I just got back from my first trip back to the United States in almost two years. I started my trip in my hometown, Leawood, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. It’s a pleasant Midwestern oasis, whose wide-open spaces are paved over with strip mall parking lots filled with oversized cars that haul around oversized people. There isn’t much else to do here besides eat and drink – and it shows.
Lukas Liquor Superstore could only exist in a place like Kansas City. To say that it is a slightly large liquor store would be like saying China is a slightly crowded nation. It’s enormous, a veritable airplane hanger of booze. I present the following photograph of Lukas without further comment:
Coming from Chengdu, a city that has essentially no liquor stores, stepping into Lukas is an almost religious experience. And visiting it on Independence Day, as I did, felt a fitting tribute to the excesses of American capitalism.
Though it was not my intended purpose – picking up booze for a bachelor party – I couldn’t help but wonder whether a store this size had baijiu despite being in the middle of Kansas. I asked the first attendant I encountered where they kept the baijiu and received a blank stare in return. “Chinese grain alcohol,” I explained.
His face turned sour. He was accustomed to dispatching with ease customers seeking the most obscure wines, whiskeys and beers, but he had not been expecting this. “Is that like saké or something?” he asked with obvious annoyance. “We keep that on the wall over there.” He gestured off at an indistinct shape in the distance.
“It’s closer to soju, really.”
“That’s over by the vodka.”
The saké shelf was respectable, but I couldn’t find the soju section. I flagged down another employee, who assumed the same hunted expression and responded to my questions as if I had posed them in Swahili. Eventually he left to consult with another, wiser employee, who said that it was at the far end of the vodka aisle. And it was. This was why I had trouble finding it…
It was a solitary bottle of an upstart American soju company, more of a bottler really. Aside from it, there was nothing resembling baijiu. Among the thousands of spirits one can purchase at Lukas, which include everything from Midwestern corn whiskey to marshmallow schnapps, there was not a single bottle of the world’s most popular spirit.
This is why I get so excited about the future of Chinese spirits overseas. America loves to drink, and delights in having as many options as possible; the weirder the better. If you don’t believe me, I have a bottle of glazed-donut-flavored vodka that would like to have a word with you.
Baijiu is the world’s most popular spirit, but it’s going to have to more or less start from scratch to gain a foothold overseas. And what an amusing process that will be to watch. I don’t know if America will ever fully embrace baijiu as an equal, but if the next generation to come of age has to pause at 21st birthday parties to consider whether they want to do shots of Jägermeister or baijiu, then I’ll consider my mission accomplished.