The baijiu blitz

IMG_1000 copy Our mission was simple: Try as many baijius as possible before our taste buds melted. Everyone breezed through the first twenty, a handful of us rounded the forty-bottle mark, and just a couple caught sight of the finish line.

It was an ambitious, perhaps too ambitious, undertaking.

A word of explanation: In recent months I have been trying to move beyond my basic appreciation for certain baijius and develop a more nuanced understanding of what it is that makes them so unique. This has involved ramping up research efforts on baijiu production techniques, but also trying to unlock the more basic yet elusive component: taste. I refer not just to the general impression one gets when drinking – the alcohol sear and the vague hint of a fruity industrial solvent – but actually breaking down the tastes of various baijiu categories. The current classification scheme lacks the nuance necessary to provide meaningful distinctions.

At present, baijiu is divided into four primary categories – strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma, and rice aroma – and a handful of more obscure, often brand-specific, categories. Sauce aroma, which refers to soy sauce, is a useful descriptor in terms of taste, as is rice aroma, but strong aroma and light aroma refer to a flavor’s intensity rather than the flavor itself. There are other problematic baijiu categories, like Xifengjiu’s so-called fengxiang 凤香 or phoenix-aroma baijiu. What’s a mythological reincarnated bird supposed to smell like? Presumably the flavor would be strong, but then how would one differentiate between a phoenix- and a strong-aroma baijiu? And how would one distinguish one phoenix from another?

Unfortunately, the information available about baijiu’s taste, in English and Chinese, is surprisingly scant. Some critical examinations of baijiu refer to its chemical composition, such as the relative amounts of ethyl acetate, ethyl lactate or β-phenyl ethanol. Such terms may mean something to a chemist or seasoned distiller, but convey little meaning to the lay consumer. Other references to baijiu’s taste come primarily from baijiu distilleries, who tend to describe their products using expressions like chunhou 醇厚 (rich and mild), shuang 爽 (crisp and refreshing), huiwei youchang 回味悠长 (lingering aftertaste). As with the scientific description, these terms all tell us something about the spirits, but fail to adequately differentiate individual brands and categories. A simple Baidu.com search for chunhou baijiu 醇厚白酒, will pull up baijius from at least three different aroma-categories on the first page alone.

Add to this the additional complication of cross-cultural gustatory dissonance. The flavors found in Chinese cuisine are at such a far remove from their Western counterparts, it is often difficult for Chinese to describe flavors using vocabulary that a foreigner can understand, and vice versa (this phenomenon has long confounded foreign wine sellers in China). While a baijiu might taste like licorice to me, it might taste like hongshao rou to a Chinese. So even if an appropriate flavor can be identified, the comparison may not resonate across cultures.

I’ve always thought that language is only useful insofar as it is able to convey meaning. Yet the current descriptions of baijiu are either too technical or too unspecific; all but meaningless to the uninitiated. And because I also believe that the most serious obstacle to baijiu’s acceptance by drinkers outside of China is not strength or flavor, but education, unlocking the mysteries of Chinese spirits’ taste and developing an adequate tasting vocabulary (or set of vocabularies) are necessary steps in taking baijiu beyond China’s boundaries.

It was in this spirit that I organized an extensive baijiu tasting in Shanghai last month. It was a small, private affair held at in Shanghai at Yuan Bar (who I must parenthetically add makes a mean baijiu cocktail). I spent a couple of months soliciting baijiu donations from the best baijiu distilleries in China and, in some cases, abroad. In all, I collected over eighty unique bottles including a small selection of huangjiu (undistilled Chinese grain wine), which had to make it one of the most comprehensive tastings of Chinese alcohol ever attempted. IMG_1004 copy

Thus equipped, I fired up the bat signal and waited to see who would show up. Although I must confess slight disappointment at the turnout from Shanghai’s bartending establishment, the assembled tasters’ quality more than made up for what they lacked in quantity. Our tasters represented a variety of nations and had between them a diverse alcoholic pedigree. Among the attendees were master of wine Jeannie Cho Lee (she of Asian Palate fame), Jim Boyce (of the outstanding Grape Wall of China blog) and the editorial staff of DRiNK magazine.

The tasting was slow and methodical. The bottles were divided by type and tasters were set free to roam about the room sipping at their own pace. Baijiu was spit after each tasting, which may have slightly influenced our thoughts on a baijiu’s finish but helped protect our fragile sobriety. Tasters demonstrated a clear preference for certain brands above others, but on the whole were enthusiastic about the singularly complex flavor profiles found in China’s diverse drinkscape. In the end, we managed to produce at least a few sets of tasting notes for every bottle. Not bad for a day’s work, and the beginning of a new baijiu tasting lexicography.

The full results, and much more, will be published in a forthcoming book I’m putting together. Until then, I will be posting reviews of some of my new favorites each month. I also encourage readers to help add to the conversation by sending me your own baijiu tasting notes (reach me through the contact page), which I will happily post on this site. If you’ve read this far, I encourage you to continue reading about the tasting at Jeannie Cho Lee’s blog, in which she profiles her top-ten favorite baijius from the tasting.

Happy drinking!

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