Note: I wrote this piece three years ago for The Beijinger.
By Jim Boyce | Sixty-plus bottles of baijiu in six hours. I tried them after taking an overnight train from Beijing to Shanghai [in June 2013] to catch a mid-morning tasting. Some of my fellow expatriates in Beijing shook their heads at that trip, at spending time and money on a liquid they often described as tasting like jet fuel or paint thinner.
I don’t blame people who think that way. Not only because baijiu is an acquired taste, but also because I’ve had my fair share of experiences that inspired similar comments and that made me wonder the next morning if someone had grabbed a jackhammer and started renovations in my skull.
But just as watery lukewarm lager and the plonkiest of local plonk only touch on what beer and wine can be in China, the average baijiu experience hides the diversity of the spirit.
The point is: baijiu is a part of drinking life in China, including in Beijing, where we often face a “light aroma” spirit known as erguotou. And many of us will be forced—or strongly encouraged—to drink it ganbei-style with family, friends or acquaintances, especially during the upcoming Chinese New Year. You could refuse or use tactics like adding water or secretly spilling it on the floor. But for those who plan to drink it, and shudder at the thought, here are a few ways to make the experience less loathsome.
- Don’t breathe while you drink. The reason you can’t taste anything when you have a cold has more to do with your nose than mouth. Not inhaling while imbibing will reduce the potency of the baijiu taste.
- Chill that bottle. Spirits tend to be less aromatic when colder. Throwing baijiu in the freezer is not common but you might get it as a concession if forced to drink while visiting friends.
- Use a mixer. I recently had a shot that was equal parts erguotou and caramel liqueur. The savory / yeasty smell of one and the confectionery smell of the other created a pleasant saltwater taffy effect. It also dropped the alcohol content because the liqueur is 30 percent while the erguotou puts a stranglehold on your liver at 58 percent. Don’t like caramel? Try another mixer.
- Find your brand. For those who do not read Chinese, looking at a store aisle of baijiu brands is, well, like looking at a wall of Bordeaux for those who don’t read French. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t really like baijiu, although I once had a bottle that was OK.” Which one? They usually can’t remember. Next time, take a photo or write down the name. And if you are ever in a position to order or bring a bottle of baijiu, get that one.
Finally, limit your intake. The people who often tend to get messed up most are the ones who get too involved. Oh, you ganbei’d me? That’s fun! Let me ganbei you, you and you! Bad idea at a time it is best to be a wallflower. As they say, the nail that sticks up highest gets the most hammered.