Drinking the clear Chinese liquor baijiu with hotpot is a rite of passage for any expat in China. That fruity smell, the burn in your throat, and the look of admiration from the Chinese people you’re drinking with… it’s all part of the baijiu experience.
Once you’ve had the experience and the novelty wears off, however, most expats in China slow down or eliminate their baijiu consumption. Like chicken feet, it’s not a facet of Chinese tradition that has caught on with most expats.
Months ago I heard that there was an American in Chengdu who was authoring a blog about baijiu, though. The blog, named 300 Shots at Greatness: A Race to the Bottom of the Bottle, is a record of the baijiu journey that Derek Sandhaus began just over a year ago. I thought it would be great to ask him a few questions about baijiu and his time in Chengdu.
Interview with Derek Sandhaus
Who are you and what’s your blog?
I’m an American writer and editor who has been based in China since 2006, and in Chengdu since 2011. My past titles have included Tales of Old Peking, Tales of Old Hong Kong and Décadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse.
Shortly after arriving in Chengdu I began researching Chinese alcohol and drinking culture, which is when I started my blog 300 Shots at Greatness. The blog was initially a way to publicly test the unscientific hypothesis that it takes 300 shots of baijiu for one to acquire a taste for traditional Chinese spirits while educating myself about different types of Chinese alcohol. It turned out that it took significantly fewer attempts for me to begin enjoying the taste and experience of drinking baijiu, but I decided to keep the blog going as an informational resource in the hopes of inspiring other foreign drinkers to take up baijiu drinking.
How long have you been in Chengdu and what was your introduction to Baijiu?
I arrived in Chengdu in late 2011, having spent all of my previous time in China based in Shanghai. It was in Shanghai in 2006, while I was working as an English teacher, that I had my first taste of baijiu. Someone brought a couple of bottom-shelf bottles to a work party as a gag gift. It was successful in the strictly literal sense.
What is it about baijiu that you’re drawn to? How did you fall in love with it?
Although I have reached a point where I do enjoy the taste of certain brands of baijiu, I find that I enjoy the experience of drinking baijiu in its traditional context more than the drink itself. Baijiu is always consumed over dinner with friends, family, colleagues or business contacts and it’s always consumed in a ritualized fashion. Learning the rules of the banquet, as well as the historical origins and symbolic meaning of the various aspects, has allowed me to better appreciate the greater context.
But more than that, what’s helped me to fall in love with baijiu is that it breaks down the (unexaggerated) cultural barriers that exist between the Chinese and their foreign counterparts better and more quickly than any alternative I’ve thus found. In my experience, Chinese culture doesn’t encourage people to let down their guard easily, but when you’re downing shots of baijiu, you don’t really have a choice. The old cliche “In vino veritas” is apt in this context.
How would you describe baijiu to someone who’s never had it before?
Literally, baijiu means “white spirit.” It’s the Chinese word for all traditional liquors, and refers to a category of drinks rather than one specific drink. In general baijiu is characterized by a slightly sweet, citrusy taste that can sometimes be at odds with the fiery sear of its high-alcohol content. The taste can vary quite dramatically from one type of baijiu to another, however, and it tends to be a bit smoother at the mid-to-high range.
Those who have been less kind have described it as tasting like hydraulic fluid, paint thinner and a number of other unsavory descriptors. This is probably influenced by the high levels of fusel oil and esters, which give it a taste unfamiliar to most foreign palettes.
What’s your favorite baijiu? What do you recommend newbies try first?
There are a number of excellent baijius that I would recommend for beginners. (And I would recommend trying several different varieties of baijiu to get a feel for what one likes best.) For something good, inexpensive and local, I would recommend Luzhou Laojiao’s Touqu (??????). That one’s classified as a strong-aroma baijiu. For something lighter (taste not alcohol), I would recommend trying Xinghuacun’s Laobai Fenjiu (???????). In the rice-aroma category, I’m a fan of Sanhuajiu’s Lao Guilin (??????), although it can be difficult to find outside of Guangxi Province. Most beginners have trouble with sauce-aroma baijiu, but for the brave and curious, I would start out with Maotai Town’s Laimao (?????), not to be confused with the more famous and outrageously expensive Kweichow Moutai (????).
When’s the best time to drink baijiu?
Dinner and lunch are both appropriate times to drink baijiu, and Chinese food is so varied that there isn’t really one dish or ingredient that is considered more appropriate than others. I personally like to drink strong-aroma baijiu with Sichuan food, as I think a region’s cuisine tends to pair nicely with its alcohol, but I may just be being sentimental.
You’ve said that Chengdu is at the heart of China’s “baijiu belt” – what does this mean?
Well that was a bad pun – not to mention a mixed metaphor – on the American expression “bible belt,” referring to the part of the country (from which I hail) famous for its firebrand evangelism. By baijiu belt, I’m referring to the area of China, basically eastern Sichuan and western Guizhou, that produces more baijiu than anywhere else in the country. This region produces an astonishing amount of baijiu, something like seventy percent of all the baijiu in China.
Where’s the best place to drink baijiu in Chengdu?
At a loud, well-lit restaurant. Somewhere that’s lively. Hotpot works particularly well for drinking baijiu. (editors note: we’re partial to Laoma Tou Hotpot in Yulin)
Any funny drunk-on-baijiu in Chengdu stories that you can share?
My research on baijiu has taken me to all corners of China and introduced me to fascinating people in all walks of life. For more about them and my time drinking with them I’d like to refer your readers to checking out my blog and forthcoming writings on the subject.
I understand that you’re working on a book. What’s it about?
My upcoming book is the story of China over the past several thousand years, as told through its alcohol and my personal experiences. It’s been a hell of a journey and I think a lot of what I’ve found will surprise people. I’m still working out the publication details, so there’s not much news to share about it at this time, but I’ll announce something on my website when the time is right.
If you have any thoughts on baijiu or China’s drinking culture, leave them in the comments below!