After years writing about and knocking back tumblers of China’s favorite fire water, American Derek Sandhaus has written the book on baijiu. Baijiu: the Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits explores baijiu’s history and culture, and strives to turn squeamish Western drinkers onto the most popular, yet under examined liquor on earth. We recently caught up to Sandhaus to gain insight into the book and baijiu culture.
What’s the premise of Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits?
What I wanted to create with this book was something that would introduce the richness and depth of baijiu as a category of spirits to a Western audience. There’s really nothing in the English Language that tells people what the different baijius are that are available, what the differences between them are, and at a very basic level, what they taste like. I wanted to help educate people about baijiu so they didn’t fall into the trap of having one, not liking it, and writing off all baijius. It’s like having a shot of Llagermeister and saying you don’t like Western alcohol. It really is that broad.
What were you doing before writing about baijiu? How did you get into baijiu?
I actually lived in Shanghai for five years before I moved to Chengdu in 2011. I originally worked as an English teacher at Shanghai public schools, decided it wasn’t for me, and switched to writing about Chinese history, because that was more my thing. I wrote “Decadence Manchu” the memoirs of an eccentric englishman who claimed to have illicit relations with the empress of China. I was also the chief editor of Earnshaw books.
The transition into baijiu wasn’t as weird as one might think. I moved to Chengdu because of my wife’s job. I needed something new to write about, and I wanted to write about baijiu for a long time because I thought it was one of these really interesting aspects of Chinese culture. It was one of the aspects of Chinese culture that pretty much touched everything in China from business to politics to art and literature. It was one of the only sweeping cultural aspects of China that foreigners across the board rejected. And usually when something’s as popular as baijiu is in China, there’s more going on there than meets the eye. So I wanted to find out what it was that made alcohol so important in Chinese culture, and wanted to find a way for Westerners to appreciate Chinese drinking culture. For me, it was actually not that hard. I found right away, just on a purely cultural aspect, that China has a really rich tradition of winemaking that goes back seven to nine thousand years and just learning about that was fascinating enough. But learning about the different types of baijiu and trying them myself was really rewarding because I realized that it wasn’t as scary and unapproachable as I thought. And if you like Chinese food, it’s a really important extension of Chinese culinary tradition. So, it started out of a curiosity and willingness to bridge a gap between people who do business and live in China and their hosts because expats in China do a lot of drinking and Chinese do a lot of drinking, but not often together. That’s a shame because that’s when most positive relationships are built. So if you’re not drinking baijiu, you’re missing out on a lot of fun experiences in China. And terrifying experiences. But I try to focus on the positives.
Why didn’t baijiu become a fixture at international bars like vodka or tequila? Was it taste, marketing, culture, all three?
Actually, buried in the question is a really great example. If you go back to the 1940s, no one outside of Russia or Mexico drank vodka or tequila respectively. You would not find these drinks at bars, they were really niche drinks. Through a combination of education and marketing with vodka, it was the Moscow Mule cocktail that was able to crack vodka into American bars. You have so many examples of drinks that were considered weird and foreign in the last 50 years that through clever marketing have become standard drinks. Vodka went from being a spirit not consumed in the US in WWII to a drink that is the best-selling spirit in the world behind baijiu. And a lot of people approach this from a position of superiority. A lot of people don’t see baijiu in bars so they say “well, you know, if I can’t buy baijiu at my bar, then it must not be a good drink.” But what people don’t realize is that until after Mao in the 80s and 90s, most people in China could not purchase baijiu that wasn’t produced close to where they lived. There were a handful of national baijiu brands that you could buy throughout the country. Today there are dozens and maybe hundreds of brands that you can buy throughout China. For hundreds of years, baijiu was a strictly regional beverage, and it’s brand new on the national market. Right now is an exciting time for baijiu. It’s the first time that someone from Beijing can drink a baijiu from Sichuan. And so whereas Western alcohols have had hundreds of years of consumership to develop a taste, to establish their place in bars, restaurants, and clubs, baijiu is brand new. Most people in China are just starting to learn what the different types are. So it’s not surprising that baijiu is not well known outside of China. It’s that way with a lot of things in China. A lot of people look at China and wonder why they don’t have big brands overseas. That’s not really fair as China’s been a free market for only 30 years. Do you expect them to create the next Apple overnight? Not gonna happen.
Even moutai and wuliangye are just starting to export their products overseas. People aren’t rejecting them because they aren’t good. They’re rejecting them because they’re not in bars, they don’t have access to them. That’s changing really fast. I would estimate that in the next five to ten years you will start seeing baijiu in bars in the US and London. These companies are investing a lot to make it a reality.
You talk a lot about the differences between Western and Chinese drinking customs. Talk a little about that.
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The biggest difference between the way traditional Chinese alcohol is consumed and the way alcohol is consumed in the Western culture is that Chinese drink their spirits with the food. And aside from a few places like Russia and Scandinavia, almost nobody anywhere else in the world will drink hard liquor while eating food. Chinese drinking is also more of a social activity, which is a little weird to say, because in the West we also think of it as a social activity. But in Chinese drinking culture, you’re never supposed to just casually sip on a beverage. You always drink with other people. What that meant traditionally, was that you only drank at meals when you were toasting someone else or they were toasting you. And when this tradition started, they were drinking huangjiu, not baijiu, which is much much weaker. So this was not viewed with the same menace as it’s viewed in China today. Originally, people actually thought that by limiting alcohol consumption to when you toasted, you were slowing down the consumption of alcohol but today it’s a very different story. It’s turned into a ritual reminiscent of frat party drinking. And I think that turns off a lot of foreign drinkers. But it’s deeply rooted in the culture and it goes back to ancient religious practices. So yeah, it’s a more strictly regimented drinking culture. You drink at meals and you always drink with someone else. You don’t drink when you want to, you drink when other people want you to. That’s uncomfortable for a lot of Westerners.
The places that you drink baijiu are restaurants, banquet halls, or at the home. You don’t drink baijiu at a bar or a KTV or a club. That is where Western alcohol is starting to make its inroads in China in the non-traditional, non-eating situations. Baijiu cocktails is an interesting subject because it’s something new that bartenders haven’t totally figured out. But they’re starting to understand what flavors mix well with baijiu. What they’re finding is that citrus complements baijiu really well due to the fruitiness of the liquor. In a very similar way to rum, which is maybe the closest thing we have in the West (a very naturally sweet spirit). The kinds of fruity cocktails that you make with rum are very well suited to baijiu. And a lot of the early baijiu cocktails are similar to rum-based cocktails. Or are even re-tooled cocktails. In the end of the my book there are an El President and a Zombie, which are both originally rum-based cocktails that are being made with baijiu. Last week in Beijing I had a very excellent baijiu cocktail that reminded me a lot of a mojito. It had almond liqeur, mint, citrus. I think it works really well but when you’re talking about a baiju cocktail it’s a bit of a difficult proposition, especially in China, because a lot of people that enjoy drinking baijiu don’t like it in cocktail form. When they go to a Western bar, they’re there specifically for Western alcohol, and they see baijiu cocktails as a perversion. And on the other hand, you have Westerners who love cocktails, but are afraid of baijiu thus are afraid of ordering a cocktail that’s baijiu-based. I think it will take time, but baijiu will cross over to cocktails, because I’ve had excellent cocktails that I’d drink at any bar. It’s just a matter of people getting comfortable with the idea.
How will baijiu have to adapt to make inroads into Western drinking culture? Cocktails? The American baijiu company Byejoe has experienced with infused baijius, and taller bottles (which you talk about).
ByeJoe has slick packaging. But I think in the end it’ll have less to do with the physical packaging of the bottle and more about how it’s packaged to foreign audiences. What I mean but that is what a lot of companies are doing is lowering the alcohol levels from 50-60% in China to 38-42%. Somewhere more in line with most people are used to drinking in other countries. That is one way baijiu immediately becomes more approachable. Cocktails are a great way to turn foreign audiences onto baijiu. In America, most hard liquor is consumed in cocktails. So if people insist that baijiu be consumed like in China, it won’t be consumed overseas. It’s much easier to adapt baijiu to foreign tastes than it is to adapt foreign tastes to Chinese drinking culture. But there is one really promising avenue for keeping baijiu traditional while appealing to foreign markets. And that is Chinese restaurants. Because for the first time in the US, England, and other parts of the first world, people are starting to become interested in Chinese food as an authentic cuisine as opposed to Chinese-American food/Chinese-European food. Looking away from the chop suey-style, Hong Kong Chinese and looking for real Chinese cuisine. And baijiu is an integral element of authentic Chinese cuisine. I think in a lot of ways, the same way you can find soju at korean restaurants, and sake at Japanese restaurants, Chinese restaurants can play a really important role in introducing foreign audiences to baijiu. There just has to be the availability of baijiu in foreign markets and the willingness of the restaurants to push it. Now there is a tendency with Americans to want to try the traditional liquor with the traditional cuisine. Right, now baijiu companies need to try the kitchen sink approach and try everything to appeal to new markets, and see what sticks. But the three that I’ve outlined: education, cocktails, stronger connection between baijiu and traditional cuisine, are good starting points.
I know wine companies hold pairing dinners in China that match wines with certain Chinese dishes to woo the consumers. Could they do the same with baijiu and Western food to appeal to that market? Baijiu with spaetzle?
It’s funny. I was actually talking to a guy about pairing baijiu with inauthentic Chinese food in the US, like maotai with Panda Express. I don’t see why not. Baijiu certainly goes really well with certain types of Chinese food. I find the general rule is that you pair baijiu with the type of food in the region that the baijiu’s from. I think you could pair baijiu with Western food but you’d just have to think about it conceptually. Part of the problem with Western food as opposed to Chinese food is that Western food doesn’t give you the same variety on your palate as with Chinese food which is family style. You’ve got this procession of flavors coming one after another that all coalesce in your mouth and baijiu’s sweet pepperiness really complements a medley of strong flavors well. If you’re talking about what baijiu would go well with a ham sandwich, I don’t think any baijiu would. You’d need more flavor and variety. That being said, I encourage anybody with the time and energy to attempt some “ham sandwich” pairings. You know what I think would be interesting? Tapas. Because you’ve got a lot of little flavorful bites and you’re not committing to one dish.
Has China’s drinking culture noticeably changed with the influx of wines at banquets, whiskeys, champagne bottles at clubs etc? The anti-extravagance campaign?
The biggest change in Chinese drinking culture is that in the last 30 years is that China, for the first time in a while, has become a society of excess, which has been reflected itself in everything from the Lamborghinis to the highest rates of diabetes. China’s never had to deal with excess before, and so it’s struggling right now to find a happy medium to inject an element of moderation where there never needed to be one before. You see this with food, and especially alcohol. There wasn’t a danger of a binge-drinking culture emerging during the Mao years or before then, because before the communists took over, huangjiu was a more popular upperclass drink than baijiu. After the communists rose to power, at least under Mao, baijiu was rationed so there wasn’t a risk of people becoming binge-drinking alcoholics. Today, anyone can afford the ten-kuai bottle of eguotuo at any convenience store. There’s baijius for any budget. It’s nice that Chinese people can drink whenever they want to but at the same time it’s led to a lot of dangerous behavior and it has become a public health risk. I don’t think it will be that way forever. At best educated/wealthiest level, you’re starting to see people becoming more health-conscious and drink less than they would 5-10 years ago but this will take time for the rest of the country to catch on just as adjusting to wealth has been difficult for China. Exercising self-restraint will be difficult. But I think it will happen. It has to happen.
Will Xi Jinping’s anti-extravagance campaign might help baijiu flourish in the US?
You can look at the campaign in two ways. You can look at it as artificially suppressing the demand for baijiu, or correcting market imbalance. The way the government was spending money on alcohol was essentially subsidizing a lot of bad decisions in the baijiu industry. It was fueling unsustainable growth. So by taking away that kind of government subsidy, people are now forced to compete in the market as they normally would – i.e., convincing customers to buy their product. They have to be smart about how they spend their money. They have to hold onto the customers that they have whilst expanding markets. I cannot see any scenario in which that is bad for the baijiu industry in the long run. Most exciting for the readers of Shanghaiist, will mean that the baijiu industry is going to go international.
Favorite baijiu? Best brands?
“I have consciously avoided that question. Essentially I don’t like naming a favorite baijiu in the same way I don’t like naming a favorite whiskey or beer. It depends on my mood. But if you want advice on where to start your baijiu journey, I’d like to recommend Lao Guilin. I have fed this baijiu to audiences everywhere and I have yet to have someone dislike it. It’s a rice-based baijiu which has a very different profile than most baijius. Its taste is very floral with bits of honey and almost a sake-like flavor. So that’s very pleasant. I find if you’re scared away by stronger baijius like Moutai or Wuliangye, I recommend trying Laobai Fenjiu. Listed under Xinghuacun Distillery. That’s a lighter style like erguotou, which is the cheap light aroma. Xinghuacun is only 150 kuai, which is pretty agreeable. If you’re interested in my favorite category, strong aroma, I’d recommend starting with Luzhou Laojiao Touqu or Daqu, both under 200RMB. good starting points. In sauce aroma, the Moutai category, there are good, cheap ones they make in the northeast, but they’re hard to find. With Moutai, I think go big or go home. You have to get the expensive stuff. A nice piece of advice is you can get every single baijiu in my book, save for the foreign ones, on Taobao. And it’s a really good way to experiment with baijiu. But don’t buy the really expensive ones on Taobao.”
Don’t forget to follow Derek Sandhaus’ blog, 300 Shots at Greatness, for more baijiu-y goodness.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].