijiu enthusiast ruined for life.
It’s time to start reversing this trend with a concerted education campaign. Later this week I’m going to start posting my recommendations for solid baijius at various price points in each of the five major flavor categories. I’m also going to start posting more in-depth overviews of what makes these categories unique.
But as I kick start 300 Shots v2.0, I want your help. Send me your questions about baijiu, your own brand suggestions and reviews, descriptions of the best or worst baijiu experience you’ve ever had – really anything baijiu-related – send it over and I’ll try to throw it online. Hit me up at derek [at] sandha.us and add your two cents to the baijiu conversation.
Xijiu, in case you missed this
To the extent that you know it or can figure it out, I’d love recommendations for baijius that can be bought in the United States! I’ve been looking for baijius that you recommended and so far have only been able to find one (Red Star).
Ah, Red Star. It’s a good value for baijiu that is competitively priced with water, but it’s a shame you can’t find more. In terms of the US, I know that Kweichow Moutai and Shuijingfang both export their products in the States, as does Luzhou Laojiao (though it might be harder to find). From a glance at your site, it looks like you’ve found some Wuliangye and Xinghuacun Fenjiu (both good brands). I salute your efforts and maybe you’d be interested in doing a guest post on baijiu shopping in the States sometime? I know many would be interested, myself included.
I’d be happy to do a guest post! So far, I’ve only shopped for baijiu in NYC, but I’m going out to the Bay Area in July and expect to be able to find some different offerings there. Maybe after that would be a good time to write up my experiences.
Sounds good, shoot me an e-mail in due course.
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Interesting and fascinating blog.
There is a brand of Chinese Baijiu sold in VA, MD, and D.C. area. It is called CONFUCIUS WISDOM. I happen to know someone in China who may be able to get you a bottle of that. If you email me (email@example.com) , I can arrange to get you a bottle to try it.